Underground 103

28-07-12

SHS_1315.JPGAMAZING to be back at Hard Rock Cafe, smack bang center of Lan Kwai Fong’s Universe! We invited four of Hong Kong’s most interesting acts to perform and I honestly feel, some ears were opened that night to the diversity, creativity and brilliance of Hong Kong musicians. Thank you Hard Rock for supporting our events, thank you Becks for keeping our musicians’ thirst under control, thank you to the bands for playing at 200%, super thank you to The Underground team for their hard work, and to our media partners and of course HKGFM.net. See you all next month at the Hard Rock!

Chris B x

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Clementine is my Sunshine

Clementine is my Sunshine is the stage name of a very talented solo performer. With just one acoustic guitar, a harmonica and a great singing voice, Clementine creates an impressive and full sound that calls to mind some of the best folk-pop singer-songwriters.

The guitar playing is strummed in a light folky style, often with a Country rhythm. Some songs make use of particularly smooth fingerpicking, which adds a layer of intricacy that contributes another layer of colour to the exquisite performance. The harmonica is light and adds texture, without dominating the sound. Think Neil Young’s Harvest era.

Clementine’s voice is a real stand-out feature. He has a gentle, smooth tone, that has just a hint of a rasp. Perhaps in 20 or 30 years he’ll develop a Tom Waits-esque rawness. I’d be interested to hear that if it does happen. But in the meantime, his voice and delivery are excellent; heartfelt, warm, rising in volume at moments of emotional climax, then falling to a softer aesthetic as the peak fades. His cover of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass was the perfect showcase for the strength of his singing voice.

He isn’t afraid to add in a discordant bridge or shift the feel or key of a song in its final sections.This experimentation works well, and shows a songwriter enjoying his craft. Lyrically there were some lovely turns of phrase, with “Tangled” a particular high point.

His stage presence during songs was excellent throughout the first five songs or so, and that’s despite the inherently difficult task of playing an acoustic set in a venue such as the Hard Rock where punters are prone to chatting as they eat meals rather than focusing on the music.

Where Clementine could perhaps help himself in this challenging environment is with his between song banter. He endears himself to his audience through a soft and gentle nature. That’s great for an intimate acoustic show. With a crowd that are chatting amongst themselves, some rock n’ roll swagger and some loud confident rhetoric (‘Are you guys having a good time?’ etc) can go a long way to shutting people up and focusing them on the music. And when the music’s this good, it’s worth getting people to listen!

The songwriting on display was of a good standard, with some genuinely touching choruses.

Had things ended after a few songs, I could have reported an excellent set from an exceptionally talented singer. There was however a false start to a song that was then aborted. This could have been covered by saying ‘I’m not feeling that one tonight so I’m going to skip it‘ but instead we were left with the impression that he was struggling to play the song. I guess that dealing better with these types of issues comes with more experience.

The final song utilised an electronic backing track. Perhaps with more rehearsal this could have worked, but his voice lacked confidence here. I admire that he dared to try something new, but the combination of this with the previous false start and the steadily increasing volume of crowd chatter, conspired to create a somewhat anti-climactic ending. Don’t let that put you off seeing this guy in the future though. The overall quality was excellent.

– Stuart Lennon

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Kestrels and Kites

Capturing and keeping the attention of the crowd isn’t an issue for this upbeat acoustic three-piece. Their infectious enthusiasm seemed to grip the whole room. Some issues with the sound engineering on the first couple of songs didn’t affect the overall set, and in fact, the excessively cheery attitude of percussionist Fred meant that the setbacks were turned into an opportunity for the band to connect with the crowd and bring them onside. Small tip to the guitarist though, if things aren’t going well, smile and act like they are…

Once the sound issues had been resolved, there was no stopping Kestrels and Kites. With incredibly catchy songs, a jubilant, joyful nature, vocal harmonies, singalongs, and a modern acoustic folk-rock sound, the audience reaction went from strength to strength.

At the heart of their sound is the sweet yet sassy voice of Tiffany Laue, bassist from Hungry Ghosts and previously Six Pack of Wolves. Her vocal style is reminiscent of Gwen Stefani, with a hint of “girl next door” into the mix. The singing can’t be faulted, with some heart-stirring moments where the voice soars such as in the song “Friday Feeling”, and some straight pop phrasing on the likes of “45″, simple and effective.

The songwriting is amongst the highest quality I’ve heard in Hong Kong. The lyrics tend to use simple phrases to portray complex emotions and situations. This approach is perhaps unintentional, as the songs don’t sound in any way contrived. It seems Tiffany has a natural flair for using lyrical primary colours to paint rich and meaningful images. The same can be said of the music, which for the most part utilises basic structures and chord patterns. No ten minute guitar solos here! And the result is songs and sounds that grab your attention, and make you listen closely, letting the hooks slide into your memory painlessly and seemingly indelibly, whilst your mood is turned to sunshine with each new passage.

One of the songs “Romance” saw the lead vocals and seemingly the songwriting duties handed to guitarist Luke Chow, who is also the singer of the band Hungry Ghosts. His voice is resonant and soulful, gliding into the ether with a great presence. The harmonies on the chorus were superb. Tiffany’s voice complementing Luke’s perfectly. I wouldn’t want to have seen any of Tiffany’s songs cut from the set, but I’d still like to have heard more from Luke.

