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Category Archives: USA 2013

Class Wars

Returning home from a trip is always tough, especially when jetlag is combined with crap weather, or more specifically “freezing cold it can’t possibly by April can it?” weather.

I decide to take the tube back to St Pancras from Heathrow airport – on the basis that I’ve paid for a first class train ticket home, which also means use of the first class lounge.

OK, it’s essentially comfy seats and free tea and biscuits, but after an overnight long haul flight it’s a welcome relief. And equally hilarious to wander in from the platform looking (and probably smelling) like a hobo. That’s hobo, right?

And yet it’s a good job I arrived in the morning, because East Midlands Trains have now started to charge “a small supplement” for using the lounge on advanced tickets during the afternoon rush hour. A quick tweet to the company suggests that it’s a question of capacity in the First Class lounge.

Well forgive me, but when was the last time you saw a full First Class carriage? What’s more, not one of the suits using the facilities this morning seem capable of closing the door to the freezing platform.

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2013 in Travel Stuff, USA 2013

 

Bat City

Just before sunset,hundreds of people line the Congress Bridge over the Colorado River. On the water, several tour boats jostle for position, along with modern-day pedalos, powered by people sitting upright on what looks like an exercise bike. And they’ve all come to see one of Austin’s most unusual sights. Because when it gets dark, colonies of bats from below the bridge sweep up into the night sky.

As the sun sets, noisy flocks of birds take roost in the trees lining the River. It’s almost as if they’ve come to see the show as well – in the style of Roobarb and Custard.

My guidebook suggests that up to 1.5 million bats can be here at any one time, especially during early Spring. And although we see cameras flashing and hear people cheering on the south side of the bridge, people on the north side see nothing. Time, then for some more entertainment.

If Sixth Street is like Nashville on steroids, Red River Street is its older and wiser cousin. Who doesn’t care much for appearances. But who could resist a bar called Beerland?

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Trust me, it’s as dingy looking on the inside as it is from the street. But the musicians in these bars are, for my money, the ones with the real talent. Karen Eubanks writes her own songs, and has a powerful, raw voice which the crowd love. And she’s one of several acts tonight at the Red Eyed Fly – another bar which, if you saw it back home, you’d probably avoid.

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You may have noticed that these pictures were taken during the daytime. Austin is a safe city, on the whole. But it didn’t quite feel right carrying too many valuables around Red River Street. Its corners tell the story of the city’s homeless – at least the ones you can see. There’s not too much open begging here and the people who live out of shopping trolleys are probably too drunk or high to be able to inflict any real damage.

Many of the bars on Red River don’t even bother with such subtleties as branding, so when I see another shack with a sign simply reading “Irish Pub” I think it’s got to be worth a go.

Gerry, the co-owner from North Dublin, has been running the place since the mid nineties, long before Austin became a major music tourist attraction.

“It gets mad here with the festivals. South by Southwest. You couldn’t move in here. But there are quiet patches too. Still, it’s not a bad living.”

And that reputation only seems to be growing. On Second Street, a major new hotel is being built.

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Texas isn’t quite what I expected it to be – but in a good way. Austin in particular has a hugely diverse community, a high tolerance level (two downtown gay bars and more on the outskirts) and, of course, the enormous music scene. Oh, and if you fancy a curry, try these guys…

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Posted by on April 2, 2013 in Travel Stuff, USA 2013

 

A Whole Lotta History

The mighty Colarado River – known as the Red River – snakes its way through the middle of Austin. And thanks to some neat design, there’s a good view from the elevator mounted on the outside of the hotel.

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The sun is beating down on the city today, a welcome relief from the chilly winds that seem to have followed me around on this tour. By night, Austin rocks. By day, it’s all about history with a visit to the State Capitol building, modelled closely on its Washington counterpart.

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In terms of scale, it’s a bit smaller than the one on DC. But in typical Texas style, it’s seven feet taller. And amazingly, most of its buildings are open to the public with no supervision. A quick check through security gets me into the corridors of power

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In odd-numbered years, the State Legislative bodies meet for the first part of the year. And the House of Representatives is in session, so I take a seat in the busy public gallery.

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In the enormous room below, democracy is in action. Various members of the legal community are giving evidence in what sounds like a debate about the role of judges. Here, they’re elected by the public, and campaigning happens in the same way as it would for electing a politician. It’s hard to follow exactly what’s going on, but it’s a timely discussion. On the local news a District Attorney and his wife have been shot in their home right here in Texas – just a couple of weeks after his own deputy was murdered. ABC News carries the strapline “State of Alert” on it’s news. Although not everyone seems so concerned.

“Frat Girl – get over here!”

It could be a chat up line on Sixth Street – except Frat Girl happens to be an unruly dog being shouted at by her owner at the bus stop. The young guy with her is carrying a sizeable rucksack with a guitar strapped to the back. I hope Frat Girl is also the name of his band.

Back at the State Capitol, the grounds contain some impressive monuments charting the turbulent history of Texas. For the Mexicans who ruled this area for centuries, it was a case of taking the bull by the horns.

