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S'pore rock veterans still got the groove
Publication Date : 28-11-2013
Age is just a number for S'porean rock 'n' roll veterans who still prove, show after show, that they've still 'got the groove'
Age is just a number in rock 'n' roll.
At 88, legendary guitarist B.B. King still plays the blues for his Mississippi home crowd. At 70, The Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger still gathers no moss.
And a clutch of veteran Singaporean rockers in their 50s and 60s seems destined to live up to that reputation as they (re-)take the stage with new gigs.
Tomorrow night, singer and guitarist Zul Sutan, 56, from rockers Tania, will play a sold-out solo show at the Esplanade Recital Studio.
Eclectic rockers Heritage, led by 65-year-old bass player Ashley Jansen, are back with a new keyboard player and a fresh sound after frontman Atwell Jansen died in August.
One-time sexiest man in Singapore Douglas Oliveiro, 57, is back in full swing too. After a six-year hiatus, he is currently a singer with nine-piece band A-List.
All three acts are still playing six nights a week - Zul at Harry's @ Orchard Towers, Heritage at JJ Atlante and Oliveiro at Aquanova at Clarke Quay.
Says Oliveiro: "I still have a lot of passion inside of me. I've done this for quite some time now. It's nice to go up on stage in your 50s and prove to everybody that
you have still got it. Call it ego or whatever, but it was a trip that I wanted to go on again and again."
Zul says the live club band scene has undergone "ebb and flow" in the close to four decades that he has been in it. "Now it seems people are trying to get a live club resurgence again. Clarke Quay is doing good with live bands."
Despite health issues, Jansen has no plans to retire any time soon. "It's the love of music. I play in a musician's band. Even if we play the same songs, we don't play them the same way all the time. As long as I can play music, I will be with Heritage."
Douglas Oliveiro, 57
Where: Aquanova, Block C, 01-09, Clarke Quay, River Valley Road
When: Mondays to Saturdays, from 10pm
Six years ago, rocker Douglas Oliveiro decided to go into semi-retirement. Big mistake.
"I thought I wanted to take a break from performing almost every night with a band and do only acoustic sets once a week, and spend my days catching up on reading or
fishing," says Oliveiro, whose music career has spanned more than four decades. "But it turned out to be the lowest point in my life."
He spent a few months with his family in Australia and New Zealand during the early part of the break. But when he returned to Singapore, he became restless. Despite performing once or twice a week at joints such as J Bar in M Hotel, he felt like an unemployed person and it was getting him down.
The agile frontman known for stage antics such as jumping from table to table - he was voted Singapore's sexiest man by The New Paper readers in 1990 - started putting on weight. His doctor also warned him about his rising blood pressure.
Early this year, he finally made the decision to get back to doing what he does best: playing regular nights and fronting an upbeat rock/pop outfit.
Nightlife group LifeBrandz made him an offer he could not refuse - singing with A-List, the nine-piece house band at nightspot Aquanova. Their extensive repertoire covers everything from current chart hits and rock favourites to R&B and soul.
"It's been wonderful," he says of his latest gig which started in July. "This is a high point in my career."
According to a LifeBrandz spokesman, the band have been pulling in capacity crowds of up to 250 patrons more often since Oliveiro joined.
While he is the most recognisable name in the band, he is quick to defer to his bandmates, insisting that the spotlight be shared between him and the group's four other younger singers - Alia Demelda Sharma, Patrick Marcelino, Haizad Imran and Abby Muhammad, who are in their early to mid-30s.
"In my 42 years in the industry, I've never had the chance to share vocal duties with four other singers. I don't know why I didn't start earlier, we have so much fun on stage fooling around. When one of us is not on stage, the show doesn't feel complete," says the former frontman of veteran band Energy, between 1987 and 2006.
While his speciality might be rock classics - top requests for him are The Eagles' Hotel California and Journey's power ballad Faithfully - Oliveiro keeps abreast of what is current on the pop charts and is into newer acts such as Bruno Mars and Calvin Harris.
"I've switched from classic radio such as Gold 90.5FM to hits stations such as 987FM," he says with a smile.
His newest gig is also doing wonders for his health. With his six-nights-a-week shows and constant cycling, his weight has dropped from 80kg to 69kg, and at a recent medical check-up, doctors gave him the thumbs up.
Married to a housewife, he is a father and a grandfather but declines to reveal more details of his family, saying he wishes to protect their privacy.
