Let Us Rock: Thoughts on Jason Falkner and the Mao LH Show

There was much wonderment all across the blog-o-sphere about why Mao Livehouse was having a Grand Opening when they had already opened, more grandly than softly, two months earlier. We now have the answer: Crystal Butterfly wanted an excuse to get back together and, as my friend Ed said, “pretend they’re U2.” The other review of the show has the blogger’s friend saying exactly the same thing, so that’s conclusively solved. The stage show was indeed spectacular, with a video thingy behind them, floodlights, dry ice, and even a go-go dancer for one song. It did end up making them look a bit foolish as they were outdone in terms of crowd support (Crazy Mushroom) and music (Jason Falkner) by their “opening acts.” I missed Biz so I can’t comment on their effect. The aforementioned review by Jake Newby goes into some depth on Crazy Mushroom and Crystal Butterfly, and he’s got another one comparing that show and the 0093 CD release show this weekend. Luckily for me, it’s their policy over at kungfuology to only talk about Shanghai/China bands, so I’m not giving you leftovers in talking about Jason Falkner, who put on the best rock show I’ve been to in China.

jasonfalknerNow I seem to have been pretty much alone in the judgement they were the best band to play even at that show, to say nothing of others. Ed wasn’t too enamored of Mr. Falkner and co., referring to it as “dad-rock” and the crowd showed them less love than they showed to either the Mushrooms or Crystal Butterfly. I’m not sure if the rest of the crowd was turned off by the style or it was just a case of being a band that nobody has heard of. I had never heard his music until I checked out his Myspace the day before the show. I thought it sounded nice and rocky but I wasn’t blown away to anything like the extent that I was at the show. I don’t know, maybe it’s too retro for some people, but I had a great great time with a stupid grin or funky grimace–a sort of cousin of jazz face (GFW’d)– the whole time. I know music has many uses to many people and some people would rather hear a good idea poorly executed, or focus more on lyrics or stage presence or whatever, but I’d be interested to hear if other people agree that musically they totally blew away the Mushrooms and Crystal Butterfly. I felt especially bad for CB’s drummer who had to sit down on the drum set that Petur Smith had just metaphorically peed all over and set on fire.

As fun as the Mushrooms were the drummer drags a bit and their guitarist suffers from Chinese Pop Song Guitar Solo disease, where licks are trotted out without any connection between them. I’d take the Crystal Butterfly solo over that. It wasn’t too technical but it did at least fit with the song. And that’s what I’m talking about when I say that Jason Falkner’s band blew the other two bands away: it wasn’t a case of merely having more technique (though they seemed to have that too); they just executed musically on a much higher level. Being a bassist, I am unsurprisingly more focused on rhythmic feeling than most people. It even took me way too long to get into the Beatles because they sounded to rhythmically square for me. Petur Smith, though, was just so much better than the drummers in either of the other bands. He pushed the groove when it needed to be pushed, played the snare a little behind the beat when it needed to be pulled, and when he played fills they fit with the whole song rather than being a bit desultory. It’s not like groove is some esoteric thing, it’s something you can feel in your body, and the Jason Falkner set just felt so much better. Besides that, Mr. Falkner was always in tune and has a beautiful voice. The guitar solos all had a point that they were moving towards musically. The lyrics aren’t great (not that I noticed them at the time) and the style is a bit old-fashioned (even Crystal Butterfly had some sampled drums going on at time during their show) but there were nice little melodic surprises here and there. But the thing that got me excited was that everything was just so alive and directed, especially compared to the other bands I heard that night.

I certainly don’t want this to turn into a Shanghai/China bashing thing because there are bands here that I have greatly enjoyed (Hedgehog and AV Okubo being two) and I think it’s fine for any one band, or even a whole genre, to not really groove. For musicians like the Beatles and Bob Dylan, both of whom I used to dislike for not being musically expressive enough, being a bit limited as musical performers can highlight the strength of the writing. The thing is just that I would love it if there were more bands here that could express their ideas more clearly and with more life, and especially that had more of groove. Rock is a genre that really should groove. They even have a word for grooving as it pertains to rock music: to rock. I think as we move into this expo year we should all really focus on rocking as hard as we can, so the world can see that China’s peaceful rise is also a rockin’ rise, and rejoice with us.

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  1. Andy Best

    “I know music has many uses to many people and some people would rather hear a good idea poorly executed, or focus more on lyrics or stage presence or whatever, but I’d be interested to hear if other people agree that musically they totally blew away the Mushrooms and Crystal Butterfly.”

    This is a really excellent point and one that I have done a lot of thinking about.

    Growing up I was exclusively into metal and then 3rd gen Punk (starting with Op Ivy)because of the cultural aspect. In both cases, first with rock clubs, denim and hair and friends, then later with skateboarding, the music drove the lifestyle and the lyrics and lifestyle drove my love of the music.

    Despite being a guitarist myself, I have never found composition and technical ability to attract me as an abstract. It has to have a context and a style. For example, in Punk, a sketchily dispatched strong idea is correct in some cases while a well structured melody that builds fails.

    What grips us is a lyric that resonates in your own life, especially something you feel is repressed and needs to be said out. Also, the lifestyle and beliefs of the band feed the appeal and style of the music too. It can’t be separated.

    That why Kenny G sucks so bad.

    And why pop thrives in a world filled with a bland middle class whose lives are governed by consumerist values.

    What are you clinging to in Thriller? Your shared fear of zombies and love of cheesey dance moves?

    This is why the Mushrooms are great, because rocking out to their live show is an experience that is part of a community. The fans are in constant touch with the band via the Douban pages and they all feel they share culture and lives. The meaning of the band and their merit is derived from something other than how their music compares to other genre pieces in history.

    But for me, of course, I try to keep myself out of it. My fav band of all time are Propagandhi. Period.

  2. Mike

    Thanks Andy. I remember how knocked out I was when I first read the idea of morals and aesthetics being connected. I had picked up that the community element in the Shanghai rock scene is big for you, Jake, a few others I know, and clearly for many people I don’t know. What I was talking about was technical and compositional ability to some extent, but also the thing that is called “musicality” where I come from. The best way to describe it is if you took ten people and had them play the same notes, but one person really made them come alive and be music rather than just notes. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is but I don’t think it’s abstract at all.
    I would say that an absence of musicality is one of the things that make Kenny G and bad pop bad. I believe also, though there’s no way to prove it, that Kenny G and bad pop music are actually cynical and dishonest.
    With Thriller you raise a difficult question for me because I do like it despite finding its hollowness a little disturbing, especially in light of how MJ turned out. I can’t even listen to Jackson 5 because I can almost hear his young psyche getting twisted.

  3. Andy Best

    I agree with that especially in that the young MJ, when he is singing “I want you back”, has it … whatever ‘it’ is … and then later, for me, it’s just creative marketing of a product.


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