Chan puts music connections to work for all-star Block Party show

Chan puts music connections to work for all-star Block Party show

John Chan, owner of Chan's Restaurant, stands beside a wall documenting the famous performers who have graced his stage. (VALLEY BREEZE PHOTO By SANDY PHANEUF)
James Montgomery Blues Band to headline Main Street event Aug. 29

WOONSOCKET - Many businesses have come and gone on Main Street over the past century, but there's one brick structure - #267 - that's kept its doors open through the best and worst of times.

The building has housed a Chinese restaurant since 1905 and over the past 36 years has also built a reputation as a premier live music venue.

So when organizers of Woonsocket's 125th anniversary Main Street Block Party were looking for someone to bring in some serious entertainment for their main stage, John Chan, owner of Chan's Fine Oriental Dining, also known as Chan's Eggrolls and Jazz, was a shoe-in.

The restaurant, by all accounts, has done more than its share to put Woonsocket, and Main Street, on the map. Performers, from Dizzy Gillespie to Miles Davis, have graced the Chan's stage, and regulars travel from all across New England to catch performances in Chan's intimate "listening room."

"People drive from an hour, two hours away just to get here for the music and the food," said Chan.

In 2011, Chan was the recipient of the Keeping the Blues Alive Award in acknowledgement of his significant contribution to the genre by the Blues Foundation.

And now, the proprietor is putting his 30-plus years as a music aficionado to work for the city, securing a national act for the August birthday bash, plus sit-in talent to rival the best at any local music festival.

"I booked one of the most captivating and entertaining performers in the business," Chan told The Breeze this week.

The James Montgomery Blues Band, a Grammy-nominated rockin' blues act whose members boast work with performers from Kid Rock to Gregg Allman, will headline the Woonsocket celebration.

"He's a good friend of mine," Chan said of Montgomery.

For those wondering how a small-town Chinese food restaurant came to attract such national talent and acclaim, Chan has quite a story. The establishment is believed to be the oldest Chinese food restaurant in the state.

Chan's father met the previous owner, Tommy Ark, literally on a "slow boat to China" in the 1940s. The mission was to go back to the homeland to look for brides, an old Chinese custom, and the men became quick friends, traveling together to Canton, where they married cousins from the same village. The elder Chan stayed in Hong Kong, and worked as an electrical engineer, while Ark returned to run his family's restaurant in Woonsocket.

The men kept in touch over the years and the Chan family eventually moved to Queens, before learning of an opportunity in a small mill city to the north.

"Tommy wanted to move to Hawaii and retire, so the restaurant opportunity came up," said John. "That's how the Chans came to Woonsocket."

His parents bought the business in 1965, and from 8th grade on, John Chan would call Woonsocket, and the growing restaurant on Main Street, home.

Back then, Chan's served just the typical Chinese fare. John's dad had put himself through college serving the cuisine at restaurants in Minneapolis, so it was an easy transition.

John himself attended Providence College, and it was there that he discovered his love of music. Chan's roommate was a disk jockey at the school and would bring home new releases and jazz albums.

"I got hooked on Duke Ellington Blues Summit album. It was a double album and I said, 'Wow, this is pretty good stuff,'" said Chan.

At night he would visit Joe's Upstairs, a bar and restaurant across from the Providence Journal building.

"At that time they had some great sandwiches and food, and at nighttime they would bring in some live bands," said Chan.

On weekends, he returned to Woonsocket to work at the family business.

"I researched a little more and found out that New England has some very talented musicians," he said. "We're very fortunate and it's a very rich history."

John eventually took over the restaurant, and in 1977, he added live entertainment to the menu. Workers would convert the main dining area into a lounge in the evenings.

"We'd rearrange the tables and people sat there and watched the music," said Chan. "We started out with local jazz bands and then became more regional."

In 1986, Chan improved his venture after learning that Fleet National Bank was leaving the neighboring building.

"When they moved out, I decided maybe it was time to expand," he said. Chan installed sound proofing in his new room, and put a steel beam across the ceiling so there would be no need for columns or other obstructions that could potentially block his guests' view of the stage.

"Acoustically the room is one of the best listening rooms in New England," said Chan. "We have some amazing evenings of music because the room itself lends itself to it."

Now in its 36th season of music, Chan's has indeed attracted an impressive array of performers.

Regulars include Greg Abate, Duke Robillard, and Leon Redbone, who Chan said has played there once a year for 30 years. The late Dizzy Gilespie played at Chan's on his 70th birthday, and enjoyed it so much he stopped in on a whim during his next visit to New England.

"People come here to listen and the performers really appreciate that," said Chan.

For the Block Party, Chan has signed on for another major contribution Aug. 20, when he'll host "Jazz Up Woonsocket," a fundraising event showcasing some truly homegrown talent: a three-piece crew known as the Mike Larko Band. Lead man Larko was a classmate of Chan's at Woonsocket High School, winning contests with his former band, Revolution.

"He always was very musical, even in high school," said Chan. "The Beatles would come out with a new song and the next day he would be humming and playing it on his guitar." The rocking evening will include the dishes Chan's is best known for, from egg rolls to their famous chop suey sandwiches, and a few special guests performances. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the door.

The event is just one of six fundraisers sponsored by city businesses to help finance the massive Aug. 29 bash, which will wind across half a mile of downtown Woonsocket.

"They're calling this the largest block party in the Northeast. It's one for the ages and I think it's going to be historic," said Chan. "Even though the city is in financial trouble, this is to show people that we have not given up."

The James Montgomery Band will perform on the Main Stage at the Block Party in front of Stadium Theatre. Lead man Montgomery, a harmonica virtuoso originally from Detroit, now lives in Newport.

"In the '60s and '70s he was as big as Aerosmith," said Chan. "He was huge. He's very supportive of Chan's and he loves Woonsocket so I thought he would be a perfect candidate."

Members from the band the Uptown Horns will join Montgomery on stage. That popular four man band has performed with the Rolling Stones, recorded with Al Smith and has provided riffs for such well known songs as the B-52's "Love Shack," to name just a few achievements.

Other guest performers expected to sit in with Montgomery include Peter Tork, a former member of The Monkees, along with Diane Blue and Jimmy Two-suit Capone.

"It will really be an all-star show," said Chan.