His career started at the age of 15, when he joined his brother-in-law's family band, which did not have a name, at the bar at the now-defunct Ritz Hotel in Tanjong Pagar.
"It was a real dingy place full of sailors from all over," he recalls. "That's where I learnt how to work the audience."
Over the years, he has sung in top clubs such as Rainbow Lounge at Ming Arcade, Bar None at the Marriott Hotel and Subway at Plaza Hotel, with bands such as 9Lives, Satellite and Krosmode.
Television viewers will also remember him for hosting shows such as retro-variety programme Rollin' Good Times from the early 1990s and, more recently, as a judge on the first season of Singapore Idol in 2004.
In 1988, he released a solo Malay album, Gadis Tokyo, under his first name Douglas, and an English one with Energy, Simply Energy, the following year. He followed those up with a self-titled solo English album, Douglas O, in 1992.
While the two English albums bombed, his biggest regret was not leveraging on the success of the Malay album, which generated Malay radio hit Gadis Tokyo (Tokyo Girl).
"When I released that album, I was singing at Fire (a nightclub in Orchard Plaza) and it was so difficult to go out and do promotional gigs even though I had offers from Malaysia and Indonesia. The Fire boss was so sticky about it and said, 'Look, who's paying you more money?'" he recalls.
"Looking back, it was short-sighted thinking. I should just have gone out and tried to make it in the regional Malay music industry as a singer with my own songs."
He does not intend to record original songs again, believing that singer-songwriters should start in their 30s and not in their 50s. But he has no plans to stop performing.
"I don't like that word, retirement. What's important for me now is to enjoy what I do onstage and make sure the audience has even more fun than me."
Zul Satan, 56
Where: Harry's @ Orchard Towers, 1 Claymore Drive, Orchard Towers, 01-05, 02-08/09
When: Every night except Sundays and the first Monday of the month, 9.30pm to 1.30am (Mondays to Thursdays), 10pm to 2.30am (Fridays, Saturdays and eve of public holidays)
With his gruff demeanour and killer guitar licks, singer-guitarist Zul Sutan is not one to mince his words: It was either music bars or potentially life behind bars for him.
At 17, and fresh after O levels, the man with a soulful voice took his first job, singing and playing the guitar at the now-defunct Talk Of The Town pub.
"There was nothing else to do," he says. "You either become a musician or you become a thug."
It was a good thing he chose the former. In the last 39 years, the frontman of rockers Tania has become an institution on the live band scene in Singapore. And he is still going strong.
"I don't know, I could have been a better thug than a musician," he jokes.
While he is known for impeccable covers by rock greats such as The Beatles, Dire Straits and Pink Floyd, he also released an acclaimed solo album, Zul, in 1992. That album featured self-written tunes and covers from Sting, Paul Simon and Tina Turner.
Tomorrow, he will headline a set at the Esplanade Recital Studio. Some of the musicians who will accompany him are from Tania, such as keyboardist Mansoor Mohamed and bassist Ibrahim Zainal. Others include fellow musicians whom he has known for many years, including Malay singer-songwriter Ramli Sarip, 60.
They first met in the 1970s as performers at the now-defunct National Theatre.
Besides the standard songs, Zul will also throw in Beat The Drums, a self-written tune from his solo album.
He is not interested in writing, recording or releasing anymore original music. "I'm not going to die for my art. It doesn't pay the bills," he replies, declining to say what his current earnings and lifestyle are like.
He does not believe in writing songs for "artistic" reasons. With the decline of the record industry, he says, releasing another album would be "a f***ing waste of time".
"Even if I did record four or five songs, I'll just put them up online and give them away for free."
Tania, the band he co-founded in 1976, were so popular in the club circuit that they released a selftitled album in 1978. While he cannot recall sales figures, the album did not do well commercially.
He does not listen to it anymore. "I find it immature - the playing, the songs, the ideologies behind the lyrics. And I sounded like Mickey Mouse."
He does not listen to what is hot on the pop charts or mainstream radio either. "I think programme directors should be shot. They have robbed audiences and younger people of a proper musical education."
Younger listeners who listen to Rihanna should also be exposed to classic singers such as Dionne Warwick, he argues, so that they can compare the quality of the music for themselves. He adds that classic songs should be played not only on "oldies" radio stations, but also on stations that the young listen to.
Over the years, he has performed in London and Yokohama, but he says playing big shows does not impress him anymore.
"It's not one event or one special show or one night or that time that you played for the president.
