About nickhemptonband

Australian saxophonist in New York. Gambling on a new way to release music. With a short line of credit.

A Few Words About John Clarke

John Clarke died yesterday, and I’m rather more upset than I would have expected. For non-Australians/New Zealanders, Clarke was a genuine satirist in a time when the word has been diluted and dispersed so freely that it no longer has much meaning. He shed a blinding light on hypocrisy and stupidity and was hilarious while he did it.

Even though he was a presence in my life from my mid teens, when I laughed at Clarke & Dawe on Jana Wendt’s ‘A Current Affair’ without knowing why, I can’t claim to be a John Clarke fan. I don’t own any of his books or DVDs. I didn’t even watch him that often. But it occurs to me that I might have watched him when I needed to. Today hypocrisy is not only widespread and brazen, but generally accepted, and after a while you might start to think that you’re the crazy one. When I started to feel this way, I’d find the latest Clarke & Dawe clip and within seconds I’d feel a weight lift from my shoulders. Someone was calling “bullshit” for me. I don’t think he was trying to change the world; we’re not going to stop the liars and double-dealers, but they were a bit less powerful after John took aim at them. I’ll miss knowing he’s there.

Here’s a recent bit:

An Impermanent Residency

I may have just finished one of the shortest residencies in jazz history. I mean real short. I’m not complaining- it was fun- but even our current president’s managed to keep his job longer than this, and his racism is WAY less veiled than mine. VERY BAD!

Anyway, it started with my annual trip to Brooklyn (it’s far and the people look at me funny), where I was to meet up with my mate Dan. Dan lives in Sunset Park, in what I believe is the most recently adopted China Town in NYC (we have several), and where a stroll feels like walking the side streets of Hong Kong. There’s very little English spoken, there’s a hawker on every corner, and the live frogs are to die for. I was early so I ducked into a recently-opened restaurant for some cold chicken gizzards and a beer. The owner, presumably seeing the resignation etched into my pallid countenance (or the horn on my back), came running up and excitedly asked if I was a musician. I hesitated, assuming he’d want me to pay in advance, but it turned out musicians were just what he wanted!

It’s not often that a gig falls in your lap like this. Usually my strategy is to wear down the landlord with a months-long regimen of phone calls and drop-ins, until they finally succumb to my demands or seek legal advice. But here was a restaurateur who actually wanted me to play. I was most uncomfortable with this situation, but as he’d agreed to my first offer, what could I do? I called my mate Avi to play some guitar with me, and confirmed the date.

I’ve been to China a few times, and if there’s one thing the people there are largely indifferent to, it’s jazz music, so it seemed an odd choice. The room went silent as Avi and I slunk over to our assigned position: a minuscule stage- actually more of a shelf- in front of the biggest TV screen you’ve ever seen. Times Square billboards would have been green-screened with envy. And playing constantly on this behemoth was what looked like Guangzhou’s Got Talent- the IMAX Experience: giant teary-eyed Chinese teenagers emotionally belting out the kind of schlocky smooth-pop ear candy at which, as a cultured and refined artist, I look down my pince-nez; however as an underfed dive-bar honker, I happily play for the right price. We slogged through three sets of jazz standards which were received with general indifference punctuated by occasional bemusement. The boss loved it. But along with our band meal of shrimp heads and noodles came the first warning sign: “can you guys play some music like off the radio?” My first response was, “I’m Nick Hempton! Nobody could be further off the radio than me!” But it was clear our cloth-eared friend wanted current pop songs. I tried explaining that Maroon 5’s carefully constructed compositions lose some of their impact when translated to saxophone/guitar duo, but the word “timbre” had barely passed my lips when his eyes started to glaze over. I realised a return gig was in jeopardy, so I shouted, “you got it, chief!” and high-fived a passing busboy. He asked us back the following night.

This time we were prepared. While the music of *google another current pop act* is clearly beyond my purview, I can bluster my way through some Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack, Bill Withers, and the like. It’s not current, but at least it’s not jazz. We busted out some of that good stuff, but astonishingly, the reaction of the young Chinese crowd was exactly the same! It was like they couldn’t tell the difference! Our man, however, was still convinced he was on to a good thing. But this time our prawn tails were served with a request for Chinese pop music. This couldn’t have been more portentous if he’d actually written it on a wall.

