Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Killer Queen

With the passage of time, all the bands that I used to follow in my teens, twenties and beyond are dying out, in many cases literally, as with Queen whom we saw earlier this week.  Minus Freddie Mercury (deceased 1991) and John Deacon (retired wealthy -- see Wikipedia!!) though so with a couple of session guys and the runner up in American Idol a few years back called Adam Lambert who did a really good job though.

I mixed him up with that guy on the current series of The Voice -- Adam something else -- which I think added to Viv's enthusiasm to go to the show with me!

I'd never seen them other than on video unlike Nick who'd seen them at Wembley in the 1980's when they were in their pomp -- he said they were brilliant, so I was interested to see for myself.  A bit morbid I know but I'm ticking off bands I missed out seeing from years ago who've restarted touring to make some money now that nobody's buying their records.

Playing at the Air Canada Centre, they were very impressive indeed.  They'd played here only 2 weeks ago and the demand and response was so strong they added another show at the end of the tour ... this one.

Older of course and interesting to see how the two remaining original guys would take to having someone else singing ... and taking much of the limelight.

Answer was to have extended drum, bass and guitar solos, the last particularly lengthy.  In the old days bands used to stretch out on long solos of course but that was because they didn't have many songs to play so they just strung them out.  Cream was the first to do this so their concerts could last longer than an hour and a bit.  Queen didn't need to do this as their song list is very impressive indeed and could have easily taken up the 2 hours or so with just great song after great song.  Here's the setlist:

Now I'm Here
Stone Cold Crazy
Fat Bottomed Girls
In the Lap of the Gods... Revisited
Seven Seas of Rhye (the first song they played on Top of the Pops incidentally)
Killer Queen
Somebody to Love
I Want It All
Love of My Life
These Are the Days of Our Lives
Bass Solo
Drum Battle
Under Pressure
Dragon Attack
Who Wants to Live Forever
Guitar Solo ...endless segueing into...
Tie Your Mother Down
Radio Ga Ga
Crazy Little Thing Called Love
The Show Must Go On
Bohemian Rhapsody

We Will Rock You
We Are The Champions

Interesting too the way they integrated video of Freddie Mercury into the show in the key songs you cannot imagine anyone but him singing -- Bohemian Rhapsody being a standout of this (see video from first ACC show, great stuff).

But as for the 4th original guy, the one who wrote that fabulous bass intro to "Another One Bites the Dust" and Freddie's coming out song "I want to break free"... well they didn't do them at all and didn't talk about him either.  Wikipedia's recent chit chat about this is quite revealing.

But as for my bucket list, well another one has bitten the dust.  And very well they did it too!

Yes, everyone was on their feet singing "We Are The Champions"

Not the French again...

I overlooked this post from a couple of weeks ago as I couldn't find any pictures.  Now I have so here it is.

It seems to not matter where you go but there grinning at you is likely to be some Rene or Thierry smirking away because they got there first.  Or at least that's what they say.

So it is in that vast tract of land in the middle of the USA called the mid-west.

Its all about two guys Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau who in 1673 took their little canoes thousands and thousands of miles over many years from Quebec across the width of half of Canada through the great lakes and then down through various rivers until they hit the motherlode, the Mississippi, which in an instant whirled them down to the confluence firstly of the Illinois River (north easterly direction towards Chicago) and the Mississippi near a town today called Grafton, Illinois where they and their comrades carved a cross out of the rock for all to see next time they passed.

"Now listen Mr. Lewis, this is what I want you to do... see the big question mark?  I want you to fill that in..."

They didn't stop there though but carried on down the Mississippi until they came to the confluence of an even greater river system, namely the Mississippi and Missouri just outside modern day St. Louis.  There they did stop and started an encampment that they called St. Louis after Louis IX, the patron saint of France.  That was in 1674.

Other French Canadians carried on down the Mississippi until they came to the Gulf of Mexico where they founded yet another settlement called New Orleans (actually Nouvel Orleans if you want to be picky) where a whole bunch of French Canadians ended up after they lost the 7 Years War to England in 1763 and gave up all of Canada.

Fast forward 40 years to beyond the War of Independence and that other upstart Napoleon who had run the French treasury dry by his endless wars but was now at peace for a short period when the slave revolt in today's Haiti destroyed the French presence in the Caribbean.  It made him realize that (a) there was no chance France could support a colony that far away from France without a navy that could challenge the Royal Navy, and (b) that maybe as those Yankees had asked to buy New Orleans, perhaps he could actually negotiate a better deal before he lost the territory altogether.

