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March 2019. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that Paul Draper was coming to China! I mean, really? It wasn’t a difficult decision to grab a ticket, after all they were highly affordable and Shanghai was just a four-hour train ride from little old Ruian. Finally then I’d found the excuse I needed to revisit the city I hadn’t been back to in almost ten years. Rattling through the Chinese countryside that sunny March morning and I found myself thinking back to the time my sister and I first heard Attack of the Grey Lantern. How we’d been absolutely blown away at a time when we were already obsessed with the likes of Oasis, Blur, Radiohead and Super Furry Animals. But as much as I loved those bands, for me nobody came close to Draper’s electric vocals on a fascinating record that veered wildly between sneering vehemence and mournful beauty. But that was twenty-two years ago. How would I feel now listening to those songs live? And could Paul get anywhere near reproducing that old magic?
March 2019. These questions were still running through my mind as I made my way through the entrance doors of Shanghai’s Yuyintang Park, an almost ridiculously-hard-to-find concert venue hidden away in the basement of a retail complex on Yuyuan Lu.
This was compounded by the fact that I nearly ended up at completely the wrong venue altogether! You see Shanghai has another live music venue called Yuyintang, so if you ever find yourself heading here for a concert, make sure you’ve definitely got the right one!
March 2019. The place was packed that evening, a line of expectant Chinese girls hugging the front of the stage clutching Grey Lantern flowers. I got chatting to one of them, an excitable student called Lin who told me she’d discovered Mansun on YouTube and never thought she’d see the day when Paul Draper came to her homeland.
Scanning the audience, I could count no more than half a dozen westerners and my mind was blown all over again by the realization that Mansun’s legacy (no pun intended) was such that sixteen years after the band’s breakup there was a whole new generation of dedicated fans over the other side of the world that hadn’t even been old enough to appreciate those songs the first time around. Nobody cares when you’re gone? Au contraire…
March 2019. It was just before showtime when a Yuyintang rep came to inform the audience that Paul “isn’t feeling well” and therefore wouldn’t be meeting anyone or signing records after the gig. This news was followed by a sweeping wave of audible disappointment as many had brought their CDs, vinyl, t-shirts and even black markers for their arms. As I stood there processing everything a part of me wondered if I was unlucky enough to have stumbled upon one of Paul’s bad nights. Was it a simple case of the flu as had been suggested? Or were we possibly in for a repeat performance of the heartbreaking scenes witnessed at Nottingham back in March 2018?
March 2019. Happily any concerns I’d had quickly melted away as Draper swept confidently onto the stage followed by his modest, almost painfully shy accomplice Ben Sink. After the briefest of brief hellos (“Ni hao Shanghai!”) he launched straight into a rousing performance of Friends Make The Worst Enemies from his solo record Spooky Action. This is probably the time to divulge a little secret. Shh, don’t tell anyone but I didn’t really fall for Paul’s solo album. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some decent stuff on there but nothing anywhere near the likes of Take It Easy Chicken, Disgusting, Dark Mavis, Legacy, Butterfly, Comes As No Surprise. You know, the kind of music that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Having said that, I felt his new material fared much better that evening in a live setting, perhaps given more space to breathe and unfold organically. And it was clear from the outset that Draper’s voice had lost little of its wondrous quality. “Your friends will hurt you the most!” he howled on the closing line of that opening song and, looking straight at him and feeling the pain in his voice, I believed every word.
In the aftermath of those final reverberating chords, Paul was suddenly pointing directly at me and asking: “Where you from?” Somehow managing to keep my composure, I told him I was from Hammersmith and he rolled his eyes playfully before shrugging his shoulders at the audience: “First person I ask… London”. Seizing my chance for some banter with my idol, I explained how I’d only been fortunate enough to see Mansun once back in 2000 at Glasgow’s QMU: “You don’t look old enough” he quipped, which I took as a compliment, while when I assured him that yes I was indeed an old man, he replied: “Same here man, I was there as well”.
The gig was absolutely fantastic that night. There were barnstorming versions of Negative (“I look downwaaaaaaards”), Wide Open Space (You’ll never get to heaven with a smile on your face from meeeeeeee”) and an almost psychedelic reinterpretation of The Chad Who Loved Me (“You can’t denyyyyy that you’re shit just tastes as sweet as miiiiiine”). Elsewhere, a particularly sorrowful rendition of Disgusting nearly brought tears to my eyes, as is invariably the case, while Dark Mavis’ anthemic “Na-na-na-na-na-na-na”s had everyone waving their flowers, phones, lighters, whatever else they could get their hands on.
It was the perfect way to wrap up a wonderful evening where Draper had been joking and chatting with the audience throughout, enthusiastically encouraging his crowd to sing along as often as possible. For one Chinese girl in the front row it was almost too much and I spied her sobbing her eyes out during several songs.
With both Draper and Sink having thanked everyone and trotted offstage, an inquest soon began into whether Paul was really unable to sign some records. Eventually the rep reappeared to insist that Paul was “really sick” and wouldn’t be emerging. After much badgering a group of determined girls were allowed to go into the dressing room and came skipping out a short while later with wide eyes and beaming smiles. This, Mr. Yuyintang confirmed, marked the end of the night. But as he began ushering the rest of us away I managed to take him to one side and explain that a friend of mine had actually flown from Korea especially to see the show and that it would mean the world to her just to have a quick hello. With a weary sigh he disappeared again before returning to confirm that yes, we could go in.
From the moment we entered that room I sensed that something was off, that the Paul Draper I met backstage that night was not the Paul Draper I’d seen during the show. I wouldn’t like to use this article to speculate on the reasons for Paul’s mood that evening after the gig. Partly because it would be wrong for me to draw any firm conclusions without all the information, but also because I feel like he’s been criticized enough over the last year. All I can say is that although Paul was clearly not up for meeting us he still politely shook my hand and agreed to the photo that we asked for. Inwardly scolding myself for forcing a situation that was clearly unwanted, I thanked him, sheepishly grabbed my starstruck friend and whisked her away into the Shanghai night.
Post Publishing Note 13.05.19: Today Paul got in touch with me to explain that he had salmonella poisoning that day and was experiencing severe stomach cramps. I feel it’s only right to update this article accordingly.
My visit to Shanghai’s Yuyintang Park to see Paul Draper came on Thursday March the 14th 2019. For those curious about that gig, a very decent YouTube video of the show in its entirety can be seen below courtesy of Strawberry Alice:
Like this? Have a read through my album review of Mansun’s Attack of the Grey Lantern.
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