We were back a few nights later and, having never intended to learn any Chinese music, we served up more of the same. For some reason the crowd got right behind us this time, rewarding our efforts with an occasional glance, and even some uncertain applause. This was clearly not the desired effect, as we were left to eat our prawn shells in peace, and when we said goodnight, the boss wouldn’t meet our eyes. I knew it was over.

I called him the other day, just to say I was watching Chinese Idol and eating “our” special dish, but emotion overtook me and I choked up. I also had a wad of shrimp antennae stuck in my throat. He said he’ll keep us in mind, but I know he just doesn’t want us. I hung up and breathed a sigh of relief. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.

 

 

Roman and Turin part 1

I should be looking out the window. I’m midway through a six hour train ride through Italy, and the scenery is lovely. But you people are so demanding!
 I’ve left Rome and am on my way north to a town called Pavia. I’m suffering from the usual complaints of the extremely budget-conscious traveler (back, sinuses, emotional stability), but a ham sandwich and a beer have put me in relatively high spirits. Sadly, every meal will now be compared to yesterday’s lunch.

 I left my beloved NYC late on Halloween night, escaping the madness in the city with the relative safety of a trans-continental flight. The plane deposited me in Milan, some 400 miles from my first gig. The way Italian clubs do business means I booked my flight before I knew where I was going. Milan is a fine city to fly into, but it did become rather a long day: flight, subway to the city centre, three hour train ride to Rome, then subway to my hotel. I checked in, squeezed myself into a shower the size of a small phone booth, took a 12 minute nap, then took the subway to the gig. A mercifully brief soundcheck, followed by a pizza which I had time just to roll up and insert, then we hit the stage. I think I managed to play most of the gig standing up. 


The club was, and is, Gregory’s- a wonderful intimate venue which one might describe as a real jazz club. I’ve played there a couple of times before, and it’s always a pleasure, due largely, I’m sure, to the boss, Omar, who is terrific fellow, and a genuine jazz fan. Its central location, near the famed Spanish Steps, means it’s easy to find, and is usually well populated. Ground level houses a bar bursting with fine Scotch whiskeys, and beer they serve in vase-size glasses. Winding back stairs take you up to the music room which is woody, low-ceilinged, and comfy. The stage is tiny, and the audience is within spitting distance of the band, a fact of which they were reminded throughout our gig. The people smiled and clapped, and generously tolerated my pathetic attempts at bilingual announcements. A few post-show cocktails followed, and I rolled out of there and into bed.


 Adam Pache is the man responsible for this trip. A mate of mine from back in Sydney, he’s been based in Italy for seven years, his formidable talents easily making him the go-to drummer for visiting musicians. He also knows how to put together a grand tour. Day two we met for coffee and then coffee. By that stage we were ready for a coffee, and suddenly it was lunch time. Pache knows his onions when it comes to food, and I trust his recommendations implicitly. This afternoon, he didn’t disappoint. A short stroll through town, interrupted only by a Campari and soda, took us to Trattoria Monti. Pasta seemed like the order of the day until closer inspection of the menu revealed brains. Fried, or stewed with porcini mushrooms. We ordered the brains. We ate the brains. And they were absolutely freaking delicious. Those zombies are really onto something.

I digested my thoughtful lunch with some obligatory sightseeing and a well-earned nap, before heading back to Gregory’s for a repeat performance. I was a little more alert this time, and I can report happily that bassist Jacopo Ferrazo and our man Pache swung their arses off. 

 Rome was a delight, and showed me that jazz musicians and brains needn’t be mutually exclusive. Righto, talk to you from Pavia. 

A Stroll Through the Belly of the Beast

Recently in lower Manhattan, an astonishing new attraction/eyesore was unveiled. A massive white marble mausoleum, it’s what officials quoted in newspapers like to call a “transport hub”, which makes slightly more sense, but has vastly less terrifying supernatural impact than, its official title: THE OCULUS. Built in the hole left by the twin towers, a respectful 15 years later, it connects my beloved/behated PATH train (which sometimes runs under the Hudson river to Jersey City), with the NYC subway. Check this thing out:

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Excellent photo by Champian Fulton

Apparently designed to resemble a just-released dove, it feels much more like wandering around inside a bleached whale, which is surely a boon to lovers of biblical re-enactments, and hopefully doesn’t attract the attention of too many psychotic Ahabs. At 5PM daily, a wave of humans gushes though its gaping doors, from which New Jerseyans are filtered, like loud pushy plankton, and swallowed up by the PATH station. They are then discharged from the back of the whale and deposited in New Jersey where New Yorkers don’t have to think about them.

