…so the time has come at last. After much anticipation we depart for Ny’orlins, via London and Dallas tomorrow (Wednesday). I’ll try and update this blog from time to time, (unless we get kidnapped by banjo-playing madmen : dang-a-lang-lang-lang etc. etc.). I’d recommend you read Mike’s blog for more sober, factual impressions, as mine are almost inevitably going to be flippant and almost entirely unlike the truth. But, only time will tell.
Day One (23/04/14)
Flight from Newcastle to Heathrow on time. Bags checked through to Dallas, making things a little easier.Terminal 5 Heathrow was quite pleasant, and not too busy.Flight to Dallas looked like it was going to be hard work when we saw our rather cramped seats – the middle 2 of a row of 4. I was worried about 9.5 hours in that space. However, it was actually OK, thanks in part to watching movies. This is obviously why Peter Jackson makes such ridiculously long films, 3 hours of Hobbit II helped pass the time no end. Not sure why BA subjected us to the task of assembling our own cream tea, not easy juggling cartons and plastic knives with your elbows in your ears. Arriving in Dallas with 1.5 hours to next flight seemed fine, until we entered the machine that is USA customs and security. With 30 mins to go to take off we were still stuck in the system. Huge queues with no one in any hurry. I’ll never complain about immigration at Newcastle airport again. Eventually after palm prints and facial scans we made it to the gate just nicely on time for the nice short hop to New Orleans. The young guy next to me seemed to be a student as he was watching a lecture on his laptop during the flight. However I can’t imagine what his subject was as it was presented by David Putnam and include a pie chart relating to testicular cancer…?? New Orleans airport not too big and So quickly got out for a cab. This was quite entertaining as our cabbie was a rather large black lady with a very thick nyawlins accent. Mike struggled a bit to understand, but all was fine and she was really nice.
Arrived at Bienville House Hotel, Decatur St. Around 7 pm, after 18 hours travelling. Very nice Art Deco style hotel right in the middle of the French Quarter. Immediately found our “local” – Evangeline’s, just across the street. Had brilliant prawns wrapped in smoked bacon, washed down by several really nice beers from their specialist menu. Finished with a Maker’s Mark bourbon and thence to bed.
Day Two (24/04/14) New Orleans
First morning strolled down to the French Market after breakfast. Market a bit like the quayside on a Sunday, if it was designed by Dr. John.
Lots of good stuff amongst the tat, including fake voodoo stuff. So after imbibing powdered mojo hands for strength, we carried on. Just beyond the market we had our first glimpse of the Mississippi. Huge and brown, with a pleasant breeze in the 80+ degree heat. Then on to a nice place on Bournbon St. for Po-Boys (just big sarnies) and beer. After eats, walked to Louis Armstrong Park and sat watching the same birds as we’d see in Paddy Freeman’s (as far as I could tell anyway). This was followed by the best caramel milk shake ever, purely medicinal of course, as I was melting. Back to hotel for a shower and rest. Then out to seek beer and food. Ended up on Bourbon St. Again. This time it was very busy if a bit tacky. Lots of loud bars and ladies advertising their wears, and what a pair of wears one had. Couldn’t imagine how she’d manage to give a massage without putting your eye out. Ate in Cajun style at a fish restaurant. Then back to Evangeline’s for a nightcap (no massage honest).
Day Three (25/04/14) New Orleans.
This morning walked to the museum district. First stop the WWII museum. Here we learned that UK wasn’t in the war, just them and “The Allies”, and that the Americans won it. They also have an RAF spitfire in perfect nick hanging from the ceiling. On my return I’m starting a campaign to get it returned. Then to a civil war museum that actually didn’t discuss the war at all, but was just a repository for Louisiana military bits and bobs – very interesting anyway.
Walked to Basin Street and found the famous brothel that had employed many of the early jazz men, which was supposed to have been the subject of “House of The Rising Sun”. Don’t worry its now a small convenience store. A pitty that the rest of the street lived up to the famous “Basin St. Blues” song, as it was very underwhelming. Heat really sucking the life out of me, so we had beers and burgers (our first), very nice too. Found excellent music store specialising in local musics, where I was forced to buy a couple of CDs. Back to hotel via the banks of the Mississippi – really hot now.
