A review of the Su Yang (苏阳) & Li Zhi (李志) show in Taidong on April 2, 2011 from a Qingdao based Austinite.
As an amateur parlor guitarist, I try to keep an open and respectful mind for all song forms and the oral tradition. I play a bit around Qingdao with the usual suspects and admit that I have more fun with free-form, blues-based jam sessions than I do with the occasional gig-cum-variety show where the band stands on a stage (usually at an automobile dealership) and cranks out Country Roads or Hotel California between juggling, dancing and magic acts, clowns, sand calligraphy artists, and svelte, 7-foot-tall, female fiddlers playing air violins to the strains of midi files churning out canned Russian folk songs or circus music.
Give me Chinese folk music any day.
On that note, my mate invited me to accompany him to a live concert at the SY Theatre in Taidong the other night, featuring popular Chinese folk performers, Su Yang and Li Zhi.
Su Yang kicked off the show with a rousing, quasi-militaristic, and deafening beating of a steel-string Hummingbird knock-off, that had the mostly college-age audience reeling and on their feet by the sheer power of his delivery. The music wasn’t melodious and it could have galvanized boot-camp grunts to march in unison, but the audience was definitely jazzed. Su played non-stop and full on for an hour or so, during which time I wish I had brought my Hearos Xtreme ear plugs. After the first two numbers, his music was more tedium than anything else, his singing reminding me of a whip-cracking cattle driver in a western film, running 10,000 longhorns south from Texas to Mexico.
I gained some valuable insight into the collective musical psyche of Chinese youth, their likes and their idols … I mean, who gives a shit about Hotel California, anyway?
During the concert, it dawned on me that Su Yang’s appeal lay not in his explosive “melodies”, but in his lyrics and his ability to deliver those lyrics with the force of a drill sergeant pumping up his men for a very long hike… to a battlefield. Of course, the lyrics were lost on me, but who cares whether or not I can relate to them?
(After writing the above, I came across an Internet reference to Su Yang as “a man who sees himself not as a musician but rather as a kind of messenger through whom music comes.” – China Radio International, 2007-10-14)
Su Yang exited the stage and Li Zhi, the headliner, slinked up, looking like a cross between a lanky, self-conscious Harry Potter and that geeky kid with glasses that everyone picked on in middle school. He didn’t greet the audience, being rather preoccupied with his boyish hair and scratching his scalp à la Stan Laurel. (Nervous tic? Primping?) He reached for a single-cutaway nylon-string which, in my mind, showed promise of a respite from the previous barker, and perhaps a little musical virtuosity (lacking in the opening act).
Taking a chair, Li Zhi checked the tuning of the guitar, wiped the fingerboard with a felt cloth, and opened with a ballad that took me completely off guard. There was melody and timbre, yet I wasn’t prepared to hear a voice somewhere between bass and baritone come out of the mouth of this skinny kid who didn’t look a day over 14. He may have looked a bit squeaky, but he sounded like Leonard Cohen or Serge Gainsbourg singing Je T’aime without the breathy Jane Birkin. Truly a paradoxical moment that confused my muddled brain for, somehow, the voice simply did not match the stage persona. I turned to my mate and remarked: “Boy, I sure hope his voice cracks someday!”
I plan to enhance my repertoire and add a few numbers I heard at SY Theatre that night: Su Yang’s “Xian Liang” and Li Zhi’s “Ta Men”.
Li Zhi’s guitar playing was more accomplished than Su Yang’s, although at one point he attempted to amuse by playing (badly) a few measures of the anonymous Romance, a classical Spanish guitar piece every trained guitarist learns at the age of 4. In all fairness, both lads did a superlative job in “connecting people”. The audience knew the lyrics of most of the songs rendered, sang along with abandon, took lots of mobile phone pics (both still and moving) and generally had a smashing time.
For this hackneyed critic, the show was an eye-opener. I gained some valuable insight into the collective musical psyche of Chinese youth, their likes and their idols … I mean, who gives a shit about Hotel California, anyway? The music that resonates in the minds and hearts of today’s youth in China and touches their most inner core is uniquely Chinese. This should come as no surprise and as a musician, I need this sort of reality check every now and then, just to keep my ear to the ground, come off my high musical horse, and maybe learn something new in the bargain.
And I will. I plan to enhance my repertoire and add a few numbers I heard at SY Theatre that night: Su Yang’s “Xian Liang” and Li Zhi’s “Ta Men”. Both songs are easy to play and get a huge response from an audience. The question begs to be asked, though: will they fly at my next gig at the Mercedes Benz dealership?