I’m sure the Oculus is meant to represent freedom, or liberty, or justice, or one of the other American-owned abstract concepts that make my adopted homies well up with national pride. But predictably, it’s really there to showcase that one overarching western idea: consumerism. When I first wandered through the space, none of the shops was occupied, and I very naively imagined an array of friendly welcoming independent purveyors of goods and services aimed at the commuter. I envisioned a bakery, a bookshop, maybe a fishmonger, meatmonger, Flowermonger Dude!- places useful to a working person on their way to or from work. Instead the’ve installed Hugo Boss, Kate Spade, John Varvatos, and various other high-end boutiques with people names. And of course, they’re always empty. Who’s buying a thousand-dollar suit at a train station? But I suspect the shops aren’t there to be patronised. It might be worth Hugo losing that presumably astronomical rent to have his storefront seen in such a high-profile building. At least he’ll show up in the background of a million Instagram photos each day.

It also occurred to me that putting such recognisable brands in a new and slightly intimidating building might be to reassure the populace; to soothe our panic at the sight of something weird and foreign. It’s like when I cook my family something exotic for dinner, I always include something recognisable so they don’t run and hide in my skirts. Like my celebrated Croatian Goulash with Hot Dog, or Vietnamese Pho with Oreos. This strategy has proven successful in many areas, like when Beethoven put that da-da-da-dummm thing that we all know so well into his 5th Symphony; and instead of painting just anyone, da Vinci chose Mona Lisa because he knew we’d all recognise her. Those guys had Seamless Familiarity Integration sewn up before breakfast!

I’m hoping that if this Oculus is deemed a success, it will spawn a chain of Worldwide Oculi, each more terrifying and, erm, megapterine than the last. The Oculus Down Under: It’s Humpback for More! And so on. But until then, it’s another vulgar, overblown, outsized New York speciality, and I have no choice but to tiptoe timorously through its turgid intestines every day. It’s a colossally ostentatious waste of public money, and I think it’s way cool.

Get Off My Lawn, Punks

It’s been about 6 months since I posted something on this blog, and what a pleasure it’s been, eh? But I’ve finally succumbed to the barrage of insistent inquiries that could conceivably have been pouring in, and put feeble fingers to calcified keys. Just to tell you that I’ve got nothing to say.

When we put that Catch and Release business to bed at the end of last year, I decided to take a break from the relentless self-promotion that had taken over my life. I felt like I needed to stop talking about playing, writing and listening to music, and actually play, write, and listen to music. And it’s been grand. But I missed the little messages I used to stuff in a Coke bottle and fling into the internet. Stretching one line’s worth of idea into 500 words every couple of weeks gave me a real sense of achievement. But the longer I stayed away, the fewer ideas I seemed to get. And now when I look back at last year’s attempts, they read like they were written by someone else. Someone carefree, wide-eyed, and innocent. See, the real problem is that I turned 40.

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It’s not only suitable topics that are the problem, it’s finding a way to express these newfound feelings of resentful middle-aged bitterness that’s got me scratching my head. Continuing unfiltered, this blog could rapidly turn into the front-porch rocking chair rantings of a deranged old coot. And I guess this constant sharing of our lives that we’re all supposed to be enjoying is really starting to get up my nose (I recognise the irony of writing this in a personal blog), and much of the time I can’t be bothered making my mundane life sound more exciting than yours, which rather seems to be the point. I find myself longing for the simple pleasures of a nice cup of tea and an afternoon spent throwing rocks at children.

On the other hand, I’m feeling energised by a weird feeling of rebellion. I’m yet to find a distinct target, but it has something to do with all the money and hype and pomp involved in today’s jazz world, and how little of it has to do with playing jazz; and how apparently eager some players are to buy into the bullshit. I’m not sure how I’ll express this, but it’s something to think about. Fingers crossed it’ll get personal and catty!

