Ah, the Music Man, live in concert. Once again, I have to begin with the most fundamental point: Leehom Wang is an impressive live performer. He enjoys what he does, and he’s very, very good at it. I don’t think we were more than ten minutes into the concert before I felt thoroughly silly for ever having even momentarily hesitated about going. This has to be added to my growing list of Mandopop rules: if Leehom is holding a concert at a time and place that makes attendance a possibility, go. Period. Which means I might very well have the privilege of catching this particular show again before the tour is over. (Certainly if he has a concert scheduled anywhere in Asia when my sister comes to visit, I imagine we’ll be flying to see it.)
The show itself is replete with theatrics, which are a mark of the modern music industry internationally. I have to say that rather predictably, I enjoyed the show in spite of the gimmicks, not because of them. I could have done with one fewer costume change and one more song, for example. But I think at this level the expectation is already set that you must not simply appreciate the music, but should gasp aloud in amazement at regular intervals. Maybe it has something to do with trying to justify the cost of the ticket; maybe there’s a bit of one-upmanship going on. Someday, though, I hope to go see a Leehom concert where he comes out in jeans and a t-shirt and just plays and sings: the type of show where you can close your eyes for a few minutes to really listen and not be worried about missing the spectacle.
First, a few thoughts about the opening. A-OK didn’t seem all that punk to me, but they were cute, energetic and solid for the two songs they sang. One of the songs was their new single, “Go, Go, Go,” which I thought was a definite foot-tapper. They were followed by someone whose name I didn’t catch at all, but when he strode out on stage initially I actually thought it was Leehom for a split second, and wondered what happened to the grand entrance. He could be a celebrity impersonator, actually, and he appeared to be mimicking everything about Leehom’s posture and movements from old concert DVDs. Of course, as soon as he opened his mouth, it was clearly, painfully evident that this was merely a shadow of the real thing, because he as muddled his way through his one song he was earsplittingly off-key.
I’m going to interrupt myself for a moment to say that if you’re going to attend this concert yourself, you might want to stop reading here, because I’m about to give away the game. In fact, I’ll save you from yourself if you are, say, in Singapore and heading to the show in two weeks and trying not to read anything about the concert but finding your eyes traveling downward anyway, by putting the rest of my thoughts on the concert below the jump.
With these preliminaries out of the way, we could begin the real show. The first appearance was made by Bahamut, who informed us that the performance would start shortly and admonished us not to record or videotape any portion of the show. I guess the warning needed to be made, so you might as well have the guitar make it, right? From there, though, it was not long before Leehom himself appeared, being lowered down from the heavens on a small platform, dressed in his Music Man gear.
And enter the dodgy costumes. Leehom, dearheart, really. Be a man and revolt against that horrible, inexplicable half-bra breast plate. Just pull it off and lose it somewhere it can never be found again. Ever, ever again. Whoever thought of that must have been high – and not in the Mandopop sense. As long as I’m talking clothing, though, and before we get to the music, I’ll note that another disappointment was that after all that press about Leehom’s well-defined six-pack, we didn’t even get to see it. The one “shirtless” costume change had the view obscured with both a sparkly vest and a wide guitar strap. On behalf of fangirls everywhere, can I just say, *sigh.* Other than that, all I have to say is that the man very clearly has the fanciest pants in Mandopop. Really. We should be calling him “King Fancy Pants,” not “Music Man.” (Well, I’m not sure the “Music Man” moniker has really caught on either.) Just as in the “Heroes of the Earth” concert, each costume change brought out pants even more resplendent than the pair that preceded them, finally ending at the encore with a pair of silver pants that looked to have been constructed solely of glitter and went nicely with his sparkle-enhanced version of the Stay-Real Music Man t-shirt.
Okay, back to the actual concert. Before the concert started while everyone was getting seated, they were playing the “What’s with Rock and Roll (搖滾怎麼了)” video over and over. And over and over. And then, Leehom opened the concert with it. Having now heard it roughly 50 million times in succession, I’m sorry to say I don’t like it any more than I did the first time. But now I am quite confident that I’ll be singing it for pretty much the rest of my life. From there, the concert quickly improved, though. I have to say, I loved the new “rock” arrangements of songs like “W-H-Y,” “Heirs of the Dragon (龍的傳人),” “Deep in the Bamboo Forest (竹林深處),” and “Girlfriend (女朋友).” Even where there had originally been straight rapping, he worked in a bit of melody and played up the guitar; he left the rap out of “Heirs” altogether. Moreover, I love, love, love the rocked out almost monster balladish version of “Flower Field Mistake (花田錯).” It is worth buying the concert CD for the new version of that song alone, as I will no doubt do so the minute it is made available. He did a completely new arrangement for “Sense of Security (安全感)” as well, which I enjoyed a lot in spite of the fact that I don’t like the original at all.
