The Boulevard Ear

Welcome back to the Boulevard Ear, a regular feature on The Bay Bridged, where our man about town examines a community’s live music offerings over the course of one evening. What is it like to be a show-goer whose experiences are dictated entirely by location? Follow Todd as he explores Bay Area music venues by neighborhood, finding a variety of independent music along the way.

We hope you have not been too lost in your wanderings without our usual companionship and sage advice. We have been on assignment in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan, home of cheap silk and mouth-numbing green peppercorns.

By day we labor at the pleasure of the government (you need only know that it involves reams of data, the future of society, and a selection of colleagues so renowned for their skill, intelligence, glamour, and beauty that we daren’t include their names or pictures). Nights are our own, which perforce sends us out in search of where music and revelry may be occurring.

Tonight, our handlers have steered us towards China Groove, a modern affair atop one of countless glass and steel high-rises. A well-heeled crowd of the city’s exploding consumer middle class are playing drinking games, with dice rattling in cups and kegs of Carlsberg perched upon their tiny tables.

A Brooklyn transplant of Malaysian descent named Jun is leading the house band through testosterone-inflected covers from the likes of Tom Petty and Bon Jovi as we arrive. He soon breaks and, apparently, finds in us kindred company. Jun is also working in town, moonlighting at the club out of boredom.

How does he assess the music scene? He throws up his hands. “This band fucking hates me. ‘Cause I hate them!” he offers. “They didn’t know anything! I had to show the drummer how to get in a groove!” By example, he gesticulates at a female singer who has launched into a pitch perfect reading of “This Christmas.”

“See!” Jun exclaims, cackling. “A fucking Christmas song!”

[nggallery id=be-east-portal-1]

As it transpires, China Groove seems to be a headquarters for professional singers to drop by and try out their material–Chinese pop, Michael Jackson–in a relaxed setting. Some manage to lure a few locals and expats onto the dance floor. One actually manages to keep them there.

Before he gets back up to sing “How You Remind Me” by Nickleback, Jun gives us his assessment of the famous local cuisine: “They put that fucking green pepper in everything – tastes like fucking burnt rubber!”

Our next sortie finds us wandering through the sauna-like heat (never malign the Bay’s foggy climes again, trust us) to locate Music House, another well-known boîte in a characteristic commercial arcade.

Of the many foreign cultural norms, none stands out so much as the freedom to smoke: in elevators, taxis, offices, and–of course–nightclubs. We are tempted to take up the noxious habit ourselves, as long as we are inhaling so much nicotine already.

It is strictly covers at Music House as well, but the vibe could not be more different. The house band cultivates a downright California feel, with their acoustic guitars, shorts, Vans, and skate T-shirts. The music, too, aims for a Jack Johnson-level mellow crunch. The group even acquits themselves respectably of a rendition of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”, although the drummer, inexplicably confined to a plastic box, needs a few count-offs to catch up with the one-drop beat.

[nggallery id=be-east-portal-2]

The crowd here is also dressed down. Men and women hang out together in casual groups. The thick charge of mating rituals is absent. This relaxed camaraderie conjures plaintive images of fog-bound hills and the promise of return. Any chance this Music House band knows “Homeward Bound”?