Anyway, I’m 40, and it seems my daydreams are evenly split between bringing down the establishment and making plans for a nice rock garden. And this is all just a drawn out way of saying I’m pulling the shutters up, and the blog is open for occasional business. Anything you want to know about? Cheers, Nick

Barbies, Big Bands, and Bolting from Bar Tabs: Sydney, Week 2

Note: this all happened ages ago. N

When we left each other last, I was dealing with my 40th birthday with calm, philosophical, zen-like acceptance. And four jugs of Illusion and a tattoo. This dubious landmark fell, as have so many before it, on New Year’s Day; and as this was a big one, my younger brother, exhibiting his trademark generosity and questionable judgment, threw me a barbecue. The barbie is a big part of Australian culture, but I can’t see much to separate it from backyard get-togethers anywhere else.

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I don’t care much about cake, but this thing was freaking amazing. Ta, Rossana!

There’s lots of charred meat, usually a couple of forlorn, neglected salads, lots of beer, and talk about weather and sports. The only difference here was that the food was seriously top-shelf (cos my bro doesn’t fuck around once he’s strapped on the apron), and a lot of said food was kangaroo. If you’ve never eaten our national symbol, it’s lean and gamey and delicious. If you can find it, try it. As a rule, I dislike gatherings of more than one person, but this really was a lovely gang of people, and I grudgingly admit to enjoying myself. Although, after everyone left, I held a private birthday ceremony wherein I stripped naked, smeared myself with kangaroo fat and charcoal, climbed a tree and sang “It Was A Very Good Year” very quietly to myself, for several hours.

 

I used to play in big bands a lot when I lived in Sydney. I don’t get called for that kind of work much in New York, and I miss it. So I was well chuffed when my old boss Dan Barnett called me to sub in his band. Dan’s a great trombonist and vocalist, as well as a charismatic and entertaining bandleader, and his gigs are always top fun. Once a month for years he’s played at the Unity Hall Hotel in Balmain- one of those classic inner-city pubs that Sydney used to be known for. Recently the gig has moved next door, to the much more comfortable Workers’ Bar- a top little venue in the former home of one of the city’s first workers’ unions. It’s a friendly joint, decorated with kitschy reminders of its Labor party heritage, and this afternoon was packed with smiley folk downing beers and piling onto the dance floor. This is really one of the most fun gigs in Sydney, and if you’re in town on a Sunday, I heartily recommend it. Here’s some of Dan’s band in action at the Unity:

and if you want to find out about the band’s new album (recorded just a few weeks ago), you can check it out here: http://www.danbarnett.com.au

I filled in a few quiet days reintroducing mIMG_2341yself to various family members, eating meat pies, drinking beer, and being a tourist. I even went to look at the harbour. I felt like a bit of a schmuck- like a New Yorker going to Times Square- but I had to remind myself of its loveliness. It was idiotic of me to attempt this during the summer holidays- from the bridge, ‘round Circular Quay, to the Opera House it was elbow-to-arsehole sunburned shouty English tourists. I gazed serenely out across the water, dreaming of flinging a few of the whining buggers in, but eventually had to seek refuge in
the cool and beery Orient Hotel.

 

And suddenly it was my last night in town, and I had a gig! Legendary Sydney drummer Andrew Dickeson is one of my oldest mates, musical cohorts, and teachers; and he’d very kindly lined up a show at a relatively new club called Foundry 616. Run by renowned jazz impresario Peter Rechniewski, it’s a well appointed, well designed jazz club in the classic supper club style. The band was Dicko and me, with bassist and old mate Brendan Clarke, and guitarist Dave Blenkhorn- a Sydney lad now plying his very swinging trade in Europe. The joint was packed to the rafters with family and friends, which was initially terrifying, but ultimately heart-warming and somewhat overwhelming. It was a terrific hang, we played as much bebop as we possibly could, and as a salute to my Sydney salad days, I ended the night by skipping out on my bar tab. Sorry about that, Peter.

Here’s a tune from that very gig!

