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Landau and Burke’s Excellent China Adventure

The day after Thanksgiving 2013, I flew to Morgantown WV to meet Landau for a CD signing and a weekend of tour dates and appearances just prior to our week in Shanghai.  The trip was almost doomed from the get-go as United delayed the midday flight because of mechanical issues.  I had packed in a busy schedule, with Landau picking me up at the Morgantown airport just prior to the CD signing at the Adams Hallmark there.  We were then to leave in his SUV and drive straight to Pittsburgh for an evening TV appearance.  The CD signing began with me still on the ground at Dulles.  Finally, the airline switched planes and crew, and I arrived during the final 30 minutes of the CD signing, loaded everything into the SUV and took off for Pittsburgh.

The TV appearance on WPXI’s TV’s 24 hour newschannel was for a show called “Night Talk”, and it featured all the celebs who, like Landau, were to appear in the next day’s Macy’s Holiday Parade.   The green room and hallway outside it featured an odd assortment that you’d probably not find anywhere else…we chatted with an Olympic Gold Medal gymnast, two Harlem Globetrotters, a former child actress now pushing 50 from the 70s TV show “Land of the Lost” (who I found out later worked at a Subway in Vegas for her day job), the cast of a reality TV show and others.  Weird scene.

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At 630a the next morning, it was out to the bitter cold pre-dawn streets of downtown Pittsburgh for the Macy’s Holiday Parade.  During “soundcheck” (Landau actually lip synced his performance for TV like all participants) the wind whipped down between the buildings so hard that a production crew member was shielding Landau’s left ear which was facing the wind and starting to hurt.  We shared a warming bus with members of The Jaggerz, a group of really nice guys who had one big hit in the early 1970’s (remember “The Rapper”?) and were something of local Pittsburgh musical heroes.  I walked the parade beside Landau’s Mini-Cooper, and after his second and final parade performance, he walked beside me in front of his car just to keep warm.

That evening, we played at Schmitt’s Saloon and Davisson Brothers Music Hall.  Our friend Chris Davisson asked us to do the show there, their first ever non-country act, and the venue’s co-owner Todd King was understandably nervous about how it would go.  Ticket sales were slow, but the Saturday night of the show, it was a huge success, selling out and Landau and the band received a raucous, rowdy West Virginia welcome.

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The next night we performed at Jergels, a very nice supper club type venue in suburban Pittsburgh.  It was a Sunday night at the end of the long Thanksgiving weekend, so the show didn’t sell out.  It was however a respectable crowd, and nearly everyone there stopped by the merch table to say hello and praise Landau and the band for their set.

Monday morning, we headed to Pittsburgh International Airport (where I got pulled over by a very agitated Alleghany County Sherriff’s Deputy for speeding near the airport and not seeing him trying to pull me over for about a half mile; somehow, I got off with a warning) for the flight to NYC.  We arrived at 1120am for an 1155am flight, but somehow managed to make it.  As soon as we landed in New York, we headed to Sirius/XM where I’d lined up a Guest DJ stint for Landau on their “Holly” Christmas channel with the help of Rick Stone and his team.  While Landau recorded his drops, I visited with my old pal Kid Kelly…it was great to catch up with him.

That evening, Landau had a few phone interviews followed by a walk on appearance at the legendary “Birdland” during their “Cast Party” weekly event hosted by Jim Caruso, who we’d met earlier in the year at a performance in Las Vegas.  Tuesday morning, it was another interview and then a quick cab ride to Penn Station for the Acela to DC  where we grabbed our visas and passports from my assistant Jessica, both did our laundry, had dinner at my house and prepared for the next morning’s flight to Los Angeles and onto Shanghai.

The 5 hour 30 minute fly to LAX was uneventful, and I used the entire trip to get planning work done for the tour.  As soon as we landed though, we received an emergency call from Michael Enoch, the General Manager of Shanghai’s Mercedes Benz Arena (which was odd, as it was 330am there).  It seems that Michael Grimm’s (the season 5 AGT winner who was co-headlining the show with Landau in China) traveling companion was unable to get through security and could we help somehow, as Michael wouldn’t come without his buddy/road manager? Just as I was frantically trying to convince the gate agent to help, Landau spotted Michael and his pal walking towards the gate area with 20 minutes to spare before boarding for Shanghai.  Crisis averted!

