Pop, jazz and rap

Bob Dylan

Date: April 6, 2011
Location: Workers’ Coliseum, Beijing.

Back in the old days, Bob Dylan was known to open concerts by reading a couple of reviews by his reviewers and then letting his audience boo and cheer as they saw fit. Expectations for the night, especially regarding energy level and amount of interaction, would therefore be set early on. No such thing happened in Beijing. After arriving on stage, Dylan and his band immediately began playing “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking”. The audience, initially inebriated with this “I am at the concert of a rock and roll icon” phenomenon, soon returned to a sit-and-clap mentality as the night wore on, periodically letting loose mechanical and icy applauses more appropriate for a B-grade circus trick than for a rock and roll performance. The only real “interaction” between Dylan and the audience occurred between encores, when he introduced his band. There was nary a hint of energy to suggest that he would speak his mind out loud other than through his lyrics. His verbal delivery was occasionally muddled, but not as bad as expected, especially after having read that, at times during his current “Never Ending” tour, Dylan would mumble through his lyrics and produce so much off-key dissonance that he would leave his crowd wanting more. The acoustics at the Workers’ Coliseum bore some blame too: even if he shifted and morphed phrases ad lib – and he most certainly did – or even changed his lyrics, most people would not have noticed. The encore pieces, “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Forever Young”, stimulated a tad more excitement from the audience, but not by much. If all that Dylan needed was a little extra bit of audience rapture to get him to do or sing something that would piss off the censors, the audience did not oblige.

The controversy over his playlist in China is well-known: see here, here, and here. While I belong to the group who does not believe Dylan’s intention was to deliver a kosher playlist to please the censors, it was still remarkable that Dylan, being who he is and who he represents, would perform in a venue whose stage orientation requires him to directly face a red-carpeted, privileged section where two dozen VIPs would sit comfortably in cushioned chairs and be offered free glasses of water. The “man of the people” ‘s acquiescence in this regard, if nothing else, would partially vindicate Maureen Dowd.

Bob Dylan, in Beijing.

Bob Dylan, in Beijing.

Red carpet and free waters, in Workers' Coliseum's VIP section.

Red carpet and free waters, in Workers' Coliseum's VIP section.

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Pop, jazz and rap

Yamapi Asia Tour 2011

Date: January 29, 2011
Location: Star Hall @ The HITEC, Hong Kong.

Tomohisa Yamashita (山下智久), better known as Yamapi (“Yama P”), is an actor, solo artist and a member of the Japanese boyband NEWS. He is best known as Dr. Aizawa Kousaku in Code Blue, Fuji TV’s ratings champ modeled loosely after Michael Crichton’s ER. Yamapi’s no non-sense character has won him plenty of fans, especially teenage girls who would probably trust this fictional doctor more than their real-life ones. But Yamapi the TV heartthrob may soon give way to Yamapi the solo superstar. Last Saturday’s gig at Star Hall kicked off Yamapi’s first-ever solo tour throughout Asia, and if it becomes the big hit that it has been hyped to be, and with a dearth of superstars who could sell out wherever they show, Yamapi would stand a good chance of becoming the next superstar in the mold of Takuya Kimura, the reigning dual-mode (i.e. TV and singing) big wig. Like most of the concert productions for artists of Johnny & Associates (Kimura-san is also under Johnny’s far-reaching media empire), this one featured plenty of pyrotechnics, Star Wars sabre-like lasers, and a long aerial platform that revealed itself from a catwalk protruding from the center proscenium. This platform would bring Yamapi aerially over and closer towards his fans during the show. Yamapi’s musical style is varied, with high-energy electric rock interspersed with mellower, more contemplative ballades. His first solo album, “Supergood, Superbad“, was released on January 26 and sported a hip-hop sound with a heavy dance beat. His live-show delivery style includes a mixture of choreographed dance moves and the occasional eye contact that would instantly melt the young girls’ heart. The audience, mostly young, fashionable and still in high school, would beat in mid air their glow sticks in unison, with the music as the rhythmic backdrop and Yamapi as the chief conductor. They would scream at such moment when the chief conductor would make eye contact or draw closer to them by traversing along the catwalk. The 8-strong band (keyboards, guitar, bass, drums, and a string quartet), two brass players (saxophone and trumpet) and three backing vocalists ran the musical end of the show. ABCZ, an accompanying act with 5 boys, provided some moments of acrobatic sensation and comic relief, but otherwise wasn’t impressive enough to stand out on their own.

