Medic Records Presents William Gray/Matz Andersson/John Carroll @ Cosy Bar, Ningbo (Saturday 22nd October)
Without wishing to pour cold water on the considerable improvements taking place regarding China’s live music scene in recent years nationally, and even more recently, finally, in Hangzhou, a remaining bugbear is solo acoustic acts are still perhaps not getting the spotlight they deserve. Take for example the recent Xihu Music Festival in Hangzhou – why was there no stage dedicated to acoustic acts? Would it be all that hard to set up a small tent for a more intimate experience than that offered by the main stages? It would provide welcome shelter from the rain if nothing else.
Festival circuit aside one might be forgiven for thinking there’s not enough appropriate venues? Well think about the amount of coffee shops that exist in a city such as Hangzhou and I am sure many other metropolises in China. One would do well to remember it was the cafe scene of areas such as Greenwich Village in New York that spawned the likes of Bob Dylan, a long time before he went electric. An acoustic or folk scene is one that could potentially thrive here and perhaps save the odd coffee shop from going under, such is the highly competitive nature of the business environment, simply by getting more bums on seats. And acoustic music is, logistically, so much simpler to host. A small PA system is pretty much all that’s needed. Less expense. Less hassle. Arguably, for a smaller venue, even a PA system is not necessary.
The feeling is that many in China believe full band = better. Solo acoustic performers may well find, if wishing, be it reluctantly, to take on a corporate gig to earn much needed revenue (not much to be made from selling music these days) those booking will specify they want more than one performer or a band. It seems what can be seen with the eyes rather than heard with the ears is more important to many of those doing the booking. When those hiring acts openly state their preference is for a band rather than a solo act one can only assume this is down to ignorance on their part, unless they are specifically stating what type of band they want and why that is, for example if it’s for a funk night where wanting a funk band rather than a singer-songwriter is of course entirely justified. Our assertion is that wanting to book a band and not a solo act is fine as long as the reasoning is not based on a lack of understanding or the belief that a solo performer is unable to provide a performance that is as competent or as arresting as a full band. Indeed, a solo performer can in fact often provide a performance that sounds better than a full band. There is no hiding when performing alone, a mistake is there for all to see and this often means solo acts are a lot more rehearsed and have their material more finely honed.
Anyone that argues an acoustic performance is somehow less than what you might get with a band, that the time of Bob Dylan the acoustic act was long ago or that an acoustic performer can’t cut it in certain live environments or please the punters, should perhaps tell that to people that saw the likes of Elliott Smith or Jeff Buckley perform solo, or, if more inclined towards mainstream pop, they’d do well to note, as we’ve mentioned before on this blog, that Ed Sheeran sold out Wembley Stadium three nights in a row. And that’s before we’ve even mentioned the two words that are ‘Jon‘ and ‘Gomm‘. Think that these are all Western acts, and there’s not the same quality in Hangzhou? Wrong. Feast your eyes and ears on this, an act Singapore-based Soi Music TV recently filmed near West Lake in Hangzhou.
Now I’ve got that off my chest, how grateful we are then to Medic Independent Records for providing us acoustic lovers with the much needed means to get our six string fix. Tonight we witness three quality acts in their acoustic guises. First up is John Carroll. Much missed on the live circuit over the past year or so, only periodically gigging, Carroll has been hard at work on new material he is aiming, we are told, to release next year. Tonight is his first bash at performing many of these new songs live and, going by what we’re hearing, we’re going to be in for a treat when the new release arrives. Immediately striking is the fact this material sounds very different to previous album ‘Cenotaph Tapes‘ which was quite an inward looking work, largely melancholy and downbeat, the sound of a man who perhaps had a lot to vent and channel. This album is a rewarding listen for anyone who enjoys acoustic music, but particularly those who empathise with feelings of alienation, particularly the sensitive laowai marooned in China types.
However, Carroll’s new creations are rewarding in a different way. To put it bluntly, there are earworms aplenty. Some of the songs are rough around the edges, as might be expected from a first outing, but what is noticeable is that this doesn’t detract from the catchiness. So catchy in fact that this reviewer overheard the barman attempting to sing along even though he didn’t know the words due to English not being his mother tongue. A casual glance around the bar sees many transfixed and plenty of foot-tapping going on. Positive signs indeed and some who are only familiar with ‘Cenotaph Tapes’ might just find themselves surprised by Carroll demonstrating such unabashed traditional pop sensibilities. Take ‘Ambushed From All Sides‘ for example. A hook Teenage Fanclub would be proud of and you could even imagine Lennon and McCartney choosing to pen a ditty of the same name after spying it as a potentially promising headline come song title in whatever newspaper they happened to pick up that day.
