Live Review ::: William Gray – Matz Andersson – John Carroll @ Cosy Bar, Ningbo, China

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.

Listen to Matz Andersson on Bandcamp here. If you’re more of a SoundCloud person, follow him here.

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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.

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#Interviewed ::: Songwriter William Gray

When William Gray’s new album ‘Flounce’ was released back in March (2016), Chinese journalist Cherry Ni interviewed the Hangzhou-based singer/songwriter.We cover music from near and far but as all our writers are currently based in Zhejiang we think it’s important we prioritize music from this region and also China as a whole. We are thus ecstatic to have gotten our paws on the original questions that formed the basis of Cherry’s article. The final piece made its way around the Chinese blogosphere, and was also published by Lean In Shanghai 驻英特约撰稿 (http://goo.gl/ePHYJY). Without further ado, read the initial interview the final article was largely based on.

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CN: As with the rest of your work, I’ve really been enjoying your album. The front and back covers remind me of the “Toy” art exhibition I went to in London. I think your  album art evoked a similar feeling: a mixture of innocence, cynicism, and the attempt to dig deeper into the relationship between childhood and adulthood.

WG: Well thanks for taking the time. I went to an Ai Weiwei/Andy Warhol exhibition in Melbourne recently and it did occur to me perhaps the album artwork has a similar pop art feel to some of those artists’ works so I know what you mean. And there’s a certain mechanical undercurrent to the music as well which I think is very much of this time and perhaps evokes that whole pop art thing too. You’re right in terms of the themes as well yes, I think that a lot of people presume once someone settles into family life then their best art is behind them. I understand that time limitations are obviously a factor, but I also think raising a child is one of the most important events to happen in a person’s life so how couldn’t that inform someone’s art? You are also right about the childhood vs adulthood and innocence vs cynicism factors. I deliberately tried to keep the approach to this album simple, childlike even, but the cynical or adult part of me always inevitably comes into play.

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CN: I’m wondering then whether it is your son Louis that inspires such thoughts? I can see that he appears in your songs again and again.

WG: Sometimes he appears literally – on this album if you listen really carefully you might be able to hear him wailing at one particular point. It’s very difficult to hear but he’s there if you know where to listen for him. I spend a lot of time with my son as a stay-at-home dad so it’s natural that comes out in my creative output. In particular, with the sounds and textures of ‘Child’s Play’, a childlike feel to the song is obvious, but also at the same time there’s a darker subtext to the lyrics, it’s about an adult wrestling with who they now are, questioning can they hold it together for the sake of the people who depend on him and who he in turn of course depends on himself.

CN: Last time we met I focused a lot on your family life so perhaps this time we should explore more your identity as a solo artist and music producer. With that in mind, can you tell me what inspired the creation of this album, perhaps with reference to particular songs?

WG: The thing that set it all off was actually the picture that is the front cover. I wasn’t planning on releasing an album at that particular time because it’s a lot to take on. Anyway, my son was poorly so we bought him a panda balloon to cheer him up. He was actually freaked out by it so that didn’t go according to plan but I happened to take a picture of it with a weird filter setting on my phone camera, just messing around, and it sparked something in me. I started thinking if this was an album cover, what would the songs sound like? And once I start thinking about how to make songs sound a certain way then I can’t stop. ‘Child’s Play’ was actually already partially recorded before this but it fit with the whole thrust of the album and was too interesting a song not to include. That song I was mucking about with my son’s toy Xi Yang Yang keyboard and the melody and basic structure just came to me.

For the rest of the songs because I was already very sure how I wanted the album to sound I just started recording guitar parts, deciding on song structure at the same time, and then I just let the lyrics come. For ‘Heather’ I wanted to write a pop song based around a female name because that just seems to be something lots of songwriters do – so it was like setting myself a little challenge. I can’t remember why precisely I chose that name. Perhaps I liked the rhyming possibilities. I chose to inject some weirdness and abstract humour into it rather than it just being your average boring love song. I once knew a girl called Heather at school. Her father was a vet and he had to amputate our dog’s leg because it was badly broken. So I threw that in there just because it seemed such a ridiculous thing to sing about and the notion of a pop song containing those lyrics made me chuckle.

