Kansai Tour 2008

There are few places as exciting as the stage and there are few places more exciting to play music than Japan. You cannot be timorous when you are on stage in Japan, you have to give it all. The audience are very discerning, they know what you are up to and they are used to hearing good music, you cannot hope to get away with a few gimmicks. And if you are sharing the stage with other bands, you can bank money on it that they are good and very professional. If you were to play in famous venues like the ones I am privileged to play on this tour, you can expect the other bands whose stage you share with to be top class and. Unless you know what you are doing and confident in what you are doing, it can be a lot of pressure and your nerves can get at you. Playing on the professional stage in Japan is often like playing in a pressure cooker. Don't work in the kitchen if you can't stand the heat. But it is in the kitchen you really find out about yourself, it is here you see what you are really made of.

The Kansai area in Japan is redolent of music and has long been a hotbed for producing famous Blues and R & B musicians. This is also a place where music is taken seriously and music artistry is accorded with the proper respect it deserves. In this respect, Japan and Hong Kong cannot be more different. It has been two years since I last played music in Japan. For a variety of reasons, I just could not get my band together and my last tour was in 2006. But this time, the conditions were propitious, that is because my bassist Alfred Au is coming with me.

Alfred and Lawrence and I have been playing together as a trio for over a year and a half. Our trio started off as a tottering structure, shaky and unsure of ourselves and our music. But over time, we have developed a strong rapport and this current line-up is the best one I have ever had. During this year and a half, Alfred has improved beyond recognition and he is now a pillar of a bass player, giving the rhythm department both punch and groove. Alfred is someone I can totally rely on. If only my drummer Lawrence could come on tour with us, it would have been perfect. But Lawrence could not come. That is life, nothing is perfect. For this tour, Masato Nishimura san, the organizer and boss of the record company distributing my CDs in Japan, has arranged a young drummer to join us for the shows and his name is Yuichi Fujiwara. For this tour, we were to play at the Chicken George in Kobe, at Club Jungle and the CD & Record Festival in Osaka and finally at Mojo West in Kyoto. All the shows are to happen in just three days. This tour is somewhat shorter than my usual tour, but it turned out to be no less eventful.

We arrived in Osaka on 1st July. After a long and tiring trip from the airport, we arrived at our hotel, the Lion's Hotel in Shinshabashi, at around 6:00 p.m. . As soon as we dumped our luggage in our hotel rooms, we wasted no time in going out to feel the night life of Shinshabashi. There are hundreds of shops and restaurants in this area. There is a three-storey CD shop which opens 24 hours (hard to believe, isn't it).We walked around and had dinner in a Izakaya. The food was great and we had rather a lot to drink. After dinner I ended drinking more in Alfred's room with his friend Maggie.

Trying to work out out something very difficult in the menu.

In the hotel lobby waiting ready for rehearsal

Rehearsal studio in the heart of Shinshabashi

The next day we had a rehearsal in the afternoon with the young drummer Yuichi Fujiwara and this was to be the only rehearsal we were to have before the shows. We basically had two hours to sort out everything. It is not easy to have just one rehearsal and walk on stage to play. But I know Alfred will be able to keep the rhythm section together no matter what happens. And I count on him to do just that. The young drummer was understandably tense during the rehearsal. But he has good skills and he had studied our songs before we arrived and he knows the structures of the songs well. We did not have much of a groove during rehearsal, the music sounded stuffy and contrived, there was no life or spark to it. I knew immediately I was in trouble, the shows were going to be very difficult to pull off. Knowing the sort of venue we were to play and the standard of the other bands sharing the stage, I was quite worried; the last thing I wanted was to do a bad show in Japan. I asked Masato san to explain to Yuichi that he should relax and play, get into the music and play with heart and soul. That is the only way to give life to the music and make the music come out alive. The first show would be at the Chicken George on Thursday 10th July, which was the next day.

On the way Chicken George I was quite worried and could only come up with a wry smile when Alfred had me picture taken.

Alfred and Yu-chen

With Masato san

 

The Chicken George Thursday 3-7-2008

The Chicken George is in Kobe and is one of the most famous live houses in Japan. It has been around for a long time. The building which housed the old Chicken George was knocked down and a new building was built. This new building took over a year to build and during that time Chicken George simply closed down. Chicken George only opened its doors a few months ago. All major acts in Japan have at one time or another played the Chicken George. The place is that famous. The show on the night was part of the Black Music Train organized by Masato san which was to take place over the next few days in a variety of venues. We took a train from Osaka to Kobe and it took around 30 minutes. The Chicken George is very close to one of the train exits so it was not a problem getting there carrying our gear.

