Taking the Beijing Blues to America – Alan Paul talks about his book ‘Big in China’
Not many laowai can claim to have become ‘Big in China’, the only person I can think of would be DaShan maybe? Well, Alan Paul can also claim that title, or at least he does in making that the name of his book about life in Beijing as a trailing spouse and ‘rock star’. I’ve only been in Beijing a little over 2 years myself, so I missed the phenomena that was the Woodie Alan band and have only heard stories about the good old days of the Beijing music scene, back in the times of the old Yugong Yishan and The River Bar. So a little bit of curiosity about City Weekend’s Beijing Band of the Year 2008, and a love of the band Alan refers to as starting his Beijing music career Sand, brought me to The Bookworm on a stormy Beijing night to see what all the fuss is about!
Now, I haven’t read the book or even heard Woodie Alan’s music before, so I was coming into the talk completely without doing my homework! Normally before a show I little to do a little research, listen to douban, check out Rock in China wiki, get a feel for what I’m going to see. But in this case I wanted to appreciate this from fresh eyes and ears, the way someone from outside China would when reading the book, although living here and understanding the music scene does give me a little head start!
Alan started off by telling the small crowd a little about why he came to China and how he meet Woodie Wu, his bandmate and good friend. He spoke about realising the differences in musical backgrounds between himself and the Chinese members of the band, and how he struggled to explain to them how to play together tightly, but still free to jam – a phrase I often use when describing my favourite Beijing band AIS’s performances. It’s an idea that’s often familiar to those with a Western musical background, but something some Chinese musicians don’t find so easy to grasp. He read a little from his book, an excerpt about how he finally got this idea across to bass player Zhang Yong by introducing him to the Allman Brothers. And then he called up to the front the members of Woodie Alan who were there, Zhang Yong, normally on bass, but for tonight on lead guitar, and Lu Wei on drums, and they played a couple of songs.
The intimate setting of The Bookworm was the perfect venue for the stripped back acoustic three-piece. They started with ‘Beijing Blues‘ the title track from their album. I love lyrics and was immediately grabbed by the opening:
“Say the sun is shining, don’t see it anywhere … Got the Beijing Blues, just need some cold clean air“
Who hasn’t felt that living here?! While we may love Beijing, living here as a laowai is not always easy, we all have ‘bad China days’! They then slipped into ‘Wode Baobei‘ with Zhang Yong taking up the vocals. It’s just as beautiful as the LiDong song with the same name, although both are completely different. Alan spoke more about the band, how Woodie Wu, who wasn’t able to make it tonight, plays lap steel, an instrument I love listening to, and how ‘Beijing Blues’ usually opens with Zhang Yong playing guqin, an instrument I have become a huge fan on over the last year. The combination of Western and Eastern influences makes me wish I’d been around to see the original Woodie Alan line up playing back at the height of their success in 2008.
I left The Bookworm with a copy of the book, a CD, which I’m listening to as I write this, and definite plans to be at Jianghu on Friday for the reunion show. As a three-piece they were amazingly tight for a band who hasn’t played together in a year, I’m looking forward to hearing more.
Alan Paul’s book ‘Made in China’ and Woodie Alan’s CD ‘Beijing Blues’ are available from The Bookworm.
BeijingDaze interviewed Alan one of his trips back to Beijing last year, see the 10 questions here.
Woodie Alan reunion show this Friday @ Jianghu Jiuba