Farm animals, a sex romp, and some un-Australian behaviour: Brisbane & Melbourne

I used to be Australian. Like, I was pretty good at it. I played cricket, I ate vegemite every morning, I made fun of Americans- I was an Aussie bloke. And above all, I knew how to act in a pub. I was more comfortable in a pub than in my own home. And the fact that my home is surprisingly uncomfortable doesn’t reduce the importance of that. But things have changed. Now I go into an Aussie pub and just stand there, mouth agape, like a child who’s accidentally wandered into a sex shop. The beers are all different, and suddenly American-style is a selling point. And they come in confusing sizes called pots and pints and schooners. And a schooner in one state is called a pot in another. And a pint can be fairly large or freaking enormous, depending on which end of the bar you order it from. And none of them is the size of beer I want. So you know what? Sometimes I put on an American accent. Because it’s less embarrassing to be an American than to be an Australian who doesn’t know how to order a beer.

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I tried this ploy in Brisbane, but my performance was interrupted by the explosive guffaws of Penny, one of my oldest friends, who I’d forgotten was standing right next to me. She wasn’t going to let me get away with that, and fair enough, I guess. I slunk away and let her do the ordering.

Beers in, we did a short sight-seeing drive through the streets of this famously sunny and friendly town, Penny helpfully pointing out various important landmarks, none of which penetrated the exhausted, befuddled, jet lagged fog that has inhabited my brain for the last few weeks. She dropped me at my hotel, where I checked in to the biggest room I’ve ever seen. The front-desk staff were extraordinarily friendly, and had cheerfully given me an upgrade without my asking. Maybe that’s just how people in Brisbane are, and I’ve been a cynical New Yorker for too long, but I found that deeply suspicious. If I find out I was drugged and made to perform in some kind of low-rent hotel room sex romp, I won’t be surprised. Neither should you when the video surfaces online. I mean if. Remember: drugged.

The gig was at a club that’s part of the Jazz Music Institute, and is essentially a bar with classrooms attached to it. The green room had a whiteboard in it. The institute had provided me with a couple of senior students for the gig, and even though I admit to being mildly concerned at their wide eyes and relentless bloody optimism, my fears were allayed by the end of the first tune. They dealt with whatever I threw at them, and put on a fine show. We topped the night off at a jam session at the other jazz club in town, which is brand new and feels a bit like an airport food court, but was populated with talented young musicians and drunk patrons, and what more can you ask for in a night out.

Early next morning it was off to Melbourne. Consistently voted the world’s most liveable city, Melbourne has a long-standing, and largely imaginary, rivalry with my home town, Sydney. Melbourne is known for its healthy arts scene, and they’ve always had an active and widely-supported jazz community. That’s all well and good, but my cousin is a top notch chef, and runs one of the city’s most celebrated restaurants, and between you and me, that’s why I was there. A gang of family took over a corner of the restaurant and wolfed down a succession of minutely planned, expertly executed, perfectly plated delights, while being charmed by the knowledgeable and professional, yet friendly staff. There was a guy who just did cheese. CHEESE! I had the pigeon followed by the pig- a bucolic scenario if ever I’ve eaten one. The restaurant is called Cutler & Co., in Fitzroy. Eat there!!

Sunday night, and the ostensible reason for my visit- a gig at the relatively new JazzLab. Opened by the owner of famed Melbourne jazz club, Bennett’s Lane, it’s a very handsomely appointed club with a great feel. Andrew Dickeson flew down from Sydney to play drums with me, along with ace trumpeter Mat Jodrell (whom I know from his frequent NY visits), and new friend Ben Robertson on bass. A very healthy crowd, dotted with some very welcome faces from my distant past, and various wonderful, and dutifully enthusiastic, family members, made for a smooth first landing in Melbourne. Next morning, off to Bangkok, where shit is probably going to be…different…

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Rainforests, raw octopus, and vampirism: New Zealand

It’s important to stay grounded. Humble. You can’t let the high-flying jet-setting lifestyle change you. If you’re ever in Auckland and need the wind taken out of your sails, I recommend the Albion Hotel. It was reasonably priced, and as I had my first night in New Zealand to myself, well located for some food and a look around. It was also minuscule, dusty, grimy and poky. A flop house like this will definitely stop you getting too big for your boots. However you’ll still be too big for your bed and shower. Redemption was downstairs in the form of a pub with an open fire and cricket on the telly, so it wasn’t all bad.

