Lovin’ Nashville

So coming to Washington today marked the end of our musical journey. While New York might have some Rock ‘N ‘ Roll in it, Washington DC won’t keep the momentum going long enough for us to hold interest.

However there is some stuff to tell before we start in the Nation’s Capital, and plenty musings on the origins of music according to moi.

Thursday morning we started out by heading straight to the Johnny Cash museum in Nashville. When I say straight there I mean we waited half an hour for the regular free transport to appear, got it to within five blocks of our destination and walked the rest.

The bus only goes 2.5 miles from the Nearly-OutofTown hotel we are staying in.

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We love Cash…

Securing our tickets for the museum at $22 each we paused for breakfast in the little cafe near the gift shop. It looked nice and I had a decent bagel with egg, cheese and round sausage (like square sausage but round!). Wife had the French toast for a change. That kept us going for the tour to come.

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Johnny Cash is a genuine hero of mine. Even before I took any interest in country music, he was up there with all the other rebels of rock music that I took a shine to as a once pretentious young lad with ‘a soor look on ma puss’ (you know the teenage James Dean look we all aspired to) . However soor looks aside, the museum is pretty poor for so much cash (ahem).

There’s some guitars in the cabinets that he once played and costumes he and June Carter wore on stage (different ones – Johnny was never a cross-dresser – in public). But then it’s really just a series of banners telling his story from rags to riches, teen angst to drugged up hell-raiser, heathen to religious convert.  There are artefacts such as pages of handwritten lyrics and all the gold discs he won, but when compared to Graceland you don’t feel that you had value for money.

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It’s good stuff…

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…. just not $22 worth of good stuff.

But it’s good value compared to some of the other stuff we did – that’s to come later though.

After Johnny, we set out on that most important of musical journeys, the pinnacle of any man’s country adventure.

The search for a second hand guitar.

There are several essential qualities in a Nashville guitar –

1) It needs to look like a country guitar, 2) It can only be a Gibson or an Epiphone, 3) It needs to be second hand, and 4) It must twang at the very touch of your thumb.

It’s like magic. The right guitar is wand of country music – ‘the guitar chooses the cowboy!’

Of course price is also a huge factor.

So while several guitars spoke to me as we hunted through the Gulch for the elusive instrument that would take me from strictly rhythm to riff wizard, only one touched me where it mattered most.

The cheapest one.

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Happy but with a soor look on ma puss….

However I destroyed my wife’s day having to watch me like a kid in a sweetie shop at Carter’s Vintage Guitars twanging on $3000 dollar guitars (second hand), and that felt good.

Cruel?

Not at all – that was the set up. My second hand guitar was the instrument I needed to play for her my own song celebrating our 30 years of marriage this year. I played it for her in Nashville – the first time it has ever been heard.

It was rubbish – but it was personal.

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The love of my life….

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Oops! Wrong picture…..

And even better – my guitar is an Epiphone, it’s a hybrid electric so it looks well country, I am not its first owner (let’s assume some Nashville hero had it first) and it 100% twanged when I hit the strings.

My worry now is getting it home in one piece. The case has taken one dent already on the flight to Washington – a character dent we will call it.

So after that excruciatingly uncomfortable moment for my poor spouse (she should be grateful I couldn’t find a working guitar at Sun Studios), we headed out to hear some real music at Pucketts where we had our dinner.

I ate the pulled pork with Mac n Cheese on top and fries on the side. My bashful belle had Southern Fried Chicken with tatties and veg.  We finished with Pound Cake with ice cream then wandered into Broadway to hear some more actual music from the many bars.

 

Our last morning in Nashville was hot for a change. We’d had rain most of the time.

I started with a 5k run around the park near our Nearly-OutofTown hotel. There’s a replica building of the Pantheon there so there is an interest in the area. I would have preferred a Downtown run by the river – but you gets what you pay for.

We then waited about forty minutes for our regular transfer bus to almost reaching distance of Downtown Nashville and then walked the six blocks to the river side.

There is a foot bridge over to the Nashville Football Stadium and there is a lovely riverside park there which has great views over the city. You can still hear the music from Broadway (a little quieter) and the screams from the Party Cars are less screechy from here. When you’re my age you need some respite – considering this is half ten in the morning on a Friday and the town is already in full party mode.

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Bonnie Scenery from the park near Nashville Football Stadium

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One of many party buses to hire and screech from.

We moved on to take a tour of the original Grand Ole Opry theatre – the Ryman and ate a nice lunch in their cafe before going for our tickets. I had a steak sandwich and my muse had a chicken sandwich. Sounds plain but they were very nice and accompanied by freshly fried ‘crisps’.

