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Posts Tagged ‘Bourbon 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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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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We had three full days in New Orleans, one of which would be largely given over to organised sightseeing tours, so we had to make the most of the remaining time.

Having ticked Pat O’Brien’s off our “must indulge” list, it was time on our first morning to sample the revered breakfast dish of beignets, deep fried doughnuts sprayed with powdered sugar. This would not have been my first choice – eggs, bacon, sausage and toast will always lay claim to that title – but we acknowledged that it was incumbent upon any new visitor to the city to try them at least once.

Mindful of the long lines that accumulate outside Cafe du Monde in the morning, combined with fact that, following the previous night’s drinking, we had not risen early, we decided to tuck into them at the first opportunity, which turned out to be Cafe Beignet on Decatur Street. Ironically, by the time we had reached the flagship branch later, there was no line at all, though a healthy crowd were being entertained by a lively jazz band.

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At Jackson Square, former military drill field, “Place d’Armes”, we explored both the magnificent St Louis Cathedral and the statue of Andrew Jackson, seventh President of the United States and previously military leader responsible for defeating the British in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.

One thing that struck me – though it really shouldn’t have – was the number of walking tours being delivered in the area, some well supported, others less so. There were several underway of the French Quarter, but this only scratched the surface as, amongst others, there were tours available to cover the New Orleans’s history, ghosts, voodoo, cemeteries, food and drink as well as for other parts of the city, for example the Garden District, home to the Lafayette Cemetery and dozens of monumental antebellum mansions.

There were several conspicuous reminders around the area that the city was celebrating its 300th anniversary.

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I called into the visitor centre and was greeted with that genuine, warm southern hospitality that we were already becoming accustomed to. Two delightful ladies of undoubted pensionable age directed me to the impressive, free official visitors guides to the city and state. As I turned to leave, they exclaimed in unison, “y’all have a nice day, now”.

After such a cheerful salutation, how could I not?

We wanted to make the most of the improvement in the weather (the sun had even made an occasional appearance), so decided against visiting any museums, much as we may have wanted to. These will have to wait for our return (for return we shall) on a later date.

And we were getting peckish again.

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One and a half beignets each was hardly going to fill us up, so we were, or rather I was, delighted shortly afterwards to spot the Central Grocery, home to the equally legendary muffuletta, a massive layered olive salad, meats and cheese sandwich drizzled with olive oil. We sat in the store and devoured one half of the half sized muffuletta (not cheap at $11.50) before moving on.

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We continued to stroll along Decatur Street until it met Esplanade Avenue, the boundary between the French Quarter and the Faubourg Marigny district. With light rain falling again, it was reassuring to discover the indoor French Market which ran alongside the riverfront.

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Given the number of jewellery, as well as craft, stalls available, it was only a matter of time before Janet purchased her first earrings of the trip.

Although there is no substitute to eating the fabulous food that New Orleans has to offer, just reading the menu boards, as at this stall in the French Market can be almost as satisfying – I repeat almost.


It certainly served to remind us that we still had half a muffuletta left, which we devoured in triangular shaped Latrobe Park after first having had cocktails at the Gazebo Cafe (we had fully sobered up by now), whilst being thoroughly entertained by another accomplished band playing a number of New Orleans classics.

Our intention all along today had been to saunter back along the riverfront, or “Moon Walk”, from the furthest reaches of the French Quarter, and we were not going to allow the steady drizzle to deter us. Our first glimpse of the Mississippi River, which is to feature so prominently on this trip, was framed by the Greater New Orleans Bridge.

The pretty red Riverfront streetcar pulled into Toulouse Station, evoking memories of those rattling, cranky vehicles in San Francisco that we had ridden so many times before (and sometimes seemed we had spent half our lives on). We planned to travel the three main lines here on our final day.

The riverfront amble also gave us the opportunity to compare the two paddlewheel steamboats that we had considered for our dinner jazz cruise on the next evening. As we approached, the Natchez, images of which, including a giant mural, we had already witnessed around the city was herding its latest group of passengers off the boat. It looked a little chaotic to be honest.

We had already booked the Creole Queen for the following evening, a decision that already looked vindicated. It appeared smaller and more intimate. The Mardi Gras character pictured below seemed to be promoting it too.

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A brief exploration of the Outlet Collection at Riverfront, including a coffee at another branch of Cafe du Monde, prefaced a return to the hotel, negotiating the noisy and substantial building works that were upgrading the area still further.

