FAR EAST After near-nightly gigs around Boston for December, bluesman Greg Luttrell heads back to China for a third four-month residence.
It's a Saturday afternoon in Jamaica Plain and Greg Luttrell is sipping a house special at Canary Square. He's only having one because in a few hours he has to head out to Orleans, at the elbow of the Cape, and play with his blues trio. This constitutes a short commute for Luttrell, who spends about a third of the year performing a residency in Shanghai, China. A few years back, a musician friend was playing with a show band at Macau, the Chinese Vegas, whose booking agent needed a band for the House of Blues & Jazz in Shanghai.
"She asked my buddy if he knew anybody from the States that could bring over a good blues band and he said 'Call Greg Luttrell,' " he says. "Next thing I know, we're emailing back and forth and a couple months later we're landing in China."
Born in Detroit, Luttrell moved to Boston in the mid-'80s and immersed himself in the music scene, leading the funk outfit Blacksnake and later playing guitar for the metal-tinged Electric Sugar. At the same time, he was doing solo acoustic gigs, eventually forming the Greg Luttrell Band, who made their initial trip to Shanghai in spring 2009.
"It was a big culture shock," Luttrell says. "Just right down to the architecture and the landscape, the post-modern buildings, and they're all juxtaposed against those really old-fashioned Chinese buildings downtown. But I absolutely had a positive attitude going into it, and everybody treated us really well, so it's not like we had to go somewhere and struggle to be accepted."
Luttrell was also conscious of being an ambassador of sorts for the United States, not just in a musical role but as an expat spending an extended period of time abroad, especially "making sure you're behaving in a cool way as a tourist, and as somebody walking the streets."
The nature of the four-month residency allowed him to immerse himself in the culture beyond the nightlife. "You're living there, so you're in a neighborhood and people see you every day, people at the corner store — they see you all the time. It was really cool learning how to get along living in another culture . . . usually you just splash down for a night or two wherever you're going."
Pulling six nights a week at the House of Blues & Jazz, which has no affiliation with the similarly named Live Nation chain, Luttrell says it's a 50/50 split between locals who love American blues and tourists passing through looking to hear some Willie Dixon, Freddie King, and Buddy Guy.
"Next thing you know you're partying with people from Germany, Alabama, and Mauritius — I hadn't even heard of Mauritius before! One time there was this guy in the bar, and he says, 'Hey man did you used to play at Beckett's Pub on Packard's Corner in Boston?' I told him I did, and he was like, 'Dude, you were the soundtrack to my senior year in college! We went there every Thursday night to hear you sing!' We're about as far away as you can get from Boston and here we are talking about R&B in Shanghai."