Ever the pragmatist Napoleon figured out that $15 million in 1803 money meant he could pay his armies for another couple of years to enable him to move against Austro-Hungary, the German states and Russia in a series of shattering campaigns that catapulted him to total supremacy in Europe, and promoted him to the position of Emperor.

It also doubled the size of the USA and prompted Jefferson to ask his personal secretary, Merriweather Lewis, to head west out of the new US city of St. Louis along the Missouri River to find the Pacific Ocean, meet and deal with Indians, chart maps and any new flora and fauna he may find, and generally enable the US to lay claim to more of the Pacific North West to bring Jefferson's vision of the USA 'from sea to shining sea' to fruition.

Doesn't sound much today but Lewis had the boats built in Pittsburg and sailed them down to St. Louis.  Took months.

Lewis contacted his former Army CO, Captain William Clark, to ask him to accompany him on the trek.  Clark had opted out of the army so agreed.  He it turned out was the practical one whilst Lewis was the botanist, zoologist, and general all round recorder of the trip.  Clark was an experienced cartographer and his maps of the journey were amazingly only 40 miles out.  No GPS to help him either.

Rather like at Jamestown, this was not an unplanned trip even though big.  They took over a year to plan things out with a blank cheque from the President.  Trouble was they didn't know what to take and why... all into the great unknown.  Rather like planning a road trip today.

We started our voyage of discovery at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, a national park with security like any international airport (for goodness sake), where there was a museum dedicated to this journey only and its import in the expansion of the USA to what it is today.

Built in the 1970s this is a monster edifice. Great views.

There's an interesting chronology of events year by year that follows the US between 1800 and 1900.  In 1800 the population was not much over 2 million, by 1900 it was nearly 100 million.  In summary after Lewis & Clark, other expeditions went out in other directions both further north and south as one main objective was to find a practical path through the Rockies.  Lewis & Clark's expedition nearly died of starvation in the nightmare winter crossing as where they chose to cross was not that wise.  Others found easier routes making the great westward treks more easy (they were still tough of course but not impossible).  By 1850, the far west was colonized, Indians displaced and annoyed, and settlements were starting to put down real roots.

Amazing how quick it all was after that start.

We then went to the museum at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri -- 2 huge rivers which simply joined up north of St. Louis.  Lewis & Clark kicked off from there in their great adventure and the museum made much of it (very well indeed).

Missouri to the left, Mississippi to the right.  

I'm always amazed how people with nothing more than a hope and a prayer and (in this case just as with the case of the Jamestown settlements) over a year of planning with the specific and direct assistance from the US President (Jefferson) can achieve such amazing results.

Only 1 person on the trip died -- soon from a burst appendix -- and unsurprisingly given what was to follow, there were no Indian incidents other than a couple of Blackfoot who stole from the party and were shot and the numerous incidents of STD's that the party picked up from the Indians who according to Lewis' journals were riddled with it -- not a point that is usually highlighted.

3,700 miles there and back over 2 and a half years.  Sounds like a good road trip for us sometime soon! Hopefully in less time.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The great cocoon

Apple doesn't call it a cocoon of course, the euphemism they use is 'environment' or 'eco-system', suggesting that within the world all is well but beware outside, it is a free for all.  Anarchy.  Chaos.  Nothing is ordered or more importantly works.

First of all I am an Apple fan.  Since I first bought a Mac, I like the fact that when you plug it in everything just works.  Having owned PC's for many years you do know that that is simply not the case with them.  They crash all the time.  Of course Apples do crash too, but far more infrequently but annoyingly when they do, you don't actually realize it all the time.  It takes the form of something not working quite right and you simply don't know why.

I put it down to my ignorance.  Being an older guy I don't intuitively understand tech things as well as the young uns but unlike them I do try to read the manuals and how-to guides that Apple annoyingly doesn't produce.  However that does mean that the manuals being written by Mac fans respect the glitches and deal gently with the stupidities within the Apple systems and provide a sensible and practical series of suggestions how to get round things.  In short, they are pretty good.

But they don't always answer all the questions that you have.