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There’ve been battles aplenty, and each section of the State’s story is played out through a series of statues and memorials.

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Posted by on April 1, 2013 in Travel Stuff, USA 2013

 

Austin Powers

On 98.1 KFAT, the emphasis is on country music. And adverts for tractors. And cosmetic dentistry. These guys know how to play to the Texas demographic. Welcome to Austin, which is blessed with clear skies as we approach

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On the ground, an enormous man takes me to the shuttle van, and turns out to be the perfect host to introduce me to the kind of things that make Texas tick.

“Ah’m oh’n ma THIRD wife. Don’t know why – that’s just how it turned out. See those folks of the roadside? They’re sellin’ paper mâché eggs. Y’know, fer Easter. Ahh bought some for ma daughter filled with confetti. Bah the way, look out fer traffic. You don’t wanna be drivin’ in this town when it gets busy.”

Fortunately for me, downtown Austin is fairly compact, so there’s no need for a car. Although from the eleventh floor of my hotel, it seems typically Texan. Huge. Even NewsMutt is impressed.

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As soon as I step out onto Congress Street, I can feel the heat. At 7pm it’s still about 20 degrees, and pretty humid. At first the city seems quiet – but it’s Easter Sunday, so many people will probably be at home. It’s a stark contrast to two weeks earlier, when Austin’s biggest music event – South by Southwest – was in town. Someone even left their guitar behind

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For over fifty years, Nashville has had the unofficial title of Music City USA. The phrase was coined by DJs at radio stations in the 1950s, as the town grew into a major centre for discovering new artists and recording music. But as you turn onto Sixth Street in Austin, it’s not difficult to see how this place is quickly becoming the New Music Mecca.

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For this picture, it would be easy to think that Omar Lopez and his buddy are all about country. But the guitar and fiddle make a mean and unusual combination of Latino and Gypsy Jazz. The small crowd are captivated by Omar’s skills. With just a small distraction behind them,

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“Every night I get to give people a buck!” enthuses the Bronco operator. For five dollars you can endure a stomach churning experience of being in your very own star spangled rodeo. The area around the Bronco itself is well padded, though there’s also a lengthy legal disclaimer to sign before you get on. I give it a miss and head instead to the Chuggin Monkey.

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This is proper Honky Tonk country. A strip of bars where there are rarely any cover charges, and some impressive musicianship. I have no idea what these guys were called, but their lead guitarist rips up rock solos in the same manner as he probably eats breakfast, lunch and dinner combined.

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By 10pm, Sixth Street is starting to buzz a little bit more – though many of the bars are still empty. But it doesn’t stop Austin’s performers, including a great blues quartet.

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With this amount of talent around in just three bars, I may just end up joining in with a song later. Look out…

 
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Posted by on April 1, 2013 in Travel Stuff, USA 2013

 

Meet The Neighbours

Stay downtown, meet the tourists. It’s simple enough to work out that if you really want to see what a city has to offer, you should spend some time with the locals. And a chance encounter in the Inner Sunset neighbourhood gives me a real insight into how San Francisco rolls. For starters, there’s a great sense of community, and everyone’s invited.

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I stumbled across this area using the Muni, San Francisco’s metro system. It spends more time above ground than it does beneath it, snaking down residential streets where people obediently park their cars on either side of the tracks. And at the junction of Irving and Ninth Street, lies the heart of this community.

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In Howard’s Cafe, Zeke introduces himself to me as a writer. But he’s more than just that. Zeke is your official 100% Older Gay Man Who’s Seen More Than His Fair Share of Life’s Ups and Downs. His business card puts it in more compact terms : “Jehovah’s Queer Witness”. He has a thousand stories about gay life in San Francisco, which is largely centred around another neighbourhood, the Castro.

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This is the centre of one of the world’s biggest and most recognised gay quarters. Bars and shops line the streets, together with an enormous sense of history. Harvey Milk, the famous activist, opened his camera store here in the 1970s. Today his name and cause live on with a Plaza named after him. And, of course, people like Zeke – who’s currently in the process of trying to get his online book published.

Now I realise that some regular visitors to the blog would have been expecting some stereotypes and less than subtle euphemisms. So allow me to give you a couple.

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Oh, it’s so San Fran. As is the weather. Conditions here can vary within just a couple of miles, and a sunny lunchtime turns into a chilly afternoon at the end of the Muni N Line on Oceam Beach.

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The Pacific Ocean, though, is a magnificent sight. This is full stuff, and on a windy afternoon few are venturing into the sea. In fact, most seem to end up at another cosy local hangout, the Java Beach cafe. The free coffee refills and home made cookies are worth the trip alone, and customers of all ages and backgrounds know it.

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If you had to use one word to describe San Francisco, it would probably be independent. Sure, you can spend many hours and dollars at the Westfield Mall, complete with its curved escalators…

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Or you could head to the Ferry Building and see the Farmers Market – where you can even order your own poem.