We then paid $24 each for the theatre ‘tour’. We were a little annoyed to find that we could have got 10% off the cafe had we bought the tickets first. I bit my tongue.

Now the Ryman theatre ‘tour’ is basically getting inside to look at the theatre auditorium. That’s it, no backstage peak, no guide to tell us what wonderful things went on where. There is a video to watch telling the history of the place, and in case you forget that, you can read it all in the banners displayed around the back of the auditorium. There were tickets for the evening performance at this price. We could have seen the show and we’d have got the ‘tour’ for free.

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Ryman Theatre Tour… that’s it … you won’t have to go now.

The only joy in my heart at this moment was knowing that I’d be going home sometime to a lovely guitar that I bought second hand in Nashville.

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Yes, I did stop on every corner to pose like this.

We took the local bus to Opry Mills which is like the Eastgate Centre of Nashville.

When I say ‘like’ I really mean completely unlike of course. You can buy a 25 ft motor boat at Opry Mills. You can’t get a charger for an iPhone 4 at Eastgate.

You can also buy assault rifles and enough ammunition to start a small revolution if you so wish. They’re for hunting of course.

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‘Need a gun, Sir? Try the pick and mix.’

But the main purpose in being here was the Friday night radio show – the Grand Ole Opry.  We had ‘right-at-the-very-back’ tickets for the evening’s entertainment and we would be part of the wonderful history of country music forever now. Our claps, ‘whoops’ and cheers would enter the archives of Country Music recordings and be heard for all of eternity.

Now I had to grab a few pics with some of the locals before taking our seats. They all wanted to be seen with me. Must have known I had a guitar at the hotel.

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‘Not a bad guitar Johnny, but can you play an F minor ….’

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‘Can I take this one home?  … the guitar of course…’

The musical event that is the Grand Ole Opry is a joy to be part of. There are legends of the scene on every night and we were treated to some great performances. There are also some new bands on – and most of them are great too.

The best bit for me is the DJ who stands at the side of the stage and does all the ‘adverts’ live in front of the audience. Dollar Stores were sponsoring part of it so we heard all about their offers, and Boot Barn were giving three for two on cowboy boots.  It was hysterical.

The worst bit were the young performers trying to schmooze the elderly audience (not me – just everyone else in the audience). They were playing to the religious and portraying themselves as the new saints of the country scene. It’s as if the Opry is run by the church (maybe it is).

One girl sang a song in tribute to her brother who died three years ago. That I could take – lovely sentiment.

Not to be outdone the next band dedicated a song to an uncle who died of cancer and might have been in the audience if it hadn’t been for that. But praise Gawd nonetheless.

The next guy blasted out Amazing Grace before dedicating a song to a night he lost by getting pissed. He was serious.

I was waiting for the last guy to dedicate his number to his second cousin’s pet dog’s fleas which were eradicated by a vet two weeks ago – but he didn’t go there. Too emotional I guess.

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Grand Ole Opry Theatre. You still have to go there.

I was left thinking about this religious aspect to the whole music scene and wondered about its significance. The congregating slaves in Congo Square were there to praise and brought a new type of music to the world in the process. As music filtered north it was embedded into church gospel and country. Think about Elvis and his gospel, Johnny Cash and his later stuff when he got all Churchy.

Aretha Franklin was a gospel singer.

I wondered if the passion, the emotion that people put into popular music, was born in churches. It wasn’t so deep before that – Beethoven never ‘saw the light’. Bach never ‘broke down and cried.’

Think about Bono and how he delivers his words. Rock music, even when it is punk or anything that seeks to offend those with deep beliefs, is probably sung with passion because of those origins.

Now before I leave the music for you to decide, I must finally recount our getting home from the Opry experience.

We knew we would need to get a taxi home because the buses stop before the show finishes. What we didn’t know it that the entire civilised world outside of our little country has gone Uber daft and taxis no longer exist outside of a few hard-core companies determined to ride out the internet age. Good luck there.

The taxi stance we expected to wait at did not exist. The car park and all entry and exit roads were jammed with Ubers and people holding up their phones to see which one was theirs.

The one taxi we spotted shrugged us away when we asked how much it was to town. Clearly he was looking for a mug to sting for the week’s wages he had lost to Uber.

Sadly WE don’t have Uber because WE  won’t pay the extra cost and so WE don’t have a phone that works in this country!

Thankfully my lovely wife makes friends within five seconds of meeting someone and knows their entire life story within three minutes. Honestly, I can turn my back for five minutes and then find her arm in arm with a woman from Kansas who has three children (Ruby, Joy and Henry), married to Gary for fifty three years next Tuesday and who has been suffering from an in-growing toenail for over six months but fortunately it will be operated on my Dr. Milton of the Happy Acres Practice at three pm next Friday.