Isn't that always the case though?  If you don't know things then you don't know what you don't know and you're sort of happy as a result... geeks call you ignorant and sneer when they say "Oh yes, well this is how you take care of that... go into Settings, then Preferences, then...."

I can't go through more than 2 layers of stuff like this before clicking off which is why I like the manuals.  You just re-read it.  The geeks don't repeat themselves.  They just sniff and smile sympathetically.

But being in Toronto for a bit there's a nice Apple store in the Eaton Centre where they run workshops explaining things in layman's language... well that's the idea anyway.  So we signed up for some classes starting with iPad before moving onto the iCloud.

I realize things are moving away from storing everything to do with your life in one place as there's just too much (what DID we used to do before computers?) so things are moving to the Cloud.  Got that but why can I not put my photos from my computer onto the Cloud when that is the most data hungry thing around and when everybody takes photos on their 'devices'?

Seems dopey to me but apparently this is changing with a new thing iCloud Drive in a few months enabling mega-something of storage in the sky to include photos.  However I talked to an Apple store guy somewhere recently and talked just about this and he suggested Flickr as the better suggestion.  A non-Apple product that works, he said.  Well I dutifully signed on and it didn't.

That brings me onto another thing.  Why is it that when the PR blurb says that such and such is the greatest thing doing X since sliced bread and when you say OK, here you go, it just doesn't do X?

For a tech ignorant this is eternally annoying and also makes you question if its YOU, not the other thing.  That's when I found the chat pages and blogs devoted to just stuff such as this.  The Flickr rants were endless and made me realize that it wasn't me but Flickr's foibles.  Quite a relief but it actually didn't help out with a solution though.

The classes Apple provided were very informative with a college age person providing very patient answers to endless dumb questions -- "Now that's a really good question..." as a start to any reply always gives it away.  It wasn't but they are making you feel good.  The answer was so obvious... "Go to Settings, click on Preferences, then...."


The iPad course
But both courses were informative and answered many annoying little questions we had (and of course created some more that we didn't know about before). We've signed up for 3 more in the coming week!

My current struggle is with a new iTunes feature called iTunes Match, a service that enables you to store your music in Apple's cloud and connect from any Apple device you have, iPad, iPhone or Computer.  It costs $27.99 for a year's subscription and was THE solution I was looking for so I connected and made all the Settings changes suggested and pushed a few buttons.

It is a simple 3-step process.  The first is Apple gathering information about my iTunes library.  Tick, all done.  The second is Matching all songs with songs in the Apple iTunes store -- this is a nice feature as if there is a match, then Apple simply upgrades any matched song with the Apple format which is probably better quality than what you had to start with.  Finally, it matches all the songs not on the iTunes store, including any pirated tunes you may have from various sources.  Well my installation is currently locked at 3313 out of 6570 songs in stage 2.

Based on the original reason why I like Apple (it works), this isn't the way its supposed to be.  It should just work... like say Apple TV, for example.  So I looked at the blogs on the subject and find that it is entirely normal to be hung up in stage 2.  The rants again are again endless.  One caught my attention because it did the full geek things, "go to Settings, click on Preferences...."  There's no escape!

Russell, an IT consultant at my company, always told me that most issues can be resolved by turning the machine off then on again. So I thought I'd do the same with iTunes Match so I 'stopped' the download (which of course has already stopped but the button says STOP) and then restarted it.  The first time it jammed the number of matched songs was 2500 or thereabouts.  Its taken 5 resets so far to make it to 3313 so I'm getting closer.

Locked at.... 3311 this time!  Aaaghh!!!

I could of course call online support, but then I'd get a geek who'd tell me it was a great question and then tell me to go to Settings, then Preferences...

And now a disclaimer.  I am a shareholder of Apple and they have done very well indeed.  So thank you for your efforts, Mr. Cook and Apple staff. As the world has sold its soul to the IT devil, there's no escape from these things that it appears that we cannot now do without.  So you have to own the best.  But then again I am a Mac fan so don't take this as a stock recommendation or anything like that.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Gastronomy Domine

It is difficult looking back over the road trip to forget a key highlight being the various regional things we ate and drank which are of exceptional note.  Here they are in no particular order:

Chicago Pizza 
Probably the stodgiest thing I've ever eaten in my life.  In London 30 years ago there was a restaurant called the Chicago Pizza Pie Factory (closed now sadly) which I went to often.  Their pizzas were certainly deep dish but not this deep dish!  The pizza takes 45 minutes minimum to cook through but its worth the wait.  It just amazes me how even slim and small people can wolf back immense hunks of this pizza.  We shared a one person pie and left barely able to waddle, let alone walk!

