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Category Archives: USA 2014

Eine Kleine Nachtmusic

“Y’know, we can’t believe it – every time we come to New York we find another neighbourhood where you just wouldn’t have gone to a few years ago – and then, you get somewhere like THIS!”

The woman and her husband from Washington DC weren’t wrong. If you take the L Train to Bedford Avenuein Williamsburg, you’ll find a thriving bar and restaurant scene. On North 3rd, a German beer hall serving up a fantastic mix of continental drinks and home brews too. Because most off these beers are quite strong, they’re not the cheapest in town – but they’re served up in style by bar tenders who really know their stuff, and are happy to let you taste before you buy.

I’m waiting for the cliched oompah music to start at any moment – especially when a group of musicians with brass instruments turn up. But although this is New York, I could easily be back in New Orleans when Baby Soda start up a Dixie inspired jazz set.

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The performance is as good as any I saw down south, and the place soon fills up with a crowd of all ages. Some of whom can’t wait to get up for a boogie.

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Unlike the brightly lit streets of Manhattan, Williamsburg is more of a low key area. Side streets quickly disappear into darkness, and there isn’t the benefit of an easy grid system to follow if you take a wrong turn. But Bedford Avenue itself has more than enough to keep you entertained for an evening, whatever you taste. At Spike Hill the emphasis is on rock, with Chris Cubeta and the Liars Club. I’m only in time to catch the end of the set, but these guys are good.

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There are plenty of bars still open, but Wednesdays in Williamsburg seem a little low key. And it’s almost time to go back home for me too. Though on the L Line, the entertainment continues with some gypsy jazz.

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Along with the violin, this busker has bells on his shoes. And whilst I can understand people’s reluctance to give money to casual beggars on the subway, this one deserves a few dollars.

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2014 in Travel Stuff, USA 2014

 

Going Underground

Most visitors to New York will concentrate their stay in Manhattan. And why wouldn’t you? All the main attractions are close by, and there’s no shortage of choice. But if you do come here, I’d urge you to hop across at least one bridge. Like Brooklyn’s.

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Not only do you get a great view of those famous tall buildings across the water, you’ll arguably get a more authentic taste of New York life.

“I’m originally from Noocastle Own Tyne,” says a short, black woman on the subway platform. “Moi dad wanted us kids t’have a better edoocation – and dat’s what we got. Now, where you wanna go, coz der’s the TOO train and the FOWR train, and you don’t wanna get dem mixed up.”

Thanks to her helpful directions, I emerge at the Brooklyn Museum. Now again, New York has countless, iconic museums to visit – but if you want a great mix of ancient and modern art, this is the place to be. And it’s huge.

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It took eight years to build, and the intention was to make it the biggest single site museum in the world. But in the late 1880s, the then independent city of Brooklyn was incorporated into the wider New York conurbation. There are plenty of permanent exhibitions here, and today there’s also a great installation looking at the role of art in the American civil rights movement.

The idea of one side trying to outdo the other is also illustrated at the New York Transit Museum. It concentrates on the history of the subway network, which was originally a series of different railways. You can see everything from the explosive beginnings of the subway’s construction to historical trains. Although some of these wouldn’t look out of place on the London Underground.

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If the weather hadn’t been so wet today, I could have gladly spent a few more hours looking around Brooklyn. It could easily be a holiday in itself. And if you needed to do any extra reading about the place, there’s a small local library too.

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By the way, for those of you who know me well, the Brooklyn Brewery only opens at weekends.

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2014 in Travel Stuff, USA 2014

 

The Right Side Of The Tracks

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. First impressions count. New York is notoriously known as being unfriendly and impersonal – and the stereotypes are reinforced on arrival at La Guardia airport.

“You stand DER and DEY’LL woik in an’ call your name.” I’m not sure if it’s a piece of helpful advice or an instruction, but the “Welcome Center” could do better in guiding passengers to the shuttle bus going downtown. When it does arrive, the carefree Jamaican driver seems to take an age checking people on board, but it’s fair enough. Most people are going to Manahatten, but it’s a big place and he has to work out the best route of getting everyone where they need to go.

The journey itself takes nearly two hours in the afternoon traffic, and our only accompaniment is CD of gospel music. This being a major city, nobody utters a word – and at first the music choice seems a little surreal. Yet, as we cross cross some of the biggest sights in the world – like Times Square and the Flatiron Building, songs such as “How Great Thou Art” seem strangely relevant to our surroundings.

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Last time I was here I stayed near Central Park in a four star hotel that was over-rated and whose staff simply had too much attitude. It’s a stark contrast to the Washington Square Hotel in the heart of Greenwich Village. The streets here have a local feel to them, and I soon park myself in a neighbourhood bar – Fomerly Crows – chatting to the after work crowd.