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It’s my final evening in San Francisco. A city that first seemed a little overwhelming after the laid back nature of the South. But one that’s ultimately been full of enough surprises to tempt me back one day.

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2013 in Travel Stuff, USA 2013

 

From Irish Bar to Streetcar

Before I leave the Big Easy, there’s one last chance to pay homage to arguably it’s biggest local hero. Louis Armstrong Park is a huge tribute of statues, walkways and water features, although the modern art theme doesn’t quite match the traditions of Armstrong itself.

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The park also houses Congo Square, a place where the slave workers of the late nineteenth century would gather for their recreation. Even today, it’s a meeting place for local black families – or more specifically mums and their kids, who while away a bright and cold morning with loud conversation.

And so it’s north and west to San Francisco, and I’ve finally got a window seat. Which is just as well, because the clear skies mean we get fantastic views of the Mississippi.

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After four days in the south, the first thing you notice about San Francisco is how busy everything is. It reminds me of my last trip to the States, when I went straight from Nashville to New York City. The Chancellor Hotel is right on Union Square in the middle of downtown. It’s a great location, and from my eleventh floor window I can hear the clatter of the famous streetcars, coupled with the sound of live performers in the Square itself. On arrival, it’s a solo trumpet player, with a sound so melancholy I could by back in New Orleans.

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With my Irish roots, there’s nothing I dislike more than an Irish theme pub. But I’ve already read up about Johnny Foleys, and when the hotel receptionist recommends it, it seems only right to check it out – especially as it’s just a couple of blocks away.

Upstairs, the bar is busy with diners – but downstairs is where the entertainment is about to get started. And it seems to be an American tradition that Irish pubs here have a regular act of Duelling Pianos. It’s something I first saw in Memphis, and basically it’s a pub singalong, but with two performers and two pianos. It’s a simple enough formula, and one to keep the diverse crowd happy. On either side of me sit a Canadian graduate who’s interning for a credit card firm, and an Irish guy who’s most recently been living in Chicago. They’re joined by a group of Australians and party of gaming geeks from Wisconsin. Oh, and there’s a Bachelorette Party too. Its good introduction to town.

Thursday morning, and a couple of buses take me to San Fran’s most famous landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge.

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Whichever way you look at it, it’s an impressive structure. But don’t expect peace and quiet here. That view was only made possible by a lot of cropping – and avoiding the hundreds of Japanese tourists who seem to spend an age taking their own shots.

A much better idea is to head underneath the bridge to the Bay Trail – three and a half miles of great views looking back at the Golden Gate and taking in the sights of the yacht club too.

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The scenic walk takes you to Fisherman’s Wharf. I’ve heard a lot about this place before I came, and even considered staying in a hotel here. As it turns out, I’m pleased I didn’t, as they’re currently digging up half the road.

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I think I expected the area to be more polished than it actually is. The reality is a harbour area that essentially caters for tourists. Seafood shacks and more upmarket restaurants vie for business. It’s almost as if Whitby and the West End of London went out on a date together and ended up snorting a few lines of cocaine. Basically, it’s a bit screwed up, and doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be.

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Right. That’s the touristy stuff done with. Time for something more interesting…

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2013 in Travel Stuff, USA 2013

 

Go West

It’s Wednesday, and almost time to bid farewell to New Orleans. But first, what did I get up to last night?

“It’s all so frickin crazy round here! I’m Glenda. How you doin’? You swinging with both fists?”

This isn’t an expression I’m familiar with, and I quickly start to wonder where this is going. Then I realise she’s referring to the two beer bottles in my hands. This is Bourbon Street, where seven dollars seems steep for a drink until they give you two.

It’s impossible to work out which offers are on or off at any one time. Some of the bars here have happy hours from 4pm til 8pm, whilst others don’t start theirs until after 10pm. Yup, it’s incredibly easy to get drunk here, and Glenda knows it.

“So, my man dissed me and I’m on a training conference so I thought – what the hell?” In between as much of Glenda’s life story that I can hear, there’s some fine music on stage from a band playing blues, country and rock. Don’t like it? Go to the next bar. And the next.

But the competition around here is tough. Tip jars are the only money the bands make. There’s no entry fee to most of these places, but you’re expected to contribute before you leave.

“Did I just see you singing a Johnny Cash song in the karaoke bar?”

“No – though I do sing. Have a drink.”

Paxton is six feet two and gym fit. I can tell that just looking at his arms filling his top. And he’s a better bet than Michael, a sixty-something who seems obsessed by my hair. No laughing now. But it’s good to meet the locals. Paxton is home until May, and then returns to Germany for his job. At last, a Southerner who’s actually left the United States. Plus, he knows his music, even if he doesn’t sing Johnny Cash.

Oh – It Had To Be You by Harry Connick Junior. A debut performance for me. Thanks for asking. And some of what goes on tour stays on tour.

Look out San Francisco…

 
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Posted by on March 27, 2013 in Travel Stuff, USA 2013