While waiting for the Great Lake Swimmers, one of Canada’s numerous indie-folk jewels, to take the stage, I found myself discussing the peculiarities of bringing mainstream Western acts to mainland China. This narrow market is built around kids: those middle-class, nouveau-angsty teens who will pay good money to fill out a stadium for Linkin Park but would shrug their shoulders at the prospect of, say, the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan. At the smaller level, however, Split Works, a promotions company based in China, is doing just fine, as it continues to bring increasingly notable indie acts (mostly Canadian) over to tour the Middle Kingdom, culminating at the end of January with Andrew Bird.
“We’re the Grateful Dead Swimmers!” joked Tony Dekker, soon after the group took the stage. The unerringly polite singer-songwriter’s gentle, confessional songs, with their poetic couplets and naturalistic imagery, have been gradually winning over an increasingly large audience in the West.
“We’re so proud to be in China,” he would repeat several times, as the band glided through a two-hour set which wound along at the shuffling pace of their sparse folk tunes. He was accompanied by long-time musical partner Erik Arnesen on electric guitar and banjo, their signature minimalist sound rounded out with Bret Higgens on double bass and Greg Millson behind the drums. Dressed in plaid shirts and tidily groomed, the band looked as tasteful and saccharine as Travis, but for the occasional glimpse of several tattooed arms, a subtle hint at the punk rock past that Dekker has referred to in interviews.
Mid-way through the show, the other band members departed, leaving Dekker to play a few solo numbers.
“Can you play ‘Imaginary Bars’ please?” asked a female member of the audience.
“You’ve got it,” he responded, almost instantly. If only all musicians were so accommodating!
Then, as his reedy, emotive tenor delivered lines such as “When the sun fell down and fell asleep/drunk from drinking all the heat” one young Chinese listener remarked to his girlfriend: “His voice isn’t bad,” and “I can understand the lyrics.” I doubt that when Dekker began writing songs as a hobby—he still considers himself a writer before a songwriter—that he imagined himself winning over new listeners in Beijing.
The crowd remained thoughtfully attentive throughout, though it felt like, after a few of the band’s jangly, more up-tempo numbers, they wanted the Swimmers to switch completely over to rock mode, rather than slip back into more finger-picked melancholia. Still, they demanded two encores, and Dekker closed the night appropriately with “Concrete Heart.”
The song makes reference to Toronto’s CN tower, and its refrain goes: “This is the place where I felt/Like the world's tallest self-supporting tower/Or maybe number two.” Number one, as you might guess, is in China, and was completed last year in Guangzhou.
Great Lake Swimmers Myspace: www.myspace.com/greatlakeswimmers Split Works: www.spli-t.com/ Written for Beijing City Weekend, originally published January 11, 2010: http://www.cityweekend.com.cn/beijing/articles/blogs-beijing/the-beat/review-great-lake-swimmers-at-yugong-yishan/
20-something Australian-Chinese MBA student at Duke's Fuqua School of Business (Class of 2013). Previously worked in business education and international development. Interested in social progress, culture, travel, languages, joyful living.