No Lumps of Coal at YuYinTang on Christmas

There is no Santa Claus and this just might be a good thing. Instead of being tucked in our beds this past December’s Friday 25th waiting for the fat man in the red suit, some of us were out on the town, taking in the sights and sounds of Shanghai. For me, I found myself over at YuYinTang among a crowd of a hundred or so Chinese, and a few dastardly wai guo ren, for a band that rolled in from Nan Chang City in Jiangxi going by the name of Cigarette Butts (烟头). What did this indie band bring to the stage? Actually, they brought a strange thing for the venue: emotion.

When Cigarette Butts takes the stage, the presence of the lead singer and guitarist A Bu (阿布) is all consuming. He’s quite tall, ruggedly handsome and sings his wrought-iron lyrics with a gaze and a tenor that is serious and poignantly soulful with husky undertones that make up for his somewhat limited range. When he met my eye from behind his microphone, his guitar slung across his shoulder like a toy, I had to look away, then peek back in hopes he had picked some one else to fix his dark pupils on.

Backing up Bu is the adorable keyboardist and vocalist Wang Ranran (王冉冉), who worked as a strange contrast to the expressionless Bu, due to  her gleeful expressions that popped up during the songs as if she was surprised that they sounded so good. Ranran’s bubbly demeanor certainly seemed mismatched with the somber and haunting lyrics of Bu, which leave no room for such smiles. These songs are about break ups and leave takings, the emptiness of the existential foundation that sits at the base of all human relationships, those with others and those with ourselves. Not exactly anything to grin about.

Cigarette Butts has been playing together since 2002 and are currently on tour for the release of their first EP. They are essentially a duo and were backed up at this show by the players from Yu Guo (羽果), another band from Nan Chang, who opened the show. Playing with Cigarette Butts, drummer Xie Jun (谢俊) maintained steady rhythms that kick started the songs and drove them solidly to their finish while bassist Lu WenJian (吕文坚) thumbed along with such timing that I thought the two might be brothers. The star of the show, for me, was the lead guitarist Wan Mai (万劢), whose nuanced finger work and grimacing concentration formed the back bone of every song. At one point, his solo brought the crowd to hoops and hollers and even I whistled. Such cries from an audience might not be unexpected at a show at YuYinTang, however, this band’s sound is the type that you listen to while you contemplate whether it hurts to jump from the balcony on the 34th floor of your apartment building or after your lover leaves you and your measuring out sleeping pills. I don’t mean to harp on suicide but only to give the weight to Cigarette Butt’s music that it deservers. It’s contemplative, pensive and dangerously sincere.

You can listen to some songs from Cigarette Butt’s EP on their Douban page here  and check out Yu Guo’s entire live album also on Douban.

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