I managed to fit in another 24 hours in Hong Kong on my way home, where I attempted to eat this:

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Righto, more soon! Cheers, Nick

Little Italy, Big Fish,and Skank in a Chinese Brothel: Sydney, Week 1

Note: the word “now” in the first sentence refers to a time about two weeks ago. Pretend I posted this then, and you’re just reading it now. I know, you’ve been busy…

I’m writing to you now (that was it) on a Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong to New York. They’ve got a good selection of British telly onboard, and I’ve just watched two hours of Cockney sitcoms to aid in the  digestion of whatever it was I just ate, so I apologise if things go a bit how’s-your-father, if you know what I mean. I’ve just spent a couple of weeks in my home town of Sydney. It’s been twelve years since I lived there, and three since I last visited. It’s an odd feeling to go back after all this time: it all feels equally foreign and familiar. Like that guy from Fantasy Island. Ricardo Montalban. Not Hervé Villechaize. He’s more Adelaide. Don’t worry- this won’t be on the test. Anyways, let’s start at the beginning.

The first thing that happens when you land in Sydney- if you’re me- is that your Australian accent comes back. Like, immediately. In my time in the US, I’ve developed a weird hybrid accent which, while saving me from having to repeat myself to cloth-eared locals, makes me the target of much scorn from visiting Aussies. But here I was, talking like a local again before I’d even collected my carry-sacks from the trundle-round. Next time you visit, try addressing your friendly immigration officer as an old c#nt- you’ll fit right in! I was staying at the home of my handsome and generous younger brother in the charming suburb of Leichhardt, named in memory of a fellow of the same name, who did something memorable. I spent many of my younger days in this area, and I was keen to revisit some of the old haunts.

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Leichhardt is Sydney’s Little Italy. It’s not overtly Italian, like New York’s cartoonish Mulberry Street, but instead it’s spread-out and residential, and lots of old people still speak Italian. If you hang out in the wrong places, you might run into the occasional “colourful racing identity”, but it’s more about old women dressed in black with sons who still live at home. I have to stop in at Bar Italia, which actually can get a bit fuhgeddaboudit, but I’ve been going there since I was a teenager, and it hasn’t changed. The food and coffee are decent, but go there for the Italian-Australian atmosphere.

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Christmas in Australia is hot. It’s just one of the things we obstinately insist on doing differently. We also sleep under our beds, comb our hair with forks, and wear socks over our flip-flops. There are a few old-timers who persist with the big traditional hot Christmas dinner, but most of us realise it’s more seasonally appropriate to spend the day shovelling the contents of the Pacific ocean into our gobs. And if you’re in Sydney, this means a visit to the Fish Markets. It’s been a while, so I’d forgotten that this is the greatest place on earth.

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It’s a big, wet, sprawling, chaotic affair, with dozens of burly vendors selling every animal that’s ever set fin in an ocean. They stay open ‘round the clock for a couple of days before Christmas to deal with demand, but it’s still insane at 3AM. I like to leave my bro to do the purchasing while I wander around inspecting the freshness of giant grouper by examining their teeth. I wish there was another way.

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There’s not much to do between Christmas and new year. Everything is closed except the pubs; and when you’ve been in town three days, and the bar staff know more about you than your family does, you’ve been spending too much time there. Anyway, this week is for Australians to lie on the couch, watch the cricket, and digest, like a snake that’s just eaten a whole goat. And then slid onto a couch to watch cricket.

Then New Years Eve rolled around as it so often does, and for the big night I was thrilled to be playing with some old chums in a Ska band called Backy Skank. I’m proud to say I was a founding member of this band 20-something years ago, and reuniting is always a gas.

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The venue was Lazybones lounge- a two story warehouse-style joint, run by a charming madman called Craig. We think Craig sleeps there. Backy Skank frontman Pete described the decor as “part Chinese brothel, part English gentlemen’s club; although I’ve never been to an English gentlemen’s club.” Dozens of vintage Chesterfield sofas for napping, bizarre nicknacks on every surface, pornographic paintings on the ceilings, and a general attitude of louche abandon- this is where you want to spend New Years Eve. We skanked it up for a few hours, playing hits from Madness, the Specials, a bit of Marley; while downstairs, I was chuffed to discover my mates Dan Barnett, Dave Blenkhorn and James Ryan playing jazz! Upstairs for beer and ska, then downstairs on the breaks for whiskey and jazz! A fabulous night. Then I turned fucking 40.

Next up, Sydney, week 2: fun, swinging Aussie jazz gigs, and the onset of resentful middle-aged bitterness!

 

Bonkers in Honkers Part 2

When I left you, we were about to start playing at Hong Kong’s Lyric Theater- technically the reason for us being there. For an out-of-touch bebop musician like me, a relatively big pop show like this is unfamiliar territory. I’m used to playing with two or three cohorts, minimal amplification, minimal audience, almost nothing in the way of stage fog or strobe lights, and a fairly reliable absence of rampant slavering groupies; and in most ways the Bianca Wu show was very different.