Evening stroll began at Evangeline’s, where we tried their specialty – a ginger and mint julep. So delicious we had a couple. Walked to Bourbon street which, thanks to the cocktails, looked more attractive. Found a jazz club and watched a really good tradish band (and more juleps). Then on to a Cajun club to see an excellent Zydeco band. By now the juleps plus bourbons had us both a bit squiffy, so back to hotel at midnight and slept like a rock.
Day Four (26/04/14) Lafayette
After a quiet breakfast (ahem), an easy drive to Lafayette. We started with a detour through some of the aftermath of Katrina, which still hasn’t been rebuilt (the richest country in the world can leave areas like this ??). Very flat, very wet country all the way. Lafayette not looking too inviting, but The Hilton looking fine. Downtown to discover we were in the middle of a music festival. The town itself was otherwise empty, but there were tens of thousands of people spread around three stages set up in the centre.
All styles of music were being played to big audiences . Hundreds of food and crafts stalls, like a giant version of the Newcastle green festival! Too too hot, and so exhausted back to hotel for clean ups. Walked across the road to a (very basic) surf ‘n turf diner. Hush puppies, crawfish gumbo and rib eye steak. All v cheap and v tasty. Drink in hotel bar where we were the only 2 in a massive disco with banging dance music blaring away to no one. Left after one drink.
Days Five (27/04/14) Natchez
Great drive following the Mississippi through national parkland. REAL backwater southland. Lots of tumbledown shacks. Mike spotting lots of birds he didn’t recognise (some massive spuggies mind you). Really atmospheric, and the best scenery yet. Arrived in Natchez to find a VERY sleepy small town. Empty streets and silence.
Strange mix of boarded up shops, next door to fancy antique dealers. Popped in to Fat Mama’s for a lunchtime snack. More of a shack than a restaurant, but again tasty stuff. In town found a lovely little bookshop where Mike bought a book to ID all of the birds he’d been noticing. Even though it was Sunday, we were surprised how deserted it all was. Weirder yet,we came across a little funfair with empty rides turning away riderless. Really hot again, car said 92C, but great view of the Mississippi stretching away. We discovered that a fairly large area of town is very well to do with really nice houses. The legacy of its prosperous past. That prosperity being built to a large extent on slavery – which they admit. We stopped and looked around the area where the last slave auctions were held in 1863.
It’s still very hard to believe it really happened so recently. Hot again, so back to the hotel to recover and do some washing!! After recovery, back out for dinner. Biscuits ‘n Blues restaurant was supposed to have live music at weekends, but there was nothing on today. Did have ludicrously HUGE servings of crawfish natchos with deep fried jalepanos, and catfish with oysters and massive prawns. Couldn’t manage more than half of it. All delicious.
Day Six (28/04/14) Natchez
Nice brekkie (always nicer when free), the TV news on in the lobby was warning of hurricanes – already big damage in Arkansas (who’d notice?). Then we drove 4 miles to the remains of the last Natchez Indian settlement, from before the French almost eliminated them, and then ran those left out of Mississippi entirely – well at least it wasn’t The British for once.
The park consisted of three grassy mounds and a mocked up mud house. Very pleasant non the less. Both of us were paying careful attention to the BEWARE VENIMOUS SNAKES warnings. I nearly filled my (sweaty) pants when I stood on a twig. Next stop the Old House Winery. The winery was a Ramshackle shed run by a nice guy called Scott Galbraith, who was so proud of his Scottish ancestry he even had a table mat with Stirling castle on it as proof. His wine is made from an indigenous grape they call muscadine. Quite earthy fungal aroma, but OK taste. Bought a red and a white, which we had to force down later that day. Lunch in The Natchez Coffee Company. At last a sensible portion size by buying half a sarnie.
Then we walked around the really nice, elegant antebellum housing areas. Some very attractive 1830’s buildings. Next a quick drive to Natchez Under The Hill, and a cold beer in the tavern right on the banks of the Mississippi river, next to a riverboat casino.