‘Riddle Me Thistle’ is very abstract. I guess I was going for a Syd Barrett, early Pink Floyd, kind of approach but with some hidden meanings in there too. As the years have progressed, when I’m making music, I’ve become more and more fascinated by sound itself and that’s often what I want to explore as much as the song structure. ‘Suck It In Spit It Out’ is a good example of that. I deliberately sucked in my breath whilst singing the ‘suck it in’ lyrics and then exhaled for the ‘spit it out’ bit. So with this song the inspiration was literally coming up with that physical action represented simultaneously in the way the words are expressed, and then the question was simply how to build a whole song around it.

‘Anyway’ was inspired by a film I was watching about country music and from there I just listed different occupations – songs like that seem to write themselves. For the title track ‘Flounce’ I’d always wanted to have an album with a title track that kind of ties everything together, so for that one it was very easy, I just adopted the mindset, OK I’m bringing the album to a close, time to say ‘bye’ and ‘flounce’ on out of here. Then I finished with ‘Regardless’ which is like an epilogue, a nice contrast to just be very literal at the end there and, after, all the concealment that has taken place, give the listener something they can absorb and understand easily, some kind of take home message.

Whilst with a record such as Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Carrie and Lowell’, you can say it’s inspired by a particular life event, the death of his mother, I’d say with this album really the overall inspiration is the medium itself that I’m working in and what can potentially be done with it. I’m simply excited by sound and what I can present to the listener through painting with sound, shaped around pop songs in the form of an album. If that make any sense whatsoever!      

CN: What do you think is the major difference between this album and your other releases?  What do you think are the major differences between the works created in China and the ones created in the UK?

WG: All my albums are different I think. This is probably the most punky or rawest one I’ve done I guess but also the most psychedelic at the same time. It’s arguably the most cohesive as well in terms of an overall sound and vision, the previous EP ‘Tish’ kind of laid the groundwork for that as that too had a very disciplined approach to writing and recording, or an overarching vision. I’m not sure if where I am geographically makes that much difference overall as I live in my own little world anyway. I think just the fact I am older makes more difference. The music industry doesn’t really give people time to develop. If you aren’t the finished article by the time you’re 20 or something then the industry doesn’t seem to want to know by and large.

When I was younger I was perhaps sometimes too distracted by what I thought others wanted or I was depressed about not ‘succeeding’ whatever ‘success’ actually means. And then there’s all the other stuff about being a young man too that informs one’s thinking – it can be depressing being a young person in today’s world, perhaps not knowing how to approach life and I think the loneliness and alienation I was feeling seeped into the music. Now I am a happier, more well-rounded person I am simply intent on having fun with the medium, rather than being driven to write because I need to bare my soul or whatever. I still love a lot of my old recordings, I think I did some great stuff which went largely unrecognized but there’s also a deep sadness to some of it which I don’t think I really have anymore.

In addition, I think I’m just better at looking at the tools I have at my disposal these days, picking a direction, thinking it through and going for it. More thought goes into the overall package. I don’t know if anyone notices that but I certainly find it more satisfying feeling like I’m more attuned to the process as a whole. That’s just learning your craft, the more you work at something, the better you become. Naturally being in China informs my work on some level, lyrically China sometimes finds its way in there and then there’s the sound of the Xi Yang Yang keyboard on ‘Child’s Play’ of course so it’s not like I’m completely isolated from the Chinese experience.

The electronic strand running through my latest music isn’t necessarily because I’m in a city where electronic music currently seems to be popular in terms of a subculture because the synthesizer and sampler I used on the album I have actually owned and used periodically for years. However, seeing more gigs featuring electronic artists at Lineout Stage in Hangzhou probably has had an effect in some shape or form, particularly choosing to do something with more minimal electronic beats rather than live style drums. People might not think of that potential influence as typically Chinese but I’d say welcome to modern China, it’s not all older people sat around with traditional instruments – as much as I love that too.

