Monday, 3 July 2017

The Magical World of Papa-san & Friends, The Songs of Michael Head in Japan + Desolation Row Music Bar

Papa-san & Friends "The Kitchen Sessions CD"
Japan is the land of the "otaku", which some people might disparagingly translate as "anorak" or "nerd" but I like to think of it as a knowledgeable and slightly obsessive fan. So, whatever your "thing" is it's thanks to these otaku people that I’m pretty damn sure you’ll find a bar, restaurant, club or store and an enthusiastic owner celebrating it somewhere in Japan. For example, I’ve been to Gothic bars decorated with cobwebs, coffins and plastic bats and a Punk bar covered in vintage posters and memorabilia. We discovered a Mod & Skinhead store with West Ham scarves hanging from the ceiling and I've seen bands play in a Garage Rock venue that was the dead-ringer for London’s Weirdsville. We've stumbled across a tiny Yakitori bar called Ramone and on entrance were confronted by a small counter and walls covered in posters of Ramones, The Who and the Sex Pistols and yes we've even found a bar in a quiet residential suburb of Tokyo dedicated to that very English genius songwriter Michael Head, yes he of Shack, The Pale Fountains and The Strands.

Papa-san & Friends
The bar is intriguingly named "Sheep's Horns and Dragon's Whiskers" (Hitsuji no Tsuno to Ryū No Hige) and it's located in a unassuming back-street not far from Nishi-Magome station in Tokyo. From this bar operates a collective of musicians known as Papa-san & Friends formed initially by DJ and musician Hiro Monstera. Hiro surely must be Mick Head's biggest fan, he first saw The Pale Fountains on their Japanese tour back in the mid-80's and a few years ago enlisted the bar's owner Papa-san and a collection of regulars and friends to start a band with the intention of playing cover versions of songs from throughout Mick's career. However, they are certainly not your average tribute band as the songs are performed on acoustic guitars, ukulele, cajón and concertina. I'd been in touch with Hiro after he saw some of my recent features on Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band gigs and as we were in Tokyo he invited us along to see the band play. On arrival we are greeted by professional looking personalised gig posters that proclaim "Welcome!" The bar’s owner Papa-san is cool in his shades puffing away on a cigarette and later on as he gets surrounded by the girls for a photo opportunity he suddenly reminds me of Tokyo's answer to Serge Gainsbourg.

Papa-san ©Retro Man Blog
Papa-san & Friends ©Retro Man Blog
Inside the small unassuming bar is a large communal table and counter and around the walls are hung an impressive collection of Michael Head posters and memorabilia, some of which are rare and many designed by Pascal Blua, who’s excellent work you can see on Michael Head and The Red Elastic Band’s recent releases and posters. I notice that lots of the items have been personally signed by Mick Head too and Hiro is rightly proud as he shows us his collection. On one side of the bar, there's a record and CD player, a rack of CD's and vinyl and there's a very cool Violette Records bag and once we’ve checked all the memorabilia we are invited to sit at the large communal table. We enjoy a great meal cooked by Papa-san and loads of delicious ice cold Japanese beers, followed by sparkling wine which is in turn followed by some fine sake.

Papa-san & Friends Yoshito, Rie & Hiro - Photo ©Retro Man Blog
Personalised Gig Poster outside the Bar
We chat and make friends with some other locals before the music starts. Hiro sings lead vocals on most of the songs and has a very cool looking ukulele. Rie expertly coaxes melodies from her concertina and adds some beautiful harmonies and backing vocals and Yoshito sits on a box like cajón, a Peruvian percussion instrument which he plays wonderfully. We each have a go on the cajón and it’s certainly a lot more difficult to master than it first looks. They proceed to lead us through a superb set of Mick Head songs including The Pale Fountain's "Thank You" and "Jean's Not Happening" with the occasional track by U2, The Smiths and Fairground Attraction thrown in along the way. Papa-san joins in on acoustic guitar for his favourite track Shack’s “Comedy” and then sings two excellent Japanese Blues songs, one of which he is hoping to release as a single.

Some music to go with your beer..?
Hiro & Rie of Papa-san & Friends - Photo ©Retro Man Blog
My friend Kurt, Tokyo resident, musician and Tokyo BGM Blog editor gets persuaded to serenade us with some songs including The Cure’s “In Between Days” and The Replacements "If Only You Were Lonely", everyone joins in and sings along. Kurt and I muddle our way through R.E.M.'s "Driver 8" as best we can but quickly hand back to the experts and enjoy a final singalong before we reluctantly have to leave to catch the last train. We had a thoroughly magical evening with Hiro, Papa-san & Friends, something we will never forget and if you are ever in Tokyo and fancy a great night of music, chat, food and beers then please head along to "The Sheep's Horns & The Dragon's Whiskers". You don't even have to be a Mick Head fan...but it will sure help!

Some of Hiro's Michael Head Memorabilia
"...from Across the Kitchen Table to Desolation Row..."

Desolation Row Bar in Hida-Takayama
In the beautiful historic town of Hida Takayama nestling in the valleys of the Japanese Alps we also discovered “Desolation Row”. You would never know it was there – a tiny sign that's barely visible hangs over a door and that's about it. The name seems somewhat incongruous in such a charming picture perfect location, there’s certainly not much desolation on view in Hida Takayama that’s for sure! Ken, the bar’s genial and very cool owner is a huge Bob Dylan fan, hence taking the title of the “Highway 61 Revisited” album track as the name of his establishment. Inside there’s a counter and a few seats – there’s hardly any room to move and that’s probably because the first thing you notice is that most of the space is taken up by racks of vinyl albums. Ken welcomes you in and invites you to sit at the counter and chat to other visitors.

Desolation Row Bar in Hida-Takayama
Desolation Row Bar in Hida-Takayama
The talk quickly turns to music and Ken has an album on hand to soundtrack any conversation - for talk about the Rolling Stones we get “Exile on Main Street” and for the Sex Pistols we get somewhat surprisingly "Sid Sings". Of course there is Bob Dylan - lots and lots of Bob Dylan - including rare live recordings and bootlegs alongside the more familiar classics. Ken digs out a scrapbook to show us an article with a Japanese newspaper who contacted him to give some expert analysis in the build up to Dylan’s last Japanese tour. We enjoy ourselves so much that we go back again the next night and proceed to get very, very drunk. Desolation Row, 30 Asahimachi, Hida Takayama, Gifu, Japan.

Ken at Desolation Row, Hida Takayama
Papa-san at Sheep's Horn & Dragon's Whiskers, Nishi-Magome, Tokyo
It’s great to see guys like Ken and Papa-san content and doing something they're passionate about after long and stressful careers as Japanese “salarymen”. Long may they welcome people, encourage friendship, play their music and of course, open another bottle of beer! With sincere thanks to Hiro, Rie, Yoshito, Tacchan the Chameleon King, Chika, Mr & Mrs Matsunaga, the regulars at "Sheep's Horn and Dragon's Whiskers" and of course the one and only Papa-san! You can see lots of videos of their kitchen session gigs at Hiro's YouTube channel here.

Some of Hiro's Michael Head Memorabilia
Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band currently have a new digital jingle “Josephine” out now as a taster for their forthcoming album “Adios Senor Pussycat” which will be released in September on Violette Records. For more information on how to obtain these please check the excellent Violette Records web-site. For up-to-date news and information on upcoming Red Elastic Band live shows please check the Michael Head official site. There's also the superb Shacknet for a wealth of Mick Head related archive material going back to The Pale Fountains.

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