Tomohisa Yamashita, Asia Tour 2011.

Tomohisa Yamashita, Asia Tour 2011. Image by: http://www.johnnys-net.jp

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Pop, jazz and rap

Marsha N da Boyz

Date: January 27, 2011
Location: The Fringe Club, Hong Kong.

Marsha Yuan and a group of talented musicians dropped by The Fringe last night to take part in the City Festival, an urban cultural festival showcasing local talent through a diverse array of artistic activities. Yuan, a former beauty queen and a B-list actress who has since reinvented herself as a sultry vocalist, possessed an expressive and sensual voice, but had difficulty finding adequate vocal support and a proper breathing rhythm for much of the evening. As a veteran entertainer, she effused a commanding stage presence, wiggling and twisting her curvaceous body in sync with the music in a titillating manner, and reminded me of Jessica, Roger Rabbit’s confident and sassy female companion. Feigned eroticism aside, it was not Yuan, but the group of talented musicians, including Ted Lo on keyboards, Eugene Pao on guitar, Peter Scherr on bass and Jack Greminger on drums, who lured me to the Thursday late-evening show in the first place. Ted Lo’s unorthodox harmonic arrangement of some of the evening’s standard numbers, including Sway and Summertime, brought an edgy, almost wild, harmonic thesis and a provocative bass line. Pao dutifully performed, though his playing was as conservative as the average lounge musician trying not to appear terribly bored while playing that same improvised tune for the umpteenth time. I wish Pao would, as he most certainly could, venture more into the outskirts of atonal counterpoints, rather than relying on fast running blue scales and augmented fifths – two of his dependable albeit rather banal signature moves.

Marsha N da Boyz at The Fringe.

Marsha N da Boyz at The Fringe. Photo Credit: The Fringe Club.

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Pop, jazz and rap

Kevin Saunderson

Date: September 21, 2010
Location: Punk @ The Opposite House, Beijing.

Kevin Saunderson, along with Derrick May and Juan Atkins, is responsible for giving birth to that “little” music genre called techno. On the eve of China’s mid-Autumn festival, Saunderson found an audience at Punk, the hotel bar known as much for its good music as for its extortive prices. But there was simply no price tag for a night with Saunderson –never mind that Punk chose not to charge a cover – the master DJ from Detroit jockeyed an evening of hot, sexy jungle music, sending temperatures a few notches higher with a robust percussive power-train and a sinusoidal, accordion-like intensity. By offering a smorgasbord of hot rhythms and mellow harmonics, Saunderson took the clubbers into a dreamscape comprising leopards dangling from a large African acacia and Maasai hunters waiting for their window of opportunity to open. The dimmed ceiling lights became the evening stars of the African sky, while the 80-yuan (about 12 USD) martini became the jungle punch du jour. Listening to Saunderson’s jungle music was like starring at a leopard starring back at you at night – a rush of adrenaline amidst an exotic exposedness. By the end of the evening, Saunderson wouldn’t be remembered as the evening’s stand-in for May, the original headliner, but as the master artist who brought Africa into one cool evening in Beijing.

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Pop, jazz and rap

Shonen Knife

Date: August 20, 2010
Location: Mao Live House, Beijing.

In Beijing for the very first time since its founding 30 years ago, Shonen Knife, the cheery Japanese punker, delivered lots of love to a rapturous audience eager to return the same. The all-girl punk band has a worldwide following, having traveled across the globe and converted thousands of fans with their jolly good music and sunshine lyrics, most of which were in English. Along the way, they retired four members, added two, and somehow managed to hold onto Naoko Yamano, Shonen’s only remaining founder, who at 49 (going on 50) would be old enough to be her two sidekicks’ mother but carried the kind of sweet smile that reminded oneself of one’s high-school girlfriend. And the indispensable Ms. Yamano can rock: she led much of the singing, played the melodic lines on the guitar, and jumped/swung/hopped like any disobedient rocker would. Shonen’s melodic and rhythmic signatures were a confluence of The Beach Boys and the Ramones, with a tinge of pentatonic shade to mark their country of origin. Their lyrics could have been written by The Beach Boys for the Sesame Street: in “Gyoza”, they sang about taste…“Spiced minced pork wrapped in a small pancake / Steamed or fried tastes so good…”; or in “Sushi Bar”…“Ooo, colorful art of the food / It’s a beautiful Japanese meal…” For the encores, they went for “Top of the World”, their contributing cover of the classic by The Carpenters, and “Perfect Freedom”, a vibrant, upbeat number in their new album.