On the night, there were a total of 5 acts. The headliners of the night were The Pleasures and Kazushi 'Funky' Matsuda Special Band. I was the opening act on the night.

As we were the first band to play we were the last to have our sound check. Before us was the Matsuda Special Band. This band is essentially Soul, Funk and R & B. The band leader/singer Matsuda has a wide vocal range from bottom low to high pitch peak, he can sing in falsetto and switch back to normal singing in a split second. It really was something to behold. According to the rundown, we were to have our sound check between 4:30 p.m. and 5:10 p.m. The stage was made available to us shortly before 4:30 p.m. and we were able to sound check at exactly 4:30 p.m. This is Japan not Hong Kong where everything runs like clockwork and smooth as silk. Our sound check would be one last rehearsal before the real thing. And we needed it. Once we got our gear set up we went straight into our first number and it became apparent right from the first note that the music was working. Yuichi had discarded all the worries and burden and had gone to the heart of the music. Our music suddenly came alive. As soon as we started the first song I knew we were going to have a great show. We were already jamming during the sound check.

Once we started playing at the sound check, I knew we got it, I knew everything would fall into place.

After the sound check, we could not wait for stage proper to begin. I knew we sounded good and I knew we got it in us to do a good show. I was not disappointed, none of us were disappointed. We had a very good reception from the audience. I really enjoyed playing on stage at the Chicken George. We really sounded as one unit, we never missed a beat and we had a great jam on stage. All caution were thrown to the wind and we really jammed on stage. This is how music is meant to be played. From the rather disappointing rehearsal to our first show, I knew we had something special in this tour. At Chicken George, we really excelled ourselves. I could not have asked for a better start for the tour.

After our set, we hanged around to see the other acts. I would not miss them for the world. The Pleasures were a funk and soul band with a hard-hitting edge and they are a top class act.

The Pleasures

 

 

Kazushi 'Funky' Matsuda Special Band

Then came the headliner, the Kazushi 'Funky' Matsuda Special Band. They really are something special. Their music was very tight and very funky. Matsuda is charismatic and has a vocal range that is very hard to find on planet earth. The band was tight and groovy. The drummer is absolutely stunning. He is of those rare drummers who can make the drum kit sing. He provided the feel and foundation for the band to shine. This is a top class act.

Shinichi Kamiyoshi

All in all, it was an excellent evening and I could not have asked for a better start for the tour. Apart from bring my own drummer, Yuichi is the next best thing. He is only 22 years old. This was Alfred's first music trip in Japan, and he was high as a kite, enjoying the atmosphere, making new friends and enjoying the music. Our set turned out so much better than we expected I just could not wait for the next show. It was a dream start for our tour.

Food in Japan is simply irresistible. This time I tried a large ramin. It is something I have always wanted to try. It really is huge. And being the pig I now am, I finished it all and was asking for more. It is hard to believe I could finish the whole thing. It has been over a year and a half since I gave up smoking but I am still having problems controlling my appetite. I am still eating more than I need or is good for me. When I go back to Hong Kong it is time to go on diet again. In the meantime, the food is so good in Osaka I just did not know what to do but eat. It will all come back to haunt me and I know it. I got rid of nicotine, but the ghost is still here. I wished so much someone told me all those years ago about what nicotine would do to me. You just reap what you sow and get what you deserve. I smoked for over 20 years and I am paying the price. It is hell to go on diet again. Going on diet requires a lot of will power. At my age, summoning will power and to sustain it is not easy, it drains your physical strength and makes you tired. But the battle with nicotine goes on. I know I will come out on top. I will win. But what a price to pay. No more rice, no more noodles, just vegetables and a minimum amount of meat. It is almost more than flesh and blood could bear. Just in case you want to see how I gave up smoking, check it out here. If you are not a smoker, it would be really stupid for you to start.

Blues Party at Club Jungle Saturday 5-7-2008

Club Jungle is in the heart of Shinshabashi, about 10 minutes walk from our hotel. The show in Club Jungle on Saturday 5th July was one of the events of Black Music Train Volume 1. I had played Club Jungle two years ago. The headliner on the night was Nyudo, one of the best known Blues singer in Japan. The name Nyudo is synonymous with Blues in Japan. Besides Nyudo, there was the Gospel band Browned-eye Soul and the Out Loop-way Blues Band. The Out Loop-way Blues Band had played at 48th Street on 5th April, 2005 but I missed their show : I was engaged to do some shows in Sapporo that week. Finally I had the chance to see them play. I had a copy of their debut CD and fully know what to expect : trio power. On the same bill was Nacomi san, a female Blues singer and guitar player who will be appearing in the Taiwan Blues Festival this year. There is also Kimura, a singer and song writer and a powerful performer.

