Thursday, June 28, 2007

This Stuff Rocks!

Pow! Bristol 1, rest of England 0:

Best pale ale I've had in England. Not the strongest, but pleasantly hopped, well balanced, and potent enough to put a little hair on the chest. Flyin' high after running five miles and drinking a couple of these... would love to bring a crate back with me.

What else rocks? This story on NPR!! Thanks to Ben for bringing it to my attention. It's all about a summer camp for high school kids centered around blowing stuff up. Had I heard about this when I was 16, there would've been no jazz camp that summer. Nope, would've packed my bags for Missouri to play with dynamite for a few days. Some of you know where my head was 10 years ago, but for those who don't... well, let's just say that I still bear the scars on a couple fingers of my right hand after an attempt to make gunpowder took a wrong turn. The big drawback, though, is that the camp appears to be a recruiting ground for the exciting field of mine engineering. No thanks. Building demolition seems far more intriguing. And artistic.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

It's Not Just Me

I've uncovered a truth about Amsterdam, which is that the drugs here really don't have much of an effect, it's actually all about the unusual physical phenomena manifest within the city, such as the contortionist buildings above. Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera with me yesterday to document the river of beetles, men covered engulfed in flames, or bleeding clock tower.

Our overnight drive went smoothly enough. Leaving the bus and having a full day off is much more preferable to arriving with half the evening already gone. On the less positive side, I may have slept for four hours. When we arrived yesterday, the horrible weather seemed to be penance for the beautiful days we stole in Germany: 50s, rainy, windy. Still, we hit the streets — a day off in Amsterdam is what it is.

Because of its repetitive layering of canals and twisted streets, it's easy to get disoriented here (further evidence to the above), and for the first time on this leg, I managed to find myself firmly rooted in a condition known to all as lost. It takes a great deal to get me to this point, for if one knows even one tiny datum about their whereabouts, getting lost is rather difficult. I, however, was completely turned around and couldn't say with any degree of certainty where I was in relation to the hotel. Thankfully, the condition was only temporary.

To answer the question that some of you are certainly asking at this point, no, there was nothing aside from fatigue and excessive caffeine consumption which would have heightened my capacity for getting lost. Later in the day, however, I ate a quarter of a hash brownie, which effect was extremely faint, only mellowing me out a little and making for a very relaxing evening in my hotel room. Maybe tonight I'll try a half...

The weather is far superior today, and so I have no further reason to sit around inside and exercise my fingers on this keyboard. Two and a half hours until we leave for the venue, and I intend to make the best of it. I'll see if I can't find that river of beetles again.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Night Drivin'

It's almost 3:30 in the morning, and we're a few hours into our drive from Basel to Amsterdam, a 10 hour adventure if I am correct. In an unprecedented move, we're making the drive overnight right after the gig instead of doing it during the following day. Why one would rather have a full day off in Amsterdam instead of spending it in a bus I can only wonder, but I'm sure it'll be a good time for all. I'm also wondering why we're currently tooling along two-lane streets in some German town instead of balling down the Autobahn, but I should probably know better than to question the wisdom of our driver.

Pictured above is the front-upstairs lounge on our bus, a remarkable example of fabled German engineering. From the beginning, I've been meaning to post a video tour of the bus, 'cause it's quite a trip. Maybe if I'm feeling appropriately perky tomorrow morning...

I owe a pictorial show-and-tell of Munich, which hasn't been forgotten. Soon and very soon.

But now, my first attempt to get a good night's sleep on a moving bus. Thinking earplugs might be the way to go, and hoping for the best.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Bobby? Is That YOU?

I walking through a department store here in Frankfurt yesterday looking for a linen shirt when I heard a familiar voice singing these lyrics:
Oh God I am the American dream
But now I smell like Vaseline
An' I'm a miserable sonofabitch
Am I a boy or a lady... I don't know which
After a moment of shock and disbelief, I realized that yes, one of Frank Zappa's most well-known irreverent songs, "Bobby Brown Goes Down", was playing for all shoppers to, umm, enjoy. And no one seemed to mind. Indeed, nothing short of incredible. If only they knew...