CN: What does music mean to you in your life? Is it something that helps you escape from the trivial or darker side of existence?

WG: Music is a really precious form of escapism. It’s a very pure, uplifting experience that feels completely natural, with no negative side effects health wise. I think when I was younger music was a means of channeling the despondency I was feeling, and there’s still an element of that in that it does help me vent my frustrations – I always feel better mentally after playing some music. Perhaps to some degree it’s a means of keeping something for myself because marriage and a child does mean that you are not just one person any longer.

My music is uniquely me and helps me retain a sense of who I am. And there’s obviously a certain monotony to daily existence, the routine of going to the supermarket, cooking and cleaning, paid work you do just to pay the bills – it’s good to break that up with some music. The wider world can also be depressing at times so perhaps it’s a way of shaking all that off and detaching from it. But I’m not battling the same level of personal demons I was when I was a younger man. For the most part I’m just trying to have fun.

CN: What has been the most amazing moment in your musical life and what has been the most depressing? And what kind of changes has music made to your existence?

WG: I could refer to things such as my old band The Smokestacks splitting up. That was emotionally draining because we put so much hard work into it and I still have regrets because I think we had a lot of unfulfilled potential. But the upside was I could focus on releasing music myself so I try and focus on the positives. The best thing my music brought me was my wife and then in turn my little boy. I was a solo artist by the time I met her. I don’t know if I would have met her if I’d still been in the band. Probably not. I met my wife at a gig. I had already played my set and she walked into the bar. Basically I think with music it’s very up and down. First of all a lot of artists are sensitive types so they can be emotionally very changeable.

So one moment you’re happy and the next moment you’re sad, no matter whether to an outsider your situation appears to be good or bad. You’re facing the same basic challenges throughout your life, one moment you’re happy because you’re creatively fulfilled, the next minute you’re agonizing about the fact the music isn’t reaching enough people or it’s not paying the bills or whatever. People say things like, ‘You played in a venue Amy Winehouse was in one night – cool!’ or ‘Wow you played the Cavern Club in Liverpool, the place The Beatles used to play at’ or ‘Your music was played on the radio/You were interviewed and did live sessions at the BBC’ but actually the thing that is most important or enjoyable is just that feeling of getting lost in the moment and believing that you are really connecting with an audience or communicating what you want through a recording.

You’re always searching for that feeling of euphoria or creative satisfaction. So Jingdezhen in China for example. I played a solo gig there last year and although it was very well attended, it was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. One girl was in tears because she felt so moved by the music! That’s priceless. You work at it your whole life just to experience fleeting moments like that – the satisfaction that what you are doing is really hitting home. More recently I played with a guy called Jon Gomm who has become quite well known now internationally. That was an important gig for me because I know Jon a tiny bit from home and in fact years ago we played at the same places. It was amazing to suddenly be playing on the same bill again after all this time, but in China. Who would have thought that could have happened all those years ago? I don’t think I’d even heard of Hangzhou back then.

It was important to me to put on a good show in front of what is now my home audience. I was really buzzing that gig went well performance wise and that I got a good reaction, especially because it’s no easy task playing on the same bill as a virtuoso – there’s not many people in the world who can play the guitar as well as Jon, and that is by no means an exaggeration. So yeah, I was pretty happy after that, particularly as I’d dropped my guitar, split the neck and had to play a replacement guitar at the last minute without time for a decent soundcheck – what a rollercoaster of emotions that evening was (laughs).    

CN: As a self-produced artist, what do you think has proven the most difficult part of your career path and are you in fact happy referring to it as a career path? Would it be any different in the UK?

WG: I think you can call it a career path because anyone who devotes so much time to doing something they love would generally want to be doing it full-time and getting paid well for it. But you have to be realistic about the state of the music industry today. More and more artists aren’t able to make a living just from music and that’s just the way it is. I don’t actually think it’s a bad thing in itself to do other things to bring money in as long as you still have time to do what you love. Musically I don’t find anything too difficult at the moment, for example, I found this album and the previous EP very straightforward to make and I’ve also rounded off another EP which will be released in the autumn. The ideas have just flowed and I feel satisfied with the job I’ve done recording them.

