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March 22, 2012

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Writers really rock - sort of

CRITICIZING the performance of the Rock Bottom Remainders - the rock 'n' roll super group made up of all-stars from the recent Shanghai Literary Festival - is missing the point.

With the attention to detail that marks the best writers, the group forms an airtight seal against it. "Singing" (quotation marks necessary) in the Rock Bottom Remainders allows Matt Groening to avoid the castigation his creation The Simpsons inevitably gets as he unveils the next season; singer (quotation marks not necessary - barely) Amy Tan doesn't need to roll her eyes as her latest work gets compared to her iconic first novel, "The Joy Luck Club."

No, Groening and Tan along with writers Kathi Goldmark, Sam Barry and Nury Vittachi can create here, care free.

That carefree spirit is one reason why it's impossible to say anything negative about the Remainders. The group was formed by author Kathi Goldmark ("Shoes Keep Walking Back to You") in the early 1990s to raise money for charity. As she recounted from the stage last Friday at M on the Bund, her first recruit was Amy Tan, followed by many others, including Stephen King and Dave Barry.

The band has released an album and performs sporadically with a rotating membership. (See

So back in Shanghai, the band sauntered out, wearing colorful wigs and sunglasses and giddy smiles.

The crowd was shaped much more by the literary festival and high-end philanthropy set than rock 'n' rollers. It was a sedate evening for rock. We danced a bit, but the crowd mostly sat, smiled, sometimes clapped (off-beat).

The band's oeuvre is mostly early rock and R&B classics from the 1950s and early 1960s. Not exactly a nostalgia trip since many songs were hits before the performers were born. They're well known and simple to play.

Simple is key, because the band wasn't equipped to do much - mostly Barry on piano and harmonica, Goldmark on acoustic guitar and Vittachi on electric bass. All contributed vocals, accompanied by Tan and Groening.

Occasionally you could make out Tan's voice. She sang Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots are Made for Walkin'" with karaoke panache.

On a giant flip board, Groening doodled Simpsons characters while the band played. The drawings were auctioned off for charity after the show.

That's another reason the Remainders are impervious to criticism: donating a little time and talent goes a long way.

I will add this, though: how can no one on stage know the words to the Rolling Stones' classic "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction?" We all had fun - but come on, guys.


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