Thursday, June 21, 2007

10 Days Deep In D-Land

I've come to the realization that the number one sonic indication of being in Europe is the siren, the one with two repeating tones about a fourth apart. Sure, there are the language variations, but once you get a bunch of people talking at once, it sounds pretty much the same wherever you are. But if you're sitting on a rooftop, taking in the ambient runoff, it all comes down to the sirens.

We're just over a week into the German portion of our adventure, and having ourselves a grand ole time. The weather has been largely cooperative, blessing us with warm, sunny, early-summer days on the days off, and saving the rain for travel days. Given the time passed since the last posting of marked consideration and the volume of pictures taken since, I think the best way to do this one would be a show-and-tell. And thus...

Is there a better way to kick off a show-and-tell about Germany, especially after having spent a few days in Munich, the beer drinking capital of the world? I think not. It is mighty dee-licious over here, but don't worry, I'm still standing.

But before jumping into Munich, which shall constitute the bulk of this posting, we must first return to the early days of Deutschland, our stay in Hamburg. It would be my luck that I left my camera on the bus and didn't have it for the two days off. A shame, as there are some beautiful parts of the city which would've made for excellent visuals. I'll have to rely instead on flowery, descriptive language and this map. On the morning of my first free day, I went for a run around the Alster, a mid-sized lake near the center of town. It was a Sunday, perfect weather, surface dotted with sailboats and shores specked with sunbathers, greens and blues saturated to the limits. No one was quite sure about its circumference; I clocked it to be around 10k. About halfway around, I figured out that drinking fountains don't exist in Germany, which made for a damn ragged half hour of running back to the hotel. No lasting damage done, though.

In some respects, it's nice to have forgotten one's camera from time to time. I think we can be a little too obsessive about documentation, so much so that we forget to roll up the sleeves and really dig in. * This particularly struck me when our band went to a Justin Timberlake concert in Manchester last month. We were sitting fairly high up in the stands, and when JT came on stage, all you could see from our seats to the stage was a sea of LCD monitors on cameras and cell phones. It seemed that just about everyone was more concerned with capturing that moment on "film" than with actually living it. Funny, but a little pathetic too. And so, although I don't have anything to show you from the Hamburg days, I don't feel all that bad about it. The pictures in my head are as vivid as ever.

During the epic Alster circumnavigation, I picked out a couple spots that I thought would be well-suited for some outdoor music. For the most part, the distance between shore and road is fairly short, allowing for some trees and grass and a pathway. One stretch in particular along the northern shore expands into a generous swath of grass for a good quarter of a mile. This location I settled on, and returned in late afternoon, saxophone in tow. It would be difficult to find a better spot: comfortably couched between the shore and pathway, shaded by a willow, a bench to lean against, late afternoon sun streaming through the branches, plenty of space for people to listen at their desired level of intensity. One of the cool things I've noticed is that after about 30 minutes to an hour of playing, those in the immediate surroundings are there because they like the music. Sure, some people might leave, but some stay and more arrive. It's a subtle, entropic take on performance, and I rather like it.

As much as the weather and surroundings made my day, so did the locals — in particular, two girls sunning themselves about 100 paces away from where I'd set up camp. One walked up almost immediately to throw some money in the case, and then both returned an hour later with a plate of pineapple. I played a few more tunes, including a couple of their requests, then joined them on their blanket for some evening sun, silliness, and conversation (in English and German). ** When the sun retreated finally behind the trees, we found a cafe on the Alster and had some late evening dinner and ice cream, bringing to a conclusion a perfect day. Fortunately, we met up several more times during the next few days for some Hamburg exploration, laughs, and German lessons. I'll be forever grateful!

Our stay in Cologne was brief in comparison to Hamburg, lasting only two nights and one full day, on which we had our show. We stayed directly across the river from the Cologne Cathedral, quite the impressive sight, day or night. Encumbered by rain, I only had time for a jog and about an hour of poking around the old town section along the river. I don't feel that I discovered all that much: the old town section is filled with touristy beer n' brat bars and restaurants, and lies adjacent to ye olde generic shopping street. Perfect if one can happily describe seeing Cologne as drinking a Kölsch, buying a t-shirt at H&M, and peeking at a cathedral, but I think I'll have to give it another look-around someday.