The four of us boarded the 14 hour flight to Shanghai and got the good news/bad news; the good news was the flight wasn’t crowded, so we could spread out and relax.  The bad news?  No wifi service on board, so I wasn’t able to be my usual productive (or as my wife calls it “workaholic”) self.  Thankfully, she had purchased me the new John Grisham novel (I’m a big fan…have read everything he’s written) and between that, a few naps and a movie or two the 14 hours went by like…well…14 hours.

When we finally landed in Shanghai over 20 hours from beginning our journey, I grabbed my cellphone out of my briefcase and realized I’d accidently left it on, and had automatic texts from Verizon welcoming me to service in Alaska, Japan and China….as well as one telling me I’d racked up over $50 in roaming charges just by flying over those countries with the phone on.  I powered down the phone and mentally made a note to appeal the changes later.

Walking from the plane towards customs, Landau made a funny face, covered his mouth with his scarf, and said, “What’s that smell?”  I didn’t notice it, but would soon get a full whiff of Shanghai’s horrible air pollution problem.  The smog was so thick outside, it gave the appearance of a very heavy, hazy fog with  near zero visibility.  Many residents were wearing surgical masks in an attempt to lessen the impact, and many others weren’t venturing outside because of the acrid gray smoke.  We learned later that pollution is a frequent problem in China, but this was the worst in history.  Everyone we met there had a “pollution app” on their smart phone, tracking how many particles per million were in the air.  50 was acceptable, but it climbed to over 500 during our stay, literally keeping us from seeing much of Shanghai as it was hidden from our view.

After clearing customs (which to me is always a bit unsettling in a foreign country) we were met by our hosts from the Mercedes Benz Arena, and led to our (what else) black Mercedes Benz sedans for the 45 minute ride to the hotel.  Our driver for most of our stay was Joe, a young, very hip and stylish Chinese fella who spoke very little English, sat low and quiet in his seat with one hand draped casually over the steering wheel…and drove like a demon possessed maniac.  After Landau and I both instinctively ducked, swore and nearly dove into each other’s laps repeatedly (this guy made New York City cabbies look like they were Driving Miss Daisy), we learned that culturally in China, transportation is an “every man for himself” type of endeavor.  Lanes don’t really mean lanes, pedestrians definitely do NOT have the right of way, and many times, our driver Joe appeared to be playing a high speed game of “chicken” with opposing cars, scooters and bicycles.  The other guy always somehow swerved at the last minute to avoid a head on collision.  As our congenial host Michael Enoch put it, “China is a place with a million rules in place, and no one pays attention to any of them.”  Indeed.

Our hotel was Le Meridean Royale, a Starwood high end property and both our guest suites were incredible, with marble bathrooms, well appointed sitting areas, walk in closets and full size windows on both sides looking out over the city’s skyline (although with the smog, visibility was pretty abysmal).  The property was 66 stories high, with a lobby and check in on the 20th floor, a half dozen restaurants and two top floor lounges on the 65th and 66th floors.  Landau and I were both struck by how good the service was by the staff, despite the language barrier.  This was obviously a hotel that catered to international business travelers, and they really got it right.

Our hosts suggested we stay awake a few more hours if possible to combat the inevitable jet lag, so we tagged along with them to what would be our “home base hangout”, the “Cotton Club”, a funky live music venue frequented by expats and featuring a band made up of players who would be backing up Landau and Michael during their concert Saturday night.  It was a small, but lively watering hole and the band tore through several bluesy covers before inviting Landau to the stage for a rowdy, well received version of “Mustang Sally”.  The Chinese in the crowd seemed fascinated by the tall skinny black man in their midst…the only one either of us would see during our entire stay in China.   For our part, Landau and I found it interesting that the folks from Mercedes Benz Arena had placed posters for their concert all over the club; so, Landau’s image was floating around 6,500 miles from home.  Very cool.  We made one more quick stop at another live music venue “House Of Blues and Jazz” before venturing back to the hotel.  When I got back to my room, it was the middle of the day in the U.S., so I Skyped a call back home to check in and ordered a club sandwich from room service.  It was 188 Chinese dollars!  How about that exchange rate?  Within 3 minutes of hitting the bed, I was completely unconscious.  Other than light napping on the plane, I had been awake for 35 hours, 20 of it airborne.

