Bangkok is a long way from the Deep South but that doesn’t stop the blues resonating, even elbowing DJs off the stage at some of the capital’s live music venues.
The colour and commotion of Sukhumvit Soi 11 is so enmeshed that it can be hard to know where the honk of taxi horns stops and the pop music blasting out of street bars starts. It all mixes together – it’s part of the appeal, part of the energy. It can be just as intoxicating as the buckets of paint-stripper cocktails.
But at the top end, just as you turn left toward Q-Bar, a peculiar thing happens. The cacophony of Soi 11 dies down and the sound of blues, emanating from Apoteka, cuts through the night. Apoteka has been open for less than a year and made the decision to focus on live music – blues, in particular – even more recently.
“Everyone else is doing DJs and we saw there was a niche in the market for blues,” says manager Neil Sutton, a Geordie with a long hospitality CV. “There are some great blues clubs in Bangkok but not so much around here and a lot of them are in hotels, which sometimes aren’t so relaxed or comfortable.”
And Apoteka is certainly comfortable. The square bar is prominent enough but the stage is even more central, illustrating perfectly that, at Apoteka, it really is all about the music. Its high ceilings are dotted with old glass vials repurposed as over-sized light bulbs and its cocktail selection includes some particularly punchy drinks.
“My music director, Danny California (below left), came in and immediately said it’s made for live music,” Sutton says. ‘‘When we first started, people would walk by and have a look and there’s a real energy that comes out on to the street.”
Tonight, the Soi Dogs are responsible for generating that energy. The lead singer, Jeff Thomsen (above right), towers over his Thai rhythm section and, as Black Cat Bone segues into Look At Little Sister, his growling vocals straight out of Dixie, it’s natural to assume he’s a farang troubadour revelling in a tropical blues odyssey. After wrapping up the set, though – “We’re Soi Dogs, ruff, ruff, ruff” – Thomsen wanders over and confirms that he is, in fact, Thai. His accent comes from an international school and a lifetime of travel, while his fascination with the blues and Americana can be attributed to BB King.
“When I heard BB King singing Sweet Little Angel for the first time, that was a defining moment for me,” he says.
Thomsen wasn’t always a blues man – he worked as a DJ in the 1980s, spinning Rick James and Michael Jackson tracks at the legendary Studio 54. He’s reluctant to share all the hedonistic details, simply confirming that “it was exactly what you imagine it was like”.
“I was just a Thai boy but I could mix the shit out of any US DJ and the Brits didn’t stand a chance,’’ he adds.
It wasn’t until 12 years ago that he formed the Soi Dogs – named because the soi dogs have no home – and the band has been his main gig since. Bangkok, of course, is a long way from the blues heartlands of the Deep South – places like Mississippi, Georgia and New Orleans. Thomsen, though, insists that geography is no obstacle; the Thais understand the blues just fine, pointing to his exquisitely talented bandmates as evidence.
“The Thais play the blues,” he says. “A song like Jao Choo – it’s about a guy whose girlfriend thinks he has another girlfriend when he doesn’t, so leaves him. That’s the blues. The Thais suck it up like anywhere else and a handful of Thais play at a real world-class level. I’ve seen a few and thought, ‘holy shit – it’s not just my boys’. Some of the Thais are really gifted. Thais are really good at musicianship.
“People appreciate real music by real people and the blues resonates. It’s Chuck Berry, that 12-bar sound. It’s rock’n’roll but slower. You cannot not move to that.”
Still, there are different shades of the blues from different places, where different ingredients are added to the musical melting pot. Perhaps, given the creative chaos of Bangkok – the way the city is able to embrace, adapt and reshape its own and any imported cultures – it’s not so strange that the blues should find a home here.
“The blues has no borders,” Thomsen says. “The blues are the blues no matter where you are. Maybe the Bangkok blues is a mixture of them all.”
OTHER TOP SPOTS FOR BLUES, JAZZ AND SOUL
469 Phrasumen Road | 089-499-1378 | brownsugarbangkok.com | 6pm-1am
Little over a month after it closed down, one of Bangkok’s oldest cosiest jazz venue was back with a new, bigger location near Khao San. Now a restaurant and coffee house by day, it morphs into a world-class, jazz café-style haunt (right) where renditions of bebop and ragtime draw an audience of locals and visitors by night. Its exterior is impressive, resembling a ritzy old cinema house. And inside, it’s huge, with a daytime coffee shop up front, a versatile 200-seater ‘Playhouse’ upstairs, and the big, open-plan jazz pub and restaurant out back.
Le Bar de l’HOtel
Sofitel Bangkok Sukhumvit, 189 Sukhumvit (btw Soi 13-15) | 02-126-9999 | Daily 11am-midnight
Hotel lobby bars are as safe and predictable as Justin Bieber. Which makes the Sofitel Sukhumvit’s introduction of Chai, one of Bangkok best blues guitarists, particularly welcome. And neither have they stuffed him in a suit. Dressed in jeans and T-shirt, his shaggy ZZ Top beard on full display, Chai throws the sleepy cool of Howling Wolf. And when he cranks up the guitar it sounds like grating steel. For these gigs, Chai calls his band The Blues Delivery, a seven-piece line up of guitar/vocals, sax, trumpet, bass, drums, keyboards and percussion. The only thing missing from a traditional blues night is the grungy venue. Le Bar is hotel chic: an intimate 38-seat venue with a laidback vibe.
116/63 34 Soi Ruamjit, Rang Nam Rd | 02-245-7230 | 5pm-1am
This rustic Thai ‘country’ bar is a sort of all-wooden, pre-consumerist age timecapsule. Raintree hosts musicians playing Pleng Peua Chiwit (Songs for Life), the once phenomenally popular 1970s folk protest music and soundtrack for Thailand’s politically disaffected. On a stage decorated with the movement’s trademark buffalo skulls, two artists strum nightly: a long-haired singer croons plaintive songs at 8.30 pm, a grizzled band steps up at around 11pm. Owner Porn Pimon opened Raintree decades ago and has changed little since.
3/8 Phaya Thai Rd | 02-246-5472 | saxophonepub.com | 6pm-2am
Just a stone’s throw from the Victory Monument Skytrain Station, this cosy, unpretentious place is a Bangkok landmark when it comes to solid live jazz and blues. Attracting youngish Thais and the odd foreigner, the spacious joint can pack up to 400 people on its homey, low-ceilinged, wood-filled floors. Each night, two talented Thai bands belt out sincere jazz, jazzy funk and R&B while the crowd feasts on hearty Thai and Western fare.
The Living Room
Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit, 250 Sukhumvit | 02-649-8888 | thelivingroomatbangkok.com
Perhaps the cosiest of all Bangkok’s luxury hotel bars, the leather couches at The Living Room are so snug it’ll be hard to get up again once you’re seated. It’s a stylish place and the usually middle-aged patrons live it up on great wines, champagne and strong cocktails in a quiet way. The high-ceilinged foyer offers perfect acoustics for the fabulous jazz band. Be prepared to be well-entertained.