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Most of this pop lark is an absolute gas. Now I may have a reputation as an elitist; an intellectual and artistic snob, but I can assure you that, as Tolstoy said, “Great works of art are only great because they are accessible and comprehensible to everyone.Read more at http://www.notable-quotes.com/t/tolstoy_leo.html#k6TJxtMzHcru8zuC.99”… The music is great fun to play; the songs are all in Cantonese, meaning we can come up with dirty juvenile approximations of the lyrics; the singer is easy on the eyes, it’s great watching the swooping video cameras narrowly miss the absurd set designs, the enormous number of seemingly inept stage crew bumping into eachother provide constant amusement, and taking a bow in front of a cheering crowd never gets tired. But a few things take some getting used to. In order to hear in a room this size, we have to listen to ourselves, and each other, through headphones, otherwise the amplified sound bouncing back from the room sounds like a garbled mess. So each of us is outfitted with a pair of “cans” (headphones, not breasts), and a small mixing desk with a knob for each instrument. Pop music- it’s all cans and knobs these days. This means I can adjust the volume level of each other player in my headphones, usually based on how much I like his shirt, and how nice he was to me that day. Our drummer Dan has the added pleasure of being surrounded by a thick sheet of perspex, giving him the appearance of a caged animal, which is not doing much to help the reputation drummers have already.

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And our musical director, Art, has a microphone stuck in his face at all times that feeds directly to us, so he can verbally hold our hands and lead us though the show. Add to this the fact that we can rarely see or hear the audience, and it sometimes feels like an elaborate prank. Albeit a fairly well paid one. The Hong Kong crowds were also presumably disappointed by the dearth of saxophone solos, but they’re a stoic people. After the shows, Bianca would chat and take photos with hundreds of fans individually, and sell more of her CDs in a night than I have of mine under my couch. We’d sneak out the back door, grateful to security for doing such an amazing job of keeping fans away from the band, and then it was off into the night.

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On our last trip, after an evening spent dodging aggressive prostitutes and bloated, ruined expats in Wanchai, Dan, Art and I (allegedly) drunkenly stumbled into a bar with what I’m going on record as saying was an awesome cover band. ACDC, Bon Jovi, Van Halen- these guys played note-for-note recreations of ‘em all. And after sheepishly asking around, it seems it’s a bit of a Hong Kong thing: Filipino bands working their arses off playing the hits for drunken idiots. Now I’m a closet hair-band fan, but what really impressed me here was the talent and stamina. These guys tear it up hour after hour, night after night, segueing from one song to the next, while showing no outward signs of the gaping chasm of crushing disappointment that presumably inhabits their souls. I like it when they do Cherry Pie. Now I’ve played in my share of cover bands, but when we had to play three 45 min sets in a night, we’d stomp our feet and refuse to put the wigs and body glitter back on until we got a pay rise, a massage, and a week off. I’m impressed, I tell you. And somehow, magically, this trip we fell into the same bar, with the same band, playing the same songs. I saw it as fate’s way of telling me to rip my shirt off, douse myself in Chartreuse, and scream the wrong words to Livin’ On A Prayer. It seems Hong Kong bouncers have a more indeterminist outlook than me.

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This photo has no relation to the story.

As I mentioned in my last outpouring, this city is known for is its food, and I’d decided to shove as much in as possible. I’d had limited success with expert recommendations, so I tried listening to the internet. One highlight was a dumpling joint 20 mins walk from our hotel where Dan and I, both fairly large lads, were politely and graciously wedged behind the smallest table available, in a greasy nook under the stairs. Crammed in amongst the mops and Kitty Litter, we perused the menu. Occasionally I like to gamble and not read the English translations, ordering based on what I think the Chinese characters might mean. Got a lot of respect for my excellent taste too- as one dish was served the room went silent and the other customers started filming me. In fact several fainted in admiration. I also waited for an hour outside Kam’s Roast Goose to have an incredible Michelin-starred lunch for 10 bucks- more of that amazing fatty crispy awesomeness. I liked it so much I offered them a slogan: “Our goose puts the “Honk” in Hong Kong!” I’m not welcome at Kam’s anymore.