It is now evident that the posting will have to be concluded in a Part II, as it's a few minutes shy of bus-time. I'll leave you with a taste of things to come, which things will likely come swiftly as pictures instead of words will constitute the bulk.

And now for a mad dash through the rain... 3... 2... 1...

* Walker Percy has an essay in Message In The Bottle that really got me thinking about this almost 10 years ago. I don't remember the exact name and the book is in Brooklyn, but if anyone is interested, I can dig it up.

** Note to self: never provoke two girls with brothers, lest one be ganged up on and tickled to death. But then, were I able to choose the method of my demise...

Frankfurt Am Main

My ever-perceptive sister suggested that having a picture of a condom truck at the top of the page for more than a week might be a little tacky. I'm inclined to agree. And thus, here's my first view of Frankfurt the moment I stepped off the bus yesterday:

At first glance, the city provides a contrast to the quaint Bavarian-ness of the old city in Munich, near which we were posted for several days over the weekend. And what does that look like, you ask? Or further, why haven't you posted pictures so that we would have a basis for comparison? Well, I'm working on a synopsis of the pre-Stuttgart German adventures, which will be chock-full of pretty pictures and words. Since it's pissing down with a diluvial vengeance, I'm sitting happily in the window of a Starbucks, enjoying their Motown mix, and trying to finish said posting. With luck, we'll get their before I have to leave for the gig in an hour and a half...

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Wieder Auf Dem Weg

Many thanks to Aspen for her fabulous on-the-fly mobi-cam handling. Were I always so quick on the draw:

I mean, how often do you pass a giant semi filled with rubbers? Especially such happy rubbers at that!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Wilkommen In Deutschland! (corrected)

Nach Denmark, haben wir endlich in Deutschland angekommen! And I'm finding that my German isn't as bad as I thought it might be. Thus far, I've had plenty of opportunities to test it out, such as the first one shown below:

These are t-shirts on a rack at a gas station just across the border from Denmark. The one on top needs no explanation, but the one on the bottom may not be immediately evident for all parties involved. When I saw it, though, I nearly fell to the ground laughing... loosely translated, taking some rhetorical liberties: Looking for a man who's hung like a horse. But a little more direct. After explaining it to the band, one member was convinced to buy one. (S)he shall remain nameless.

But for the real side-splitter, check out this posting on our drummer John Miceli's blog. I'm still in disbelief...

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Getting Into It

Editor's note: I began this backstage before the show at Sweden Rock and don't feel like altering the narrative to conform to temporal sensibility. Complaints can be directed to my assistant.

Oh Sweden, what a lovely country thus far. I can see why Northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota proved comfortable places to land for those who decided to flee the homeland years ago. We're only here for the evening, playing the Sweden Rock Festival — right between Thin Lizzie and Black Sabbath. When we arrived, Quiet Riot had the stage, rocking not very quietly for a scattered crowd of lukewarm enthusiasm. It's hot, not a cloud in the sky, so overt displays of enthusiasm aren't exactly what comes easily to people today. Aside from the various Scandinavian flags flapping around here and there and the faint but indelible air of Swedish hipness, one could easily pass the scene off as a Midwestern state fair.

Yesterday (ie. Wendesday) busted through the gate around the time of the final lap. Losing an hour coming from Ireland plus a fit of insomnia that delayed sleep until somewhere around 5am the night before meant that I didn't get out of bed until almost 2 in the afternoon, and didn't leave the hotel room until 4:30. Only recently have I been experiencing anything I could confidently label as actual insomnia, and it's a real pain in the ass. But this isn't a posting about insomnia, so we'll leave it at that. When I finally headed out, I was grumpy over having lost a full day of Copenhagen exploration, groggy from the disrupted sleeping schedule (word used loosely), and hungry for lack of breakfast. Not the best of all possible attitudes.