The hardest part arguably is settling on final mixes but because I’m an independent musician or part of a small label there’s not really much pressure on that score – I can take all the time I want and when it’s ready I discuss with John at Medic when the best time is to release the material I’m working on. What is difficult I guess is the time issue. When you simply don’t feel you have the time to devote to music that can be a worry. And that’s where the difficulties arise regarding music not paying enough to do it fulltime. That means you have to spend your time earning money in other ways and that may leave you too tired or with not enough time to commit to your creative aspirations.

That’s a constant battle I think for creative people, wherever they reside in the world. In China, and in partnership with my wife, I’ve actually found it much better because the cost of living is cheap compared to the UK. That means I can bring up my little boy whilst my wife works fulltime, which she is happy doing because she is very career-minded, and I can work part-time and also work at my music whenever possible. In the UK I think we’d both have to work fulltime. In a sense I do work fulltime because I’m juggling all these different things but I prefer it this way to having to work 40 hours a week doing the same office job. We have to remember really artists have always been poor. Many never receive any real recognition during their lives. We do it because we are driven to do it and it’s an end in itself.     

Using the above interview and other conversations with William as inspiration Cherry Ni wrote a piece which you can read here: http://goo.gl/dZw26R

Follow more music from William Gray – http://www.williamgray.bandcamp.com

Follow Cherry Ni on WeChat/Weixin

cherryNi

 

Acoustic Guitar: Coolness Acoustified

I thought that if you had an acoustic guitar/Then it meant that you were/A protest singer/Oh, I can smile about it now/But at the time it was terrible.

I appreciate Morrissey‘s lyrics as much as the next person. He’s an entertaining chap. But it’s also worth remembering this is also the man who stated, “You can’t help but feel the Chinese people are a subspecies.” So, whilst I love a lot of songs by The Smiths, due to his tendency to sometimes make the most repugnant statements, I don’t love Morrissey. I do however love the acoustic guitar. Whilst we can be forgiven for allowing ourselves a wry chuckle at the aforementioned lyric penned by the Mozfather, an image planted firmly in our heads of the archetypal cringingly earnest folkie, it is worth remembering at a time where governments are plunging to ever deeper depths of despicableness, a bit of protest music is more than called for, whatever the instrumental backing.

Without going into too much detail regarding the evolution of the actual instrument, the acoustic guitar, be it of a somewhat smaller frame, was largely the same as it is today by the 19th century. This simple continuity is comforting. Sit down and strum a chord and you’re not doing something all that different to someone 100 or even 200 years ago. As a teenager the acoustic guitar was appealing. Not least because of Nirvana‘s Unplugged in New York album. This not only demonstrated Nirvana had great songs because they worked so well in that format, it simply made the acoustic guitar cool again. Suddenly it seemed like everyone was at it – all the rock bands were ensuring they made space on their albums for a quiet acoustic number or two. I certainly didn’t squirm à la Morrissey at the sight of an acoustic guitar when I was growing up, the acoustic guitar was fashionable as far as my age group was concerned, whether protest was the order of the day or not.

Perhaps because the music of my youth was inherently retro and also because mine was a generation closer to the previous in its tastes than any other, be it listening to The Beatles or smoking marijuana, my exposure to acoustic music was not only grounded in the artists of the era I was living in, but also the music of the 60s and 70s that my parents grew up on. If Bob Dylan could once be thought of as a protest singer, then the acoustic guitar and singing truth to power were certainly fine by me.

bobdylan1Yes Dylan went electric, but this was in no way controversial by the 1990s when In Utero and Unplugged in New York could happily coexist in a teenager’s CD collection. Not particularly sophisticated in my tastes in my younger years, it wouldn’t be until my twenties that I began to allow the music of Joni Mitchell to begin seeping into my expanding musical consciousness, her dazzling use of alternative open tunings helping make her up there with the best and most innovative of acoustic players, necessity being the mother of invention given that a childhood bout of polio had left her fingers too frail to play the guitar in any other way. Her immense talent makes it easy to see why Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young were and are such big Joni fans, much of their music too, underpinned by acoustic guitar, be it collectively or in their solo guises.