And this lovely woman (none of the above details are correct but my wife can fill you in if required), has told her husband that this poor couple ‘all the way from Scawtland’ are stranded and need a lift to their hotel.

He, being an absolute saint, agrees to pay for our Uber on his credit card and I have to fight to pay him for it back in cash.

It was a wonderful end to our night. Whoever they are – we love them.

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‘I’d like to dedicate this song to a couple we left behind in Nashville. God Bless them for saving us from having to pay forty dollars for a cab’

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Walking in Memphis

The journey to Nashville took just over an hour and we arrived in good time to enjoy most of the day in the city. Unfortunately my unwillingness to part with money forced us to wait for the delayed local service bus which then took well over an hour to find its way through most of Nashville’s lesser desirable areas to Downtown Nashville.

This is when we discovered that our hotel was located – not in Downtown Nashville but in Nearly OutofTown Nashville.

However there was a free shuttle bus service to and from the hotel and you just had to give them a call any time you needed a lift.

Give them a call?

Sadly my unwillingness to part with money meant that we were not equipped with mobile phones that are usable in the USA. We eventually found our way to the Hilton Hotel in town (Downtown), which is where we would have liked to stay, and imposed upon the lovely staff there to call their rival accommodation provider to come get us.

Our hotel is very pleasant though. Just not Downtown pleasant.

We hadn’t eaten much since brunch at the airport – a rather mundane bagel thing with scrambled eggs on it – so were anxious to get to town to find our first burger of the holiday.

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Those potatoes were as bad as they look!

When we went to get the shuttle we discovered that the ‘every half hour’ schedule is interpreted by the drivers as ‘any time we can be arsed’ and it was going to be a inordinate delay before we could get into town (Downtown that is). However the valet ordered us an Uber (on the hotel) to take us to Broadway Street where all the Honky Tonks are.

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No ‘dilly, dilly’ remember.

So we mooched about Honky Tonk central listening to some fine music coming out of the bars, marvelling at the fact that these hugely talented people are performing from four in the afternoon whether or not there are people to listen.

We chose Pucketts Grocery for our first burger as I had it on good local authority that this was the burger to eat in Nashville. We walked past the Ryman Theatre which is the home of the Original Grand Ole Opry, and determined to come back for a visit backstage when time permitted.

The queue to get into Pucketts was twenty minutes and we almost decided to go elsewhere. So glad we stuck it out.

I had the Mojo Burger which is their signature meal with baked beans, pulled pork, other stuff I can’t even remember. It was phenomenal. My good lady had the standard burger with extra toppings and it was wonderful too. Fries came with the burger too and, at 12 dollars, that equates to under a tenner per meal for something far, far better than I have ever had in the UK. So good we booked the place for Thursday night when there is live music on too.

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Got my mojo back!

We had dessert too, a pecan sponge thing cooked in a skillet with a blob of ice cream on top. Dear Lord it was sweet!

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Ridiculously sweet thing.

Now I had been checking the ticket sites for Ice Hockey games for all our locations this holiday but nothing appeared to land right for us. So I was delighted to step out on the street and see hundreds of fans heading to the Bridgestone Arena for a match between the Nashville Predators and the Carolina Hurricanes. We adopted Nashville as our team, headed to the ticket office and grabbed two tickets for 22 dollars each – sitting somewhere in the roof space.

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The cheap seats.

Now sport in the US is something to behold. It’s not like watching football or anything else in the UK, especially not in Scotland. The fans treat it as a game for a start. If they are losing they boo like they were at the Christmas pantomime, but they never throw coins at the ref, fight with the opposing fans, sing songs about religion or political conflicts that are completely unrelated to the sport, and they don’t appear to go home and beat up their partners afterwards (I can only assume the last one).

The spectacle of a sporting event in the US is wonderfully family friendly and wholesome. The kids are showcased dancing to music whenever there is a pause in play, servicemen are honoured by the crowd at half time and everyone follows the cue of the commentator who appears to tell them when to cheer and when to boo.

Anyway Nashville lost 5 to 1 and I felt as though I’d lost an ancient battle with a life-long enemy.

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They just don’t play ball here.

We headed home after that as we had an early start for our Memphis excursion.

At seven am we boarded our minibus with a small group of folks from all over the USA all taking the same pilgrimage to the home of the King of Rock-n’ Roll. It was a three hour drive with one stop for coffee to Graceland where we had VIP tour access to the home of Elvis Presley.

