Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Neon Bourbon

Sorry for the delay of these final posts - the last few days of the trip were absolutely hectic, and left little time to get online.

As we approached New Orleans, we had two short but very significant stops on the city's outskirts.

In the Metairie area of New Orleans is two graveyards, Providence Memorial Park and the Garden Of Memories. In the former lies the Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson. Her imposing white tomb sits on its own in a quiet grassy corner of the park, enclosed by a black gate, which is decorated by music notes. The etched words call her "The World's Greatest Gospel Singer". The Dirty Mac approached the grave serenely and took a moment to pay our respects. We haven't had much opportunity to talk about gospel music on this tour, even though it is a purely American genre. Apart from a live show we caught in downtown Detroit, it was sadly largely missing from this adventure. Perhaps we'll just have to come back and research it further! However, it was nice to touch the grave of the movement's leading light.

In the Garden Of Memories is buried perhaps one of The Dirty Mac's most treasured heroes - at least for some of us. The remains of Gram Parsons, the country rock pioneer who died aged 27, were eventually moved here after his body was burnt by a friend at the Joshua Tree, California, according to the wishes of his step-father, who had moved to New Orleans. We'd seen Gram's infamous Nudie suit back in Nashville, where it is on display in the Country Music Hall Of Fame, and that was emotional - so you can imagine how it felt to be standing at his final resting place. His plaque features an embossed portrait of him, with a lyric from his song 'In My Hour Of Darkness':
"Another young man safely strummed / His silver string guitar / And he played to people everywhere / Some say he was a star / But he was just a country boy / His simple songs confess / And the music he had in him / So very few possess". It is completed by the personal message: "Your soul lives on through your music. Your spirit lives on in our hearts". T-Bone passed around a bottle of red wine and we each took a swig in Gram's honour.

As we arrived in downtown New Orleans, we found our hotel - the lavish Hotel Monteleone - just off the world famous Bourbon Street. Even the lobby was the fanciest place we'd been in on this trip! It was with great pleasure that we, as travelling media, were bestowed with the most impressive suites, definitely capping the fortnight off in style. The suites had a lounge room, a toilet, a bedroom, and an ensuite with jacuzzi bath and walk-in shower. Although we were almost tempted to stay in and enjoy this lap of luxury, the pull of Crescent City was too much, and so we ventured out.

We hit Bourbon Street. The street was far from its usual bustling crowds as it was only around lunchtime, so we took the opportunity to walk through the magnificent architecture and beautiful streets, grabbing some gumbo and po'boys for lunch as we went. We ducked into the Voodoo Museum to get educated on the historic religious practice of Louisiana. Muddy Puddle left an offering on the sacred table and made a wish - wonder if it will ever come true? A couple of hours of wandering left us hot and bothered from the baking sun, so it was time to retire to the hotel's rooftop pool for sunbathing and swimming and some downtime before the night's festivities.

Having got some advice from local music fans before we'd left for the trip, we chose a fancy restaurant in the cooler part of town. Cochon offered southern home cooking with fantastic meats and left us absolutely stuffed. Had we not learned from this holiday not to order a side of mac and cheese? It gets us every time! So, we had to go and dance all this food off. We'd been advised to head further out of town to a place called Maple Leaf Bar to see the Rebirth Brass Band. The place was busy, full of young, cool locals, with a great vibe. The band bounced onstage and immediately won us over - armed with only brass instruments and a couple of percussionists, Rebirth blend traditional second line New Orleans music with a harder, strutting hip-hop/funk edge. Though thoroughly modern, Rebirth carry an authentic sound of New Orleans that dates back many years, as we were to find out the following day...

We ended our first night pacing up and down Bourbon Street, but behind the glowing neon there was little past the strip clubs, overpriced bars and souvenir shops that filled its length. Since we didn't want to stay in the N'Awlins equivalent of Blackpool, it was time for bed...