Going to walk back tonight to eat and imbibe. Pitty , but returning to Under The Hill was a disappointment, as everything was closed, except the bar, and we’d walked there in what was threatening to be rain. The next place we could find on foot was called Jugheads. It was just what the name implied – the smallest most basic and shack-like yet. Food OK and the only other 2 people in there were a couple of young British guys from Hampshire who were driving from NYC to New Orleans.
Day Seven (29/04/14) Jackson
Nice drive through beautiful forests – mainly Homocheeto Forrest – obviously named after a camp Mexican card sharp. Many tiny settlements all with their own baptist church, lots of the shacks literally falling apart, but the churches were all immaculate…..hmmmm wonder why. Arrived in Jackson and it is a BIG city, the capital of Mississippi. Mike’s had one too many gumbos, so we’ve warned the coastguard, unfortunately I’d not thought to pack a nuclear standard gas mask. THE BOOK recommended a trip to one of the most important streets in the development of blues, Farish Street. Wow, very surprised at the state of it. Almost all the buildings were boarded up and extremely dilapidated. There as nothing left to see at all , and not the sort of place to get out of the car, or even stop, or even look at anyone…. Great Shame. Nothing of note to visit nearby so went for a Chinese meal at Mr. Chow’s, and then an early night.
Day Eight (30/04/14) Clarksdale (Mike’s Birthday)
Drive to Clarksdale pleasant in cooler weather. Made several stops at important sites. Firstly we stopped at Robert Johnson’s first grave ( yes he has two) in Morgan City.
Then at the second in Quito just a mile or two away. Neither is signposted etc., and both are in very small backwoods graveyards in the middle of nowhere, with small gravestones only raised in modern times – and this for possibly the most pivotal musician in popular music….
It’s becoming seemingly clear how little the US in general cares about its black musical heritage. Then on to Morehead to see the railway crossroads called Yellow Dog where WC Handy apparently “discovered” the blues. Very quiet small town, but with a nice atmosphere, where we sat and ate the fruit we’d picked up at breakfast. Next on to Indianola, the birth place of BB King.
His foot and hand prints are impressed on the pavement, but hardly a monument to someone so celebrated (even though though not a favorite of mine). Another quiet small town. Charley Patton is considered to be one of the key originator’s of the music, and again his gave was in a tiny unmarked cemetery in Holly Ridge, the rest of which consisted of three houses. We couldn’t even find the actual grave itself. Final destination for the day was to Dockery Plantation, where scholars say blues was invented by Charley Patton and others, who all worked there picking and processing cotton.
Originally it was almost a town in itself, with its own currency. The entire cotton industry collapsed in the thirties thanks to a little beetle called the bole weevil which came to the plantations from Mexico. More of an attempt had been made to preserve this site, but we noticed that more than half of the names in the visitors book were European. Final leg to Clarksadale painless, but not a great hotel at the end – only one night stay though, but not boding well. 6:00 and out to a recommended blues bar – Ground Zero Blues Club. Really great atmospheric place, pessimism prods me to say especially created for tourists??. Who cares, it was ideal.
Three sets of live electric blues by the 82 year old Leo ‘Bud’ Welch. His John Lee Hooker rhythms and effecting vocals were worth the visit. Hot wings and a Big Jake Burger with seasoned fries – very welcome, as were the several bottles of Southern Hop’itality local brewed beer (very like my favorite Bitter ‘n Twisted).
Local blues artist Steve Kolbus chatted with us, and I got his CD for Mike’s birthday, which he signed. At closing time we were given a free ride home in a stretch limo by the young bar maid! All of which made Clarksdale an excellent place to visit after all.
Day Nine (01/05/14) Memphis
Before leaving for Memphis, we visited the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale. This was really excellent, and well worth the 7 dollar entry. Some great photos and memorabilia, really well presented. Nice to see that Clarksdale celebrates its blues heritage. From there a 10 min drive to THE CROSSROADS – well at least where they’ve decided to mark it, at the junction of Highways 49 & 161 (bought the T-shirt). We didn’t go “down on our knees” as the song suggests, and there was no sign of the devil to do any soul selling (and mine was on special offer too), but we agreed we could have spent another day or more here in Clarksdale, as there were so many places of interest. Easy drive on to Memphis.