Giordano's deep dish offering

Memphis BarBQ
Memphis BBQ is dry which is just how we like it.  That way you can taste the meat not the sloshed on sauce covering up any fault in the cooking.  It was great particularly when sprinkled with the dry rub after being taken off the grill just prior to serving.  That gave a wonderful extra something to the meat, usually ribs and brisket for us.

Lamb Ribs
Why hasn't anyone thought of serving lamb ribs the same way as pork ribs?  You get the trimmed down, so called French cut, racks of lamb which are nice in their own right.  But just wait and try lamb ribs barbecued the Memphis (i.e. dry) way.  Fantastic.  When you think about it lambs have exactly the same rib set up as pigs so why wouldn't they have spare ribs too?  Well they do and probably its the butcher that knows just how lovely they are so doesn't allow them to get out to the public at large.  He gets to keep them for himself instead.  Don't blame him at all.

Rendezvous BBQ in Memphis' dry rubbed lamb ribs

St. Louis Pizza
The other side of the coin to the deep dish is the wafer thin, hellishly crispy, cut into squares piece of deliciousness that is the St. Louis Pizza.  Lord knows why they do it this way, I am just glad they do.  Just fantastic.  We had one for breakfast one day which is a really good time to eat this type of pizza.  I think any time is good to eat this type of pizza actually.

Toasted Ravioli
What?  It happened by accident when a chef accidentally dropped a ravioli into a deep fat fryer.  OK its fried and anything fried tastes good, right?  We only had it once and it was ... OK.  Crispy for sure on the outside which is interesting but the inside remains a bit on the stodgy side.  Glad to have had it but I won't rush back for more.  And the title... no idea why its called 'Toasted' as its actually deep fried.  Could be because it sounds more healthy to be toasted.

And what we missed, again in no particular order:

St. Louis BQ
This is the wet cousin of dry BBQ with gushing amounts of sauce sloshed all over the cooked meat.  To be honest we didn't try that hard to eat it.

Frozen Custard Pie
Huh?  Just as it sounds except place in freezer and cut chunks off to eat... like an ice cream.  Never saw it.

Alligator and Shrimp Cheesecake
Honestly.  We went to a good cajun style restaurant and this was on the menu.  A bunch of guys came in after we'd eaten and went through a bunch of Louisiana favorites including steamed crawfish, oysters done a variety of cooked styles and this.  Imagine a cheesecake covered in shrimp and alligator and that's exactly what it was.

It would be wrong to talk about eats without what should wash it all down so in no particular order:

Mint Julep
I'd practiced by having a julep with coriander in Cayman a short while before which was ... well ... so when we were in Kentucky we just had to have the real thing that is served in gallons at the Kentucky Derby.  Made with bourbon, mint and sugar syrup over ice, this drink is not to be taken lightly at all.  I cannot imagine drinking more than two of these without the ability to retire to a quiet, cool, dark room for a nice lie down.

Old Fashioned
Made with bourbon, syrup again and something else, I think sweet vermouth, this tastes like velvet and warms you from the inside top to toe within two minutes.  About this time you also lose the feeling in your teeth so probably have another which really is a bad idea without the ability to retire to a quiet, cool, dark room for a nice lie down.

Old Fashioned on the left and Mint Julep to the right
This of course is unfair as there are hundreds of varietals all made with the same loving difference as the finest scotch whiskies.

This drink is made to different recipes in different places.  The basic ingredients are gin, campari and sweet vermouth but if you delete gin and add bourbon, you get the Peabody Hotel Memphis twist.  However if you take some port, put it in a barrel for 4 weeks and then add the aforementioned traditional ingredients you get the Missouri Athletic Club twist.  Both are really scrummy and if you are wise, you definitely have another and abandon further plans for the evening but instead seek out a quiet, cool, dark room for a nice lie down.

Barman Robert's Negroni from the Missouri Athletic Club
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Home of the King

Its been a few days since our visit to Graceland, Elvis Presley's home in Memphis, and I have been thinking about it quite a lot.