 

Brown-eyed Soul

Brown-eye Soul is a Gospel band consisting of three lovely girls, four guys, one saxophone player and a percussionist. Sound and vision. Phew!!

The Out Loop-Way Blues Band

The Out Loop-Way Blues band are from Kyoto. Band leader is singer guitarist Satoshi Sanda, on drums is Yuji Nagome and on bass Tokuji Kojima. This year, the Out Way-Loop Blues band are celebrating their 10th anniversary as a band. The band members have known each other for a long time since school days. The show at Club Jungle also coincides with the release of the third CD "One More Shot". I finally had the chance to see them play. They are firmly based in the Stevie Ray tradition but they have their own style and they are really an exciting band to watch. They combine entertainment with real artistry and they really rock. They will be playing in the annul Australia Blues Festival this year.

'One More Shot' is the third and latest release from Out Loop-Way Blues Band. Special guest include the Blues master and Blues harp wizard Mr. "Weeping Harp" Senoh. Check out their website here. Packed with power and punch, this Cd is not to missed.

With the members of Out Loop-Way Blues band and friend Kouichi

Show Time At Club Jungle

At Club Jungle, we played the best show of the entire tour. That was a night when everything fell into place, the feel, the touch, the groove, everything was right on. We had a riotous reception at the end of our set. All three of us were really happy, we thoroughly enjoyed the music and the occasion.

Nyudo Sings the Blues

Satoru Watanable (keyboards), Kouji Nankaku (bass), Shinichi Kamiyoshi (drums) and Tashiki Mori (guitar)

Nyudo san was the headliner of the night and they came on stage to a huge reception. The band was groovy and they did a load of Blues standards like "Going To Chicago", "I Can't Hold Out" and many others. The guitar player did a magnificient slide solo in one song reminiscent of the late Duane Allman. The drummer was again Shinichi Kamioshi.

Nyudo Blues

 

 

Nacomi sings the Blues

 

Japanese lady Blues singer Nacomi comes on stage and joined Nyudo's band for three songs. Nacome has recently released a new recording and will be taking part in the Taiwan Blues Festival this year. Her latest CD is "Grabbed My Heart". For Nacomi's website, click here.

The Final Jam

After Nyudo san finished his set, he invited many musicians to come on stage to do one final song and he was so kind to invite me on stage. I had such a great time on stage playing with such great players, it was just party time.

They were so kind to me and I could not thank them enough particularly Masato san and Nyudo san. I enjoyed so much on stage joining Nyudo san's band.

We had such a great time in Club Jungle that night. We met some old friends and made many new friends. Alfred was so happy and he did a non-stop drinking stunt. I never saw him without a drink the whole evening.
The day before the Club Jungle Show, I bought a digital recorder, the Roland EDIROL R-09HR and we recorded the entire show at Club Jungle.The EDROL R-09HR is the latest portable digital recorder by Roland. The machine weighs like a feather, it is just incredible. There is an individual control for the recording level of each of the two channels. The recording level can be managed manually or automatically by switching on the Limiter/ARC button on the back of the machine. There is even a remote control for operating the machine at a distance. The machine has two built-in microphones but there is a socket for external mic and line. The most attractive aspect of this machine over other similar machines is that it takes ordinary AA batteries. Some portable digital recorders, for example the one by Tescam, only take rechargeable batteries. That is a non-starter. What if the batter does not work? You can say goodbye to the machine. What if you forgot to charge the battery the night before? You can forget the show. The quality of the recording is good and this machine is well worth the price on its price tag. It is easy to use and works flawlessly. Recording your shows is definitely a good way to improve you playing and singing. For the best quality recording on WAVE at 24bit/96kHz, you can record 110 minutes on a 4GB memory card. That is good stuff.

The Roland EDIROL

 

The National Record & CD Festival 6-7-2008

In July, the Record and CD Festival will take place in a host of locations all over Japan. The purpose of the festival is to promote Lps and CDs. On Sunday 6th July, the location of the festival is Osaka and the building in which the festival was to take place was only 5 minutes walk from our hotel. The main sponsors of the event were BSMF Records (the distributor of my Cds in Japan) and Sam's Records. Sam's Records is the famous music vendor for Blues and R & B in Japan with branches all over Japan. The headquarters of Sam's Records is in Saki in Osaka. Anyone in Japan with just a passing interest in Blues and R & B would have heard of Sam's Records. At Sam's Records, I used to spend huge amounts of money to buy hard to find Blues Cds. The owner of Sam's Records is Sato san. In October 2003 I played a show at Sam's Record's live house "Red House". It was so good to meet him again this time after so many years.