Typical flat open landscape all the way. On arrival Memphis looked huge, with mile after mile of glaring malls and , for some reason, LOADS of self storage facilities – what the hell do they keep in them – best not to know (John Wayne Gacey etc.). On arriving at our suite (oooh), I discovered that Mr. Thicko (moi) had apparently left his toilet bag on the bed in Clarksdale!! Probably the last I’ll see of it. Once settled, we then drove over to see Bishop Al Green’s church in a pleasant middle class area. Unfortunately he didn’t happen to be outside singing “Let’s Stay Together”, but at least we can say we’ve been. On the way there we passed Gracelands. Wow, it’s clear that the Elvis industry goes on massively unabated. Lines of shops selling tat, and even saw a couple of Japanese Elvis’s wandering by. Japanese food tonight! (added later – now I know why I’m not keen on it, could have done with a pizza afterwards!!, and it would have been nice if the damned fish had stopped flopping about when I was trying to eat them).
Day Ten (02/05/14) Memphis
Yeah! Found toilet bag on floor, it had fallen out with shoes. This is what comes of living out of a suitcase. Great museum day. Firstly to Stax Records – brilliantly told story of Stax soul music’s birth & growth in the city (Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Booker-T etc.) Lots of memorabilia and very well told and presented.
Then strolled the renowned Beal Street – famous as being the site where blues was really fully born. Several live bands were playing along the street, and we stopped and I had a grilled polony sandwich with coleslaw, fries and cheese. Chatted to “Mr. C” in the street, who asked us if we were with the Princes?? Apparently some royal people are here too…. Perhaps I should have known as I’m paying for their trip in addition to my own? Then on to the museum of rock and soul, housed in part of the Gibson buildings (as in guitars for the uninitiated), for more interactive displays, dealing particularly with the growth of rock and roll, from its blues meets country roots. Again, really well done. It is actually really effecting to be so close to these things that are really important to me, which previously had only been known second hand in books or possibly on TV. Mike then got passing strangers to take his picture next to Jerry Lee Lewis’s Cadillac, which was parked outside his bar – what a tourist!! I am of course above such things. We noticed that in all three museums of black musical heritage, there were no black people visiting – just those working there – discuss….. We then bought tickets for the music festival that starts today and continues tomorrow and Sunday. It’s a three day event that happens to coincide with our stay. Big names like Patti LaBelle, Snoop Dog, Jerry Lee Lewis, Joan Jett, Buddy Guy, Bootsy Collins…. Should be good. Meal tonight won’t be Japanese! Meal tonight wasn’t Japanese! Best meal so far – certainly for me. Italian grille restaurant, called Carrabbas. Delicious char grilled chicken with mushrooms and a side salad (healthy or what?). The Peroni beers and bottle of Montepulciano were also particularly good.
Day Eleven (03/05/14) Memphis
The last day in Memphis began with a trip to the Sun Records studio. Very small place that had a massive influence on popular music. Not just Presley started here but the first record credited as rock and roll was recorded here
(Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner). Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and many more, all got their first recording experience here. It now functions as a recording studio again after being shut for many years. U2, Tom Petty, Jack White and many more have all recorded here, looking for that analogue warm sound. Very well worth the visit. Then on to the Hi Records studios founded and run by Willie Mitchell, and famous for Al Green and Anne Peebles output, among many others. The building remains, but there’s nothing left inside, and no tours etc. Quite a sad, rough area. The next stopping point was the Lorraine Hotel.