Firstly, by today's standards its not that snazzy a place and when you go inside it really isn't so cutting edge that you'd think Elvis crazy.  He took a lovely, big traditional home already called Graceland (Elvis being a fervent Christian loved the name, so kept it) and turned it into a family home.  He moved his mum, dad and granny into the house who helped in the office and cooked his meals and generally looked after him.

Elvis' living room

OK he had 3 TV's in the basement (not that big a deal today of course) so he could watch the 3 TV networks then available -- Elvis was an avid reader and had read that the President had 3 TV's for this reason too.

Showing on the TV when we visited were The Outlaw Josey Wales, Dr. Strangelove and Get Smart. Elvis was a big Monty Python fan too and loved reading.  

And the basement was a bright yellow.

And he had really great leather sofas and chairs.

This was a home.  Elvis' home.  He loved it.

Even his cars weren't that spaced out.  Elvis loved cars and bought, sold and gave away loads of them all the time.  His entourage in particular made out pretty well in this respect.  But he didn't sell or trade his mum's favorite pink cadillac!

I could rave about the place but really its a place to visit.  We went early in the day and paid for the full VIP package (everything but you get to the front of the line).  We spent over 3 hours there and by the time we left the huge car park was full of cars and the grounds were full of people... of all colors and nationalities, and of all ages too.

Elvis wasn't a song writer but he got co-credits for 'All Shook Up'

Today 'Elvis' is no doubt trademarked and his 'brand' is still worth a fortune.  I was trying to figure out who actually owns it all seeing as Elvis and his parents plus granny are all dead -- buried in the family memorial ground in the garden along with Elvis' still born twin -- but then of course his daughter, Lisa Marie is still around ...and visits regularly.

A very young Elvis

The Graceland experience really is a celebration of Elvis' life and legacy and focuses on all the good bits in his life (there are a lot).  It avoids much of anything about the Colonel and his addictions -- ironically Elvis was a non-smoking, teetotaler. His problems were apparently due to 'prescription drugs' issued by quack doctors.  The parallel with Michael Jackson in this respect is interesting.

I just loved it all!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Stairway to Cleethorpes

In the past few days we've been in Music City USA (Nashville) and Music City USA (Memphis).  Both claim pre-eminence for some reason or another ranging from birth of the blues, home of country music, home of the Grand Old Opry, the first (and second) place that Elvis ever recorded, Elvis' home town... the list goes on.  But I think it comes down to time, place and the name.

The original Opry

Of course being sited where they are helped.

Imagine you're a poor farmer or share cropper who is struggling to make a living in the southern states in the 1920's and even worse in the 1930's.  What do you do?  Well people did one of two things: they went north or west... along Route 66 to the Promised Land (aka California where land was cheap, fertile and being given away).

If they went north, they used highway 61 which goes up the Mississippi River, the dominant geographical feature here and before interstate highways THE main artery of the region.  First stop was the major staging port of... Memphis, next was Nashville or St. Louis and finally you ended up in the factories or building the new sky scrapers of Chicago.

Some made the entire journey, others stopped along the way and when they stopped they looked around for things to do and when it came to writing songs they found happily that both Nashville and Memphis are great names to rhyme with.  You can't do that with Cleethorpes.

Both cities though are fabulous for music aficionados, rather less so for other types of culture seekers.  Both cities have created sections devoted to music bars, honky tonks and dives that locals avoid like the  plague but which we happy tourists flock to.

And then there are the museums too.  Country Music Hall of Fame, the Smithsonian's Museum of Rock and Soul, Graceland, the Gibson Guitar museum ... these are the ones we went to.  There were loads more that we didn't all along the same theme.  Having gone through days of touring I am amazed how much can be said about stuff.  But then again I'm a fine one to talk seeing I do drone on in these blogs about nothing in particular.

So highlights in brief:

Country Music Hall of Fame -- simply terrific.  I didn't think I could spend 3 hours in a place devoted to country music but there was certainly enough.  Interesting how it all began with a Brit back in the early 1900's who decided purely from an anthropological view to track the similarities in British and Celtic folk songs in the remote bits of ex-colonial America, like the Appalachians.  He found that the songs were very similar but the instruments used were different which made the sound different too.  Fewer bagpipes, more twangy things.  He wrote a book laying down 100 or so tunes that had never been written out before and that was that.  Country music was now born.