The Red House

At the Record & CD Festival, there were thousands and thousands of Lps for sale. It is utterly unbelievable; it was like a trip down memory lane. I saw so many Lps which I treasured when I was young, I held in my hands Lps the existence of which I had long forgotten. I have never seen anything like it. The is a big Lp selection for Rock, Blues, R&B , Soul, Funk and Pop music. I was like a child in a candy store, I did not even know where to begin looking. There were even 45's!!! Some of you will be too young to know what that is. Ask your father.

With Sato san, the owner of Sam's Records

I really did not know where to start looking. The entire basement floor was devoted to Lps and Cds. And there were so many people still interested in Lps in Japan. I still have around two to three thousand Lps in storage at home. One day I will give them a good dusting and start playing some of them.

DJ playing Lps on turntables

Masato san had kindly arranged for me to play a short set at the Festival to promote my Cds. Instead of a full drum kit, we only had percussion. But it was good fun, a completely different kind of feel. One of the songs I did was "Walking By Myself", a song which I love but had not played for rather a long time. After our set, we packed out gear and headed for our final show of the tour : Mojo West

Mojo West Sunday 6-7-2008

The Mojo West is in Kyoto and is a famous live venue in the Kansai. The show at Mojo West on 6th July was a veritable Blues Summit, the show brings together two of the best Blues artists in Japan : Nyudo san on vocal and blues harp and Shinji Shiotsugu san on guitar. Shinji Shiotsugu san is widely regarded as one the best Blues guitarists in Japan. And rightly so. In fact many people regard him as the best Blues guitarist in Japan. I certainly will not argue against that. I have seen him play before. This was Alfred's first time to see Shinji san play and he was absoultely stunned. Shinji was one of the members of the legendary West Road Blues Band, one of the seminal Blues band in Japan. So we have two real masters of the Blues here. During their sound check we thoroughly impressed with the chemistry between the two masters. We were privileged to be their opening act. The show started at 8:30 sharp and we played for 40 minutes.

We arrived at the Mojo West at around 5:00 p.m. While I was settling down near a table, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned round and it was Shinji san. He said "Tommy, do you remember me?". Of course I do, the Blues guitar master. I told Alfred to come right over and had our picture taken and I did not have time to expalin to Alfred who Shinji san was. But he found out later when Shinji san did his sound check. Alfred told me he had never heard anything sounding so good execpt on a CD and the guy was right in front of him!!

 

'Can't Stop Playing The Blues'

 

Shinji Shiotsugu is one of the very best from Japan. He combines Jazz with his Blues. But he does so in such a way that his playing does not lose the grit, the punch and kick which is a hallmark of Blues music. I have seen many guitar players trying to combine Jazz and Blues and ended up sounding sterile, limp and uninteresting. Shinji san is a true master of the Blues guitar. Take it from me, I wouldn't say something like this if I did not mean it. His latest release is 'Can't Stop Playing The Blues'. This is Shinji san's website, make sure you have a look at hit here. Shinji san was so kind he gave me a copy of his latest Cd.

The show at Mojo West was not bad but not as good as the one at Club Jungle. As we are not a copy cat band, so it is inherent in the very nature of our music that performances differ from night to night. We enjoyed the occasion very much and were very happy to be the opening act for the two masters of the Blues.

 

Nyudo and Shinji Shiotsugu

Here you have one of the best Blues singer teaming up with one of the best Blues guitar player. This is the veritable Dream Team.

Nyudo

Shinji Shiotsugu

Masato san had told me that they wanted to invite me on stage to join them on stage after they have finished their regular set. But we had to catch a train back to Osaka and we had to leave the venue by 10:30 p.m. the latest or we would miss the train back to Osaka. I wish so much to join them on stage but Nyudo san and Shinji san's set started at 9:00 p.m and was scheduled to finish at 10:30 p.m. There simply was not enough time for me to join them on stage and then catch the last train. But Nyudo san timed their set to perfection : the finished at 10:20 p.m. and invited me on stage for the encore. It was truly great to be on stage with such great musicians. We did "Got My Mojo Working", one of my favourite tracks of all time. It was another party time and another party piece.

Mojo Working with the Blues master

We finished at exactly 10:30 p.m. I quickly packed up my gear, went to the dressing room to shake hands and say good by to everyone before rushing off to the train station. Good job that the station is not too far from Mojo West.

We made the last train from Kyoto to Osaka to connect with the underground train to Shinshabashi. It was a pretty close cut thing but we did it.

