I’m pretty drunk right now in this Chiang Mai nightclub called Tarandang Mahabon and I have to tell you about the live music set-up here, it has freaked me out…
This place is big; Shepherds Bush Empire size, maybe bigger floorspace, with high-end PA and lighting gear to rival that venue. I reckon there are at least 1,200 people here sat around tables, drinking and eating. It’s Saturday night and almost the entire crowd is young urban Thai; apart from Rifa, me and our hosts Alex and Sarah, there are no more than a handful of westerners here.
Onstage there’s a large-scale, highly professional live band; at least nine musicians, sometimes a brass section, accompanying a succession of different lead singers. Each singer does one or two songs before swapping.
Band members range from early 20s guys who look well metal (very long straight black hair, tattoos, denim, bass guitar slung low) to much older men maybe in their 50s or 60s playing virtuoso blues on red stratocasters in old suits. What they perform is a blend of pop and rock ballads (mostly in Thai, occasional English versions), alternating with more traditional songs. Possibly folk songs, these are still sung in power ballad style, though with dancers in traditional costume, props and elaborate stage sets wheeled on either side like a big budget amateur dramatics night.
It’s that heady blend of atmospheric wooden flute and expertly shredded rock guitar solo. Though played for tidiness rather than energy. They kind of just stand here looking bemused while jamming. The singers sell it a bit more but it’s still very smooth.
Sometimes a big red curtain closes – like for a scene change – and a singer (or two if it’s a duet) stands in front of the curtain to perform – maybe ‘A Whole New World’ or a 60s classic – yet still, now unseen behind the curtain, it’s the live band accompanying them.
Here’s the thing that has truly done my head in: nobody here is giving this elaborate live show anything more than a cursory glance of attention. Really, nobody’s watching. Either side of the stage is an enormous video screen showing the Premier League. Spurs versus Sunderland. Sam Allardyce’s massive face looms enormous over the costumed singers and dancers. It’s not an audience, it’s most impossibly grand background gig I’ve ever seen.
The place is buzzing, noisy, Saturday night. Everyone’s dressed up sexy. But the singers get almost no applause, or any reaction at all. Occasionally a particularly familiar song will get a (very faint) scattering of response. But when my table cheers a Santana cover, we immediately catch bemused looks from everyone nearby.
It’s a minor social faux pas to acknowledge the music.
The only time the crowd reacts on mass to anything is when the football switches to Japan versus Thailand and the Thais are losing two nil. There’s a big groan across the room.
At one point the curtains close again for an intermission – but I’m pretty sure it’s still the live band (or at least the core guitar, bass, drums and keys) performing some quieter instrumental music ‘between shows’.
All the while our barman relentlessly refills my whisky and coke whenever it gets less than three-quarters full (from a tray of bottles left on our table) so I have no idea how much I’ve drunk.
Alex says musicians probably work here on a (low) monthly wage, doing five or six nights a week til 2am. The sort of income you can just about live on if you stay somewhere cheap, or combine with other work.
Another twist is: despite the opulence, the sweet shop in the loos, the smartly dressed kids, this is a workers’ club with a distinct left-wing bent, which you can see (vaguely) in the decor. Che, Mao, Gandhi portraits line the the walls, which are images I haven’t yet seen elsewhere in Thailand. Peace signs.
For all my waffle about the music business, I always felt optimistic underneath that deep down people out in the world want enriching live performance in their life. Right now it feels like final proof that they don’t.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m also loving it; getting huge kicks from a bonkers night out (drinking way too much in great company). Later our driver will prang a Tuk Tuk and we’ll leave swiftly, which is also hilarious. Probably I should be chuffed that they even bother hiring real musicians at all. Half the surprise is that it’s such investment live music and stage show, rather than backing tapes or a DJ… but part of me thinks the opposite. Is this good, honest paid work, or creativity in oblivion? More to the point, arguably the real world was always like this and my privileged western (indie rock!) bubble is just so opaque I never spotted it.