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September 6, 2011

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Belting out the blues on the Bund

AFTER listening to Tony Hall's Blues Mission, most people would be astonished to learn that the blues band was put together at the last minute. Alexander Gladstone tells the story of how they made it to Shanghai.

Tony Hall's Blues Mission is just what its name suggests, a mission to bring American-style blues music to China, and use it to groove people right down to their bones.

The band has been playing at the House of Blues and Jazz, on the Bund, for the past two months, and is becoming more and more smitten with their experience of jamming nightly for an energetic crowd of both expatriates and Chinese.

The band members first met each other in Boston, Massachusetts yet they all come from different musical backgrounds. Tony Hall, the drummer and band leader, is a composer and multi-instrumentalist, who has written songs including R&B, funk, jazz, blues, rock and roll, and everything in between.

Timo Arthur, the lead guitarist and singer, originally had a Calypso style background, owing to his years spent living in Barbados, though he has been a blues specialist ever since hearing a Stevie Ray Vaughn album that gave him a "bluepiphany."

Kevin McElroy, the bassist, was originally a funk artist who hated the blues, but now has a newfound appreciation for the genre.

And Earl "the Pearl" Phenix, the pianist, has focused on his blues technique for over 30 years, having begun playing when he was barely old enough to walk.

The group had an unlikely beginning. On May 28, Tony was given a contract to bring a band to the Shanghai House of Blues and Jazz. He was in Boston at the time, playing with a different lineup than the current one. However, his band members all flaked out on him at the last minute, afraid to make the risky move of coming to Shanghai.

All of sudden, Tony had less than 24 hours to pull a new band together, commit to doing the Shanghai gig, and sign the contract with the House of Blues and Jazz.

Under pressure, he rushed to Slade's, a local hangout for musicians. He saw Kevin at the bar, having a quiet drink. Tony had bumped into Kevin a few times before, but didn't know him that well. He just knew that Kevin had a reputation for dropping a funky bass line. So Tony approached him and said, "Hey I got a deal in Shanghai. You want to come along?"

Kevin was quiet for a moment, then said, "Why not?"

Soon, word reached Earl through the grapevine that Tony was looking for a pianist. Earl had played a gig with Tony a couple years ago, and contacted him directly, saying he wanted in. Tony said he would be at the Cantab, another Boston music hot spot, that night with Kevin, and told him to come along.

Tony still needed a guitarist, and was hoping that since it was jam night at the Cantab, he would find one. When he walked into the club, he heard a long, beautiful, sustained guitar note, that lasted all the way until he found Kevin and sat down with him at the table. The man on the guitar was Timo, and Tony knew from the moment he heard him that "the blues was in him."

At the set break, Tony introduced himself and said, "I'm putting a band together to go to Shanghai, China. You want to come?"

Timo was taken aback, particularly since he had never met Tony before. He turned to a friend of his who knew Tony and asked, "Is this cat for real?"

Then Earl arrived at the club, and Tony signed the four musicians up to play an impromptu set together.

Despite the fact that they had never played together before, they completely rocked the house. Kevin says, "I don't know what we played, but after the set was over, everyone was coming up to shake our hands."

Timo says, "I knew from that moment that I was going to Shanghai."

The contract with the House of Blues and Jazz signed, the band spent a hasty three weeks rehearsing in Boston before catching a flight to Shanghai. While at first there was a little personal tension, stemming from the fact that the band members were essentially strangers to each other, they soon smoothed things over, and began to enjoy a growing appreciation for their potent musical connection.

The band mostly plays Tony Hall's original music, though some songs are written by Timo, and of course, they are equipped with an arsenal of blues standards. Tony keeps the rhythm steady with his powerful percussive technique. Earl alternates between playing smooth, cool blues, and pounding the keys in a frenetic, joyous passion, sometimes letting out a growl into the microphone. Kevin's bass lines ripple through the room, making it impossible to keep one's foot from tapping. And Timo, with his deep baritone, carries the song, while red-hot blues licks pour out from his guitar like a cascade of pure emotion.

Tony feels honored to play with such talented musicians: "These guys are performing artists. Timo will play with his teeth, and put the guitar behind his head like Jimi Hendrix. Earl is a performer, he's a maniac on stage, he's a show-off. You're not just going to hear him, you're going to watch him, you're going to say, 'look at that cat.' Kevin is not going to just play the bass, he's going to show off, he's going to shine, he's going to show his flavor."

Sometimes, when the music revs up, members of the audience break into dance, the whole house shaking with the blues. The band claims that some of their biggest fans are Chinese.

Timo says, "I love the Chinese audience. They have a totally different view than people in the US. They have a unique, natural appreciation for the blues, which is much stronger than what you typically find in America."

Tony sums it up, "It's the passion and the heart with which we play. That's what touches people."

Alexander Gladsone is a Shanghai-based freelancer and can be reached at


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