It is really tiring on tour. You carry with you a substantial amount of gear, get on and off trains, walk substantial distances to the venue, sound check, eat something then do the show. After the show, after all the adrenaline is spent, you pack up again and make the long journey home back to the hotel. You feel so tired by the time you get to your hotel.

Alfred is really the happiest man on this planet. Besides playing music, eating good food, making new friends, he also bought a secondhand bass guitar. It is a top-of-the line Spector bass guitar. I first spotted it in Miki Garki and told him to have a look at it. The next day the bought it and was using the new bass in all the shows from then on. This was the first time Alfred played music in Japan and he come off with flying colours, really great performances.

I spotted a new brand of Japanese made guitar called "Sugi", absolutely beautiful and just by looking at it I knew they sound and play great, which is why I did not even touch any of them, I knew better. We are talking about HK$30,000 plus for one of these guitars. Check out Sugi guitars here.

After the last show, we had one more day before coming home. I spent the day walking around Osaka with Alfred who was buying all these expensive T-shirts all over the place. One look at the price tag and I nearly fainted. I thought T-shirts were meant to be cheap and affordable clothing. I couldn't be more wrong. All T-shirts are equal but some are more equal than others.

Barbecue Dinner our last dinner in Osaka

The next day we were to catch the plane and come back to Hong Kong. But there was a twist in the tail.

The Wrong One

All our luggage stowed in the train carriage. We thought we had it made. But this was our last laugh before we realized what happened.

The skies opened up on the day we left Osaka for Hong Kong. We had to get to the underground station by 2:30 p.m. the latest. That morning, rain started pouring down. At one time the rain came in torrents, then it rained more or less incessantly. We had no way but to brave the rain to get to the underground station. As usual there were so much gear and luggage to carry and this time there was rain. We all got wet. After a great deal of ado, we finally managed to get on the underground train and arrive at the train station to take the train to the airport. It was the Hankyu line we were to catch. We asked for directions at the train station and were directed to Platform 5. We finally got on the train and thought we made it and started congratulating ourselves. Final stop of the train was Kansai Airport and we could not go wrong. So we thought.

We were all very tired and were nodding on an off on the train. At some stage, some kindhearted Japanese passengers started gesturing to us. At first we did not understand what they were trying to tell us. But soon we realized that something was wrong and when we checked the station map in the train we found that we had gone pass the airport; the train we took would not take us to the airport, we had to get off and get on another train at the last station. We were tired and wet, that was the last thing we needed. Those kind passengers were so kind that they got off at the next station with us and showed us what train to take. But it meant shifting all our luggage and gear off the train, onto another train, off that train at the right station and on to another train to the airport. We were exhausted. You can't be too careful when you are travelling.

Epilogue

Life is full of ups and downs. No one is spared, no one can be exempt. When I feel down, I always put on my favourite music, close my eyes and go back to happier times. What I found was all the good times I had all had something to do with music. I feel so good playing music, it is a feeling I cannot find anywhere in life. I never felt so good winning a big court case, I never felt so good receiving a big cheque from my solicitors settling my fees. I recently told one of my students that when I was practicing law I felt much happier receiving a mail-ordered CD than receiving a big cheque from any of my court cases. My student shook his head in disbelief. I don't blame him, I suppose it is hard to understand and I cannot explain it. But to me, music is not a matter of life and death, it is more important than that. Music is the spice of life.

Playing music is Japan is always special. The standard is so high both in terms of the performers and audience. There is a camaraderie amongst musicians. If there are a few bands performing on the night, a band who had just finished performing would stay behind and give support to the other performers (this is something you will never see in Hong Kong). And if they appreciate what you do, they will ask you to join them on stage. There is no rivalry, only friendship and musicianship. You always make friends playing music in Japan. And because the standard is so high, the audience so demanding, you give your very best in every show and every show is special.

The problem with playing music is Japan is you always want to go back again and again. Stepping on a plane to Japan to begin your tour is the happiest thing ever. Packing your gear leaving Japan for Hong Kong is the saddest thing ever.

To me, Osaka is the most beautiful city in the world, not because it is spotless, not because its architecture is particularly winsome, not because it dffers from any other big city, but because of the friendship and hospitality I find in it, the camaraderie I find in it, the great music I find in it, and all the good memories that linger on long after the last note was played on stage.

Many thanks to Masato Nishmura san for organizing the shows for me and looking after us in Japan. Many thanks to Nyudo san and Shinji san and everyone we met in Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe. And thanks to Alfred Au for coming to Japan with me to play music. The only think that was on my mind when I was on the plane back to Hong Kong was to work out when my next trip to Osaka would be.

 

Back to index