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Next, it’s a short hop to the West Village to see Jonathan. He’s a friend I met here in 2011, and he shares my love of travel. And other things. The Duplex on Christopher Street is one of the oldest and most mixed gay bars in this area of town. But one thing that never changes is the nightly piano show, where the host is more than happy to invite guest singers on stage. Your Song by Elton John, since you asked.

Mondays are fairly quiet in any city, and across in the East Village we stop off at the aptly named Eastern Bloc. It’s still fairly early and relatively empty. But it turns out that Lady Gaga has been in town, and some of her biggest fans stop by.

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Having done the big tourist attractions on my last visit, this time is a chance to see more of the neighbourhoods that make up Manhatten. It’s one of the best ways of avoiding the overwhelming size of the place. And some of the best views are in Chelsea, courtesy of the High Line. This railway track used to haul animal carcasses to the numerous slaughterhouses in the Meatpacking District. Today it’s a narrow, lofty park.

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Back at street level, and Chelsea Market is a must for any food lover. The huge converted warehouse is packed with coffee shops, bakeries and restaurants.

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Though if you fancy something more traditional, there are plenty of choices nearby.

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Nicely done.

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2014 in Travel Stuff, USA 2014

 

Nashville : On The Record

“It show is pretty weather ahht they’re,” says Jodi at the front desk. And it is. After a day of rain and biting winds, Nashville looks good in the sunshine. Broadway is still teeming with tourists, and plenty are heading for a Sunday morning snack.

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One scoop of ice cream seems a bit mean, so I opt for two. What arrives is enough strawberry and butterscotch to power a small child for the whole of his life. But if your sweet tooth hasn’t quite been satisfied (if you have any teeth left by this point), there’s always the home made candy store just up the street. Whenever I’ve seen those terrible, imported commercials for Werther’s Originals, I’ve always thought they invented that dreamy, slightly creepy looking shop. But it actually exists.

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I’m tempted to ask if they have a Cock On A Stick. Since this blog appears to be gaining significant worldwide traffic, I should explain that this is a sweet lollipop shaped like a chicken’s head, and usually only available at the Nottingham Goose Fair. In reality, anyone with a rock/candy mix could make them. Phew. That should stop me being arrested…

In the 1950s, a DJ on WSM Radio made an off the cuff remark, which became the slogan for Nashville the world over. He coined the phrase “Music City USA” and it remains to this day. Although the Country Music Hall of Fame honours one particular genre, just about everything was recorded here : jazz, gospel, blues, classical and – notably – rock and roll.

20140330-160053.jpgAway from downtown is Music Row. It might otherwise be just another business district of any city. But here the big deals are made. Major record labels rub shoulders with local artists who’ve set up their own companies. And the most famous of all is RCA Studio B.

It was also known as the RCA Victor studio, and it’s here where Elvis Presley recorded more than 250 songs. Ron, our immensely knowledgable guide, tells the whole story in a whirlwind tour barely lasting half an hour. You can only visit this place on a joint ticket from the Hall of Fame – but to stand on the spot where so much history was made is a must for any music fan.

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When I visited the States in 2011, I took the tour of Sun Studio in Memphis, and together with Graceland, they naturally make their own claim for Elvis. But he only cut half a dozen songs there; most of his glory days recording wise were here in Nashville. Naturally, as he became rich and famous, he wanted to travel in style. Back at the Country Music Hall of Fame is his “golden car” – featuring a paint job made of crushed diamonds.

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You want fries with that cheeseburger?

 
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Posted by on March 31, 2014 in Travel Stuff, USA 2014

 

Smashedville

Only in America would people refer to a shopping centre as a mall. And only in Nashville could this idiot mistake a park for a shopping centre. On the map, it clearly said “Bicentennial Mall”. Thinking that this might be some sort of Robin Williams themed retail experience, I got on the free Music City circuit bus. That’s right, they run a free bus to the mall. What else could it be?

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Obviously, it turns out to be a celebration of 200 years of local history. And although in this (borrowed) picture it looks nice enough, today it happens to be overcast with showers, and the place is deserted.

Thankfully, shopping is available at the nearby Nashville Farmer’s Market. Located in what looks like a former wholesale venue – with long, open sided sheds stretching narrowly up the street, there’s a big plant sale, a flea market and lots of home made food on offer. Including popcorn flavoured with cheese. It really shouldn’t work, but it does.

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Nashville is built on several hills, sweeping down towards the Cumberland River. It’s not exactly easy on the feet, and in wet and windy weather, even the shops and bars along Broadway look a little old and battered.

“I like Nashville, but New Orleans is better. They take more pride in the streets,” says the man in BB King’s bar. He and his wife are in town from Portland, specifically for the music. And in some ways he’s right.