"It's little things on a normal night, when you elicit a smile from somebody, an emotion from someone, so it's the little everyday things."
Ask about retirement plans and the singer, who is married with four children aged 17 to 27, replies: "Damned if I know. You're not the first one to ask me when I will retire. I was asked 15 years ago. 'Retire lah, why you haven't make enough money, is it?'"
He lets out an expletive. "Retire and do what? This is what I do."
Who: Ashley Jansen, 65, bass and vocals; Robert S.K., 44, guitars; David McGuire 39, drums; Sadeq Nezamudin, 33, bass; and Ansley Green, 24, keyboards
Where: JJ Atlante Pub, 39 Duxton Road
When: Mondays to Saturdays, from 11pm
When Heritage frontman Atwell Jansen died in August, there was no question about the veteran rock band calling it quits.
"He would have wanted us to carry on, so that's what we did," says bassist-singer Ashley Jansen, 65, who is Atwell's older brother,
Atwell's death came as a shock to the band, who have been around since the early 1970s. The singer and multi-instrumentalist died after a fall from his bicycle. He was 62.
A week-and-a-half after his death, Heritage were back performing at their regular spot, JJ Atlante Pub, with a new member to boot. Australian musician Ansley Green, 24, now plays keyboard for the group.
Guitarist and singer Robert S.K., 44, had first seen the jazz keyboardist perform at The Sultan Jazz Club and was impressed with his performance.
He says: "There was no way we could find another singer who could play the violins, flutes and other instruments and replace Atwell. So we decided to get a keyboard player who could fill in his parts."
Still, having Green in the band has taken them in a different direction - both musically and emotionally.
"We all felt very sad about performing without Atwell but it was something that happened and we couldn't do anything about it. But Ansley is a cool guy to play with," says Jansen.
"Coming from a jazz background also means that Ansley can improvise well and do solos, and that's what we wanted."
He adds that Green's joining the band has also increased their repertoire. Aside from regular covers by bands such as The Rolling Stones and Jethro Tull, they now play organ and keyboard-led songs by classic acts such as The Doors, Booker T. & the M.G.'s and The Allman Brothers Band.
The soft-spoken bass player says: "We can now play songs that we could never do before."
The oldest member in the band, the bass player with a lanky frame and distinctive long, white beard and hair is one of the most recognisable veterans in the club band scene.
He has survived two bouts of cancer, in 1993 and 2004, and while doctors have detected slow-growing lymphoma in his arm and neck, he is still relatively well enough to play three nights a week with the band. Sadeq Nezamudin fills in on bass on the other three nights.
"Atwell used to pick me up from my house and drive me to the pub and back home every night. Now I just take a taxi," says the musician who is single and lives with his 89-year-old father.
"I got quite depressed over Atwell's passing and sometimes I have problems with my back and knees. But when I go onstage and play, all the problems disappear."
The rest of the band point out that there are plenty of senior artists out there who are still active, such as blues icon B.B. King, 88, and Tony Bennett, 87.
David McGuire, who joined the band in 2007 after previous drummer Corey Nonis died of kidney problems, says: "Compared to these guys, Ashley's a spring chicken."
Over the last four decades, Heritage have stood out for their eclectic approach to rock 'n' roll, mixing elements of progressive rock, blues and jazz into their music.
More than just a cover band who have played in night spots such as Crazy Elephant, Harry's Bar and JJ Mahoney's, the band have also built up a discography of original materials from three albums - Heritage (1979), Boy Becomes Man (1993) and The Realms Of Fantasy (1997).
Plans for a fourth studio album were scuppered after Atwell died, but live renditions of new songs such as The Voyage and The Garden Of Gethsemane can be found in a live CD, Heritage Live @ The Esplanade, recorded from a gig at the Esplanade Recital Studio in January last year.
In 2007, the band were honoured with an Artistic Excellence award from the Composers and Authors Society of Singapore.
They have had several line-up changes, but the two Atwell brothers have played in the band since 1971. Another Jansen brother, Gordon, 56, had also played drums for the band in the past.
And while the mood within the band is now upbeat - the five members constantly joke and tease one another during the interview and photo shoot - Jansen says that his late younger brother is never far from their minds.
He says: "Every show that we play now is a tribute to the memory of Atwell."
The CD Heritage Live @ The Esplanade is available at JJ Atlante Pub, 39 Duxton Road, at S$20 (US$15.95).