Members of the Shonen Knife: Ritsuko Taneda, Naoko Yamano, Emi Morimoto.

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Pop, jazz and rap

DJ Yummy @COCO Banana

Date: June 19, 2010
Location: COCO Banana, Beijing.

DJ Yummy records for Avex and plies her trade as a traveling DJ, anchoring gigs all over Japan and most recently in Beijing, where she manned the boards deep into one sweaty summer night at COCO Banana, Beijing’s premier destination for people watching and excellent parties. With a honeyed smile and a porcelain face, Yummy’s beauty is ethereal and hypnotizing. Yet her looks could be deceptive: her multifaceted digital arsenals could induce fireworks of serious rhythmic damage. The tracks she jockeyed at COCO weren’t exactly declarative, but oozed enough emotional levity to jumpstart the crowd, who seemed smitten as much to her music as to her good looks (as I observed, cameras couldn’t stop flicking at her throughout the night). It was difficult to pinpoint her musical influence, but a casual sampling of her newest Avex output, D.I.S.K., suggested that her music tended to swerve between 80s funk and Ibiza house trends. Nevertheless, it was certain that she relied heavily on a thumping rhythmic bass with thick 80s synthetic fret lines to invite mass bodily movements. Her transitions were clean and measured, though on occasion her build-up sounded dragged – disconnecting, albeit briefly, from floor energy – but always found ways to recover and return the crowd to a jolly good mood.

Yummy at COCO Banana.

DJ Yummy.

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Pop, jazz and rap

Fat Joe

Date: May 14, 2010
Location: Vics, Beijing.

Fat Joe in Beijing

Fat Joe in Beijing

In a week where I got highly sought-after tickets to the world premiere of an ancient Kunqu, the premiere of Francesca Zambello’s Carmen at the NCPA, and a rare recital by Li Yundi, I would be insane to believe that I could yet find another ticket that could top those. But I may just have: Fat Joe.

Fat Joe, to those uninitiated, is a top-class American rapper and the CEO/proprietor of Terror Squad, a successful record label. His music has occupied my various MP3 players since 2002, and his album, Elephant in the Room, while not exactly a huge commercial success, is a versatile anthology of hip-hop and one of my favorites. Even though Maria Callas is one of my favorite opera singers and though I have over a hundred of her CDs and DVDs, I can’t even claim to have collected half of her output. But I surely have every single record Fat Joe has ever produced and sung in. That attests to the kind of luvin’ I give to Fat Joe! I consider Fat Joe to be a master lyricist whose tight verses are rhythmically well matched up against fiery beats. In this performance in Beijing, he appeared for about 40 minutes, crisscrossing between older numbers and newer ones. His calling card, Lean Back, was smashingly thrilling and authoritative, and got the most ardent response from his fans, some of whom, standing close to me, were reciting the lyrics in near verbatim without missing a beat. During his performance of What’s Luv, he was visibly in a lovin’ groove, interacting with the house with an affectionate gaze. Between numbers, he showed off his tremendous MC skills by firing up and hustling the crowd. The crowd returned much love, eagerly and frenetically responding to Fat Joe’s calls. When Fat Joe talked about his jailed buddy and frequent collaborator, Lil Wayne, the crowd went nuts, obviously showing much sympathy and love, irrespective of his legal troubles.

Fat Joe’s appearance in Beijing was a rare gem because, according to his tweet, he was in Asia for the very first time in his career. Also, as far as I could remember, Fat Joe has never been a big fan of flying, and would opt for buses over airplanes whenever he tours North America (ok, if not flying, I’d seriously like to find out how he managed to get from NYC to Asia). This week, I did not meet Zambello, nor did I hustle with Stan Kwan. But I shoved aside plenty of fans – many half a decade or more younger than I – to get to the edge of the stage, and high-fived Joey Crack. Whatever Li Yundi does tonight is not going to beat that. Ya digg?

Fat Joe in Beijing

Fat Joe in Beijing.

Fat Joe in Beijing

This is how close I got to him, before high-fiving him.

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