Now I can take or leave Elvis, but my holiday is about tracing the origins of modern popular music and that has to include the man who kick started the whole thing. As John Lennon said; ‘before Elvis there was nothing.’

Graceland is an experience unlike anything else. You could not believe the number of things to see and the four hours we had for it was not enough. The mansion itself is surprisingly small but fascinating to walk through. What you are getting here is a picture of a young man who had nothing and suddenly got everything. We even got a look inside his private jet. It’s completely bizarre to think the extent of his wealth.

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The Pool Room at Graceland

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Elvis’ TV room.

What you don’t get at Graceland is any real sense of his importance as a performer or how influential he was in forming our modern understanding of popular music.

But after Graceland we headed into Downtown Memphis to visit the home of Blues, Beale Street, and then on to Sun Studios where some of the most significant developments were set in motion.

Walking in Beale Street is like walking through a Blues festival. Just as you can listen to amazing jazz on any corner of New Orlean’s French Quarter or to Country Music in Nashville’s Broadway, in Beale Street you hear the most amazing guitar riffs being pounded out at every turn. It’s brilliant.

We ate dinner in Beale Street at a place called Alfred’s. I decided to try Catfish which tasted like … fish, while my dear lady decided to have something a little lighter – just some nachos.

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A wee plate of nachos.

If Beale Street was brilliant it was not as brilliant as a visit to Sun studios.

If you don’t know much about the history of rock, blues or country – then Sun Studios is wasted on you. But if you realise that Elvis Presley cut his first record ‘That’s all right’ here – that Johnny Cash cut ‘Hey Porter’ and ‘Cry, cry, cry’ here and people like Roy Orbison, Ike Turner, BB King and Jerry Lee Lewis all started out in this small studio – you have to stand in awe at how this tiny location has been pivotal to all that followed.

The tour here costs just 12 dollars and is worth so much more. They have an amplifier on display that belonged to Ike Turner but which was damaged in a car crash on the way to a recording session. When patched up it sounded fuzzy and distorted. That was the birth of distortion for guitar players.

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Birth of the fuzz-box right here.

The studio is also still laid out with the markers on the floor for optimal recording. Spots where Elvis stood and where a thousand other artists have stood since

I stood there too.

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I’m off to make my first record.

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‘You ain’t nuthin but … a complete poser!’

Our trip home was eventful too because we had a tyre blow out around the half way point and had to spend an hour at a gas station waiting for the AAA to come and replace it. I tried to be a hero and help with a roadside repair but the wrench in the van was the wrong size for the nuts on the wheel. The poor driver was quite embarrassed and we will be chasing a partial refund – mainly because I have an unhealthy obsession with holding on to my money – but also because we never got home til midnight and slept in, losing a couple of hours out of our time in this amazing city.

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Beale Street, Memphis.

Our driver on the trip to Memphis was Adam Pope – a top bloke from Nashville who only drives the van to keep the wolf from the door until he makes it big with his band. Check him out.

http://www.adampopemusic.com/

 

 

Every Night is Saturday Night

I am opening this second blog post with a heartfelt appeal to the people of the UK on discovering that the USA is caught in the grip of the most horrific epidemic since Cholera wiped out half the country in the 1830s.

It’s the dreadful practice of shouting ‘dilly dilly’ whenever you drink beer.

I am aware that the Bud Light advert has just appeared in the UK and that there will be a strong temptation for those with little mind of their own to catch the bug and start hollering it at every opportunity; and Saturday nights, stag parties and (heaven forbid) Hogmanay are all in very real danger of becoming little more than advertising events for an insipid beer.

Don’t let it happen. Dilly, dilly is a nursery rhyme in the UK – the advertisers have stolen this phrase from Lavender Blue and turned it into a drinking game, referencing our medieval history (a la Game of Thrones) in an effort to infest our minds and force us to buy Bud Light. I have already witnessed one British family with a round of this lemonade substitute toasting the Mississippi sunset with a chorus of ‘dilly, dilly’ and it was very uncomfortable indeed.

Of course I may be too late as the disease is highly infectious and a whole weekend has passed since the advert appeared in the UK. Sadly I can tell you that, if you do find yourself shouting ‘dilly, dilly’ you will more than likely lose your friends, your job, your partner, your children and (eventually your mind). You will die a lonely death in a metal skip in an alley-way amongst half-eaten Chinese food and urine soaked cardboard boxes.

I have seen these people in New Orleans.

The choice is yours.

Anyway enough preaching, let’s talk food.

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‘Ali there’s a moose in the bathroom!’