When David Bowie came on the scene in his Ziggy incarnation, it is worth noting, despite the otherworldly imagery and music, much of his material was shaped around the trusty acoustic guitar, be it in the form of a 12-string. And Bowie’s music was arguably a form of protest too, not only despite his ambiguity but also purely because of it.

bert_janschOne of my favourite acoustic players has to be Bert Jansch. Anyone studying Jansch’s moody stare on the front cover of his eponymous 1965 debut album must surely agree this is a figure that epitomizes cool; not to forget long time inspirational collaborator to Jansch and acoustic visionary Davey Graham. Similarly cool in his aloofness but a much more tragic figure is of course Nick Drake. You could assert either one of these guitarists to be to the acoustic guitar what Jimi Hendrix was to the electric – truly boundary breaking and jaw-dropping in their proficiency and range of expression.

Whilst Jimi Hendrix was no slouch when it came to playing an acoustic guitar either, it was his psychedelic brand of blues music in general which first turned me on to the genre and in turn encouraged me to go further back and listen to the true pioneers. The early legends too of course were acoustic players, and anyone seeking to hear more in this vein would do well to investigate the music of Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and, of course, Robert Johnson. There are countless more. And be in no doubt of course there was plenty of protest running through the output of these artists.

So much changes yet so much stays the same. Whilst the early blues performers existed at a time where the acoustic guitar was ideally suited to their context in that it was easy to pick up and play anytime and anywhere, providing you were equipped with the requisite talent, the musical landscape of today is of course wildly altered. Notwithstanding, whilst the acoustic guitar must now compete with all manner of diverse musical genres and fight for its own space, this is still a world in which Ed Sheeran can sell out Wembley Stadium thus the acoustic guitar is still very much a force to be reckoned with. And if you ever witness Jon Gomm playing an acoustic guitar you will be left in no doubt whatsoever it is an instrument that retains a mind boggling range of possibilities.

The ease of use of the acoustic of course remains unchanged after all these years. In this very locality we regularly witness the virtues of the acoustic approach in relation to Hangzhou-based label Medic Independent Records. Label co-founder John Carroll, whilst offering support to other emerging artists, is a talented songsmith in his own right and a modern acoustic pioneer, in the sense he is surely one of the first foreigners to tour solo extensively around China under his own steam, unable to resist the urge to independently explore what, to Westerners, by and large, is still the great unknown. The spirit of Woody Guthrie can indeed be found in the most unexpected places. In addition it is notable that Carroll, alongside other acts associated with the Medic roster such as Kelly Dance, and William Gray, although often recording and releasing music with a fuller sound, are equally adept at stripping it all down and performing solo, and have indeed been quick to exploit the advantages of doing so.

In essence, the acoustic guitar is supremely adaptable. If they can play, all a performer needs is to strap a 6-string on their back and hit the road, or increasingly in China’s case, the high-speed rail network. No carrying around heavy equipment. No need for lengthy sound checks. No endless search for the right band members. Instant music. Just add performer. The acoustic guitar will always be inherently cool if only for the power it concentrates in one pair of hands and, in turn, the freedom to explore both sound and geography this represents. No amount of protest will ever change that.

Jon Gomm Live @ Cafe XX, Hangzhou (with special guest William Gray)

Jon Gomm at The Avenue Theatre in Sittingbourne

On 4th December last, I was wrapping up my week’s work that bit earlier because I’d heard Jon Gomm was coming to town. I’d never listened to his music before, but I’d heard a story of a previous performance he’d given in Hangzhou. It involved an uncompromising battle of the decibels between a game of pool and Gomm’s intensely up-close and personal stage presence that didn’t end well. At this point, one might be inclined to jump into a cultural or ethical debate of East meets West blah blah blah… but what immediately gripped me was Gomm’s drive to deliver his music as he had intended it.