My body clock being totally out of whack, awoke me 5 hours later at 630am Shanghai time.  I was wide-awake, but forced myself to sleep for a few more hours (Landau told me that he also woke up at 630am on his own, which may be a record for him, and went downstairs to breakfast).  When I ambled down to the breakfast buffet, I got a bit more of a taste of being in a faraway land.  Along with Western breakfast staples like an omlettte station and French toast, there was some sort of tofu-pork mixture in a wok (sorry, the chef didn’t speak English) and Meat Loaf that really wasn’t Meat Loaf..and why was it at breakfast anyway?  I didn’t care…I was excited to try new things and experience new culture.

We were picked up those black Mercedes Benz sedans again for an even more white knuckle drive through the city streets of Shanghai (look out for that old man on the bicycle!!!) to the Cotton Club, where we’d rehearse for the following days performance.  Dennis Argenzia, who was producing the concert and with whom I’d been corresponding with for several months, was there to whip the band into shape (not that they needed a lot of work…they were great players).  I had sent Dennis our charts plus both studio and live versions of the songs we’d be performing previously and they’d obviously rehearsed them and were ready for Landau.  Landau and I both gave them direction on how the songs should come to life (the Chinese drummer Yam got most of my critiques, as needed to swing harder and really drive the band) to make the arrangements sizzle.  We were also introduced to Daniella, an Argentinian vocalist who was a popular local television personality and “China’s Got Talent” contestant who would duet with Landau on “Baby It’s Cold Outside”.

After we finished rehearsing, Michael Grimm took the stage.  Michael is a wonderful soulful vocalist and guitarist and Landau, me and the staff from the venue just watched with jaws open while he worked with the band and sang in that gravely Mississippi drawl he’s famous for.  Michael had a long career as a Musical Director in Las Vegas before winning AGT, so he really knew how to get the most out of his musicians.  I was able to give him a suggestion that he used in the concert (when he performed the Van Morrison classic “Tupelo Honey”, I implored him to pause after the lyric “You can take all the tea in China…” for the local crowd to react…he loved the idea, and it played well at the concert).

That evening, Landau and Michael performed a low key, short unplugged set on the 65th floor of Le Meridean in their upscale lounge as a promotional appearance for the concert the next evening.  My jet lag was really kicking in by this point and I needed to physically be standing up and moving around to keep from nodding out in the middle of a sentence.  We were introduced to Regina, the marketing director for Le Meridean and a show sponsor.  She was originally from Australia, and about to move for the first time to the U.S. to oversee marketing for the companies’ Sheraton property in New Orleans.  We promised to get in touch with her about booking dates for Landau in the Big Easy.

After the short appearance and photos/autographs there, it was off to The Cotton Club again for guest appearances by Landau, Michael and the two of them together with their new band.  The crowd, more heavily Chinese this time but still with a large number of ex-pats, really went nuts for the two performers and it was fun to see Dennis, our Musical Director, really tear loose on harmonica during their set.  I met Zach Mueller, a young sharp sales manager from the arena who grew up in Arlington VA and attended Sidwell Friends School (famous for having the Obama girls and Chelsea Clinton amongst others as students).  A very sharp young guy, he remembered listening to me on the radio at Z104 as a teenager, which was a neat connection to make so far away from home.

On Saturday, we began the day with TV interviews at the hotel for both Landau and Michael.  They were organized by Julia, one of the Mercedes Benz Arena’s staffers who was very detailed oriented, always smiling and knew exactly what she wanted and how she wanted it…excellent!  Then it was off the venue for the first time.  The Mercedes Benz is a huge complex with an 18,000 capacity main hall, a 1,000 seat theater called “The Mixing Room” where we played, shops, restaurants and more.  It’s designed to look very much like a HUGE flying saucer landing on earth, and it was quite a site to see, shrouded by the thick smog tentacles wrapping around it as we drove into a side tunnel towards the VIP backstage loading area.