On day three of our Norlins visit we started the day by walking up to the French Market and wandered amongst the trinkets and crafts on display. My eye was caught by a multi-pack bag of beads for two dollars, three multi-packs for five dollars, and I mused over why someone would purchase so many strings of plastic beads. Then I realised that Norlins has that age old tradition of offering beads-for-boobs described in my last blog entry. Aha! I thought. So a bunch of lads on a stag party (or other male bonding event) can hoover up some cheap beads and take part in a great feminist tradition AND indulge in gross misogyny as the same time. It’s genius.

Remember now – no dilly, dilly.

In actual fact throwing beads has a more innocent and satisfactory aspect which I will come to later.

We couldn’t find a decent bit of scran in the market so we returned to Jackson Square where we waited twenty minutes for a seat in Stanley’s Bistro.

I had the Stanley breakfast which is Oysters in Corn crumb with poached eggs, ham and hollandaise on a muffin. Very nice. Sixteen dollars worth of nice? Not really.

My dearest wife had another locally named dish which turned out to be scrambled eggs, toast, bacon and over-fried tatties. They had a very sweet cinnamon flavoured signature dressing which we asked for a sample of and it was graciously provided at the cost of 50 cents plus tax. It was both sweet and tasted of cinnamon.

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Stanley Breakfast – Oysters with poached eggs, ham on toasted muffin

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Scambled eggs ‘under’ toast, fried tatties.

Truthfully it was a nice breakfast but not as good as Ruby Slipper and it sat rather heavily for most of the morning torturing me as the saturated fat content made an assault on my heart. We walked it off by making a visit to Congo Square to stand in the stead of the creators of modern music.

I don’t think it is overstating it to suggest that we inhabited the same space as those who crafted the earliest rhythms and sounds of rock and pop music. Of course similar things could have been happening all over the USA, fusing tribal drum beats with classical instruments was probably always going to happen, but jazz is a New Orleans thing. You can sense its connection to the place. The fact that is played everywhere today shows its importance. There little else being played – it has grown here and has matured here.

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A traditional jazz parade in Congo Square

And jazz is the start of blues is the start of rock and roll is the start of rock is the start of funk and on and on.

But we were hungry for a deeper history of New Orleans and we were booked to visit the Whitney Plantation at mid-day.

Now it takes around five hours to get to the Plantation and, while I am about to tell you it is not very good value for money, it is very hard to do so with any humour. It’s not very good value for money because, not only is it badly presented (at least ours was), a tour operator is profiting from something that should probably be a compulsory part of the education system. Sadly there is a cost to confronting the reality of slavery and I can only suck it up on the basis that people have suffered far greater problems than being screwed over for a few dollars. I just wish the money was going elsewhere.

I am only going to post two pictures of the Plantation visit but I will make an observation on the tour guide. He was very passionate about the need to learn lessons, the need to understand that education ended slavery and that we should pass that to our children (if they want to get on in the world – stay in school). However, he had little else to say to us and we were left wondering  what is was we came two hours out of New Orleans for. I knew all that already.

What I can relate to you is that the humidity was crazy, we were falling over with the heat and the insects in the air were making gumbo out of our bare legs. We saw the tall sugar canes and sensed the challenge of harvesting it with hand-held scythes with your life on the line as the only motivation to work. We saw beautiful little statues of children each representing a person who had lived on that Plantation and we saw their living accommodation. We saw the master’s house by contrast.

As a firm believer in the evolutionary truth of our existence (not to deny a God of some sort) I was taken by a comment that our first tour guide made (the one who Voodoo’d us into a graveyard yesterday). He told us he was once challenged by a white man on the street who asked him ‘do you ever think about going back to your roots in Africa?’ Born in New Orleans he looked at the man and said ‘do you?’

We got back to New Orleans around four thirty and took ourselves to the spiritual home of jazz, Preservation Hall. Lined up tightly on benches with about fifty others, no drinks or food allowed, we were treated to some incredible traditional jazz by five very talented musicians. The twenty dollar fee was supplemented (rather amusingly) by a five dollar request fee – and they didn’t play much other than requests!

I loved this place – it is legendary of course – and I paid a crazy price for a t-shirt just so I could show the world I’d been there.

Now we decided on the advice of the local woman who guided us to the Whitney Plantation to add two things to our day. The first was our dinner location – Mothers on Poydras Street where I chose to try the Crawfish Etouffee, a traditional New Orleans favourite, while my good lady plumped for the Jambalaya, also a taste of the South apparently.

A taste of the toilet might be more appropriate!

Okay, a little unfair. It actually tasted not too bad – but look at it!

