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Posts Tagged ‘Beale Street’


Our first day in Music City USA…….and my birthday!

I won’t reveal my age but it is not unrelated to the number of the most famous highway in the United States.

In the previous piece I remarked upon missing some of the home comforts we were used to when staying in American properties at this bungalow. Perhaps the most alarming – for me at least – was that, despite boasting every streaming service imaginable, there were no live regular channels on the television. No CNN, no MSNBC, or even Dr Phil!

In one sense that was an irrelevance – if we did want to watch something on Netflix and Amazon, the batteries in the remote control had decided to greet our arrival by playing dead. A brief message to our neighbours (and landlord/lady) should resolve that by the time we returned later this evening (which it did).

Anyway, this was trivial in comparison to the fact that……..it was my birthday!

Have I mentioned that before?

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We called an Uber which deposited us at the tours ticket booth at 201 Broadway.

We had three full days in Nashville, so we decided to pace ourselves, not least because it was already hot. Today we would acclimatise ourselves with the city rather than dash from one country music related venue to another. Let’s get our bearings first, and take in as much live music as we can on Broadway.

So we stood in line at the ticket booth and paid for the hop on hop off trolley for the day. The tour would last for around an hour and three quarters.

Whilst we waited for our trolley to arrive, we looked around for the first time.

Two buildings in particular caught our attention: the imposing Nissan Stadium on the riverfront, home to the Tennessee Titans NFL team and where Ed Sheeran was performing that evening, and the extraordinary AT & T building, affectionally referred to by locals – I can’t think why (sic) – as the  “Batman Building”.

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It was an excellent tour, and we managed to resist the temptation to jump off at every alternate stop, such as Music Row. The only drawback to that was that we did not find time to explore some places, for example Bicentennial Park, with the Tennessee Capitol building, pictured below, and the Parthenon, a full scale replica of the original in Athens, before we left town.

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But it did give us an insight into the scale and appeal of the city. It appeared clean, spacious and civilised. As recent converts to the TV series of the same name, we were aware that Nashville had grown significantly in recent years. But we were not prepared for just how busy it was going to be downtown.

But, perhaps we should not have been so surprised.  It was Saturday, the sun was shining, and there were two major events in town that evening – comedian Kevin Hart was playing the 20,000 seater Bridgestone Arena in addition to the aforementioned Ed Sheeran concert.

Even as we took the trolley tour at a little before midday it became instantly apparent just how much of a party town it had become (I wonder what some of the old timers think about the modern Nashville scene).

Whilst the sidewalks were busy with shoppers and music fans searching for the best live bands, the streets were swamped with a phenomenon we had not even witnessed on the Las Vegas Strip – tours in motorised vehicles called Honky Tonk or party bikes as in the case of the Pedal Tavern, comprising mostly women whooping and hollering to loud music as they cruised the streets. Alcohol was evidently in plentiful supply on board.

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A brief respite for the staff before the next bachelorette party descended upon them!

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I might claim that I was already beginning to feel my age but I never felt like doing anything like that forty years ago, let alone now.

There were more sedate tours on offer for the more romantically minded visitor.

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Our preference was for a beer, sandwich and our first live music experience in the huge Nashville Underground bar. Any other followers of the Nashville TV show might find some resemblance in the picture below to a certain trio on the programme.

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I had declared publicly a month or so before the trip that it was my intention to purchase a new pair of cowboy boots whilst in town for my birthday. I may not have worded that properly – what I meant was for Janet to buy them (sic).

As I had been advised by several people back home, there were plenty of boot and hat emporia on Broadway, many with an amazing  buy one pair get two pairs free offer.

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I was not, however, going to rush into any decision today. There was plenty of time to view and ponder.

Another development in recent years on Broadway has been the emergence of bars owned by major country music stars – Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Blake Shelton all offer comfort food, drink and live music.

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But it was to Alan Jackson’s place that we retired for our next live music treat. Janet in particular is a fan of Jackson, and I find his more traditional style to be more to my taste than some of the heavily rock influenced country music of younger singers.