The site of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. It has been preserved just as it was, and is now the centre of the US Civil Rights Museum. Very atmospheric place, and a lot of young white kids visiting. The evening brought the Beal Street Music Festival. It i
sn’t actually held in Beal St. itself, but in a very large park that runs along the banks of the Mississippi at the bottom end of Beal St.. Still very hot and humid, we made our way first to see Mr. Jerry Lee Lewis. He can’t be long for the planet, and it was a shame that he’d been pulled out to perform. His voice is practically gone, as is his pitch and piano playing. Quite a sad sight. Next up, Buddy Guy. Great blues guitarist, he played and sang really well for 45 mins, before his showmanship got the better of him, but still well worth watching. Then we went to see Chick Corea. Absolutely excellent. Wonderful musicians really enjoying themselves, and the best jazz I’ve seen this year. A major part in it being played by saxophonist Tim Garland. It was a long way to come to see a man who lives in Whitley Bay !!!! No food tonight, too late and too shattered.
Day Twelve (04/05/14) Nashville
As we’d not eaten the night before, I pigged out on the free breakfast in Memphis! Omelette, sausage, pancakes etc. Yum! Set off for Nashville, probably our least looked forward to destination, as neither of us are country music fans. Yeee Hawww (etc. etc.) Pleasant drive through mostly forestry, no other towns really all the way, apart from Jackson. This Jackson (TN), rather than our previous (MS), is the place referred to in the famous song. As far as I’m concerned, the fame attaches itself to the fact that Paddy McAloon misheard the lyrics, and thus gave the name to the wonderful Prefab Sprout (” …hotter than a PEPPER sprout…”)
On arrival we wandered to a bar for a cold one, which had live country music being performed, and they were actually playing “Jackson”, how apt. It was called Cooter’s Place, but not sure of what, or who a cooter is, sounds a bit parasitic to me. Music fairly painless. Next door was a great tacky tat shop – The Willie Nelson & Family Gift Shop – really rubbish & all the greater for it. Later, and out to eat at The Cracker Barrel Store. A bit weird, very red neck, all gingham and wood. After being seated we discovered they didn’t sell alcohol – oh no!!!! Good food though, biscuits, fried steak in breadcrumbs, sweet corn, jacket spud and coleslaw. Then, dying for a drink, we went next door to The Carey Fork River Valley Grille. A bar that was a bit like a red neck Cheers really, but with a restaurant attached. Several large Jack Daniels went down a treat!
Day Thirteen (05/05/14) Nashville
Most important day so far, as I went to the mall for my boots and cowboy shirt! Got both in a big western shop, and they were just what I wanted, so watch out Queen Vic! I don’t think Faye or Lucy will be seen with me in the shirt, it’s a bit insane! Although the mall was all stocked with big name outlets, there was one glaring omission – no Gregg’s. There a clear opening here for the world best corned beef pasty I’m sure. Then downtown for a wander around Broadway where all the music bars are. Cold beer while watching the Premiership highlights on telly, which was being rudely interrupted by a country duo (who were ok really), and after all, ” when in Rome”…… There are only two record shops on the entire street, one was closed, and other very poorly stocked, even though it was recommended in “The Book”, ah well. I did at least buy a chilli dog on the street – lovely.
The presence of Brown Ale in most places is quite useful in explaining where we’re from.
This town is obviously all about country music with little else to see or do, and so it was a bit difficult for us non-country lovers, but I’d say it’s quite nice for a quick visit. We sat for a bit on the banks of the Cumberland River that flows through Nashville, really nice. Next, we stopped at a liquor store – or “offie” in English.
A bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon was purchased, purely for medicinal reasons of course. It’s restaurant critique time!! Dinner at Suk Ha (that’s not an order, just the name of the restaurant). The Thai food was nice, by the end we agreed it was the best meal so far. A good Chardonnay very reasonably priced, lovely spring rolls too. My main was ” Angry Pork”, so named to imply it’s hotness. It was more like a fairly narked pork really, but delicious anyway. Then back to red neck cheers for more bourbons!
Day Fourteen (06/05/14) Cape Girardeau
Before leaving Nashville we thought we’d best visit the country music Nirvana that is The Grand Ol’ Opry.