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Crawfish Et-blerghhhh-oufee…..!!!

The restaurant is the catering equivalent of the Preservation Hall, basic with absolutely no frills. Sadly the produce on offer wasn’t as nice to our stomachs as the jazz was to our ears.

The second recommendation was much more fun.

Frenchmen Street is not in our guide book and we’d have missed it if it hadn’t been for or local contact. It’s an insane place. Not like Bourbon Street – that’s for drunk tourists – this is the local jazz haunt. It’s where it’s at!

We looked into a few bars where there were great sounding bands in every one. You couldn’t choose. But that was fine, because when we got to a corner there was a street band mixing up brass with Cuban rhythms and a street party started right there in front of our eyes.

It just happens like that.

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Crowds starting to gather for impromptu street party

 

We passed a shop selling gothic and voodoo charms on the way back and I was amused by a sign on the door. It read – ‘carpe noctem’.

How’s your Latin?

Today was our last day in New Orleans.  We headed out to get the St Charles Street car to Washington Square to explore the Garden District. This involves looking at big houses we can’t, and never will, afford.

But first!

We brunched at Ruby Slipper. I had Croque Madame – ham with béchamel between two toasted slices of Brioche, an over-easy egg on top and a side of fresh fruit.

My lady companion had the exact same thing she had last time. See previous blog for amusing reveal of that feast.

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My five a day along with some kind of giant loaf cut in two

Sadly the sweepings from the Bourbon Street gulleys I had consumed last night were still swirling around looking for the exit from my stomach – and I couldn’t finish it all. It was delicious though.

We walked round Lafayette Cemetery which turned out to be free to get in. In fact you’re dying to get in (ahem). We heard someone calling the cemetery’s the ‘cities of the dead’. It’s a good description – there are posh houses and old run down ones in amongst just like the city itself.

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A street in the city of the dead – slightly run down area.

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Large house in the city of the living – very posh area

After looking jealously at the big old houses with wrought iron fences and balconies and stuff we wandered into Audubon Park and took a stroll down through an avenue of giant oaks and listened to the musical humming of a local insect – Cicadas – all the way to the …  closed zoo.

We didn’t really want to go to the zoo anyway but we both needed a pee.

So we then wandered up a couple of blocks towards a park I had spotted on the map where there would surely find a place of rest near the Mississippi.

A slight error of navigation meant that we had to back track a little and we headed south with the sun beating on our backs and the Cicadas buzzing a little louder in the background.

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When we reached the little park it turned out to be a deserted baseball pitch next to an industrial area where tourists are not meant to be at all.

With the sun melting our poor little heads and the friggin’ Cicadas making that constant bloody buzzing noise that would drive you to murder if you had a knife at that very moment, we plodded wearily back the way we came.

Thankfully a lovely air conditioned bus was exactly where I expected it to be and we managed to jump on board before we collapsed in a heap at the side of the road.

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Not the bus but I forgot to show you the lovely street car

Now the bus route was meant to take us to Mardi Gras World but it turns out Mardi Gras World has only recently moved to this side of the Mississippi – and they haven’t gotten round to adding pedestrian routes to it yet. This resulted in me and my poor wife (who really, really needed to pee by now) having to work our way across the interstate into an industrial yard belonging to a haulage company and beyond that to the back door of a warehouse which, it turned out to be, was a new location for Mardi Gras world.

But it was worth it.

We peed for half an hour!

No really, the experience at this place is fantastic. You get to see the workshops for the props and the floats and, after an hour’s tour, you can spend the rest of the day exploring the warehouse taking pictures to your heart’s content. Twenty dollars? Happy with that.

You can then get the provided shuttle bus back to your hotel like the way you are meant to in the first place.

But the story of Mardis Gras is worth touching on. It’s a non-profit event, no advertising allowed, not televised anywhere in the world and it is paid for by those who take part. The tradition is that you take part in order to spread a message of giving and you must be masked to anonymize yourself on the floats. This is where the throwing of beads actually comes from, the feminist movement just hi-jacked it so they could show their boobs.

The thing about Mardi Gras is that it officially goes on for weeks – finishing before Ash Wednesday – but it really goes on in New Orleans all the time. Every night is like Saturday night, and every Saturday night is like New Year. It’s an absolute buzz.

My final little video last five minutes so you can bow out if you want – but the kids will love it. These are all the pictures from the Mardis Gras warehouse with some street jazz to accompany it.

I nearly said ‘dilly’ dilly’ to end there…..

Parading About the Place

We are two days into our trip and New Orleans has gotten into our bones already. It’s completely addictive.