After walking for about ten minutes, I found myself on the main walking street, Strøget — literally "street," I believe. Creative indeed. Like Grafton Street, all the usual suspects were present, plus some of the most carnivorous currency exchange places in all of the real universe. The quantity of Danish kroner I was given for $200 after a 12% service charge (wot!?) was just plain demoralizing. Like we don't have it hard enough already. At its southern entrance, Strøget is flanked by a McDonalds on one side and a 7-Eleven on the other. Great, I think. I make it all the way to Copenhagen just to be caught between the Golden Arches and a Sevvie.

I found a ham sandwich and a bottle of water for 60 DKK (about $11 by the current exchange rate), then meandered over to Højbro Plads, a square around the corner. Most of the squares seem to have a kiosk or two serving coffee, beer and wine, surrounded by chairs and tables. A perfect place for a sit-down and some good people watching. * Considering the all-too-recent waking, I opted for coffee and stayed for a while, pondering the next move and the inherent loneliness of traveling.

The latter is something I've had on my mind for a while. I seem to be the one who most often wants to venture the farthest from the hotel, and consequently find myself on my own for much of the time. It doesn't bother me, I'm free to go where I want when I want, stay here a little longer, wander over there, skip this street. As far as exploration is concerned, it's optimal. Traveler's loneliness doesn't source itself in solitude. It's the gap between observation and participation that feeds it, the feeling of floating blindly through someone else's community. At the same time that I enjoy engaging a city on my own, I crave that moment when you meet someone who says C'mon, let's go, I'll show you around, I just found a great restaurant a couple weeks ago, and there's a great spot on the river nearby to sit and take in the evening. Even better if she's cute, good-humored, sharp, and fond of beer but not too fond. But let's not get sidetracked so easily.

I'm sure there's more to it, this is just about as far as I've come in sorting it out. My sense is that this gap is about as illusory as it is real, if not more so. A good friend of mine would say it's as real as I believe it to be. What all fuels the gap itself? Probably just the wealth of insecurities and anxieties that fuck with everything else, and the hesitations they bring about. Isn't that maybe what makes up that gap between observation and participation, hesitation?

Coffee gone, I wandered towards Nyhavn, where a friend had told me I must go. Somewhere in there, I started thinking that I should maybe go back to the hotel and get my horn, see what a little stretch of busking might do for the day. Five minutes later, I was one rationalization short of convinced. While walking along the strip of Nyhavn between the restaurants and the canal, I came across a trio of saxophone, bass, and drums sounding damn fine and skimming the surplus kroner from a mirthful crowd of after-workers, tourists, and other errant locals. It was then that I was sold. The walk back to the hotel was brisk; it felt right, this was going to be one hell of an evening.

Half an hour later, I was back at Nyhavn playing a set with the trio, made up not only of excellent musicians but wonderful guys as well. It felt great to be playing the street once again, and to be playing in a style I don't have much of an opportunity to play these days. Sure, playing to tens of thousands of people is exhilarating, but the street has its own equally exciting feeling that one just can't duplicate when a stage is involved. It demands direct engagement with the community at hand: Observe, and forget about an appreciative crowd or plentiful tips. Participate, and it all comes together.

And come together it did from then on out. My first note with the group began a 12-hour adventure of epic proportions. After scoring some Thai take-out and eating on the bank of the Nyhavn canal with the drummer, I met a couple local girls. We hit it off right, had some beers, then they took it upon themselves to show me what a Wednesday night in Copenhagen can be. By then, I'm guessing it was somewhere around midnight, at the front end of the three hours during the day when it's actually dark. First stop was a nightclub popular with the late teens and early 20s crowd, then what one of the two described as the worst bar in Copenhagen, a place on the Nyhavn strip called Hong Kong. Pretty bad. Then back to the nightclub. Plenty of beer, dancing, and disgusting Danish shots to be had by all.