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Indeed, the band playing this afternoon, despite the three guitars, drums and pedal steel, offered a more gentle, nostalgic trip through country music history, for example Travis Tritt, Buck Owens and Charley Pride. Indeed, the pedal steel player had worked with the late, great George Jones for forty years!

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A visit to this part of the trip is not complete without a gander through the extensive bluegrass collection in the Ernest Tubb Record Shop.

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An exhibition to the great Loretta Lynn was an added attraction.

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We must have spent an hour and a half in AJ’s Good Time Bar, and as the band were completing their seat, we made our excuses and moved on.

Late afternoon and the party – on sidewalk, in bars and on the growing number of bikes and tour wagons – was in full swing. Moreover, Ed Sheeran fans were swarming into the area from all directions.

We took refuge in our third and last bar of the afternoon – the Famous Saloon – where a female duo provided some superb renditions of country classics.

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There was now the issue of the “birthday meal” to contend with. I had planned to book somewhere in advance in the expectation that failing to make a reservation might prove problematic, especially on a busy, hot Saturday night.

Which it did.

We roamed both Broadway and the outlying streets, only to be told that there would be at least an hour and a half wait for a table. In the end, we just had to bite (not eat) the bullet and accept a promise of an hour’s wait at Joe’s Crab Shack. As it happened, and this is often the case, we only had to sit and cuddle our gin and tonics near the bar for about twenty five minutes before we were called to our table.

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After a pleasant seafood meal, we decided to call it a night and take an Uber ride back to our bunglaow in the suburbs.

It had been a thoroughly enjoyable birthday and an eye-opening experience. We found the Broadway scene crazier in many ways than even Bourbon Street in New Orleans or Beale Street in Memphis. In fact, we both remarked that it was at least on a par with Vegas.

And we hadn’t quite expected that.

So, after our first day in town, we were not quite convinced that we liked Nashville as much as we had been expecting to. Although we love a drink and a live band (we would not be on this trip if we didn’t), the degree of drunkenness and boorish behaviour – and the night was still young – was a turn off.

But tomorrow we would be exploring the country music heritage of the city in a big way with visits to the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Johnny Cash Museum.

And it was Sunday, so it would be quieter wouldn’t it?

Spoiler – NO!

But we were equally sure we would have a less jaundiced view by the end of the second day.

Another spoiler – YES WE DID!

 

 

 

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A confession to begin with.

Although I am as big a fan of Elvis as the next man (or woman), visiting his home at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, has never been on my bucket list. I am not dazzled by celebrity and their personal lives.

But when in Memphis, you ignore it at your peril.

We had booked a mansion and planes package the day before. We took the hire car, which we planned to drop off back at the house before venturing downtown for the evening. As we approached the front desk to collect our tickets, we were greeted by the photograph below.

Aside from his peerless voice, he wasn’t a bad looking lad either, was he?

Our first impression was that of a theme park – we could have been in Universal Studios or Disney’s Magic Kingdom. In fact, the mansion itself, less ostentatious than we had expected, occupied a relatively small part of the 13.8 acre complex.

We took the iPad tour and boarded a shuttle bus from the entrance to the mansion itself. After a ten minute wait in line, we were stepping through the portico into the house. itself.

Graceland, the second most visited house in the U.S. with over 650,000 visitors a year, was a gift from Elvis to his parents, Vernon and Gladys, in 1957. It is a two story, five bay residence with 23 rooms, including eight bedrooms and bathrooms. Although he was on the road a lot, Elvis could not wait to get back to Graceland, and spent as much time there as his personal and musical commitments would allow.

The Mansion Tour includes the living room, his parent’s bedroom, the kitchen, TV room, the Jungle Room, his father’s office, the Trophy Building, the Racquetball Building and Meditation Garden.

The following photographs provide, I hope, a flavour of the style of the principal rooms.