Google informed me that most of the nearby dining options were housed in the city’s gargantuan casino, which I rejected on principle. Following the advice of bartenders on every block, I eventually discovered a tiny Japanese noodle joint jam-packed with 5 Japanese people. I had a bowl of raw octopus in wasabi, which was chewy, sinus-scorchingly hot, and absolutely delicious; followed by a killer ramen. All that and a few beers and even the weird creaking noises and suspicious smells of the Albion couldn’t keep me awake

Next morning my mate Roger picked me up and took me to his lair, buried at the end of an impenetrable maze of corridors, deep below Auckland University. Rog is an old mate from my Sydney days, a brilliant saxophonist, and now runs the jazz program at the uni. And appears to be doing a bang up job. The kids I met in the halls and in the few hours teaching I did were unfailingly enthusiastic and eager, with a genuine musical curiosity. I killed several of them and am saving their blood to ingest when I need a little pick-me-up.

That night we had a cracking gig to a packed house at the Thirsty Dog- a fine beery pub- our show serving as the opener of the Auckland jazz festival. The local cats did a swinging job, and Rog got up on the last couple of tunes to kick my arse and take the show home. Then it was back to the idyllic rainforest retreat in which Rog and his family live, and where, I assume, they spend their time hunting with spears and building generators out of rocks and fish guts. Standing on their rickety balcony, overlooking the mangroves, I felt, literally and figuratively, about as far as I’d ever been from New York.

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Next morning I took a short flight to Wellington, where I was met by my hosts Mark and Veronica, and driven through lovely small-town streets and picturesque waterfronts. Mark’s a terrific drummer and I know the two of them from their extended stays in New York. After a nap at their also spectacularly vista’d home, we headed to the gig. While the show had attracted few bookings, the venue provided me with plenty of reservations. I think we could charitably call it a “loft”- an emptied out office space in a dilapidated concrete block with no toilets or running water. A map helpfully tacked to the bar directed the needy customer to the bathrooms in the gym down the block. The bar was tended by Mark and Veronica, and consisted of a fridge, several 6-packs, and a few bottles of wine; and an ingenious, MacGuyver-esque glass-washing system comprising two buckets and a hose. The crowd was indeed light, but warm and engaged; Mark and bassist Mike threw themselves headlong into the performance, and I think we gave them a great show. The Wellington Jazz Co-op is Mark and Veronica’s baby, and while the location may not be glamorous, they’re really putting in the hard yards to bring jazz to the people of Wellington, without the commercial constraints a conventional club can put on the artists. I hope it goes from strength to strength. Gig done, we all trooped around the corner to a big cheerful pub with live music and friendly folk and inhaled an appropriately greasy post-show snack.

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And a number of drinks, which I regretted as I waited for my 4:15AM Uber to the airport. It was a ridiculously short time to see a country, but I did get a feel for the joint, and next time I’ll try to add a few more stops to the visit. I had a lovely time, and I’m proud to say I was mature and refrained from imitating the accent, except while swearing at the Albion’s ludicrously low shower head which was seriously giving me the shuts. Next up: Brisbane…

Stimulants, Attack Birds, and a Lovely Pie: Sydney

By my calculations, there are upwards of a metric bunch of restaurants called Bar Italia around the world. But my absolute favourite, and without doubt the only one ever I’ve been to, is Bar Italia. That place is great. It’s in the Sydney suburb of Leichhardt, which despite being named after an explorer from Prussia (one of those pre-Internet countries) who got lost and was never seen again, is now home to Sydney’s Italian population. And my brother Tim. Tim doesn’t keep coffee around the house due to repeated violent run ins with the French press, so when in Sydney, my day starts at Bar Italia. It was a regular part of my life when I lived here, and then, as now, one coffee there is strong enough to keep me awake well into the afternoon.