But it’s really hard to describe and I am certain my pictures are going to fail to give you a full understanding. I’m going to have to try some of my pseudo-philosophical codswallop to evoke the sights, sounds, smells and the vibe of the place.

It’s a fact that I have taken more video than snaps (forgive alligator reference) and that is because a still image just doesn’t cut it. The city is filled with movement and sound. You can’t ‘get’ it without that.

So here’s my attempt to bring New Orleans to life for you.

Let’s start with the jazz thing. That’s why I came. I wanted to catch the bug, to see why it all started here and just how important jazz is.

Jazz originates in a place called Congo Square just off the French Quarter in New Orleans. It’s where slaves were permitted to spend Sundays and where they started to fool around with their music.

Now bear in mind that all music at this time was either classical (using traditional instruments); or something more primitive used to fire up the blood prior to battle, hunting or mating rituals. The African American fusion of classical horns, basses and woodwind together with drums and percussion provides the main ingredients. Then we add this simple, repeated blues sound that makes it so easy to listen to.

That has to come from the bloody heat!

Bear with me while I divert a moment to the New Orleans accent.

The people of New Orleans have some unbearable heat and humidity to suffer. It’s really tiring and you don’t want to waste energy on anything at all. And New Orleans folk certainly like to take it easy – hence ‘The Big Easy’. And this seems to extend to their use of vowels and consonants.

Some examples….

New Orleans has way too many vowels so it is simply Nuorlins (roll the u and the o into one if possible). Dollars are dolla.

In fact the vowel ‘o’ is actually harder to say than ‘a’, so very often ‘o’ is replaced by’ ‘a. Nuorlins sounds more like Narlins and dolla is dalla.

The French founded Norlins so there are other possible origins to removing vowels (think gateau) but I am convinced from listening to the locals that my theory is right. It’s the bloody heat.

Now back to jazz.

Why bother with more than one chord progression when one works perfectly well for a millions songs? You can mess about with the notes all days long, but never divert from the simple easy going 12 bar blues sound that everyone is familiar with.

We have heard a lot of jazz the last couple of days. Here is a sample proving that the Slosh is not only performed in Scotland.

 

Our first morning was spent looking for something nutritious for breakfast as we had suffered from 10 hours of airline food the day before. After considering some light continental fare at ten dollars in the hotel we walked to the more usual first port of call for tourists in New Orleans (pronounced Norlins remember) – the Cafe Du Monde.

This cafe is famous for its cafe au lait flavoured with chicory and its square doughnuts called beignets. You get three of these for a handful of dollars and they come fresh from the fryer loaded with grease and covered an inch deep in icing sugar to help the grease enter the arterial system more quickly.

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A light breakfast to start the day.

After breakfast we went to a local tour vendor to make some significant financial decisions based on the advice of a man on 20% commission. More of that to follow.

We then decided to walk into the French Quarter to leisurely wander round the streets and marvel at the architecture. The first street we turned into was home to the Voodoo Museum and, surprise-surprise, they saw us coming!

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The Queen of Voodoo just out of the shower.

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‘See you later Alligator’

So we were drawn by some spiritual longing for enlightenment into a tour of the museum and a walk to one of New Orleans famous graveyards.

You have to admire American entrepreneurialism (god knows how the folk here pronounce that!). They suffer a bit of vandalism in their local graveyards and decide to charge admission to prevent it. It’s twenty dollars to get in – AND you have to have a guide. He or she costs whatever … plus tips.

I developed a theory in the middle of the night (or mid-morning UK body clock time).

When we come to any holiday destination seeking new experiences, we have a tendency to want to do the stuff we have seen others do in the movies, or on the TV in documentaries etc. We don’t really make up stuff ourselves. We go into the graveyards because there was a shoot-out there in a film we once saw, we go to a swamp in an air-boat become James Bond did.

And I thought that’s the secret of American entrepreneurialism. If it’s in a movie – people will pay to do it.

So could we be better at this in Scotland? Could we block off the best viewing areas in Glenfinnan and charge £20 to see the ‘Hogwarts Express’ pass across the viaduct? Could we lock the gates of Greyfriars Graveyard and charge people to come in?

Speaking of movies, it seems the actor Nicolas Cage had a tomb built in the graveyard we visited and he may or may not choose to be entombed here.

Our tour guide who used some kind of Voodoo to spirit us off the street talked a lot about very little and the main focus of our graveyard visit was to the presumed resting place of one Marie Leveau who was known as the voodoo queen of New Orleans in the bygone era when people believed in such tosh.

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That bag is the presumed resting place of twenty seven of my dollars

I then went to buy an unnecessary hat which will never see the light of day when I return to the UK.