The Meditation Garden was used by Elvis to reflect on any problems or issues that arose during his life. It is also where he, his parents, and grandmother, Minnie Mae Hood Presley, are buried.

I had been warned by friends who had visited in the past to expect a lot of hysterical weeping at his graveside, but there was more a respectful and reverential tranquility about the spot when we were there.

Before continuing the tour, we had lunch at Gladys’ Diner, one of four dining options (another very Disney-fied touch).

One of Elvis’s passions was his car collection. Many of his favourite models can be found at Graceland. Pride of place goes to the 1955 Pink Cadillac Fleetwood, the second he bought after the first had been burned.

Amongst the collection too is the 1956 Cadillac Eldorado, originally white, but repainted purple after he had smashed some grapes on the hood, and a white 1966 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III.


The Elvis the Entertainer Career Museum contains hundreds of artefacts, including gold and platinum records, jumpsuits, movie memorabilia and much more.

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We were planning to revisit Beale Street for a while during the evening, so we proceeded quickly to the plane exhibits.

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Elvis bought a 1958 Convair 880, which he named the Lisa Marie after his daughter, in 1975. Visitors are permitted to walk through the cabin, though not sit on the seats or fiddle with the dials in the cockpit (naturally!).

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As planned, we returned to the house to freshen up and rest for a couple of hours, before calling an Uber to take us back downtown.

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Before hitting Beale Street for the last time, we sought out a highly recommended restaurant on Main Street, Aldo’s Pizza Pies. As always, the service was outstanding, and the server and owner were both astounded by our road trip exploits.

And the pizzas?

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The Trippy Truffle: mushroom cream, button, enoki, portobello, & oyster, mozzarella, fontina, arugula salad with truffle oil dressing, and the Vodka Pie: vodka cream and house made mozzarella.

Divine.

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Beale Street was buzzing as we called in for one last drink in Club 152, one of the more highly rated live music bars.

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A short, and characteristically agreeable, Uber ride returned us to the house for our final night in Memphis (the photograph below is NOT our vehicle).

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We had thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of our stay in Memphis: the lovely, spacious suburban house, the music tours and the vibe downtown in the evenings.

But we were now heading for the city that we had both looking forward to the most – Nashville.

Yee-haw!

 

 

 

 

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After a restful night in our lovely suburban cottage, it was time to explore downtown Memphis (our other full day would be dedicated largely to Graceland).

And where else to start than legendary Sun Studio, the “birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll”?

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This was one of the moments on the trip that I had most been looking forward to. And it proved more moving than even I had expected.

Record producer, Sam Phillips, opened the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue on 3rd January 1950. But it was not until 18th July 1953 that an eighteen year old boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, named Elvis Aaron Presley, dropped in to record an acetate for his mother’s birthday, that the studio earned its place in rock ‘n roll history.

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Phillips was not immediately impressed until, in a ‘break” in auditioning, Elvis grabbed the microphone and launched into Big Boy Crudup’s That’s All Right that he realised this was a unique talent.

When our tour guide, Graham, played us those pieces, I confess that I was in tears. These were pivotal and emotional moments, not only in music history, but also in the chronicles of modern times.

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Janet, who alone among a group of about twenty guests, contrived to position herself on the exact spot where Elvis stood on that fateful day, took the opportunity to stand at the microphone – though, thankfully, she remained mute.

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The other heart-rending moment was listening to an original recording from the equally fabled “Million Dollar Quartet” jam session performed by Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis on 4th December 1956 – pure gold!

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Aside from the musical gems (there were many others), we were permitted to explore some of the priceless artefacts that adorned the walls, including recording equipment, posters  and original discs.

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The tour may only have lasted around 45 minutes but it was a breathtaking experience.

Leaving Sun Studio we walked down Monroe Avenue, stopping at regular intervals to enjoy the “Rock Walk” signs. In addition to the two shown below, others included Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf and Ike Turner.