Way too much fun had throughout the entire night, from dancing amongst the sweaty 20-somethings to the grime of Hong Kong, but the highlight came around 5:00 in the morning. As I was leaving the club, the doorman saw my sax and convinced me to pull it out and play something. A minute or two passed, and I accumulated a respectable crowd in the atrium of the club. I snapped into street mode, milking requests from anyone who could think of anything they wanted to hear (from "Sweet Home Alabama" to "Supersition" to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to Bob Marley), playing it best I could, working the crowd, making them clap and sing along, blowing those classic knees-to-the-ground screech solos that would scare the shit out of a southern Baptist and make my college professors either proud or cringe. They eventually had to kick us out, so we spilled out onto the street and continued the game for a while longer until people finally started to disperse. After another half hour or so of talking to the guys who loved Stevie Wonder and flirting with the girls in the early dawn light, I embarked on the walk back to the hotel, stupid grin firmly in place. By then, it was past 6:00, and the sun shone with a NYC-9:00am intensity.

I'll be telling stories about that day when I'm 85 and can't remember the name of my firstborn. And that's what traveling is all about. Not necessarily staying out all night, but grabbing hold, taking the ride, and not letting go until the train finally comes to a halt. My deepest thanks to all those who enabled, encouraged, or otherwise contributed along the way: Jens, Nils, Madeline, Sarah, Guffi, Madsole, Anders, Camilla, Nanna, Lina, Sophie, Malou, Emma, and the list goes on. And a resounding SKÅL to days of equal caliber in weeks to come!

* Copenhagen is easily the front-runner for Most Beautiful Women Per Capita in all of Europe. So far at least. And I've never been to Italy or Spain or Prague, so it's a little unfair to make a final call anytime soon. But it's spectacular here, truly. They make my eyes hurt and drive me to slam my head in a door. Tom Waits' introduction to Nighthawks At The Diner comes to mind: beware ye, crack o' dawn. It's probably good that we're leaving soon.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Sweden ROCK

Today's show at the Sweden Rock Festival probably wins the prize for most people I've played for in one sitting (or standing, as is more accurate). It's a bit of a rush, looking out onto a sea of 40 or 50 thousand people, Swedish or otherwise:

I have been loving our stay in Copenhagen and wouldn't mind staying another week, though too many nights like last one would leave me pretty shattered. Oh, it was epic. it was 6:30 in the morning, sun a-shining, by the time I wandered back to our hotel. It deserves its own posting, the story of Wednesday, and luckily, it's over halfway done already! Were it not for the multiple episodes of Chewin' The Fat * watched on the bus ride home, I may have finished it, too. Tomorrow, tomorrow... but now, we sleep.

* Scotland's contribution to the wonderful world sketch comedy. Sends contemporary SNL running with tail between legs, even though a good 25% of it is completely incomprehensible to us Yanks. Will try to bring back a couple DVDs.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


If I've learned anything about the Danes thus far it's that they're not too fond of absolute claims.

We've only been here since about 8:00 last night, though, and with difficulty getting to sleep I only got out of bed an hour ago, so I don't think I've learned all that much about anything yet. There's still enough afternoon to salvage for a walk-around, perhaps I'll dig up some interesting bits to feature here.

As we venture away from native English speaking countries, we begin to see more of one of my favorite traveling sights: English signage that just ain't quite right. It will be hard to top Tokyo, but it's out there...

Monday, June 04, 2007

Rainy Night In Dublin

Fine, so it's not night as I write this, but that's just not how the song goes. Ignore the further discrepancies that I am not in Georgia, neither am I hovering by my suitcase, trying to find a warm place to spend the night — thankfully so. But I do feel like it's raining all over this world. Or at least in Ireland.

Raining, though, seems to be one of the things this city does particularly well, so why slight it? We've been here since Thursday, and were blessed with a beautiful, sunny, warm day off on Friday, which made for an excellent afternoon of exploration and an equally excellent evening of Guinness-drinking on the cricket green of Trinity College. * If I was more diligent at chronicling these travels, you might draw the parallel to our improbable four beautiful days in a row in London. But how would you know? No such luck this time around; the rain moved in on Friday night and has lingered ever since.