As we entered the theater, the strains of Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” came from the stage, being performed by a large group of 10 or so high school students.  They were part of the “Heart To Heart” Battle of the Bands taking place that afternoon.  Landau, Michael and Ned Kelly a local music journalist, would be judging them AGT style, offering comments and critiques, with the winning band receiving the opportunity to open for our show.  There were 11 bands competing, with musicians from 10 to 17 making up the bands, and it was a real treat to hear them compete while raising donations for Heart to Heart, an organization that helps pay for heart surgery for Chinese children.

After the Battle of the Bands was completed, the arena’s General Manager Michael Enoch said to me “I’ve got a problem; all of these kids parents and the kids themselves have tickets to tonight’s show; we need to clear the venue for Landau and Michael’s sound check, and then get as many of these folks to come back in an hour to be in the audience for your concert.  Any ideas?”  I offered to make an off stage announcement on the house mic encouraging folks to come back in an hour.  It seems that most of the kids and their parents spoke English very well, and were from international schools in the area.  He said great, not realizing I’d done radio for years.  After the first announcement, he said “you’re hired.  You need to do the announcements and introductions the rest of the night.”  Happy to pitch in.

To make us feel at home, the arena staff had hired a local BBQ restaurant to cater backstage, so we had ribs, burgers, hot dogs and the like for our meal, and then prepared for the doors to re-open.  When we did, the show got underway with the teen winners of the Battle of the Bands, a hard rock outfit who did a fantastic cover of AC/DC’s “Whole Lotta Rosie”, a song recorded at least 30 years before they were born.

Then, it was time for Landau to hit the stage.  Although most in the audience weren’t familiar with him, after one song he had the audience in the palm of his hand.  They couldn’t quite figure out what to make of this very different looking man, singing very different music than they expected, but polite applause soon gave way to rowdy cheers of acceptance.

After Landau, a well received set by Michael Grimm was followed by a three song finale featuring both musicians on soul standards “Knock On Wood”, “Hold On I’m Coming” and “Mustang Sally”, which really brought the house down.  It was fun to see those two fantastic performers and singers trading verses and whipping the band and the audience into frenzy.

We brought a small amount of CD’s and T-shirts with us, on the advice that very few Chinese bought merch, so we didn’t know what to expect as Landau and I made our way up to the table to sign autographs and pose for pictures.  What we got was a mob scene, with people literally throwing money at us and grabbing CD’s and shirts as fast as they could get ‘em.  The whole thing was over in 15 minutes (instead of the two hours it usually takes) and most everything was cleaned out.  It was a madhouse.  Another cultural lesson was learned here about how Chinese people are accustomed to pushing and jostling their way through a city of 300 million in order to get things done.  We would see it played out again and again during our time there.

After the concert and backstage VIP meet and greet, it was off for a triumphant final Cotton Club appearance, where Landau and Michael wowed the capacity audience until the wee hours.  Around midnight, an older black man in a sharp blue suit and hat walked in looking very much like James Brown.  Turns out Willie was a James Brown impersonator from Las Vegas, who had moved to Shanghai just days before to try his fortunes there.  Michael Grimm reintroduced himself to Willie, who he’d met at the Sand Dollar in Las Vegas.  Soul Brother #1 was making the rounds deep in the heart of China!  By 1am, Landau and I were ready to head home happy but exhausted with our James Bond stunt driver Joe.  Michael Grimm and his pal/road manager Mike McColley staying out with band and others, playing music and generally carousing through the city, making it back to the hotel way after daybreak.

