M Shanghai String Band are an Americana act in a hipster neighborhood, named after a Chinese restaurant in Thai-overrun Williamsburg. When non-leader Austin Hughes sings the titular line of the band’s hymnal “No Home in This World,” it seems self-referential, except that he’s part of the homiest show going. It’s so comfortable, in fact, that I didn’t mind spending time in the basement “den” of the M Shanghai Restaurant on a sweltering June evening. The band’s monthly shows have an informal feel: Regulars crowd the fold-out seats and snake up the stairs, while band members crowd around one mic, Grand Ole Opry–style, and the audience sings along.
Of course, it helps to have a few pork buns in you. “We’re willing to fall flat on our face in front of everyone there,” Hughes tells me. Though he spends the most time front and center during their shows, Hughes claims the 11-person outfit has no frontman. The band maintains a fluid membership; most write songs, and each takes a role in management. Sometimes they make decisions via a Yahoo poll.
It all started in 2002, when bassist Harrison Cannon assembled some friends to play at the restaurant owned by May Lui (the “M” in M Shanghai). Some members knew each other from previous bands like Very Pleasant Neighbor, Babe the Blue Ox, and Beekeeper. They first played on intermittent Thursdays; after switching to their current slot, every first Saturday of the month, the audience grew. Those regulars soon became friends; many return every month. Naturally, the band’s ties to the restaurant are strong: M Shanghai often end the night by inviting the bartender up to sing a Flaming Lips cover, and the song “Tic-Tac-Toe Chicken” inspired a garlicky dish now on the restaurant’s menu.
“Tic-Tac-Toe Chicken” is a raucous number redolent of farmhouses and county-fair sideshows, but Hughes says the band mostly sings about the city: “We write about where we’re from, because the immediacy of your environment is an American folk-country-bluegrass tradition.” The band also avoids the bluegrass party-band trappings that put silly covers before serious songwriting: They’re preparing their third full-length in two years. Though another Shanghai String Band—who play traditional Chinese instruments—might confuse interested parties, Hughes doesn’t worry about his group’s unique status. “We’re not the run-of-the-mill Williamsburg band, certainly,” he notes, before he gets distracted. “But isn’t the food great at M Shanghai? Believe me, that’s part of our enthusiasm about making this event happen.” Try the juicy pork buns, then argue.
M Shanghai String Band perform at the M Shanghai Restaurant Bistro & Den July 5