Broadway in Nashville looks a bit like modern day Wild West, which I suppose is the point. But by 5pm on a weekend it resembles a late night Saturday in any English city. Young, drunk girls struggle to cross the wide streets without almost getting run over, and by the end of happy hour everyone’s in a party mood.

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Away from the honkytonks and saloons, the final night of Tin Pan South is underway. Billy and Chip Davis are joined by Michael Pyle (left) and another appearance from Stephony Smith. Just to poke fun at their own industry, Michael brings the house down with a song called “A Really, Really Small Town”, where any hint of romance is killed by a “visit from the sisters” – of the church, of course. They’re not actually related. Or maybe…

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The finale of the festival – at least downtown – is at the Hard Rock Cafe, where Amy Grant stars alongside Wayne Kirkpatrick,Phil Madeira and Amy Stroup. Now remind me, ladies, whose turn is it to look at the camera tonight?

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Posted by on March 30, 2014 in Travel Stuff, USA 2014

 

The Next Big Thing

If you’ve ever seen the TV show Nashville you probably imagine the country music scene to be a cross between Fame, Glee and Desperate Housewives. And as someone who knows as little about country as I do, it may seem an odd choice to be attending Tin Pan South, the annual songwriter’s festival. But the event happened to coincide with my visit, so after the random nature of the music scene in New Orleans, it’s time to do some serious gigs.

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It’s probably worth saying at this point that the title of this blog is 75% misleading : many of the performers at Tin Pan South are enormously influential in country music, because they wrote some of its biggest hits. This is the place to hear those songs stripped back to basics, how the writers imagined them when they were first composed. To that end, these are the kinds of performances that you’ll rarely see anywhere else.

First stop is the Hard Rock Cafe at the bottom of Broadway. Again, for much of the year this place is just a bit too touristy. But tonight there’s an impressive lineup of Chris Gelbuda, Stephony Smith, Hailey Steele and Levi and Marcus Hummon.

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It’s easy to heap superlatives on these guys, but when it comes to Levi, he really could be the next big thing. His lyrics can best be described as classic country : songs about falling in love, songs about making love and a healthy dose of references to Jesus for good measure. However, it’s easy for me to jest – because his voice and personality holds the audience captivated throughout. His dad’s pretty good too, embarrassing his son with a song about a one night stand. I predict big things for this boy.

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The fact that this gig is happening right at the foot of Broadway tells you the tale of two Nashvilles. Because on the strip, they’re playing strictly for tips.

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The Smokin’ Guns playing at Paradise Park may not have written too many songs, but it doesn’t make them any less dedicated to the cause of live music. The bar’s title could easily attract a lawsuit from trade descriptions, if it wasn’t so far away from the reality. Here, raw rock music mixes with a selection of beers from around the world and an adjoining diner serving up fried chicken. Actually, maybe that’s not so far away from paradise after all.

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2014 in Travel Stuff, USA 2014

 

A Date With Death

Everyone knows that they do funerals with style in New Orleans. The jazz cort├Ęge leading a parade through the street and all the showbiz that goes with it. And they may be gone, but they’re certainly not forgotten, as illustrated by the elaborate headstones in Lafitte Cemetery.

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Some of these memorials aren’t that old, but many look worn and sadly unloved. There aren’t loads of flowers or other tributes here. I’m not sure if this suggests the families no longer care, or they spent every last cent on building these tombs. But despite the morbid subject, it’s a peaceful place as a cemetery should be. The tourists here show respect.

It’s partly because many of the cemeteries are well away from the gaudiness of the French Quarter (with a couple of notable exceptions). Lafitte is in the heart of the garden district, where the houses speak for themselves.

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A few blocks south of the cemetery is Magazine Street, one of the nicest neighbourhoods in the whole city. The road is lined with antique stores, clothes shops and lots of diverse restaurants – in just a couple of hundred yards I can choose from Vietnamese, Chinese or Ethiopian cuisine. There’s plenty of home comforts too, especially at the District bar and diner.

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The house speciality are home-made donuts, priced according to decoration : simple, fancy or extra special. They also do a great selection of sliders, small bites of burgers, and hot dogs.

Public transport is always a subjective thing in any city. On me previous visit, one local man complained about the slowness of the streetcars. They might look nice enough, and as a tourist they’re a great way to get around. But commuting on them every day would soon get frustrating, with the cars seemingly stopping at every junction and the drivers having to negotiate intersections with regular traffic (the streetcar almost always wins). But for $3 a day, you can use any of the four main streetcar routes, or take any bus.

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As for the train? Well, that’s not really an option, unless you have a couple of days to spare. It’s possible to travel to Chicago, Los Angeles or New York from New Orleans. In fact, it’s one of the better connected cities in the States for rail travel. But today the Amtrak station is virtually empty. Just a few people are milling about, waiting for long distance bus connections.

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2014 in Travel Stuff, USA 2014