It's a different rain than we'd usually get in the States, at least in the places I've lived. Closer to a drizzle, but not quite as fine nor depressing, it's almost pleasant. One can walk about through it without the necessity of an umbrella. You'll get a little wet, but never soaked. I would suppose that were there anyplace in the States which could compare it would be the Pacific Northwest, but I wouldn't know for certain, as my time there was brief and largely limited to, ahh, sheltered activity.

We're staying in a rather posh hotel — surprise — in a neighborhood southwest of city centre called Ballsbridge, which name is almost impossible to utter without a trace of a Beavis snicker. We're not surrounded by anything particularly interesting, just a few expensive pubs, a handful of restaurants, a post office; mostly residential and poshly so. The walk to St. Stephen's Green takes about 25 to 30 minutes, no casual feat but far from impractical. From there, the whole of city centre is pretty accessible.

Traveling about as we are, I'm noticing a certain homogeneity of cities everywhere, most notoriously in their glitzy shopping streets and most prominent nightlife spots. Grafton Street here is essentially a retooling of 5th Avenue, Bloor Street, Michigan Avenue, Oxford Street, Deansgate, insert your candidate here. Sure, each has its identifying characteristics — Grafton Street is open only to pedestrians, unlike the noisy canyon of 5th Ave., and the northern beacon of a Hancock tower is nowhere to be found — but when it comes to content and presentation, variation is elusive. Clothing boutiques bearing names of all major brands, a Starbucks for every corner, mobile phone stores, a few bars populated mostly by suits and tourists; the most obvious sense of variation is found with the price tags or the names of the wireless providers. They often appear spotless, too, litter collected continuously, streets hosed down at the end of the day. Best foot forward for the guests.

Nightlife spots are rarely spotless, as evinced by, say, Leeds on a bank holiday weekend. It's what happens when you fill bars with 18-25ers and then let them out on the streets at 2am. Most people directed me towards Temple Bar here in Dublin for a night out, and I found myself there on Friday night until the wee hours. But what I quickly realized is that it's like all the nightlife spots in New York that I choose to avoid, Dublin or no. No matter where you go, the experience of being packed into a bar with a bunch of drunk people is pretty much the same.

Althouh, in recognition of notable variation, Irish bar crowds are very enthusiastic about singing along to music, in a way American bar crowds never quite reach. It's really cool. If any of the video turned out, I'll post it here.

What I find slightly annoying is that in addition to the normal touristy attractions — which are a different story entirely — these are the places to which us visitors are often directed. Unless one has the benefit of local friends old or new, finding the funky bits requires a little luck or a lot of digging. When I was in London, one of my friends directed me towards the neighborhood of Brick Lane, an area which has always had a large Indian population, but has lately been invaded by the young crowd. That was probably one of my favorite days of exploration thus far, as the saga of the search is as epic as the satisfaction of finding it, an adventure deserving of its own posting. It's replete with great independent shops, funky bars and restaurants, and (most importantly?) coffee shops that offer free wireless! I had a bite in a pedestrian alleyway filled with food carts, bars, open-front restaurants, and picnic tables, people sitting everywhere, just enjoying the hang. Not nearly as spotless and mainstream-hip as a Soho, for example, it felt like a place where real people actually lived. And for a minute, I didn't feel so much like a tourist. It reminded me a little of Brooklyn.

So is that what I'm trying to sniff out in each city, its local equivalent of my own neighborhood? Said as such, it doesn't exactly seem like the search for diversity and local uniqueness suggested above. I suppose it's a consequence of traveling for the long-term: sometimes you feel like being a tourist seeing the sights and doing a bit of exploration, and other times, you just want to feel like you're home.

Apologies for the hasty conclusion, but I've gotta be on stage in about 15 minutes, and should probably do so in proper attire. Perhaps I shall expand later... first some pics:

Grafton Street in full force.

Pleasantly-buzzed mob at Trinity College. Nothing like a few pints on the last day of classes...

The aftermath of our gig at The Point.

* It will be difficult to drink a Guinness in the States again, as the superiority of a Dublin Guinness is painfully evident.