Nice park setting (with massive shopping mall next door), but the Opry building itself is very dull. Quite a new concrete box affair. The only interest being two giant guitars at the entrance. I tried not to look impressed in case someone mistook me for a worshiper. Lots of muscle-bound squirrels running around with no fear of us. More spuggies for Mike to wonder at too, as well as more mocking birds mocking us. Off to Cape Girardeau : Another pleasant drive, and another 86 degrees day. Cape Girardeau is in the middle of nowhere as far as we can see, and there’s not much to look at near the hotel, so we’re treating it as a rest day. We have only one sight to see tomorrow on the way out, which will come later. In terms of distance we’re about two third of the total now, having covered almost 1500 miles so far, and it feels easy, coasting along quiet freeways 99% of the time. Big shout out to the TomTom satnav which has been indispensable, getting us through complex interchanges and finding tiny cemeteries in the middle of nowhere – full marks. Actually I think we’re both starting to fancy the satnav lady….. Cape Girardeau is right on the Mississippi.
One section of the flood defence wall has been decorated with portraits of the great and the good(ish). Mildly diverting anyway. Otherwise, another very quiet place, with an amazing number of antique shops for such a small town.
One nights stay enough. A couple of bourbons in the room, then out we go. Ears open gastronomes : El Acapulco was a Mexican restaurant (cantina), and although it looked like one of a chain, it was really nice none the less. Even by sharing we still ended up with much to much food. No chance of any music here.
Day Fifteen (07/05/14) St. Louis
Broke up the drive to St. Louis by stopping at Sainte Genevieve. An attractive old town, a bit like Corbridge. Went to a nice tea room in an old fire station, that had really nice coconut cream pie ! Then the reat of a quiet drive into St. Louis. Looks like a really big city, many sky scrapers etc. Immediately we found a sports bar across the road with draft Leffe Blonde, dead nice. As was the serving wench that Mike took quite a shine to (understandably so). After several Leffes we were both starving, and (who says there’s no god?) found an INDIAN RESTAURANT, yes that’s right, 4 lagers and an Indian, how exotic are we. After the final shovel of lamb vindaloo I was as satisfied as a full bed tick.
Day Sixteen (08/05/14) St. Louis
Took our lives in our hands and bought day tickets on the Metro. Apart from the mad woman bellowing and calling everyone “mellon farmers” (or something that sounded like that), it was fine.
Got off at The Arch, a stunning, massive stainless steel arch set next to the Mississippi in parkland. It is constructed from hundred of stainless steel sheets. I took some pictures of the welding to show George at work, to prove that other people have worse welding than Siemens. Down town St. Louis is a bit soulless, so we got the metro to the St. Louis walk of fame. This is where they have Hollywood style bronze stars set along the pavements, celebrating authors, musicians and film stars from the area. We found Miles Davis and T S Elliot OK, but there must be some kind of oversight, as The Wurzles and Pam Ayers were no where to be seen.
One of the best finds so far was Vintage Vinyl, a massive record shop on the walk of fame. I bought 3 CDs but haven’t got room for any vinyl LPs! Across the road was a sculpture of Chuck Berry, born here in St. Louis. A thoroughly unpleasant person by all accounts, but a cracking songwriter. The area the hotel is in is quite yuppie. Which means smaller portions (yeah!), but bigger bills (boo!). There’s several medical schools and a nursing academy nearby, which means quite a lot of people wandering around in their scrubs – surely not a good idea, cross infections etc.? I’ll have to check with Dr. McCorry. Spent a cooling hour in Joe’s Bar after we got back from The Arch, and the redheaded bar maid was particularly soothing on the eye.
Then out for a nice (but pricey) Italian meal. We tried in vain to find local live music, but none was to be found. The only local venue had nothing on tonight except DJ sets. It’s becoming clear that the music we revere is not felt to be precious enough to Americans in general for it to be preserved and even added to. Ho hum. It has also become more apparent as time goes on that Mike is developing a lust for american muscle cars, especially the Ford Mustang. So don’t be surprised if he turns up in one after we get back!! I must admit to feeling a bit the same way, but don’t tell the Jag or she’ll get upset.
Day Seventeen (09/05/14) Fort Madison
We had time to spare and so detoured to Hannibal. A small town with lots of car repair shops, that looked a bit like Blyth at first. We then found the old Town center, which had a nice little street where Samuel Clemens lived (no need to check Wikki, that’s Mark Twain to you), so everything was called “The Mark Twain….” Very nice ice cream and a decent cup of tea. What has also become clear is that it only takes one find to rescue one’s opinion of a place. As evident here in Fort Madison.