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We finished up the tour with an after-party. I think you know what I’m talking about. Rock and Roll! Am I right?! Try and imagine the most debauched, depraved, orgiastic rock band party ever. Then please describe it to me, ‘cause that’s as close as I’ll get. The spring rolls were delightful. I think they had some shredded seaweed in them. Next stop: Sydney!

 

Bonkers in Honkers Part 1

The following was written in Hong Kong, but posted in Sydney. I’m really not very good at this. Enjoy!

If you’ve been enduring my incessant social mediafying, you’ll know we’re about half way through our Hong Kong escapade, and I thought a rundown was in order. I’m here with a gang of killer musicians from New York to play with Hong Kong pop star Bianca Wu. We’ve all worked with her many times over the past six-or-so years, and this is our third visit to the area. Bianca’s a pretty big deal in these parts, and we’re here doing three shows at the 1200-seat Lyric Theatre in Hong Kong’s Academy for the Performing Arts. The shows are big- 26 songs over two and a half hours; it’s a real workout for the rhythm section, and an absolute doddle for me. The horn section is only on stage for about two thirds of the show, and much of that is spent adjusting our music stands and losing count of bars of rest. The rest of the time I’m offstage, wandering the labyrinthine hallways shouting “ROCK ’N’ ROLL!!” in a bad cockney accent. Never gets tired. There’s altogether too much rehearsing and sound checking, but we’ve had a bit of time to get into some trouble.

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To start at the start, we were met at the airport by our producer Patrick, and bundled into cabs to the city. It’s a fair hike- the airport is located on the always-satisfyingly named island of Chek Lap Kok (yep, still there), and the trip takes you through several islands, Kowloon, and under Victoria Harbour- none of which is visible from the endless freeway. We were all pretty dazed after the marathon flight, but steeled ourselves for a welcome dinner at a local restaurant. My spirits lifted noticeably with the discovery that the joint’s specialty was roast meat. Suddenly, it became clear that the only things missing from my life were dead animals and weak Chinese beer. I mentioned this to our host and was presented with a whole fatty, crispy, juicy, life-affirming roasted goose, which I ate. I would have ordered another one, but fellow diners were starting to look at me with genuine concern. I wiped enough goose fat out of my eye to wink reassuringly at them, then lay down under the table. Eventually I slid back to the hotel where I took a handful of Melatonin and slept like a greasy baby.

Goose collage

 

 

Next morning, I jolted my addled brain into action with a visit to one of the excellent coffee shops which are multiplying throughout the city. Traditionally, China has been associated with coffee in the way the US has been associated with thin healthy people, but this is changing fast, and I had numerous quality caffeinated options in walking distance from our digs. Alert and teeth-grindingly jittery, I joined the band for a hair-raising van ride through the city to our first rehearsal. For an hour we were thrown about like sneakers in the clothes dryer, while our lunatic driver veered across lanes and ploughed through vegetable carts and stacks of empty boxes; all the while juggling a dozen cell phones emitting incessant, piercing alerts and ringtones. When we arrived at rehearsal, it was all I could manage to crawl to a couch, close my eyes, and do nothing for two hours. Fortunately, that’s what I’m being paid to do.

HK Rehearsal collage

The Afterthought Horns and the rhythm section. Both doing what they do best.

Honkers is a glutton’s paradise, with noodles, dumplings and delicious animal parts of every imaginable species within arm’s reach. I had a bit of time on Thursday, so I went searching for a couple of joints that had come recommended. I wandered down to the stunning Victoria Harbour, surely one of the loveliest city harbours in the world, and hopped on the ferry to Kowloon. It’s madness over there- an engorged, throbbing, quivering mess of humanity. Tourists, locals, hawkers, beggars, millionaires, all conspiring to stop me getting anywhere. I had some pretty amazing dumplings at the famed Din Tai Fung, then fought my way back through the throng. By the time I got back to the harbour, I’d somehow managed to buy a dozen watches, four suits, and a Filipino wife. Don’t know how I’m going to fit them all in my bag.