Rock and Soul Museum -- wonderful.  Being a fan of both genres I found it interesting how the former came from basically one guy (Elvis) who wandered into a small recording studio called Sun Records in 1954 with $4 and asked to record a song for his granny's birthday.  He did and the engineer noted that he wasn't bad but somewhat derivative of all the droney country singers of that time.  However a short while later he rolled back again and asked to try out a few more songs.  The producer, Sam Phillips, said sure, Elvis handed over $20 and was introduced to a couple of musicians hanging around.  They recorded a couple of throwaway country ballads and when Sam went out for a while they decided to bang away at a couple of other things.  So just fooling around they tried a soul song by Arthur Crudup called "That's Alright Mama" but at twice the pace.  Sam came back unannounced and asked what they were doing.  Elvis apologized and said he wouldn't do it again but Sam said no, please do it again.  It sounded good.  So they did it again ... and 2 weeks later that first single was released and rock and roll was born.  And Elvis had a band too.

Elvis' choice of a soul tune (and later of blues and gospel tunes) brought black music to the ears of the mainstream and so launched the financially successful careers of a host of black musicians who would otherwise have struggled to become mainstream.

This is a very simplistic and brief rehash of all that stuff and I know I'm cutting corners in the explanations which made sense to me anyway.  The sociological stuff was a bit intense and I don't think it was just music that broke down the racial barriers in the 1960's.  It helped of course but was only one of many things happening at the time.

Graceland -- fantastic.  I've read quite a few biographies and autobiographies of musicians I like and with very few exceptions I've been disappointed as most of the stars are unpleasant, selfish egotists.  I don't much want to delve too deeply into the Elvis myth to shatter another but the Graceland view was that he was an exceptional guy.  It certainly is managed with taste and panache that Elvis I think would have approved of.  There were however no later on pictures of a chubby Elvis or details of the less seemly aspects of his life.  But then again this is a celebration not an expose.

I came away more of a fan than I arrived.

Gibson Guitar Factory -- so many things to touch and play with I was however disappointed in the end that I came out just as bad a guitarist as I was when I went into the factory/museum/shop.  I did get to play some beautiful guitars and wish I could have done better justice to them.

Others, mainly miserable spotty youths, had a great time and actually played pretty well which made me no happier either.  However one such youth actually bought one of the beauties and as he was talking to the world weary sales associate, you could see the beam on his face and the underlying excitement that he'd actually bought one of THE best guitars in the world.  Gibson only make to order.  By hand.  And really someone sits down with each majestic piece of work with a razor blade and trims the edges to give all the axes that white trim which ALL Gibsons must have.

I wish I'd bought one.  Not necessarily to play, you understand.  Just to hold some times.  I'd have chosen the E335.

The E335 as played by Alvin Lee at Woodstock in 1969.  They are still red but without those stickers 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Tennessee, Tennessee, there ain't no place I'd rather be...

If you look on the map of the US, you're faced with a series of oblongs that pass for states.  One of these not on the far right nor in the middle but sort of to the right of what looks like a blue ribbon down the middle of the country there's a long strip that heads out to the east.  That's Tennessee.

So geography lesson over, lets move on to the good stuff.

Nashville is the capital of the state (and according to our tour guide is the 57th largest US city -- which on balance I'm not sure is a compliment or otherwise) and pretty big but it went through the typical US disaster of the 1960's -- i.e. urban renewal which wiped out all residential living from the city centre to the suburbs leaving downtown a desert after working hours.  Its taken a while but the town planners have realized the way to revitalize downtown is reintroduce residential living.  And people are starting to pay attention and move back in.  South of the area we stayed in is an area called The Gulch.  Not an attractive name I grant but it is the urban renewal project of the city that is reinvigorating it with a series of new builds designed to reintroduce human beings to downtown.  The area is jumping.

But not in the same way as the old downtown area is.  That's the drag along Union Street to the Cumberland River which encompasses honky tonk heaven in the space of 3 or 4 city blocks.  Dozens of bars playing live country or other music (mainly other music actually) to thousands of tourists every day.  The night we arrived was enhanced by Kiss and Def Leppard playing at the downtown arena so 20,000 metal fans were in town too!  Quite lively it was too.

Honky Tonk heaven with world famous Tootsies in purple

We were in town for country though so the search encompassed a honky tonk and then the Grand Old Opry which as a tradition has to be one of the best.