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As we entered downtown we were able to investigate the compact and attractive Memphis Redbirds ballpark. It is a shame that such a major city as Memphis only has a Minor League team, but American sports are largely closed doors. I dare say, however,  that the team’s supporters will be no less fanatical than they are in New York, Boston or San Francisco.

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Another of the essential tourist experiences in Memphis is a visit to the Peabody Hotel, where twice a day at 11am and 5pm, a group of ducks are marched to and from their rooftop palace to the lobby fountain on the ground floor, where they spend the intervening hours.

It was after midday when we wandered through the lobby, so they were already blithely floating round their daytime home. We did not plan to return at the moment they returned to the “Royal Duck Palace”.

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After a tasty lunch of grilled cheese, chunky fries and wine at Automatic Slims, we began to explore the Beale Street area. Although we could hear live music emanating from some of the bars, it was much quieter in early afternoon than we would discover later in the evening.

Beale Street has been the beating heart of Memphis for over a century. The promise of musical stardom has lured musicians such as Gus Cannon, Furry Lewis and the wonderful Memphis Minnie from nearby Mississippi. Since the end of the Second World War, many – Elvis, BB King and Rufus Tomas included – became blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll recording stars.

But more of Beale Street later.

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Time for yet another music museum. This time, the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum on 3rd Street (B.B. King Boulevard), described by the Performing Songwriter Magazine as arguably the “single best exhibition of American musical history in the country”.

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And a superb exhibition it is as it tells the important story of those “musical pioneers who overcame racial and socio-economic obstacles to create the music that changed the cultural complexion of the world”.

It begins with rural field hollers and sharecroppers of the thirties, through the explosion of Sun, Stax, and Hi Records, inside Memphis’ musical heyday in the seventies, to its global musical influence. A digital audio tour guide highlights a series of tableaux and includes over five hours of information, is packed with over 300 minutes of information and more than 100 songs.

You can wander around the museum at your own pace through seven galleries featuring three audio visual programmes, more than thirty instruments, forty costumes, and other musical treasures.

I was especially enamoured of the collection of juke boxes dotted around the museum, enabling you to select favourite songs from comprehensive lists for each era and style.

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Returning from the air conditioning of the museum into the heat of the street, an experience we endured with varying degrees of comfort over the whole trip, at least until now (and later Nashville), we strolled down to the riverfront alongside the Hernando Desoto Bridge that spanned the Mississippi.

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Unlike New Orleans, where we rode three lines of streetcars, we did not really have time to experience the Memphis version, though they are clearly an attractive and valuable addition to the city transportation system.

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There was some imaginative, locally themed street artwork around downtown too.

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As dusk fell, we went in search on Beale Street for live music and dinner. Our first port of call was the Jerry Lee Lewis’ Cafe and Honky Tonk where Jason James, with an excellent band, gave an energetic and authentic performance to a packed out crowd.

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After a couple of beers there, we wandered around, checking each bar in turn and visiting the gift shops. It was still relatively early in the evening but the street was filling up. The atmosphere was noisy and high-spirited, but we found it less threatening than Bourbon Street in New Orleans. The clear police presence at either end may have contributed to that of course.

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We selected the Rum Boogie Cafe, one of the most celebrated nightclubs in the city. Sybil Thomas, youngest daughter of Rufus and sister of Carla, delivered a high energy of soul and funk classics with her equally dynamic band while we had dinner.

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With the much anticipated trip to Graceland in the morning, we called an Uber at the bottom of Beale Street to take us back to the cottage in East Memphis.

 

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Today we were destined to spend the whole day in a single state – Mississippi. It began with a passable breakfast of sausage patties, scrambled eggs, bagels, cream cheese and coffee in the hotel.

Which brings me straight away to one of my favourite rants of life on the road in this country. I would love somebody to explain to me why every breakfast room in every hotel appears to have  the  TV tuned into to Fox News.

I suppose in the south it is more likely to have a captive audience among the truck drivers and Hanks and Mildreds expelled from their tour buses. But, with few exceptions, the  staff working in the kitchens and dining rooms are black. I am sure that going to work every day with the bile and make believe spewed out from Fox must have a debilitating impact on them.