We returned to the French Quarter in the evening, enjoying another outstanding seafood meal at Oceana on Conti Street, a few yards from the intersection with Bourbon Street. Bypassing the growing drunkenness and debauchery infecting the whole area, we returned to the Red Fish Grill where we had eaten the previous night, for a nightcap in their quiet, civilised bar.

Tomorrow would be a different day with water having the starring role. We had booked a swamp and bayou sightseeing tour for the morning/afternoon and the aforementioned jazz dinner cruise in the evening.

And the weather forecast was for heavy rain and thunderstorms!

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We arrived in New Orleans in mid-afternoon after a smooth internal flight on United Airlines from Newark, New Jersey.

On crossing the threshold of the Cambria Hotel on Tchoupitoulas Street in the increasingly upmarket Warehouse District, I was thrilled to discover in the entrance corridor a series of fifteen wooden slatted artworks celebrating many of the great bluesmen and jazz musicians of the Delta and beyond. I will confine the photographs to three of my particular favourites.

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They are the work of Connie Kittok, a Louisiana contemporary folk artist inspired by her Southern roots. Coincidentally, or perhaps serendipitously, the entire collection is entitled Road Tripping: a journey to discover the heart of the blues. The thirteen year wait between our original plan to take this trip and actually making it suddenly seemed worth it.

An incredible collage of immaculately polished jazz instruments also adorned another wall adjacent to reception.

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We decided to unpack and get dressed to ignore the rain and have dinner early.

We were staying less than fifteen minutes walk from the French Quarter, and wanted to experience Bourbon Street at first hand. After forgetting momentarily that I was not in San Francisco when I bought a Grateful Dead bandanna at the Hippie Gypsy store on Canal Street, and then elegantly dodging a streetcar after looking the wrong way, we ventured into the fabled thoroughfare.

Even though it was still early in the evening, there was a boozy and boisterous buzz about the street.

We walked as much as possible beneath the balconies, from which there was a distinct lack of falling bead necklaces (Mardi Gras was, of course, still months away). There was a considerable amount of noisy and unsightly construction underway. At regular intervals, young children were sitting on the kerb drumming on upturned buckets with astonishing rhythm and dexterity. We were confronted on several occasions by drunks attempting to foist beads on us before demanding money, but we managed to deflect their tiresome attentions.

As this was our first visit to the Big Easy, we were determined to try as many of the  essential NOLA dining experiences as possible. Given that we were in the heart of the French Quarter, it was incumbent upon us to begin our exploration with a Hurricane cocktail (rum, passion fruit syrup and lime juice with an orange slice and cherry garnish) at its original home, Pat O’Brien’s.

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We had drunk many in the past at various Margaritaville and Hard Rock locations, but this was where it was first served. It was no less powerful than what we had become accustomed to, even though we declined the signature glass option. We sat at the bar and chatted with the big bearded barman before stepping out to select our dinner venue.

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We had already been struck from the outside by the appearance and enticing menu of the award winning Red Fish Grill, and decided to eat there. We were not disappointed. A handsome and attractive dining room and pleasant staff complemented superb seafood. My Cajun Jambalaya Risotto in particular was divine.

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The persistent drizzle failed to dampen the spirits of the early evening revellers. Live music spilled out of most of the bars – a cacophony of jazz, blues, hard rock and even country as an inevitable accompaniment to bull riding. With an abundance of choice available, we plumped for the Famous Door, a legendary live music venue where the excellent band ran the gamut of seventies and eighties American rock music – from Jackson Browne and Carole King to Foreigner and Guns ‘n’ Roses.

By this time the potency of the Hurricane, upon which by now we had piled cocktails and double gin and tonics, was beginning to take its advertised and insidious effect. I am convinced, however, that the periodic movement, as if across a ouija board, of our (plastic) glasses was not solely attributable to our mushrooming inebriation. After all, we were in the home of voodoo with many haunted locations close by, so it should be no real surprise that glasses should be sashaying around the table. In an even spookier twist, they stopped abruptly at the table’s edge, thankfully, saving us from having to order another, ultimately lethal, round.

Two flights, of eight and three hours duration respectively in the space of twenty four hours, combined with the alcohol, were beginning to take their toll and we returned, a little unsteadily, to our hotel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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