After a look at what passes for down town, we felt quite depressed.
And then, boom!, The Lost Duck Brewery. By pure chance we found a newishly refurbished place with a micro brewery out the back. The best beer since we got to the US, unfortunately too far from the hotel to walk!! Must ask if the Queen Vic can get some in. Food scoffed in diner near hotel, great burger – only my second honest. Chatted with some locals about whether The Who or Zeppelin were best, during which I had to remind them who invented the language, when they said we were on vacation not on holiday. Makers Mark finished the evening.
Day Eighteen (10/05/14) Davenport
As it was quite an easy drive we spent the morning down by the Mississippi at the reconstructed fort. The reenactment people dress up as pioneer types and live on gruel, while using a wooden bucket as a “rest room”. But I noticed there was a sneaky air con unit in one of the “cells”. The big lady who ran the gift shop was delighted we were English, forgetting we had encouraged the native Indians to fight the early Americans, as she was keen we signed her visitors book. She was also particularly keen on trying to sell Mike a peace pipe / axe replica….. would have been handy for a Wednesday night. Nearby was the railway which had massively loaded trains crossing the river at what they claim is the worlds biggest swing bridge (OK a lot bigger than ours, but not as attractive).
I counted 89 cars being pulled on one train. Half way to Davenport we detoured to the Port Louisa Nature Reserve on the Mississippi. Turned out it was a twitchers nirvana, absolutely wick with spuggies. Mike was in his element. I was even impressed that the birds weren’t all brown. Apparently they have 278 species (is that a lot?). Many are very colourful, as if asking to be shot, and I’m sure the locals oblige. Well worth the visit, and a very pretty place. For some reason it seems the Fort Madison region is quite obsessed with ” the right to life “. There were many roadside hoardings exhorting us to “love life”, and to “put god back into government”. There were even pamphlets in the hotel room on the evils of abortion. I really started to find it was quite unpleasant, and a bit creepy. On to Davenport. Bigger than we expected, spreading both sides of the Mississippi, and with a large island in the middle called Rock Island, which has a railway running next to it (Lonnie D perhaps?). Drove downtown and parked up to find the river was in flood,
to the extent that the water had been across the car park recently. One of Mike’s original wishes came true (sadly not the one involving Cameron Diaz and the sponge bath), as three pelicans floated past on the very wide, and very fast flowing Mississippi. Although quite large, the city has very little high rise, and as a consequence has a much nicer feel to it. Then had beers in an Irish bar (our first – Irish that is – not bar), although I’ve no idea what was meant to be Irish about it, other than the count down clock for St. Patrick’s day. Excellent steaks in the hotel’s own restaurant later, with a good bottle of Merlot. I know I shouldn’t carp, but sometimes the service is just too ecstatic – the very young waitress was squeaking in delight at out every choice or comment, but perhaps that was just our animal magnetism coming across.
Day Nineteen (11/05/14) Chicago
Wow Chicargeee already.
An uninspiring, but easy drive here, until we hit the town traffic. Very busy, even though it’s Sunday. Took the car back to Avis soon after check in, and discovered we’ve driven a total of : 2,040 miles !!! It’s really hard to believe, as it’s not been at all arduous. I think I’ll wait until after I get back for an overall reflection of the trip, but it’s been great so far for sure. Nice view of lake Michigan from our hotel suite. We were given a free upgrade as they’d originally given us only one bed!!! Went for a wander, and settled into a bar for drinks. Nice wheat beers too (Blue Moon). Then on to a Chicago deep pan pizza restaurant. The pizza was very tasty, but a bit more like a quiche than a pizza. Our first proper rain at last, with an impressive lightening display over lake Michigan.