The second day began with the last of our road trip interviews. Matt Sakakeeny is Assistant Professor of Music at Tulane University, and specializes in the city's brass band scene (it was he who recommended Rebirth). We spoke at length about the history of New Orleans, and how its origins as a French Catholic colony shaped its culture and musical heritage, eventually making it a unique state of America and a hotpot of diverse rhythms and influences. The full interview will soon be available to read, as will all other interviews from this road trip, on this site as well as ClashMusic.com. It explains further how the French treatment of slaves encouraged African traditions and music, and how the introduction of the Jim Crow laws caused blues music to mix with Creole sounds, which resulted in the creation of jazz. It's hugely educational... Keep your eyes peeled...

We got back in the car afterwards for a tour of the city to find some landmark sites. New Orleans was, after all, the birthplace of jazz - it is where Louis Armstrong was born - surely they must have some relevant relics for us to see? Sadly not. Very little of Armstrong's former haunts survived - not his site of birth, not the homes he lived in, and though a couple of the clubs he first performed in are still there, their horrid state of disrepair is a sad reflection of the city's lack of pride towards their first son. We did manage to drive down to the Lower Ninth Ward - the poor district worst affected by Hurricane Katrina - to see Fats Domino's house. Though we didn't see much devastation (perhaps because we didn't see the whole district, or perhaps most of it has been cleaned up), but it was very noticeable how many houses were newly built, and how many temporary housing there had been erected.

Regrouping later back at our base, a quick drink in the hotel's carousel bar led to another night on the town. First, some drinks down by the shoreline, then - unfortunately - back to Bourbon for a pub crawl and a reasonably early night. The next morning, at stupid o'clock, we had to be at the airport. Fortunately for all of us, we made it on time, and were soon flying out of the Big Easy and headed for the Big Apple...

New Orleans was a mixed bag of pleasures. We wish we had more time to explore the areas of the city where the university populace must frequent, as the rich tradition of partying in New Orleans was palpable. The place just looks and feels amazing. We definitely wouldn't advise sticking around Bourbon Street so much. Dip in, for sure, but duck out fairly sharpish.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Live on EVR now!

Tune into East Village Radio right now (3pm GMT Friday) to hear the Dirty Mac boys talking about the road trip live on Tony and The Tux's show!


Listen live at http://www.eastvillageradio.com

Excuse us if we're a little incoherent - late NYC nights and early mornings don't mix well...!

Good morning America!

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Mississippi Burning

A quiet few days after leaving Clarksdale...

The scenery in Mississippi was incredible - vast cotton fields as far as the eye can see - but all the locals we spoke to warned us there wasn't much to do in the area. With two nights to kill before New Orleans (which everyone kept telling us we'd love, as it was 'party town'), we edged down through Mississippi over Saturday and Sunday.

Saturday night found us in Oxford, MS, a quaint college town that was (unfortunately for us) empty, since everyone was down in New Orleans for a football game. We went out for pizza and drinks anyway, but everything closed at midnight and just as we were getting going, it was time to go home. Ho hum. Still, wasn't missing much - seemed like the guys in this town were sponsored by polo shirts and chino shorts. Welcome to Fratsville!

On Sunday it was another hour or so down the road until we reached Vicksburg, MS. It was the first time we'd actually got to walk down to the side of the Mississippi river - strains of Lissie's 'Oh Mississippi' resounded from the lads... We ended up at the Ameristar Casino Hotel, which was great - an unexpected oasis of luxury after a few days of budget accommodation. Across the road from the hotel building was a moored riverboat which housed three floors of casinos, and all-you-can-eat buffets. After a bellyfull of fried meat, creamed corn and ribs, there wasn't much energy to gamble - we each lost $20 in 10 minutes, and then it was time for the first (and only) early night of the trip (but not before Ladbelly beat us all at Beatles Trivial Pursuit, which he'd bought back in Nashville).

Since we were in no rush on Monday morning, we had the opportunity to sample the hotel swimming pool - actually enjoying the sun and heat for the first time instead of passing the day in an air-conditioned car. Lewis Armstrong's belly-flop somersault was impressive. Ladbelly's lobster chest was not.