Unfortunately this evening, for one unsuspecting socialite, a night of tomfoolery and taking the general mick is out of the question – it’s just not that kind of buzz! Don’t get me wrong, I like a good bar brawl as much as the next man but at a Gomm gig, you (the audience) need to adhere to a strict code of silence, as requested, unless of course you want a confrontation. With Jon Gomm, a threat is as much of a punch with a talent as ferocious as his; and for your attentive comportment you’ll get so much more in return!

Guest performer William Gray (UK), is a resident of Hangzhou and artist with local label, Medic Records. It’s been a busy year for Gray, a vigorously prolific songwriter of no less than four self-produced albums and a BBC session. In early 2015 Gray joined Medic Records, released a five song EP called, ‘Tish’, in April; spent the summer touring around Zhejiang, Jiangsu, and Jiangxi provinces, also putting the finishing touches to his new album, ‘Flounce’ which is due to be released on Medic Records in 2016. During sound-check there was a notable sense of anxiety. Gray’s guitar had taken a fall earlier in the day, and on exhumation thine axe hath been beheaded!

Nevertheless, a replacement was soon found and William Gray’s performance puts him at the helm as one of Hangzhou’s finest musical imports. Opting to play unrestricted, he took to the stage without a setlist and cherry-picked from his vast back catalogue. Gentle finger-pickers, indie ballads and folk songs chock-full of social commentary, diverse and dynamic, were all brought to life by Gray’s wit and between song banter as he made his Lineout Stage debut. Personal faves include ‘First Dog in Space’, ‘Crash Test Dummy’, from second album ‘Vertical Wealth’ and ‘Freaky Dreams’ from 2009 debut ‘None Of The Above’.

Jon Gomm emerged from the shadows of the audience wielding his custom acoustic guitar like a medieval hooded wizard. After a few moments of a visible struggle with frequencies, effects pedals and whatnot he was away. Like some highly-evolved sea creature flailing its tentacles yet striking his instrument with predatory precision Jon Gomm brings the acoustic guitar to life with a bountiful array of percussion, rhythm, melody and airy soulful vocals, as distinct in artistic flavour as his technical mastery. As well as his own music, Gomm gave an arresting instrumental rendition of the Kate Bush classic, ‘Running up that Hill’ that sent a shiver of quiet excitement through the air. Gomm’s signature songs, ‘Passion Flower’, ‘Telepathy’ and ‘The Weather Machine’ were also played with the sort of ingenuity that leaves you staring in awe, as if watching some freakish talent on You Tube. He’ll either prompt your passion for improvement, or leave you in the dust to chuck it all in with a deep, disheartened puff.

Best moments include Gomm’s introduction to his instrumental ‘Wukan Motorcycle Kid’ where he announces that the last time he introduced this tune, the microphone was turned off due to the sensitivity of the real-life tragedy, as he explained the inspiration behind the beautiful instrumental piece. The song begins with a solo that sounds as much a part of traditional Chinese folk music as 十面埋伏 (Shi Mian Mai Fu) and no less exhilarating. The final song of the night was an unplugged rendition of ‘Gloria’, a homage to an ex-girlfriend, which brought up the house lights and was as viscous and ghostly as the ‘hazy’ night.

Jon Gomm is a master craftsman of his trade who brings elements of technique and instrumentation to a heightened level of precision and detail. He utilises everything from finger-picking blues and gospel to funk, jazz, even traditional Chinese, but what sets him apart from others in this style is the discretion he shows in his approach to writing a song. Rather than brandishing any sort of cocky ego, he has a well-earthed perspective on songwriting and his place as a self-managed independent musician has garnered him fitting notoriety and success with audiences worldwide.

For more listens, check out both artists online: http://www.williamgray.bandcamp.com /// http://www.jongomm.com