Day Twenty (12/05/14) Chicago
Very hot and humid even after yesterday’s bit of rain. First off a trip to the lakeside park, a walk along the lakeside path and a good look at Anesh Kapoor’s sculpture Cloud Gate, or as Chicagoans call it The Bean. A huge highly polished bean shaped metallic mass, that shows surprising reflections as you walk around and under it. Personally I’m intrigued at the method of production as much as anything. It’s obviously made of stainless steel, but there’s no sign of joints anywhere. Very alien. Nice to see a British artist being so well feted over here. Back to reality with a trip to Reckless Records (more bargains!), and then on to Macy’s – a temple of consumerism – but still great. After a snack, we boarded a sightseeing bus for a long tour of the city. Amazing buildings, but not a lot of history in the commentary. Well worth it, especially as we weren’t charged ! After the tour we found an amazing old German Jewish eatery called Berghoff’s. What a great find. As well as brewing their own beer, which is very good, the food was really great, and as far away from any American diner you care to mention. Spent the evening at Buddy Guy’s Legends, just around the corner. He set it up himself in 1985 and it remains one of the few platforms for blues In the city. What a great night! It was Jam session night, hosted by the house band lead “Brother John”. A really good band with impressive multi-instrument capabilities ; the sax player was also a great singer and blues harp player, and the keyboard guy also played trumpet on the New Orleans tunes. After their set, a couple of a dozen singers, guitarists, bassists, drummers and keyboard players all got up and played. This included a pretty good Japanese guitarist who was given a good (and slightly patronising) round of applause, and several great vocalists. One of whom, a massive black lady called Holle Thee Maxwell, scared me into buying her CD !!! A young guy turned in a great example of blue rock, a fantastic talent with effortless solos. Best not to mention the slightly “odd” washboard player who was called up for a couple of numbers, as I’d probably say something very un-PC. (Hint: he bore a striking resemblance to the banjo player pictured at the start of this blog). Beginning at 9 PM, it was almost non-stop music until 12:30. However, the biggest surprise of the night came in the first half, when a spritely well dressed guy ambled on stage, it was the man himself – Buddy Guy! We’d seen him at the festival in Memphis, and been told he’d been playing in South America after that, but here he was yards away, singing in his own club, maybe only one song, but making it a perfect night.
Day Twenty One (13/05/2014) Chicago
After a late lie-in, a late breakfast, and a bit more shopping. Then walked to the South Side of Chicago to find firstly VJ records, another legendary but long gone studio and label. The building is unmarked and boarded up, very sad. Further down the street we found another landmark for blues and rock and roll – The Chess Studios.
This is now The Willie Dixon Blues Heaven. Rather than a museum, it’s an educational foundation for young black kids. There is a small tour around the legendary studio and some memorabilia to look through, all well worth the visit. This really was a key place for electric blues and rock and roll. Many, many amazing classics were recorded in the room we sat in, watching a film of its history. Another important destination completed, and sadly our last, as we leave tomorrow. The evening was spent eating at Berghoff’s again, and then on to The Jazz Showcase. Very nice place and every inch the archetype of a Jazz Club. Unfortunately the gig wasn’t as good as the surroundings. A female vocalist with a “pleasant” voice, singing mostly the well-worn show tunes. A very good trio backing her, which would probably been better on their own. Never mind, they did do a pretty interesting version of The Who’s “Love Rain O’er Me”.
Day Twenty Two (14/05/2014) Chicago
After check-out, walked by the lake again and then visited the The Art Institute of Chicago. Fantastic collection of masterpieces. Many very well known works by Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh etc. etc. It’s shows the wealth that was / is in this city – most pieces were privately owned and loaned to the museum. They also have a fantastic collection of modern art – Pollock, Motherwell, de Kooning etc.
A good way of burning up time before gooing to the airport. Flight to Heathrow on time, but unfortunately a three hour delay to fly to Newcastle – thanks French air traffic control.
A really great, once-in-a-lifetime trip. Nothing bad to say at all. The America we saw, and the Americans we met, were both to our expectations, and defied our expectations. It was a joy to see the places that had been so crucial to the development of the music that matters most to me. It would have been good if those people and those times were more generally appreciated by those around today, but it’s probably understandable, as most young Americans no doubt see it as uncool, boring and for old people. But that didn’t put a dent in our enjoyment at all.