After drying off, we set our sights on Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and drove out of Mississippi into the Creole state. We drove through some of the most beautiful scenery we've ever experienced - greenery, swamps, creeks, dusty roads... Just incredible. Thanks to the power of Twitter, we were contacted by @visitbatonrouge, who arranged a fantastic hotel deal for us in Baton Rouge - we stayed at the Hyatt Place, and now we're starting to get used to this luxury! We hit the town, following drinking recommendations from locals. T-Bone suggested the Spanish Moon, but we were the first people to arrive at an otherwise empty bar, so a cab was called, and we headed towards the more populated area of the city's campus. We ended up having dinner, drinks and shots in The Chimes, then a few more in the Northgate Tavern, whose jukebox and pool table got severely abused by us! A lovely little town, we'd definitely suggest you rather visit it on a weekend, as Monday nights probably don't show it at its best...

Less than an hour after leaving Baton Rouge, we were in New Orleans and a whole other world of luxury...but that's a whole other blog!!!


Sunday, 12 September 2010

Clarksdale And Beyond

Our final day in Memphis was short, sweet, and very very hot. We started off at Sun Studios, the baby of Sam Phillips, and the site of Elvis Presley's first recording. Not to mention the label that launched the careers of Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and so many more. It was incredible to be in the studio where so much history was made - it was all original instruments, fittings and furniture, and it took some serious willpower not to pick up the guitars... But hey, according to Knoxy, it's just an old empty room...

A short air-conditioned drive later and we were at the Lorraine Motel - the place where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The motel itself is still intact, but the interior has been renovated into the American Civil Rights Museum, telling the story of the country's long and powerful struggle with racial equality. The room where King boarded is left entirely as it was that fateful day, as is the lodging house across the road where the fatal shot was fired from. Talk about moving - this was a place of historic importance so massive and consequential that the world changed dramatically after this tragic event. But hey, according to Knoxy, it's just a motel that's been unused for 40 years...

It was back in our trusty Bessie, to drive us down to Clarksdale. This is a place so fundamental to the emergence of the blues that it was an essential point of interest, and somewhere we were all massively excited about.

We arrived not knowing where we were going to stay - the Shack Up Inn was full, and the Riverside Hotel was an option. We pulled up outside the Riverside and, to be honest, it looked like a rickety old shack, and first impressions were not great. However, as soon as we walked inside, it was love at first sight. The owner, seventy-year-old Frank "Rat" Ratliff welcomed us, giving us a tour of the rooms - the regular choice of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, The Staples Singers, Sam Cooke and Ike Turner, plus the actual room where Bessie Smith died, when the building was the GT Thomas Hospital. It was a fabulous, unique and enriching experience being there. But hey, according to Knoxy, it's just a dusty old room...

We ventured out for a seafood dinner, before pool and dancing at Morgan Freeman's blues club Ground Zero.

The next day was Saturday, and it began with a visit to the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, where we met and interviewed the curator, giving us a fascinating insight into the history of the genre, and how it germinated from the surrounding cotton fields and jook joints. The museum is packed full of original artifacts from the original blues era including Muddy Waters' wooden hut, which was transplanted to the museum from its origin across town.

From there it was out to see the crossroads where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the Devil, then onto the Dockery Plantation - the worksite and home to Charley Patton, Son House, Pops Staples and so many blues pioneers. This was the place where former slaves took their work songs and transformed them into call-and-response songs of despair and hurt: the blues. But hey, according to Knoxy, it's just some old shacks in a field...

Final blues spot of the day was the grave site - or the supposed official one (there are at least three possibilities) - of Robert Johnson, king of the delta blues singers.

As dusk approached, we retired to the scenic college town of Oxford, Mississippi, and a fairly subdued night, as the town seemed to close at midnight. Today we are hitting the road and exploring more of Mississippi. Stay tuned...

Friday, 10 September 2010

Walking in Memphis

Yesterday was epic, possibly one of the best days of our lives.