Fred who also plays drums in Hong Kong pop-punk favourites Shotgun Politics, plays cajon in Kestrels – which is a snared box that the percussionist sits on and hits, strokes and taps with his hands. The playing was exemplary. Perfect hits and taps and an incredible amount of sheer energy and exhuberance, Fred is a force of nature.

So, do I have any criticisms? Not really. These guys were fantastic, as the huge crowd reaction testified on the night. But if I were to nitpick I’d say they don’t always come across as a tight and coherent unit, and more like a side project of musicians from other bands. And that’s a shame, because with songs and performances like these, Kestrels and Kites could very well be the best band in Hong Kong, and who knows, maybe beyond. Tiffany’s confidence in the spotlight in the role of frontwoman changed during the course of the show. By the middle of the set she visibly relaxed and started to look like a pro. If she can come out all guns blazing and her band can perhaps dedicate a little more time to getting tighter on these songs, Kestrels and Kites will be unstoppable.

– Stuart Lennon

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KA LIKHA

KA LIKHA look like a new age world music band, with face paint, dreadlocks, hippie clothing, and a range of ethnic instruments. If that sounds like a nightmare to you, I’d urge you to listen to how these guys sound rather than judge them on how they look. With the exception of their opening and closing songs, the world music label is not really a fair description of their overall sound.

In fact they are closer to The Eagles, and late seventies disco, with a bit of jazz and a bit of rock thrown in. For me, the standout performer was the guitarist who brought his distinctive musical personality to each of the songs. A technically proficient player, his skill lies in decorating the music with a rhythmic exploration of the melodic possibilities of each tune. A real asset to the band, his playing is reminiscent largely of The Shadows and also of the aforementioned Eagles. No bad thing in my book.

The singer is very talented also, and has good stage presence. The vocals were delivered perfectly across the whole set with a successful blend of smooth verses and soaring choruses. The one point that didn’t quite work for me personally was actually on the first track where the words “KA LIKHA” are bellowed out with such force that it creates an awkwardness for the listener. Softening this line would make it much easier for the audience to like the band, but if they do feel the need to perform it this way, I’d suggest moving it to later in the set. It might even make a great finale.

The bass player was an absolute rock. No showing off or self-indulgence, just solid, strong, note-perfect bass playing that underpinned the music. The drums too were steady, and consistent, doing what they needed to do, with an understated clarity.

KA LIKHAare confident and ballsy – they stand on stage with no self-doubt, and no ego. They simply play with skill, enthusiasm and joy. They are the sound of a diverse group of musicians blending styles and having great fun. Despite the range of influences that feed into their sound, they present a surprisingly coherent whole, that is delivered with precision and heart.
– Stuart Lennon

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Brothers of Roadkill

Imagine a lounge singer in the bar of a chain hotel perfoming piano versions of popular songs. As you sit sipping a glass of cheap wine, you find your feet tapping along with the music, despite your wiser judgement. There’s nothing wrong with the performance, but it’s not too inspired either; just a mediocre plodding piano with a safe, bland, soulless voice that extracts all feeling from the song that’s being performed.

But wait, suddenly a drummer has joined the piano player… and he’s INCREDIBLE. He seems to be a rock drummer, more used to blasting out loud hard rock beats along with guitar rather than piano-based music. He injects the music with energy and passion. A bass player joins them and throws out dexterous and inspired bass solos, that add colour and depth.

The hotel bar image dissipates around us, as we find ourselves transported to the Hard Rock Cafe, in LanKwai Fong watching Brothers of Roadkill. The singer/pianist is totally transformed. His gutsy voice jumps out of the mix, thrusting itself out and emoting powerfully. An Elton John-style piano-rock master pounding out the tunes and energetically giving his all.

So why did I invite you to imagine the lounge singer in the hotel bar? Because Brothers of Roadkill walk a fine line. For the most part, they provide high quality exciting piano-based rock that connects with the audience and gets people wanting to dance along. But one false move, and they’re back in the hotel bar playing dull lounge music. When they’re good, they’re absolutely excellent. But if the energy level slips, such as on a quieter song, they’re in danger of being bland.

But let’s not dwell on the negative; let’s celebrate the positive. And with the Brothers, there is much that is positive to celebrate. Passionate vocals with real edge and soul that cut through and ring out from a gutsy vocalist who recalls the sound of Glenn Hughes, or even Huey Lewis.

Some subtle but strong vocal harmonies from the bassist enhance the choruses and lift the songs. Similarly, the drums take this band to another level. One stand-out song saw the bassist playing full chords and imitating a guitar sound. The energy of this track points towards a potential new direction that I’d be intrigued to see explored further.

There’s a lot of fun to be had at a Brothers of Roadkill gig. If you like Elton John or Ben Folds Five, you’ll love them. They have the ability to knock your socks off, so check them out!
– Stuart Lennon

PHOTOS BY: Steve Schechter

POSTER BY: Jesseca Dollano

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