First of all, lets not kid ourselves, Jeff Lang can f*ing play.
So now that that’s established, I’m supposed to convey the feeling of what it was like to be at this epic, mind-expanding show. Before the show, I planned to write a review / reaction, but the review part is almost impossible now. This was, by a pretty big margin, the best gig I’ve ever seen at the venerable YYT, and I’ve seen a lot of my favs there (Hedgehog, Carsick, The Gar, etc.) But Jeff blew them away.
The entire concert was outstanding, but I remember the moment I went from the mental state of: “This is a friggin’ awesome gig,” to, “Holy crap, I am witnessing something rare and epic.” That moment came about 50 minutes in, When he started the song, “12,000 miles.” And this is where my first comment truly comes into play. Wielding a rare, custom-made pseudo-lap-steel guitar (more on that later), Lang absolutely blew me away. Everything good and bad that had been on my mind all day, all week: job stress, girl trouble, whether or not I was satisfied by this season’s LOST finale, all of it was gone. I was simply in awe of how great this music was. For those who weren’t there, “12,000 miles” is one long, long, country/blues riff played expertly well and incredibly fast, and while I couldn’t make out the lyrics, the tone of his voice was excellent as well. What shocked me most though, was that, as aforementioned, he busted this song out at around the 50 minute mark, and, as it was so rousing, I was forced to assume that his show was beginning its dÈnouement. Not so. Jeff kept playing….and playing and playing. I think the whole thing clocked in at about 2 hours 15 minutes, but I’m not really sure, because the recording computer (which I was sitting behind for most of the gig) tapped out at 1 hour 54 minutes, claiming to be out of memory. I can only assume that meant that even the computer couldn’t process the awesomeness happening before it. Either that, or the computer lacked the processing power to grasp music being played this fast on an acoustic guitar.
OK, I’ll stop gushing for a little bit and try to draw a picture of the gig itself. First of all, I have never seen so many bald heads at YYT. And while that is meant to be slightly humourous, it’s certainly not meant to be an insult. The crowd was decidedly older than what you normally see at the venue, and decidedly more mixed. Certainly, there were several “scene kids,” local and laowai alike, but there were also a lot of people that normally would not go to such a venue. I assume these people were intrigued by what they kept hearing about Jeff Lang (thanks to an excellent marketing plan from Split Works) or were already fans themselves. The latter I find harder to believe, as most people I spoke to were there because they heard there would be some real blues/country music being played live in this town, which is, at best, a rare thing. Another thing that struck me about the scene was how attentive the crowd was. Now, I don’t mean that there was a mosh pit or anything (in fact, this may have been the first concert I’ve ever seen after 10PM in China without one.) What I mean is that people stood, and watched, and stared, and didn’t move. There was a palpable reverence in the crowd, and it was well earned.
Lang played a decent chunk of his own repertoire, as well as a few covers of Aussie, US and British folk standards –his rendition of “Penny” was particularly good and moving.
I had a chance to speak with the man backstage after the show, albeit really informally. After we’d briefly discussed the differences and merits of Uncle Tupelo spinoffs Sun Volt (Jay Farrar) and Wilco (Jeff Tweedy) Lang recounted some of his gig stories. My favorite was, while discussing Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Jeff mentioned that he had been hanging out with Randolph after a set at the Fuji Festival (and, I assume, being attended by hot, Dionysian nymphs), that Randolph confessed he would not be able to play Lang’s guitar. OK, that may not make sense (for any number of reasons) but let me explain. Randolph is just about the best table-slide guitar player I have ever heard, and Lang, as aforementioned, has a really cool and weird guitar. Basically this guitar has a body that goes up the entire neck, producing low-end resonance while allowing him to “play the neck” with the guitar sitting on his lap, in a similar (but different) fashion to the way table-slides are played. It’s similar to a lap-steel guitar, but it’s not quite the same, and the effect that it produces is both unique and familiar. Instantly memorable. He had the six-string commissioned specially, and very few have been made since. It is a unique piece, but Lang’s ensemble gets better.
At this point Jeff, Archie, Nathaniel, Clare and I were interrupted by a lot of fans, and the conversation went something like this:
Fan: “Holy crap you’re awesome!!”
Fan: “How did you get so awesome?”
JL: “By practicing and being awesome.”
Fan: “Wow! That’s amazing!”
OK so that was a bit simplistic, but still. After that the group of us remained in awe of his guitar descriptions. Basically, all of his guitars are custom-made, and he places receivers, noisemakers, and a bunch of other cool stuff inside his guitars to create reverb, echo, and other cool sounds that give the effect of listening to a full band, even though it’s just one dude (full info on his set-ups at www.jefflang.com.au). So basically his guitars are like John Cage’s “prepared pianos” except that the goal is an extension of the guitar’s musical abilities (as opposed to the organized chaos of Cage). This blew most of us away, and he slipped away shortly thereafter. For you, dear reader, I tried to ask serious, hard-hitting questions about his influences and relationship to folk, country and blues. Particularly because his music seems very American, even though the man himself seems anything but. Alas, the man was exhausted and left, and while I didn’t get all the material I wanted, I can’t say I wasn’t satisfied by the experience. Before closing I should also mention that he was just about the friendliest dude I’ve met in Shanghai, and this was after a 2+ hour concert in a three piece wool suit! Pretty sure I would have killed any “music reporters” after that.
So, in brief, an amazing concert by the Aussie import, and a great experience for music in Shanghai. Last week I mentioned that his music was “genre-bending,” and I stand by that. But more important, was how much his show was generation-bending, and, of course, how f*ing good the whole thing was.
If you missed it, feel shame, but feel not worry, he’ll be back. He promised.
*Photos by Arnaud