HK Harbour collage

Ferry and junk

Then it was another ferry over to the part of town creatively titled Central, where I was aiming for a little noodle place endorsed by Anthony Bourdain. I slogged up and down tiny alleys till I found the spot Google had assured me was the one. Three mouthfuls of impenetrable, leathery noodles were all I could get down before I pushed my plate away in defeat, grudgingly paid the bill and plodded home, cursing Bourdain, that lanky, septic bugger. It was then I discovered that I’d been at Mak An Kee, ONE BLOCK from my noodley holy grail, Mak UN Kee. I’ve just checked my Cantonese-English dictionary, and it seems “Un” means yummy, and “An” means rubbery tasteless shit reserved for idiot westerners.

That night we had our first crack at the stage of the Lyric, about which I will tell you… next time. Cheers!

A Curse Unleashed; Working for Doughnuts; and a Dahlia by Any Other Name

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I’m back, safe and sound with the muggers and drug dealers in NYC. My people. The last leg of our little NW adventure took place in charming Portland. It’s rare on a tour like this to spend a few days in one town, but that’s how it worked out, and I was well pleased. I reintroduced myself to the town in usual Hempton fashion; by schlepping my gear for miles. But there are few more schlep-friendly towns around- well maintained sidewalks, no hills to speak of, and an almost complete absence of people. It’s a quiet joint. The walk took me across the delightful Willamette river to the colourful East Side.

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If you want to relive the cross-country car trips you took as a kid with your family in the 70s, I recommend booking a night at the Eastside Inn. I had three. It’s got all the hallmarks of a classic old-timey motel: dusty, airless lobby attended by moth-eaten owner; three floors of squat rooms with wraparound balconies designed in the maximum-security-prison style; a strip club across the street (Union Jacks…); mysterious banging noises; and an unsurpassed level of throat-clutching mustiness. Seriously, when I opened that door I was hit by an acrid wave; it was like discovering the chamber where an Egyptian Pharaoh kept his grandmother’s bedsheets. A bit like this:

I kept the doors and windows open day and night, but this stuff lived there. After three days in that room, my suit became the season’s have-must item!

On the Sunday night, we headed south to the town of Aurora, and the Aurora Colony Vineyard. Oregon is known for its wineries, and one of these days, a vineyard jazz tour is in order. I was joined by some top-notch Portland players, and we played in the vineyard’s tasting room to a select (read small) group of discerning patrons. A little gig like this, while not financially particularly rewarding, is still a great pleasure for its intimacy. The audience felt involved in the performance, and I felt involved in the wine tasting. Very involved, actually. They squeeze a mean Sauv Blanc, and our generous hosts laid on some top-flight grub (pear and blue-cheese pizza anyone?). Audience and band chatted after the show, and when we rolled out of there, we were all firm friends.

I had the next day off, and spent it on one of the classic Portland tourist activities: standing in line all freaking day at the bank. I had some Canadian cash to deposit, and when I finally reached my 12-year-old teller, he was not only unfamiliar with Canadian currency, I suspect he’d never heard of the country. We sorted it out, and after converting it at the current rate, I took my Vancouver gig money and bought a doughnut.

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Voodoo Doughnuts: The Magic is in the Hole.

I tramped around town for the rest of the day, sampled from the countless food carts, got lost in the world’s biggest bookshop (if you lose your friend in a bookshop, can you have them paged?), and had dinner at a few of the city’s 65-odd breweries with a record company executive (it was actually my friend Nick from the Posi-Tone label…). Beer is a big thing in this town- they’ve got more breweries than any other city in the world- and you’ll often find yourself sitting in the shadow of the vat containing the beer you’re currently drinking. They go for the big hoppy varieties, subtle as a smack in the ear with a housebrick, and often a bit sweet for mine, but I’ll keep trying.

Tuesday we played at what was then called the Dahlia Theater in the lovely town of Canby, Oregon. Since I was originally booked for this show, the venue has been called Canby Wedding Chapel, Angelina’s Artiste Centre, and the Dahlia Theater. Who know’s what it’s called now. I can’t tell you what a joy it is to promote a show that changes its name every week. It’s actually a real Methodist chapel, built in 1884, with lovely ornate pressed tin walls. It’s a beautiful old pile, with naturally warm acoustics, and is now, thanks to owners Marilyn and Martin, exclusively used for concert presentations. Check this joint out!

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Next morning, it was toodle-pip to the girls at Union Jacks, and a cab (driven by a local bass player- I talked all the way) to the airport. It was a great fun trip, and I’m looking forward to getting back there soon. Next week: bonkers in Honkers!