Letter from a Birmingham Stage
Ming Dynasty goes South, gets fried, passes for tempura
By J.R. Taylor
A thankless gig has become even more thankless for Ming Dynasty. They’ve landed a 1 p.m. Saturday show at City Stages in Birmingham, Alabama. The long-running music festival is a local money pit that’ll see a Led Zeppelin reunion before it ever sees a profit. There wouldn’t be much of a crowd in ideal circumstances. In less than ideal circumstances, Ming Dynasty is waiting to play while a lot of old people sit in chairs watching Al Green’s sound check.
The soul legend isn’t playing until much later in the evening. Green still rates enough attention that Ming Dynasty won’t hit the Coca-Cola Classic Stage until they’re over an hour late. At least the New York act has a captive audience. These folks don’t look like they could get out of the lawn furniture they’ve toted along to downtown Birmingham’s Linn Park. Some of them have probably been sitting here since Diana Ross’ show last night.
Ming Dynasty will also get to play in front of a really big mirrored disco ball. No band back in Manhattan’s going to get that kind of prop this weekend. Ming Dynasty doesn’t need stage dressing, though. They’re one of the few New York City bands capable of making classic rock without sounding like a retro act. The band—as represented on a fine debut album set for release in September—is lovely young Taiwanese expatriate Ming Chan and longtime NYC musician Eric Miranda. They’ve got plenty of neat tricks, including an ability to improve on a lot of the NYC scene’s most irritating aspects.
Lots of rock bands go from quiet to loud, but Ming Dynasty goes from plodding to lilting. They’re a modern-rock act, but they have an arch manner that never turns into glam. They’re also the only rock band in NYC that picked up some useful sounds from ye olde electroclash movement.
All of that’s on fine display when Ming Dynasty finally launches their set with “Yellow Tiger.” That’s the title track to that upcoming album. Thanks to Al Green’s high standards, the band sounds great. Ming Dynasty has worked their way over from Athens and Atlanta, and Chan’s gotten sick along the way. You couldn’t tell from her vocals.
Thankfully, a Southern audience is nearly always politely appreciative. But let’s not pretend that Ming Dynasty’s going to win over too many new fans. This crowd was just as happy to listen to Al Green’s backup singers intoning “check” into the microphones.
Still, there’s much that’s genuinely pleasant about Ming Dynasty. The band also pulls out their best trick for the locals. Chan—really quite fluent in English—makes an announcement to the crowd that Miranda helpfully translates: “I got sick the other day, and they said we could cancel, but I’d never skip Alabama because they gave us Lynyrd Skynyrd and Taylor Hicks.”
The crowd likes that. Ming Dynasty has actually gotten lots of enthusiastic press here in Birmingham. The proper band now includes guitarist Kolin Smith and drummer Andrew Kilpatrick—with Kilpatrick having formerly played for one of Birmingham’s homegrown American Idol acts. To his great credit, Taylor Hicks took time from his current Broadway stint in Grease to send supportive emails to his contacts at Birmingham’s daily newspapers.
Ming Dynasty’s pretty accessible, so they’d have probably gotten good reviews even without Hicks’ endorsement. They’re pretty much the only real rock band playing City Stages. Anything helps, though.
Not surprisingly, that earlier delay makes for a very short set: On at 2:12, off at 2:34 to make room for a zydeco act. The audience won’t get a clue that Ming Dynasty has already recorded an impressively consistent album of 10 great tracks. The band still closes on a high note. Miranda announces that their final song is about riding on the subway: “Anybody been to New York lately?…OK, about three people.” He should’ve just said they were going to do a song about riding the rails.
The band bows out to more polite applause. Ming Dynasty will get a free meal, too, and Chan will get to rest up before the band gets back on the road to head back home. That’s a pretty good day. They could even hang around to see Al Green and that mirrored disco ball in action. “That was something, wasn’t it?” says Miranda after the show. “Just looking at it made me want to jump off the Verrazano Bridge.”