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Legal stimulants taken care of, I had a bit of time to kill between gigs, so one day took a stroll through my old stomping ground, the Inner West. When I was a kid it was unfashionable and grotty, but it’s now one of Sydney’s most outrageously expensive areas, where locals look down their noses at blow-ins like me. I paused outside the various hovels I once called home, peered in the windows and rifled through the mailboxes. My only goal that day was to eat a meat pie (it’s as close to a national dish as we get), and drink a beer, which I achieved but not before being yelled at for taking photos of a pub (one in which I used to live, I should say), and being attacked by a large bird for, I assume, taking photos of its tree. Here’s a picture of the pie. A highlight.

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Then began three intense days of grueling toil which any mortal man would call “easy”. On Thursday, a rehearsal in which I displayed my lack of recent big band experience by not remembering any of the old jokes (“watch for my cue” “the near cue?” “no, the far cue”); followed by an hour blatantly lying about the quality of my own work on the radio; then a great night playing jazz at Foundry 616 (which, as I’m required by joke law to say, is far superior to the previous 615 Foundries). I reunited with old mates Andrew Dickeson and Ashley Turner and we swung our way through two sets of favourites in front of an appreciative crowd, some of whom I wasn’t even related to!

On Friday Andrew, Ashley, and I, along with ace guitarist Carl Dewhurst stumbled into Electric Avenue studios to put down an album the old school analogue way: direct to tape. This produces a beautiful warm sound, but unlike digital recording, means there’s no editing, and therefore no mistakes. I made lots of mistakes. We were there for ten hours, but I think we got a pretty good record. I followed this by letting my folks buy the Peking Duck I’d been denied in Peking, and it was bloody delicious.

Sunday was Manly Jazz Festival day. I rode the ferry across Sydney harbour (which I maintain is one of the loveliest experiences available anywhere), and played a quartet set with Sydney trumpet legend Warwick Alder, to a lively crowd that for the whole hour remained actively engaged and intensely focused on their fish and chips. Then a couple of big band sets in which I fumbled my way through the second alto book and tried not to be noticed; interspersed with stretches on the beach, and much longer stretches at the front bar of the Steyne hotel.

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Monday was my last day in town, and a day off, so Tim and I went back to Manly to soak up the last of the atmosphere. It’s a small but charming and well organized festival in a beautiful location, and its egalitarian approach welcomes all comers, not just beret’d jazz nerds. The night finished with a rowdy and good natured jam session where I did my darnedest on a few tunes with saxophonists Andrew Speight and Eric Alexander. I bid the cats farewell over a couple of quiet beers, and headed home to pack for New Zealand. About which I’ll tell you in a few days…

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Food & Whine: NYC-Hong Kong

I’m sitting on a plane between Hong Kong and Beijing, belly full of flaccid noodles and a white wine my peerless palate informs me is the July vintage. The tour’s just begun and I’m complaining already. There are so many insults flung at the modern air traveler, I don’t know why I always focus on the awful, awful food, but that’s really what hurts the most. The upside of this is that when you arrive at your destination, you’re READY. My last two days of meals have all been resignedly endured in airports, planes or hotels, and I’m ready for the real thing. Ducks are one of my favourite animals, whether waddling by the lake, or glistening on the plate, and Beijing is known for them, so stay tuned for roast duck tales.