The new Opry (top) and the old Opry, actually the Ryman Auditorium (below)

Started in 1925 rather by chance more than anything else, the radio show that is the basis for the Opry has been in place ever since with an ever changing repertoire of performers playing 3 tunes in 15 minute slots over just over 2 hours in duration.  The line up we saw was typical with a couple of old timers (John Conlee and Bobby Osborne & the Rocky Top X-Press) combined with some newer acts and a headliner -- apologies here, I don't know these people at all even though they were pretty good.

John Conlee in action

New country really isn't country any more though.  Sacrilege I know but with rock music fading in relevance country has usurped its space.  The new guys no longer twang and swing with stories of lost love, dogs gone bad and the misfortunes of a misfiring carburetor, but crack on just as the rockers used to down to the big amplification and rocking guitar solos.

Fortunately I like all that stuff so had a ball!

So were the honky tonks.

And the Country Music Hall of Fame -- really there is one, and it is pretty good too. We spent over 3 hours there with Elvis, Willie, Hank (actually many Hanks) and the various others.

The King at the hall of fame -- imagine you are 19 and want to record a schmalzy song for your granny's birthday costing $4 and you walk into a place called Sun Records and ask Sam Phillips if he minds.  You go into a studio and say hi to 2 other musicians who are your band and you cut ... That's All Right... and change the world.  If you can imagine this then you are Elvis! 
And the barbecue.

And the cocktails at the hotel, mainly Tennessee whisky based which were rather nice too...

Thursday, July 17, 2014

On the Road

We managed a reasonable start time to head out to Nashville so decided to go on the backroads instead of the wretched I65 that we endured yesterday.  This meant we would pass through real country where people lived instead of exit something or other with the endless lists of chain hotels, gas stations and food options -- much as I do love Mac Donald's!

Which turned out to be our first stop and an immediate moment of unsurpassed friendliness from the locals.  I managed to drop my fresh coffee all... well, all over, so went back into the McD and asked for another coffee.  The young girl behind the counter seemed surprised I'd be back so soon for a refresher but when I explained she immediately poured another without charge.

I was impressed to be sure but on reflection isn't that really how it should be?  Maybe we've become too hardened by routine poor service and having to pay for absolutely everything, including endless stuff that used to be free.  I know its been a while since we've flown but I still can't get over the advertisement from some airline or other that expounds "The first bag's on us!"  It always used to be, for goodness sake.  They've now started charging for absolutely everything including luggage so to give it away free is nothing more than nauseating, pure and simple.

But thank you young lady and thank you McD.

The country was rather more rolling, this being the Kentucky hill country.  I was on the lookout for illicit stills but couldn't see any.  Not sure I'd know one though.

Jim Bean's still -- quite a big one and not illicit either

However the towns we passed through were all pretty similar in one way, they all had at least 2 churches, one baptist and one other (never Catholic though).  This is solid southern baptist country clearly but the thing that I don't get is how those sometimes tiny towns could support 2 churches yet no other businesses of any sort.  No general store, no bar/diner, no post office.  Nothing.

All the baptist churches had those white spires which differentiated them from the other churches

Sadly most businesses have moved to major road intersections and as everyone appears to have transport, that's where they all head to.  So no small town small businesses, no mom and pop shops.  That's sad.

But I still don't understand the 2 churches minimum per town thing.

We spent a lot of time on the famous highway 61 -- the road from Chicago to New Orleans that Bob Dylan so famously caught with his seminal album of the same name.  This is the route people from Mississippi and the Delta used to travel up to Chicago to find work.

All in all a most pleasant 4 hour drive broken up with some BBQ in a town called Glasgow that did have shops and a BBQ restaurant called Big Moose's before we made it to our hotel in Nashville, the old converted mainline station.  Amtrak stopped coming to Nashville so the railway became redundant here, hence the magnificent hotel.

Home of the Lip

I hadn't realised Louisville, Kentucky was so far away from Chicago.  When I checked on Google Maps, it was only 4.5 hours away but according to our GPS it was more like a 6 or 7 hour journey.  We did discover in the middle that these states had different time zones but that only explained part of our confusion.

It was a 300+ mile boring as hell trip along the interstates, mainly I65. The bits of Illinois that we saw after leaving Chicago were exceptionally industrial and dull and Indiana was (a) far nearer than we thought and (b) depressingly dull in the same way that Illinois was.  Once we got through the industrial north and reached the farming southern parts, even the farming parts were dull.  And as that was virtually the entire trip, well to say the least it was not that memorable.  Thankfully.

