Singing the Blues in Beijing With Alan Paul

An American expat guitarist hits the bigtime on the other side of the world.

An acoustic guitar twangs. A saxophone echoes its woeful tone. Drumbeats and a lazy-river swirl of strings follow the singer as he wails the blues.

The club is in Beijing. The audience is Chinese, and so is most of the band. But the lead guitarist is Alan Paul, an American who never dreamed that upon pulling up stakes and moving to the far side of the world, he would end up with a CD, a new career, international renown — and a memoir.

Paul was a New Jersey music journalist when his wife, Wall Street Journal editor Rebecca Blumenstein, was offered a job as the newspaper’s China bureau chief in 2005. He urged her to take it. “She was surprised that I would quit my job as a senior writer for Slam and Guitar World magazines to move around the world with three young children — then aged two, four, and seven — just to further her career. But I craved adventure,” Paul confessed, “and something told me that the opportunities would not just be for Rebecca.”

As revealed in his memoir Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing, Blumenstein accepted the post, and the family immersed itself in expat life, wandering the Great Wall and venturing far afield into remote tribal villages. “We adapted to life in China faster than I thought possible, and I felt a profound sense of freedom,” said Paul, who began blogging about being “an American in a foreign land trying to capture everything swirling around him.”

That newfound sense of freedom swept him into a Beijing guitar shop, where he bonded quickly with its proprietor, dobro master Woodie Wu. “I couldn’t believe that I had found a Chinese musician who shared my love of the blues,” Paul said. When the pair decided to form a band, “the name was obvious: Woodie Alan.”

Drummer Lu Wei, bassist Zhang Yong, and American saxophonist Dave Loevinger completed the combo, which, after being named 2008’s “Beijing Band of the Year” by City Weekend magazine, began touring central and southern China, introducing audiences to American-style blues, sung in English and Mandarin. The band’s 2009 debut album, Beijing Blues, features the Bob Dylan classics “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” along with the original song “Come to the Edge” and Chinese-language tunes “Wode Baobei” and “Anjing Shenghuo.”

“The group brought me more deeply into Chinese life than anything else could have,” said Paul, who will be at Mrs. Dalloway’s (2904 College Ave., Berkeley) on Saturday, March 12. “It was also a profound personal transformation. After fifteen years of interviewing musicians like Gregg Allman and Eric Clapton, I was now the performer — climbing onto large stages to spread the gospel of the music that I love.

“Woodie Alan was symbolic of my entire China experience, proof of what can happen if you plunge into a new reality.” 4 p.m., free.


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