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The flight from New York to Hong Kong was predictably tough. I get about 12 hours in, with 4 to go, and I tell myself I’m never doing it again. I have lofty goals of productivity, and start by editing videos and writing charts, but before long, survival becomes the only goal. The only way I can imagine it being worse is if I still smoked- the withdrawals made every hour double. I was helped by the knowledge that at the end of this leg was the Airport Novotel. It’s an undistinguished, modern, bland pile, but it’s quiet and comfortable, and the bar serves a fine martini. Two of those on top of jet lag and 24 hours awake, and I’m out like a light.

So I’m on my way to mainland China, tired and bleary, but energised by anticipation. Most of my regularly-patronised websites are blocked by what’s known as the Great Firewall- I have a sneaky little app that’s supposed to be able to dig a tunnel to the other side, but we’ll see if it works. A few days away from Facebook might turn out to be a blessing. And will the Beijingers turn out for an obscure Australian saxophonist? Tell you all about it in the next one.

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.

 

 

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!

 

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!

Uppity youngsters, a sentimental Journey, and a belt rings a Belltown

Back on the tour bus, with a whole new entourage. Glad I didn’t learn the names of the last one. So confusing- I don’t know how Willie Nelson does it! And these groupies really seem to have no idea what the job entails. Very poor.

 I’m headed down to Portland, Oregon from      the lovely Seattle, and I’m kind of sorry to be leaving. It’s one of my favourite towns to visit, and I look forward one day to seeing some of it… My sightseeing this time consisted of hauling my gear a mile or so through impenetrable fog from the bus station to the hotel. By pure luck, I’d chosen the charming Belltown neighbourhood in which to base myself- it’s a quirky spot with a nice mix of hipsterish bars and very picturesque homeless people. I fed and watered at the Belltown Pub, and got dolled up for the gig.

 Friday’s gig was at a joint callled Boxleys in North Bend, a half-hour drive from the city. A musician-run club, it’s heavily involved in jazz education, and is part of a developing cooperative with a few other clubs in the area, the idea being that eventually touring players will be able to do a circuit of the region, instead of playing just one club. We had a very enthusiastic crowd in attendance, including a lot of kiddies, which meant I had to tone down some of the intense, X-rated portions of my patter; and the goat got the night off. After the show, one of the kids came and asked if my album was available on iTunes, because he doesn’t own a CD player. I took my dentures out and threw them at him.

  
After I got back to the hotel, I thought a wander through the neighbourhood was in order. The first bar I went into looked strangely familiar. Bars two through seven rang a bell too. I eventually realised that I’d stumbled into the same neighbourhood my mate Dan and I had bar-crawled through two years earlier. I figured that made me a local and breezily told the bartender to “put ’em on my tab” as I sauntered out the door. At least, that’s how I remember it. It would also explain the bruises. 

  
Saturday night found us in a town called Renton, just south of the city. A pretty new club, Shuga is a sprawling pile with bar, restaurant and music room all separate from eachother. The owner had sent me panicky emails for weeks prior, concerned that we wouldn’t have an audience. I didn’t tell him that the time spent writing me these emails could have been spent promoting the show. He also hired a singer to sit in with us, to increase our allure. Normally if a club owner did this, I would tell him to sit on it, but I’m the out-of-towner here, so I took it. Turned out she was very nice and a good singer; and the crowd was fine, and all stayed to the end, so everyone was happy. On a break, I took a stroll through Renton’s deserted streets to get some cash. Suddenly I tripped, and found myself in a neighbourhood bar where I ran into every resident of Renton. Packed it was. And for karaoke. As I walked in, someone in the corner was dismembering Frank Sinatra, while the crowd ignored him enthusiastically. Then the next tune started and my ears pricked up to the opening strain of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”. With a cheer, 100 or so Rentonites raised their Budweisers and started singing along. I joined in, and for a minute, the good people of Renton and I were one. I went back and finished out the gig, playing my part as a sophisticated, jet setting jazz musician. But deep down, I knew I was just a small town girl, living in a lonely world. 

Next up: homemade clothes, craft beer, strip clubs, and the mustiest hotel room this side of the Mustiville! Cheers, Nick