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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Blues band does its bit for Internet freedom

It's early for Mac (Makoto) "The Knife" Okuyama and Mark "The Spark" Schwarz to be up and about, especially since both have the day off from filling their rice bowls.

Blues band does its bit for Internet freedom
Blues-lovin' (from left to right) Mark "The Spark" Schwarz, Mac (Makoto) "The Knife" Okuyama, and Bill "The Sunshine Man" Concello gell over refreshments.

Living in Kichijoji, western Tokyo, Schwarz was not home after a jam session before 2 a.m. Okuyama missed his own train to Mejiro completely.

"I blame Bill," he says (Bill "The Sunshine Man" Concello being the third member of Okuyama's band/group/trio, Max Blues). "It's always, 'Go on, have another one (drink)!' "

"Bill," needless to say, is still abed, somewhere. We miss him, we agree, toasting his absence with coffee.

The trio may have been together for only a few months, but they have gelled in such a way and created such a following that tomorrow night they'll be playing a benefit for Amnesty International at What The Dickens, the pub in Ebisu.

"We were proud to be invited," says Okuyama, who founded Max Blues -- a musical concept in a state of constant reinvention -- in 1999. "We support the 1,000 yen cover charge of Amnesty's charity event being used to protect human rights on the Internet. It's something we all feel strongly about."

At the Internet Government Forum in Athens in October last year, Amnesty International presented a petition for Internet freedom. One of the most powerful inventions in history, with unlimited powers for good, there are increasing pressures to curtail the freedom of information that it offers.

As a result, the IT industry is going soft: Google launching a censored version of its search engine to meet governmental demands; Yahoo collaborating with China's Alibaba in such a way that information is being used against journalists; Microsoft shutting down the blog of a Chinese researcher based in New York.

"Many of us have blogs. Amnesty has issued a 'Call to Bloggers' to stand up for freedom of expression on the Internet. Well, here we are standing up, making our voices heard," says Okuyama, who is the vocalist as well as guitarist of Max Blues.

Actually, with Schwarz playing bass, and Concello on drums, they all sing. Three-part harmonies, with Concello throwing in off-the-cuff comments as they work their way through Blues, T-Rex and Golden Greats of the '60s.

"We play what we like," explains Okuyama. "We're just having fun. If it's not fun, why do it?

Although he'd always owned a guitar, he didn't start playing seriously until leaving Japan after university. "I was supposed to be studying English Lit but rarely went to class. Then I went traveling."

Heading for Canada with a working holiday visa, he landed up on the West Coast, where he found lots of good Blues' musicians and bands. He began playing and song writing, and in finding like-minded musicians with whom to play on his return to Japan eight years ago, Max Blues was born.

In Tokyo, where he was born, the band's musical home has been The Fiddler in Takadanobaba, where they played twice a week. The venue is currently closed for a change of management. But it'll be open again very soon, he reassures.

In the meantime, Max Blues hosts jam at The CoZmo's cafe in Shibuya every third Saturday from 8 p.m. And will be hosting jam sessions at The Black Sheep in Ikebukuro from April (every second and third Sunday from 7 p.m.).

Schwarz, who is from Kent in the U.K., turned up at The Fiddler last June. He'd been in and around the music scene in Tokyo for years, and at one point played with a Beatles cover band.

Concello, who is American, joined just four months ago.

As Okuyama explains: "The timing was great. When I met Mark, my bass player had just flipped."

Schwarz nods. "When Mac asked if I'd join Max Blues, I thought OK. Cool."

"Then in January, our drummer died of cancer at age 41," Okuyama continues. "I met Phil through another band. Like Mark and me, he's willing to try anything -- covers (of songs), originals. We do a lot more than just blues."

Schwarz, who has been in Japan 20 years, teaches by day in a cram school. He'd like to play full-time, he says, "but I have a wife!"

Okuyama, who works as a cook, has a different kind of wife. He met the American comedienne Spring Day (her real name) at The Fiddler and they married in 2005 at a church nearby followed by a big party at the club.

Neither he nor Schwarz -- nor Concello for that matter -- are ambitious in terms of making careers in music. They feel that musicians often come across as people ready to step on others who get in the way. All they want to do, they agree, is get up, play and sing, have a good time and at the same time, give everyone else a good time.

Schwartz admits that in a perfect world, "I'd prefer to be doing less teaching and more music. But the important thing is to find a balance that keeps everyone happy."

Okuyama agrees: "Of course, we could spend our time looking for more fans, more exposure, more money. For example, right now I'd like to lay down another CD. But with this trio we have something very special. We're changing as we go, developing a really interesting improvisational freestyle. We never play a piece the same way twice."

The most important thing, he says, is that he feels really comfortable with his fellow musicians. It's all about chemistry, and having the freedom to express themselves as individuals and a group.

Spring Day will MC the benefit Sunday, with singer Tara Solheim and guitarist J.J. Vicars also on the bill. But other guest musicians are likely to turn up to jam with the lineup and that will be just fine.

Imagine not having that freedom, says Okuyama. "Amnesty is the most important organizations in the world to take care of human rights. We owe them."

Amnesty International Charity Event, March 18, What The Dickens! Open 5 p.m., music from 7:30-10:30 p.m.
WTD Web site (with map): www.whatthedickens.jp; AI: www.aig78.org; Max Blues Music Media: www.myspace.com/maxblues; Spring Day: www.myspace.com/sprinkied; Tara Solheim: www.myspace.com/tarasolheim; J. J. Vicars: www.jjvicars.com; CoZmo: www.cozmoscafe.com; The Black Sheep: theblacksheep.jp

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