Or perhaps they tune it out. I wish I could! I did once turn it over to CNN on our south west road trip and nobody batted an eyelid. I doubt I would receive such a gentle response in Mississippi.

Which brings me rather neatly to the American Civil War.

The reason I chose Vicksburg for one of our overnight stops was to give us the opportunity to visit one of the most important battlefields when “brother fought against brother”.

With a 144 mile drive to our next overnight stop in Clarksdale, we made an early start.

Following fast on Robert E. Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, the Siege of Vicksburg, the last major Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River, in 1863 proved the major turning point in the war.

The Vicksburg National Military Park contains over 1,340 monuments and the adjacent National Cemetery holds the remains of 17,000 Union soldiers, a number unmatched by any other national cemetery. Given the expansive rolling land and extensive foliage, it was not difficult to imagine the epic nature of the battle.

As we walked among the statues, pillars, buildings, gun emplacements and other memorials, it was evident that victory for Major Ulysses S. Grant, was gained at a mighty heavy price. Ohio and Illinois in particular were heavily represented around the park.

It had been an affecting experience, but we needed to return to the road, leaving Vicksburg at midday under a hazy sun and 88 degrees of heat.

The “big sky” and flat, deserted road were reminiscent of those we had encountered during the south west road trip six years earlier. We could have been in Utah (thankfully we weren’t as Mississippi is not a dry state).


Mile upon mile of pretty cotton fields, ready for harvesting it appeared, adorned either side of road. Picking is, of course, now mechanised but, again, I could not help a passing thought about the thousands of lives that were debased in the process in the past.

 

Farm machinery, silos and abandoned buildings – along with the customary plethora of religious establishments – were also regular features by the roadside.

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I had been looking forward to visiting Clarksdale, Mississippi, as much as anywhere on this trip. Whilst there is considerable debate about its precise location, the legend persists that it was at a crossroads in the Clarksdale vicinity where the “King of the Delta Blues Singers”, Robert Johnson, sold his soul to the devil.

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The town was the birthplace of many Blues luminaries,  John Lee Hooker, Son House and Ike Turner were born here, amongst many others. including Sam Cooke (I had not been aware of this before now). Muddy Waters moved to the town as a child.

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You could sense the history and mood the moment we stepped out of the car on 2nd Street in a dry, ninety degree heat. This place was drippin’ with the blues. The ghosts of those great bluesman walked the empty streets where many buildings remained either empty or derelict, and others boasted colourful, celebratory murals.

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With just an eighty mile drive to Memphis planned for the next day, we had plenty of time to explore the town, notably the two fine museums dedicated to blues and rock. We decided to visit the Rock & Blues Museum this afternoon and return in the morning to frequent the Delta Blues Museum.

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It was understandable, though still a pity, that we we were not permitted to take photographs once inside the museum, though I had not realised this until I had already snapped this fine specimen.

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One surprising piece of street art was this tribute to the early Beatles.

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In both the museum and the Cathead Delta Blues & Folk Artstore, we were advised that there was a special live concert in the Blues Berry Cafe that evening (Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club was closed on Monday evening).

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We duly honoured the recommendation and had dinner (fried shrimp and spaghetti with garlic) there prior to the live performance.

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Sean “Bad” Apple, a Clarksdale boy who plays five nights a week at 152, Beale Street in Memphis, was making a rare return to his home town to play to an audience that, with probably the only exception of ourselves and a young Danish couple sat at the next table, he knew extremely well.

Supported by another local boy, “Iceman” Billy Williams on drums, Sean treated us to a mix of tasty Delta blues and anecdotes about legendary Clarksdale characters. He is an outstanding musician, but rather like the evening in the Blue Moon in Lafayette, we felt a little like outsiders, almost intruding on a private party, as he engaged in extended banter with friends, and even shared the stage with some.

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But we did get a slice of birthday cake!

 

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