A FEW MINUTES WITH… Magic Dick & Shun Ng

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By Don Wilcock

Magic Dick on harmonica and Shun Ng on acoustic guitar have a mutual admiration society going for each other. Their music is all spikes and splinters, splaying cathartic energy that gives their fans the same kind of buzz Magic Dick offered in the J.Geils Band but with a contemporary tension/release style that’s like nothing else even in today’s eclectic scene, as you can hear for yourself when the duo takes the stage at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs on Friday evening (August 17).

Magic Dick’s harp was featured as a lead instrument in the J. Geils Band through iterations that started as a hyper-energized blues band in the late ’60s, morphed into Boston’s answer to the Memphis Stax-Volt R&B scene and finally emerged as a pop hitmaker in the early ’80s. Magic Dick and Peter Wolf were the blues guys in the band. The late Jay Geils (namesake for the J. Geils Band, later shortened to simply Geils) was fundamentally a jazz guitarist, and keyboardist Seth Justman was the pop influence who got the group on the charts with “Love Stinks,” “Freeze Frame” and “Centerfold” between 1980-’83.

Magic Dick is a chameleon who could cater his harp to whatever direction the always explosive Geils band went. The one fundamental of all his playing continues to be an adrenalin-charged pressure cooker delivery that ultimately detonates in a rampage that whips audiences into a barely controlled frenzy. His signature piece is the instrumental “Whammer Jammer” from 1971.

Since 2014 Magic Dick has been teaming up with this 28-year-old former child prodigy, guitarist Shun Ng. He’s a little over one-third Magic Dick’s age, but with a style of playing that is just as frenetic and complicit with Magic Dick’s fiery energy. Ng’s playing splays notes like smashing glass, and he’s a perfect foil for Magic Dick.

The two of them together are like sparklers that explode in a way that would make drums, bass, piano, sax or any other instruments overkill. That’s not to say what they do is easy. “It’s extremely challenging,” admits Magic Dick. “Doing the duo is more difficult than doing a band because, for one thing, you’re basically up there
completely exposed. I love the challenge of doing the duo. Shun and I are both musical minimalists.”

“I talk to Shun a lot about this in terms of I really appreciate what he does by himself in a minimalist context, and I said to him, ‘That means I’m gonna have to outdo you in my minimalist concept, which is even more minimalistic than his because all I can do is sing and play harp. A lot of what I focus on is trying to do that
stuff myself in a convincing fashion, and then bring that together with Shun so the two of us can be explosive.”

There’s no generation gap here. Ng calls Magic Dick his brother, and Magic Dick says Ng is the most fun he’s ever had with another musician. Ng is dyslexic and has trouble communicating through the written word. He sees his music as a language that he is more comfortable with in translating his emotions to an audience. Not unlike many rockers less schooled than he, he does not see his guitar playing as notes on a score sheet, but rather as a “verbal” language he hears in his head and translates into his fingers.

Shun grew up in a non-musical family and was a gymnist until someone gave him a guitar age 15. “I had no idea music was something you could learn, you could study or whatever. I thought it was like a sort of blessed thing.”

That guitar flipped his head around. “I just felt I wanted to know everything about music, so I studied everything from Indian classical music to blues. American classical music is the blues to me, and classic jazz. I just remember strumming the chords and like, wow, this is cool. This is like language. Maybe if I got good at
this I could be good at communicating through this, and reading wouldn’t be such a big issue.”

For Magic Dick playing with Shun Ng is similar to Jerry Garcia playing with musicians outside of the Grateful Dead. It allows him to be himself and not circumscribed by what his fans expect to hear from him. “Sometimes when musicians get older, they innovate less, or they just go through the motions,” says Ng, “but Dick is as young as anybody, and he’s musically always trying to reach the next level. It’s almost as if he doesn’t know he’s Magic Dick, and he’s still trying to be out there doing his best.”

“Thank you, sir,” says Magic Dick back to Ng. “You’re right. What you just said about me not realizing that I’m Magic Dick is true. I don’t think of myself as, oh, I’m Magic Dick. I’m exactly the opposite. I’m like, man, I better get on top of this because having done this as long as I’ve done it, I know what it takes to achieve
certain things live. It’s one thing to do something at home. It’s another thing under the pressure of a gig to deliver, especially with this instrument.”

WHO: Magic Dick & Shun Ng
WHERE: Caffe Lena, Saratoga Springs
WHEN: Friday (August 17), 8pm
HOW MUCH: $25 in advance; $27 at the door
NOTE: This show was originally scheduled for The Egg in Albany, but it has been relocated to Caffe Lena.

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