‘Disappear Into Thin Air‘ is another example of this. Less jaunty than the aforementioned song and more reflective but similarly enticing in terms of a great pop melody. Whilst there is something very Ireland and the UK about these two songs, the song ‘Gravedigger‘ perhaps conjures up influences from the other side of the pond, sounding like Neil Young spliced with Thurston Moore, be it with an Irish twist. Old favourite ‘Don’t Shield Your Eyes‘ also comes out of the bag for those who know Carroll’s older material. All in all a great performance. Check out John Carroll’s Bandcamp page here.
Next up is Matz Andersson. Andersson is becoming something of a veteran of the Chinese music scene these days. And not only as a solo artist, for he has also toured extensively fronting rock outfit Exit 4, and this includes televised festival appearances no less. A Swedish-Chilean songwriter and a well traveled one at that, Andersson has much to draw upon in terms of his cultural heritage and life experiences to channel into his songs. His laid back guitar style which combines finger-picking and strumming is easy on the ear and he possesses a singing voice which is husky and reassuring. If you have heard his album ‘Lake Khovsgol’, recorded in Ningbo with musicians he struck up a rapport with locally at open mic nights (another example of why space for acoustic performance is so important) you will know Andersson is certainly an accomplished songwriter. If not, if present tonight in Ningbo, you would certainly know by the end of this performance. Relaxed on the microphone, Andersson treats an eager audience with an assured delivery of tracks from the aforementioned album such as ‘Chasing Ghosts‘ as well as newer songs, ‘In The Rain‘ and ‘Hold On To Yourself‘.
Joining Andersson onstage for ‘Chasing Ghosts‘ and also ‘The Eternal Return‘ and ‘That Old House‘, are Tom Rutherford (percussion) and Joe Patterson (bass). These two know exactly what the songs need. With this type of material less is often more and they provide the necessary delicate touches quite wonderfully. Musicians like this should be cherished because, more often than is preferable, otherwise able players lack the musical maturity to resist the urge to play all over a songwriter’s carefully crafted material. On November 25th Andersson plays at Time Beacon in Ningbo where he will be supporting Pinball City. The following day, as befits a man who relishes the act of bringing his music far and wide, Andersson will be playing in Nanjing, again supporting Pinball City. Those looking for quality acts to book – look no further.
Final performance of the evening comes from William Gray. With a new EP ‘Seine’ to promote and a busy year all round for Gray given he also released his album ‘Flounce’ in March, the headline slot was more than appropriate. Would the performance live up to the billing? The answer is definitely yes. With gigs such as these, running order can be a bit of a conundrum. Basic logic states that as you work up to the final act you get a bigger and bigger audience and the evening peaks at the end. However, on a Saturday night people often hit smaller venues such as Cosy Bar as a precursor to other events such as club nights. This can be a blessing or a curse. For bands, it can be a bit ego-deflating to wait all night to go onstage only to find numbers have thinned out for your set. However, for an acoustic act it might actually provide something of a relief, as less people also means less noise.
There is a deftness of touch about Gray’s guitar style and a softness to his approach to some of his material that warrants an attentive ear. This then is one of those occasions where an event benefits from less drunken chatter and a core, still sizable, audience of people remaining primarily for the music as well as to socialise. Once a quieter foundation is established this then gives the act the capacity to play the room rather than battle it. It is actually the case tonight that Gray plays a more upbeat set than some who have seen him perform might be used to. For example, he opens with arguably one of the standout tracks from ‘Flounce‘, the lyrically zany ‘Heather‘ which, with its palm-muting, is positively new wave in its rockiness, be it a more lo-fi, laid-back sounding incarnation. Just as happy to fingerpick as he is to apply a solid rhythm guitar approach when needed, Gray will also more than happily combine the two and this adaptable philosophy is also mirrored in both his singing and his lyrics.
At some moments in the set he is positively belting out the songs, at some points his voice is quite soulful. At other times it can rise to falsetto. In terms of the words sometimes they are minimalist, see ‘There’ off the new EP, at other times quite wordy, for example ‘Black Dog Underfoot‘, a song which is all the better heard live. Once settled into his set, Gray is reveling in the occasion, not going too loud too soon, always holding something back and toying with the audience, so he can crank up the volume where necessary simply through touch or how loudly he sings, rather than needing to turn things up on the dial. One standout moment is ‘Open Season‘ which I just had to dig out by later listening through all of his material here on Bandcamp. I found it on his 2010 release ‘Vertical Wealth‘ which contains some lovely, woozy sax that Destroyer would be proud of. The live solo version this evening lulls the audience into a false sense of security with a repetitive one note refrain which then turns into a somewhat Elliott Smith style chord progression before Gray really lets rip for the outro. All the material comes across well and Gray performs a remarkably long set, picking a wide range of material from his now sizable back catalogue, including all of the songs from his latest EP ‘Seine’. For a 30 RMB entrance fee the performers tonight have really given people their money’s worth. Ruddy well done.