I suspect it was something to do with only driving on the interstates for today we drove on side roads through smaller towns and saw stuff, way better than waiting for the next exit sign showing the usual chain lodging, food and petrol alternatives.  I'd like to think there's more to Indiana than just lousy roads (and the interstate was more pot holey in Indiana than in both Illinois and Kentucky) and an almost flat topography.  Indy 500 and now what...?

The southernmost border of Indiana is the Ohio River, now part of the huge waterway system connecting to the Mississippi and New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico to the far south.  Huge river with loads of bridges over it.  Immediately on the other side was Louisville, Kentucky.

My immediate thought was big bridges closely followed my second which was how on earth did they stay apart in the Civil War?  Indiana was a split state -- union in the north, sympathies with the confederacy to the south.  This means they had no chance as there wasn't a huge river between the sympathetic bunch and the Yankees.  It would have helped that Kentucky had that huge natural border to keep the union at bay.  At least a bit more anyway.

Strange this was an early thought but the civil war is still a very active thought in many people's minds so curiously relevant still.

The city itself is home to the KFC YUM Brands stadium.  Now YUM is the parent company that owns the KFC, Taco Belle and Pizza Hut franchises so has a real right to call the stadium they sponsor what they want.  If I was from Kentucky though I'd be pretty ticked off about a company called Kentucky Fried Chicken.  This means there's no other valid fried chicken from Kentucky other than KFC which is total nonsense.  Nobody now can therefore call what they do Kentucky Fried Chicken.  Someone must have been sleeping when that name was trade marked!

 Weird buildings with identical lighthouses on their roofs some 30 stories high.  They were working lighthouses. Louisville is hundreds of miles inland.

The hotel we stayed called the Galt House Hotel is a monster with 1300 rooms making it one of the biggest non-Las Vegas hotels in the USA.  It and the town houses lots of conferences so the restaurant scene there is pretty good.

What they are famous for though is bourbon and the Urban Bourbon Trail as well as the Distilleries Trail.

I don't much care for bourbon but was determined to try (as was Viv).  However I saw that the hotel had a rotating restaurant with views over the city and river so that got in the way but not all was lost as we found they served bourbon too (and the hotel's bourbon bar stocked 151 different types if we ran short later on).

It was an ugly idea as we decided to have bourbon based cocktails before the go it alone premium bourbons that came later.

The cocktails were very strong indeed.

Old Fashioned and Mint Julep

The individual bourbons were very strong indeed too... and quite large.

We'd been advised to try neat, then add ice cubes and if all else fails water.  However plans A through C were all disastrous so I added the bourbon into the remnants of my Old Fashioned cocktail to try to make it more palatable.  Viv later did the same except her cocktail was a mint julep.

This was depressing as I've always wanted to be able to drink scotch (in fact any whisky, bourbon or stuff like that) but always have the same gag reflex kicking in.  Pushing it all back swiftly moved from a pleasure to something far less pleasant.

We finished up an otherwise fine meal promising never to drink bourbon again.

It also meant we were in no position to go out to examine what else Louisville has to offer for which apologies must be rendered.  Leaving this morning, it looked quite nice.  But I don't know that for sure.

Sorry Kentucky. We'll try better next time.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Chicago, Chicago what a wonderful town...

Good old blue eyes, Frank Sinatra, sang this song memorably and he is right.  It is a great city.  We only spent 4 days there but we're sorry to be leaving.  We had so much fun.

The architecture tours were terrific as was the free zoo, the baseball game, the public transport, the cocktails and the meals and...

Deep dish pizza at Giordano's was sensational...

The oldest German bierhaus in Chicago was a great haven from the torrential rain...

The elevated railway is truly iconic... the system works too...

I found the beginning of Route 66... just need to do the rest!

Traditional baseball at Wrigley Field...

Some fine blues at Blue Chicago...

Fantastic architecture...

The first MacDonald's drive thru ... and incidentally buzzing at 3 am after the clubs start winding down.  Highly recommended are the chicken nuggets..

Really good free zoo...

Awesome breakfasts!

Terrific cocktails and filme noire at the Drake Hotel... it was a Vincent Price horror movie from the 1950's ...

Great digs too... the Godfrey Hotel is all of 4 months old and still has that new hotel smell...

Thanks Chicago, we'll be back.