Sunday was our day off to see the city; I got up early and wandered away from the hotel on foot alone for the first time.  Just two blocks from us, I suddenly felt immersed in the China you imagine from television and the movies; narrow alleyways filled with pushcarts, bicycles and hundreds of people buying goods and services from open air markets.  Lots of surgical masks again because of the smog, and lots great smells of foods, spices and teas floated all around, making me hungry.  But here, with no translator, I found it impossible to figure out how to order food.  Defeated, I spotted a McDonald’s upstairs in the “Shanghai Food Mart”, which was like a 6 story department store of nothing but eating establishments.  Even there, the menu board was in Mandarin, but there were a few pictures and a Chinese high school kid at the register who spoke enough English to help me score a Spicy McChicken sandwich and small fries.  The small Coca Cola came with no ice, which is customary in China; Chinese people drink most all beverages except hot tea at room temperature.  If you want something cold, you have to ask for it that way.

Our host Michael Enoch, the General Manager from last night, picked up Landau and I for an afternoon of sightseeing and fun (Michael Grimm and Mike McColley had a bit too much fun the previous evening and had only been asleep for a few hours when we left, so they missed this excursion).  Michael and Joe our stunt driver zipped through the Shanghai smog, barely missing a women on a bicycle by inches and going head on with another car at 60 miles per hour before the other driver swerved out of the way at the last minute.  We somehow arrived at “The Bund”, a riverwalk district with British colonial buildings, shops, statues of Mao and others looking across the river at much of Shanghai’s skyline.  The skyline is very impressive; it’s a very vertical city, with thousands of structures 50 stores and higher, and the world’s second tallest building under construction.  Many other passerby seemed to recognize Landau all afternoon and asked him for a photo; Landau happily obliged.  He wasn’t sure whether they knew it was him, or they thought he was a famous American basketball player, but it didn’t matter.  He met every smile and handshake enthusiastically.

After a lunch at Bubba’s BBQ with Dan, a friendly old ex-Marine expat who had settled in Shanghai two decades ago and now owned and operated the Texas BBQ joints in the city, we made our way to OPG tower, a massive structure co-owned by Mercedes Benz Arena, with a glass enclosed round observation deck overlooking the city.  We actually got up above some, but not all, of the smog, and got a 360 degree view of this city, teeming with people and buildings are far as the eye (and smog) would see.  We had fun there at the indoor roller coaster and walking through a large museum detailing Shanghai’s history.  Then it was off for a riverboat tour of the city, circling through Shanghai amidst massive barges, tugboats and other river traffic ferrying goods out to sea.

That evening, we rendezvoused with Michael and Mike, Dennis and his wife Grace and Michael Enoch for dinner at The Mint, and very upscale Asian restaurant where we were served family style and enjoyed Chinese delicacies including lobster, ginger chicken, steaks (well done for Landau of course), jasmine rice and much more, before wrapping up the evening with a champagne toast to a wonderful, successful trip.  Sunday night, my last one in Shanghai, my body finally adjusted and I got 8 hours sleep for the first night since arriving there.

On Monday, feeling refreshed and ready to roll, I had a great breakfast downstairs and made out again on my own through the back alleys of Shanghai looking for gifts for my family.  I found a tiny, family owned tea shop were I purchased a tea set for Cristi (and was invited to sit at the tiny table with the family to share a cup of hot black tea, which I did), and then a massive 7 story children’s store where I purchased an authentic Chinese Transformer for Burke and a geisha girl doll for Cristin (I know, she’s a bit old for dolls, but I couldn’t help it).

After somehow managing to pack everything for the return trip and visiting for an hour with Michael Grimm in his suite, Landau and I headed to the Mercedes Benz Arena, where Landau posed for photos and signed autographs for the staff there, and we had lunch with Michael Enoch our host.  We also exchanged gifts with them, before leaving, with Michael presenting Landau and I with hand drawn parchments of the arena among other things, and Landau signing CD’s and his book for Michael and the staff and posters of the Saturday concert.

Then it was off through to the airport, where after multiple (at least 6) security checkpoints to board, I did a bit more duty free shopping and settled in for the long flight to Chicago (where I’m writing this now), and then onto Washington DC.  We left at 6pm Monday and will arrive in Chicago at…6pm Monday.  I’m preparing to once again have my sleep schedule all out of whack.

This was a trip I hope to never forget, and I’m very thankful and grateful for the opportunity to have made it and met so many new friends along the way.

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