No Leehom concert could be called a success without a hearty helping of his classic ballads, the cheesier of which never feel as cheesy when he sings them live just because you can see him putting his heart into them. I loved that he sang “Loved Wrongly (愛錯),” at least partly because it is the sort of song a less capable artist might know better than to attempt live, but Leehom makes hitting all those high notes seem effortless. I also have completely fallen in love with the song quite apart from all the sweaty shirtless boxing in the music video; it’s my favorite song for the last half mile or so of my run, which in DC, at least, was always up a really endless hill. (Now that I run around the local university track the inspirational swelling of the music is less vital, but always appreciated.) He also brought out “Forever Love,” “First Morning (第一個清晨),” “A Simple Song (一首簡單的歌),” “Big City, Small Love (大城小愛),” “Can You Feel My World,” “One and Only (唯一),” “You’re Not Here (你不在),” and “If You Hear My Song (如果你聽見我的歌).” He also sang “Crying Palm (流淚手心)” and “Love Yourself Before You Love Someone Else (愛你就等於愛自己),” though I can’t quite remember now how either song fit in to the program.
(Are you impressed by my total recall of the songs he sang? Don’t be – they left a playlist on each seat with a list of possible songs, along with an assortment of brochures for Nikon Coolpix cameras all of which featured Leehom holding the cameras in various poses. I decided I felt justified in posting the one picture I took of the grand entrance, above, because I took said photo with my Nikon Coolpix S200 camera – no, I didn’t know Leehom was their spokesman when I bought it in the U.S. last year.)
Given the fact that there was no tour after Change Me (改變自己) came out, it was unsurprising that he played several songs from that album, including the title track. Here’s an example of where the theatrics overwhelmed the music, though. It began with an extended little monologue by a girl pretending to be a Taipei reporter excited for a rare performance by the Change Me band. If you paid much attention to the video and press surrounding that song’s debut (I really didn’t say much about it, I notice now), the video featured Leehom in all four roles of the band – the group was made up of “Little Wang,” “Little Lee” and “Little Hom” on drums, bass, and guitar, and featured Wang Leehom as lead singer. So how do they do this live? Well, here’s my best guess: Leehom had on an all white suit, but when he first came out in a stocking cap and sunglasses and introduced himself as (I believe) “Little Wang,” the drummer, they were shinning blue lights on him that made it look like he was dressed all in blue. He played a little drum solo, and then they dimmed the lights and switched him out with someone dressed the same but in a suit that was actually blue, who kept playing. So then Leehom appeared under red lights and was the bass player, and then there was the switch out so he could be the yellow-clad guitar player. Finally he got free and appeared in the white suit. All the other “characters” had on hats of various styles and sunglasses, and all were of the same height and build as Leehom (I suppose they could have been different people all along, but I do think at least the first one was really him, and that this was how they worked in a Leehom drum solo). As they played the song, then, they used pre-recorded footage of Leehom in the right colors and on the various instruments on the big screen, and made it look like it was showing the live shot. It was very clever… almost too clever. The set up and choreography and the fact that it was preceded and followed by a costume change made it feel waaaaay too elaborate for a single song. Sometimes Leehom gives into the temptation to be overly cute in the execution, and I think this really was one of those times.
I had to laugh, though, because he used the intro to that song to ask the crowd if they’ve been doing their best to protect the environment. He asked this, of course, while looking out at a sea of at least 40,000 totally non-recyclable single use glow sticks in a variety of colors. Some are made from plastic, some are plastic wrapped in styrofoam, and all are filled with hazardous chemicals and heading for a landfill. Note to Leehom and/or Leehom fan clubs: start a cell phone movement. Cell phone faces light up in the dark, and with tens of thousands of people you’d have enough lit at any given moment to get the effect without all the waste.
More agreeably, he used two other songs from the album to showcase his skills on the violin and the piano. When he brought out the violin, he played “When You Wish Upon a Star.” He explained afterward that he had interviewed Steven Spielberg last year, and was surprised to learn it was his favorite song. He then said something about hopes, dreams, etc. My initial thought was that this song is just too evocative of all things Disney to feel all that fresh, but maybe it plays better in Asia. (But just in case Leehom decides to change it: that’s the spot for the Meredith Willson song.) I still can’t help but admire the pause for a violin solo concept, though, which is part of what makes Leehom, well, Leehom. From there he went straight into “Falling Leaves Return to their Roots (落葉歸根),” which was pretty amazing live. He played against a backdrop of changing scenes from Lust, Caution, so he continued to work the Kuang Yumin theme (on a side note, I was happy to see that Tang Wei is emerging from her blacklisted status in China – that has already gone on for far too long). The third song he played from the Change Me album was “Love’s Encouragement (愛的鼓勵),” which still sounds like a Christian praise song but live in concert featured killer piano solos. Seriously, if that song could have gone on for ten minutes longer, I would’ve been a happy camper. I’d go for a night of all Leehom piano, actually, and I’d bet I’m not the only one.
