From Shunyi to NPR Riding The Blues: 10 Questions with Alan Paul of Woodie Alan
Beijing gets its share of interesting folks stopping by and getting involved in all kinds of projects. A lot of times, they have to pack up and take off but not before leaving their mark on the capital. Alan Paul is such a person!
Alan took some time to answer questions about the reunion show on Saturday Feb 6th, The Woodie Alan Band and Blues in China:
1- What’s going on in your world? This is your chance to plug your stuff:
I returned to the U.S. about a year ago and have signed a book deal with Harper Collins to write a memoir about my time in Beijing, with a heavy emphasis on the band. It turns out people are fascinated about how an American guy met up with three Chinese musicians (and one other American), formed a blues band and played all over China. It will be out next January and hopefully will bring me back for a few more tours.
I was very proud of what we accomplished as band in a relatively short time — just over a year — but I didn’t anticipate the resonance it would have over here. National Public Radio’s The Story did a piece on us and I got a lot of great response from that. That story actually came about from a first-person piece I wrote about the band in the Wall Street Journal, which also stirred a lot of interest. I never thought that I would spend so much time writing about the band; I thought it was a diversion from my real profession (writing).
2- How did you end up playing Blues in Beijing out of all places?
I had a fortuitous meeting with Woodie Wu in 2006 when I brought a guitar back from a visit to the U.S. and the headstock cracked in transit. I needed a good repairman and Woodie was recommended by a few friends. When we met, I saw that he had a tattoo of Stevie Ray Vaughan on his arm and was fascinated. I was a senior editor and writer at Guitar World for 15 years and did a lot of writing about Stevie and many other guitar greats. Woodie was fascinated by this and was excited to meet me. So we started talking, he invited me to jam with Sand, with whom he was then playing and when I did he and I each heard something we really liked in the other’s playing. We played a single acoustic trio gig with saxophonist Dave Loevinger, who was a friend of mine, and started seeking a rhythm section. We went through a few different people and when we found Zhang Yong (bass) and Lu Wei (drums), it just clicked and we started taking ourselves a little seriously, rather than just getting together for fun jams. Once those guys came aboard we started improving pretty quickly.
3- The album contained songs in English and Chinese, Is there a difference between singing in both languages?
I basically only sing in English. The Chinese songs are written and sung by Zhang Yong. I sing harmony and background on some of them onstage and just hope I don’t mess any pronunciations up too badly.
4- What’s happening with the Band at the moment? is it on hiatus or just on hold? any plans for more shows or more records?
It is on hiatus. They continued for a about six months after I left, but then Dave also returned to the U.S. and Woodie moved to Suzhou for a while. he is back now. I will return in June for a couple of weeks and hope to play shows. Next year when the book comes out I am hoping to bring the guys to the U.S. to do a combined book reading/concert tour.
5- What do you think of the Blues Scene in the city?
There isn’t much of one. When we were playing a lot, it was primarily just us and Black Cat Bone, but I found Chinese audiences very receptive to the music when they heard it. And not just in Beijing. We played really memorable shows in Changsha, Xiamen, Nanjing, Suzhou, Hangzhou and Shenzhen as well.
6- Any good Chinese blues bands that you are aware off that you can recommend?
I wish there were more. Sand was great and very bluesy though not straight blues but I don’t believe they are still playing together. Jimmy Dash in Suzhou is an expat (Aussie, I think) doing some cool stuff, with Chinese musicians. And the Tribal Moons in Yunnan are mostly expats playing cool blues-based music. My friend Claudio Curro had a nice group, the ETone Blues Band, but they flamed out. I like the Rhythm Dogs a lot but don’t think they are still playing much. Their lead singer Humble Mike was a pal and I enjoyed jamming with him a couple of times (once with the Dogs, a couple of times him with WA) but he has left town. Their bassist Zhang Ling (BD note: Zhang Ling is now lead singer for the band) is also an old pal playing some really cool bluesy music. Not sure how much he’s gigging now. She’s not Chinese and not really blues at all, but I have always enjoyed Jess Meider‘s music in a variety of contexts. I think she’s great in all of them.
7- Word association: write the first word that comes to your mind.
* Beijing: Hutongs
* shanghai: Take it or leave it. Just never really felt it there.
* Banjo: abigail washburn
* Alison Krauss:high lonesome
* Hutongs: Walking.
* Polka dots: Buddy Guy’s guitar
8- Name 3 high points and 3 low points of your musical career in Beijing:
- Just finding these four guys and all of us getting together, forming a band and realizing that we had something special cooking. It was all so improbable. I’m really proud and happy that I was able to these great musicians learn something new — the art of the jam. They are all much more accomplished than me, but we all brought something different together to the table and developed a unique sound by finding the sweet spot that played to everyone’s strengths and steered away from their weaknesses. It’s what every band strives for and accomplishing it was magical for me. Doing it with two bandmates I could barely communicate with is just astounding.
- The first time we played at Jianghu Jiuba, which quickly became a sort of home base for us. Before our first gig there, we had played pretty exclusively to expat dominated audiences and the realization that a young Chinese crowd could respond so strongly to the music was revelatory and really, really exciting.That place gave us a lot of energy. we also played a great show at the Star Live in August, 2008, just after the Olympics and it felt like everything we had been working towards came together at that gig. Doing it on a big stage with a large Chinese crowd enjoying it was really memorable.
- It wasn’t in Beijing, but headlining the Xiamen Beach Festival in front of about 5,000 people was a fantastic experience.
Well, the real low point for me was leaving Beijing and having to walk away from my brothers in the band when we were really on a roll. Woodie used to laugh at me because of how frequently I walked off stage and said, “That was the best gig we’ve ever done” but it reflected the feeling we all had that we were getting better and better.
9- As far as I’m aware, there’s only one other prominent blues band in Beijing: Black Cat Bone. Ever hear of them and what do you think?
Sure. I’ve heard them many times. They are very good and quite different from us. We are more rootsy and eclectic and they are harder hitting, higher energy and more of a show. I play acoustic in the band, which sometimes gives us a folky sound. Our instrumentation is just kind of quirky, as Woodie plays lap steel and harmonica, instead of lead guitar and we have the sax. we also do a wide range of music, including the Chinese songs and a few Dylan songs. We are very off the cuff, like to welcome jammers — including several of the BCB guys at different points and just mix stuff up and see what happens.
Black Cat Bone put on more of a show. They’re really high energy, very tight and polished and a bit less spontaneous in their approach. I like how hard they hit and enjoy their performances and would have welcomed playing shows together but for some reason they never really wanted to do that.
10 – When can we expect you again in Beijing and what keeps you coming back?
I’ll be back in June. I have a great excuse to come back because of the book, but I keep coming because I love it and I love my band. I would walk over the arctic circle to play for them. Luckily, I don’t have to do that. I live 15 minutes from the Newark Airport, where I can board a direct Continental flight.
Details of Saturday’s show:
The Orchard 果园
Hegezhuang Village, Cuigezhuang Township,
Located right behind the Beijing Riviera and Quanfa Gardens