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For lunch we broke things up a bit and had a wonderful waffle tub of ice cream from Kilwin’s followed later by an alligator sausage with chilli and a roast Beef Poboy.

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Is that an alligator in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?

That second half of our lunch was taken aboard the steam paddle boat, Natchez.

Now as much as I love some trains I have to profess that the weakness is more about the engineering than the numbers or names of the engines. I’m not a complete geek!

So the steam engine running this incredible boat took as much of my attention as the Mississippi (pronounced Misipi but slightly drawn out). It’s fantastic.

There was also a jazz band paying aboard and other stuff that I won’t bore you with.

Our day ended with a walk round a shopping village (yawn) and a jazz parade which we followed all the way to Bourbon Street (we’ll come back here later where there will be boobies and other dreadfully hedonistic stuff happening). These jazz parades are like the funeral parades you have seen in the movies and people hire bands to take them around the city for all sorts of occasions now, weddings, hen and stag, staff party etc. We have seen at least three over the weekend.

People will pay anything to do the stuff they have seen in the movies!

For dinner we followed bad local advice and went into a place called Popeye’s. It tasted like Popeye had squeezed it out of a spinach can, sucked it through his pipe and spat it out onto Bluto’s beard before we ate it.

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Shrimp and chips, deep fried with a scone. Never combine these ingredients ever!

Today (day two) I started the day by running three miles around the French Quarter just to sweat the grease out of my pores. I certainly lost a lot of water in the process as the humidity was still 90% before seven am. It was slow but I was proud to have it mapped on my running log.

We then walked to Ruby Slipper in Canal Street for our breakfast. I had the Southern Breakfast which combines grits (porridge I think) with fried eggs, crispy bacon and a scone (called a biscuit for some reason), while my delicate flower of a wife could only manage the French toast….

… with cheesecake filling …

… and mango ….

… and crispy bacon ….

… and maple syrup.

Oh and a cup of tea.

It was marvellous.

 

Today’s main event was a swamp tour out in Lake Pontchartain. No point me trying to describe this for you. It was an amazing experience. See video for some tiny glimpse of the sights we saw.

Lunch was a cookie ice cream from the gift shop. I was still working on the porridge filled scone.

The swamp tour takes most of the day so when we got back it was as near dinner time as dammit and we had heard about a Chicken Festival taking place in town.

Now I know how jealous you must be feeling just now. How can I be so lucky to have been in New Orleans just at the time of the Chicken Festival? I know – I know! What can I say – I was born lucky.

At the Chicken Festival we enjoyed eating some chicken and then we moved back into the city for some dinner.

Oh sorry – we did listen to live jazz at the Chicken Festival after we had eaten some chicken.

We walked up to the French Market and came back down Royal Street where most of the Spanish Colonial architecture is. The ironwork is wonderful and a lot of the areas are lit by gas lamps giving the place a wonderful old world vibe.

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Spanish Colonial House in French Quarter

As the evening wore on we settled on a cafe/bar in Bourbon Street where there was a live jazz band playing and we took a table near the band for our Club Sandwich and Tuna Croissant – both called something more Louisianan on the menu.

As we headed wearily home we meandered through the hedonistic centre of New Orleans, Bourbon Street, where we witnessed the wonderfully quaint (and apparently feminist) practice of showing ones breasts to a group of drunk men on a balcony in exchange for a chain of beads. Female empowerment is such a wonderful thing to witness in the flesh.

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Some actual female empowerment.

Giddy with the sights and sounds of snapping alligators, jazz singers, festival chicken fillets and other mammary enhancements, we headed for our hotel stopping only for a gambling-averse gawp at the Harrahs casino next door and frozen yoghurt dessert from the hotel.

Two days in and I’m starting to get it already.

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Adopted son in New Orleans

Bye bye Ali

Amber alert

Pack your blogs its holiday time again for the hungriest couple in Scotland!

Tomorrow we set off for New Orleans leaving storm Ali to you lot (there’s irony there somewhere).

And this year our American adventure takes us on a musical journey as I chase my dream of understanding the origins of rock n roll (I wake up in a cold sweat most nights fearing I will never know).  We’ll be taking in jazz in the South, then head to Nashville to let some country into our souls with a side trip to Memphis, Graceland and Sun studios.

If we don’t find the origins there we’ll console ourselves by eating a lot of good ole American fast food.

After that it’s on to Washington DC and New York for the second half of our trip. There we will … do other stuff. And we’ll definitely eat more food.

So join us please if you fancy hearing about all the exciting things we will see and do, the music we will make pretentious appraisals of and the food we will guzzle gluttonously.