In total, he sang three songs off the mysterious new album that is apparently coming out at some unknown point in the future. I’m not sure if what he sang were the official lyrics or creative concert lyrics, though I’m hoping for the latter (especially because at one point he sang about having his new guitar and being live in concert – in general, I still say he spends far too much time singing about the fact that he is singing. He needs a lyricist to partner with; nothing could be plainer). The new “Dirty (愛的得體)” had the random “I’m not gay” statement (which coming after “W-H-Y” makes you feel like he might be stressing this a little too much) and didn’t really impress me all that much. The other new song – “I have absolutely no reason to pay any attention to you (我完全沒有任何理由理你)” I actually rather liked the sound of, though again the lyrics seemed pretty atrocious (and at one point oddly misogynistic, though I’m sorta hoping I heard that part wrong so I’m not going to say much more about it until the lyrics come out officially). These songs also featured his random American dancers (who apparently may or may not have worked with someone famous in the US at some point in the past), and gave that part of the concert the feel of being an adolescent male fantasy writ large: he’s a superhero and a rock star, and he’s surrounded by dancing women dressed in what could pass for lingerie and stockings. Riiight. He made a statement about how his music won’t always be so childish or innocent, that everything changes and he’s been trying a lot of new things. Personally, I don’t mind at all if his songs invoke more adult topics or language (he’s not 22 anymore), but the execution matters. It’ll be interesting to see how it all looks on the new album.
Another bit of theatrics came in with the song “Beside the Plum Tree (在梅邊),” which I almost thought he’d declare too steeped in hip hop to sing at his “rock” concert. But he half-sang, half-rapped through a guitar-heavy version, then pulled off this odd kilt-like thing that had appeared on this section of the concert’s fancy pants, put on dark glasses and prepared for the infamous rap that closes the song. This time, he did it methodically, rhythmically, in time with the back-up singers, while climbing into a box that appeared on stage. At the end of the song, he crouched down in the box and the dancers closed the lid; they reopened it a second later and he was gone. Magic! Then, seconds later there he was – but at the top of the scaffolding on stage right, standing on a platform high above the stage and starting in on “Heroes of the Earth.” Ah, so that wasn’t him rapping. I’m not sure when they switched him for a body double, except that it had to be at the end of the song and before the rap started; though his voice was clear on the rap, he must have been doing it from back stage while getting into this lofty position, while the stand-in mouthed the words. From there, he stayed with the “chinked-out” theme long enough to sing “Moon and Sun in my Heart (心中的日月).”
That song closed the concert, though of course there were immediate calls for an encore which brought him back in his shiny pants. He did a piano version of “Open Up Your Heart (放開你的心)” that I really loved, sang “Kiss Goodbye,” and thanked all his sponsors and concert organizers. (Amusingly, A-OK also showed up on stage bearing flowers for him, which also seemed not-so-punk to me.) I can’t remember if there was another song in the encore, but it closed with a reprise of “What’s with Rock and Roll?” My heart sank a little, as all the good work the concert had done in getting that song out of my head was undone with the first chorus of “what’s wrong with me… wro-o-ong with mee….” (I know what’s wrong with me after that, but…) Oh well, there’s nothing much that can be done about it.
So, beyond all that – and we are quickly arriving at the “there’s nothing left to say” part (we’re also quickly arriving at my train station, at which point I have to stop writing about Leehom and go do a bunch of work to make up for taking the weekend off) – I would just like to say that I loved that the big screens put up subtitles of the song lyrics so that I could sing along even when I didn’t know all the words. It also made it easier to tell when Leehom flubbed a lyric – he didn’t make many mistakes – usually it was just subbing a different word with a similar meaning or transposing a phrase. He did get a bit far from the mike while singing “One and Only,” though, and missed a cue to come in trying to get back in time, grinning all the while. Hee, hee. He said at the end that he’d really relaxed into the concert and managed to shake off the “biggest concert of the tour” nerves, which was readily apparent to the observant attendee (he is also not nearly so relaxed and natural in addressing the crowd as Qingfeng – you get the sense that he’s much more comfortable with public singing than public speaking). But even when nervous, Leehom is a force to be reckoned with. He delivered big time on Saturday in Shanghai, and I’m already looking forward to my next chance to see him perform, as Music Man or anything else he chooses to be.