Following our adventurous and sleep deprived night we were up early and headed over to the King's home, Graceland. Emotional doesn't begin to describe it - at one point we thought T-Bone was going to hide in the Jungle Room and spend the night there! From his underground den to the converted racquet court that now holds all of his gold discs and awards the place is special. It was brought to a tear jerking end when we all stood around Elvis' grave and paid our respects. Definitely worth a visit - the additional $4 for the platinum tour is definitely worth it so you can step inside his plane and see his cars.

From there we made a quick dash down the road to meet up with some more soul legends at the magical Stax Records soul musuem. We interviewed one of the Mad Lads and one of the Bar-Kays as we wandered around the exhibits and they filled us in on what it was like at Stax in the early years and why it was so magical. Full interview to follow.

The day was capped off with another visit to Beale Street via the incredible Rendezvous Rib House down by Beale Street -RIP Bodeans! These guys have been on the go since the mid-'40s and their dry-rub ribs are out of this world.

Today it's on to Sun Records and the American Civil Rights Museum before a drive to Clarksdale. Stay with us. 

Thursday, 9 September 2010

2 hotels in 1 night.

Memphis has got off to a flying start...

Managed to find a motel not far away from Graceland and immediately made plans to head down town to the famous Beale Street to catch some Blues. No cabs were available so the motel owner squeezed the five of us into his car and gave us a lift. Maybe he thought we were in a hurry when he decided to run a red light at 60 mph, which unfortunately attracted the attentions of the local police! At this point our minds started racing as he explained that the reason he didn't get a ticket is because he 'knew' the police and they 'knew' his motel....mmmm!

Nevertheless we grabbed a table in BB King's, ordered some BBQ and chilled out to the Blues before heading back for an early night - or so we thought! Still with the motel owner's words running around our heads we decided to Google the motel, only to discover that we were staying in one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in America, with the hotel being the epicentre of drugs and prostitution in Memphis. This would explain the pimp waiting in his car outside our room while his woman was turning tricks in the room next door! Other nefarious characters were lurking in and out of the shadows around the hotel... cue 'let's get the hell out of here right now - car in one minute!' 

After a frenzied 2 hour drive around the dodgiest parts of Memphis in the middle of the night we managed to find tranquility in the form of the Comfort Suites in East Memphis, the 'safe neighbourhood'.

Check out the article that made us flee The Lamplighter Motel.

After last night's drama, today's plans are slightly more restful! In no particular order, we're hitting Graceland, Stax Museum (which will include some interviews), the Memphis Rock And Soul Museum, the American Civil Rights Museum (which sits on the site of the former Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated), and finally going to see the Mississippi!

Keep following to find out what happens tonight!

Nashville: A Night Out To Remember

Memories are just coming back to us now of Tuesday night's partying.

It started down on Nashville's Broadway, as we grabbed a juicy burger in Robert's Western World. The food was great, but the band not so, therefore we followed local advice and went a few doors up to Tootsie's, apparently the street's most famous and celebrated honky tonk. The band in there were great - cramped onto a tiny stage by the door, they played great covers ('Country Roads', 'Folsom Prison Blues', KoL's 'Use Somebody...) plus some of their own material. The singer playing his guitar behind his back was particularly cool...

We'd heard that the Whiskey Kitchen was a cool place to go to, so a quick taxi run there was called for. T-Bone and Ladbelly soon attracted the attentions of a local beauty - the two stags butting heads at the bar to sieze the conquest. It was T-Bone who finally relented, leaving Ladbelly to seal the deal. With one more member in tow, it was onto what would be our final destination - a real spit 'n' sawdust joint just out of downtown. 

Things had turned drastically from 'let's have a few drinks' to drunken ramblings and more shots than we can remember. The locals were friendly, inviting us to join their bar games - essentially throwing bean bags into holes! It was especially cool to hook up with half of Kings Of Leon here - the band were in their hometown briefly and were out for a well earned drinking break. We chatted with Caleb about our trip - where we'd been, who we'd met, and where we were going to. He seemed pretty envious - maybe we should have invited him along? 

It's probably best not to talk too much about the rest of the night, but the word 'messy' is an understatement. (Unless of course you are Ladbelly, in which case 'dirty' may be more appropriate...)