Shun Ng is the incarnation of joy. He plays his guitar with the enthusiasm of a novice and the intensity of a virtuoso. When he took to the stage at the Hojoko Tavern (The Verb Hotel) on April 3rd, the atmosphere was cold. People talked, uninterested in the drums and microphones set up before them. A couple arrived late, laughing loudly as Shun tuned his guitar. Lesley Mok, his accolade drummer from New York, warmed up playing a slow beat as the bartender prepared two martinis for the loud lovers.
Originally born in Chicago, Shun spent his formative years in Singapore, his family’s birthplace. In 2012, he was accepted into Berklee College of Music and returned to the US to pursue his musical career. But after 6 months, he felt alone and isolated. His drive and ambition helped him overcome his dyslexia and loneliness and power through the web that is the independent musician’s path.
We talked on the phone three days before the show, and the first thing I wanted to know is where and when he’d learned the blues. The bulk of his material revolves around it (both as solo artist, in his collaborations with Magic Dick, and even with his group of singers, The Shunettes), and his mastery of the style becomes apparent after spending 5 minutes with his music.
“I think most popular music comes from the blues“, he says. “At the heart of it, the blues is about expression in the time of slavery when musicians were changing and challenging stereotypes. It’s real music, sometimes music is really fake. Blues is the opposite.” With his unique passion, he tells me about wanting to make his guitar sound like a blues singer, the challenge of a lifetime.
“Will he be able to pull it off with just one guitar and drums?”, I remember asking myself as I finished a cigarette outside the venue. But no one can predict the future and to try is to be a fool, so I headed inside, sat down the bar, and took out my little red notebook. Sure enough, Shun and Lesley pulled it off.
Shun kicks off the show with a succession of fast blues licks that light up the audience. The energy quickly builds into the the first song, an upbeat funk that sends a jolt of energy into the crowd, who start slowly approaching the stage. With his guitar acting also as a bass, Shun dominates both the low and high registers while singing in a rarely seen display of all-around virtuosity. The show continues with a slow version of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B Goode”, which fires up the audience even more before one of the night’s highlights, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”. In a beautiful soul rendition of this old classic, Shun stuns the crowd with a raw vocal performance over the song’s peaceful harmony. At the end, he enters into a very melodic guitar outro that leaves the audience speechless.
When we talk on the phone, Shun seems to open up when talking about his childhood. Diagnosed with dyslexia at an early age, he says he always found it hard to concentrate at school, seeking refuge in the guitar. Even today, he can feel it sometimes:
“I think the hardest part for me is probably contracts and dealing with long emails”, Shun says. “Reading is challenging sometimes. Reading music was always a challenge early on. But at same point, I just learned to accept that my brain works differently.”
Shun and Lesley continue revisiting classics with versions of hits like “Stormy Monday Blues”, where Shun takes 2 smokin’ guitar solos that overwhelm the crowd and Stevie Wonder’s classic “Superstition”, featuring Munk Duane on vocals. Duane delivers a heart-felt performance of the classic while Shun hangs back playing a complex rhythmic pattern, incorporating bass more than in other songs.
For “Get on With it”, Shun reclaims the center of the stage with a vocal intro, propping up the audience with some vocal “extravaganza” before jumping back into the groove with another funky tune. His voice hints at a combination between the funkiest Michael Jackson and the softest Otis Redding.
Shun’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” spreads through the room like a Sunday hymn. The beautiful rendition takes Shun through the different melodies that Queen wrote, covering for the absence of background singers. In a slow, decreasing finale, Shun melts the audience with his subtlety. To close the show, Shun plays a fiery version of “Billie Jean” with everyone on their feet and clapping along. Lesley Mok proves a fierce drummer with deep knowledge of blues, soul, and funk, exchanging “punches” with Shun and never missing a beat. Their combination works out fantastically in the end, and Shun quickly packs his guitar to start talking to his fans. He’s a true man of his people.
Shun Ng is also a force of nature. His ability to push the boundaries of the guitar is unmatched in today’s scene, and his knowledge of the roots runs deep. But it’s his smile and attitude that will grant him a place in many people’s heart. A Shun Ng concert is a spiritual experience, a release of negative energy and proof that humans belong within a community of free-thinking individuals.
Shun Ng, a good man and inspiring musician.
Johnny B Goode
Papa Was A Rolling Stone
Get On With It
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