Sunday, May 5, 2013

Two One Three - Leaving Las Vegas (again!)

I decide to end my Vegas experience the way I started: Sabana de Pollo at the Pink Taco. The barman’s not buying my minimal gambling strategy and charges me for my drink. There’s another guy here for work (like Danny was), but he’s on his first night so has to be responsible and go to bed early.
I try the Culinary Dropout bar. It’s an odd setup with a four sided bar, but large corner pillars prevent conversation between sections. So it’s a gamble on where to sit. I squeeze in next to a couple of guys and girls, with my usual maximal English:
“Is anybody sitting here?”
“No, go ahead, we’re just leaving”
Groan. Oh well, I guess I could do with a quiet final night, at least the barman recommends a nice beer.
..and another.
Finally a girl sits on my bit of the bar. Apparently she was the Maitre D’ earlier but is off shift. She like the place so much she’s sticking around for a drink. Despite her South Pacific heritage her name’s Vera. Her middle name is Liona, which is a lot more fitting. She’s very pretty, but very young.
The bar is open to the warm Vegas night and we’re feeling the heat. A guy called Scott arrives and tells Vera it’s “way cooler” on the other side of the bar. I’m more than happy when Vera invites me to also move round.

Scott is a “day trader” during the week and a High Roller at the weekend so spends a lot of time at the HRH. He comes from Austin Texas, my next stop and Live Music Capital of the World, but Scott seems intent on telling me about places to eat.
The barman’s also from Austin and offers the helpful advice:
“It’s a shame you’re not there for South by SouthWest”

More people join us, even the late-shift Maitre D’. The restaurant closes at ten, but they give people time to eat so stay open later.
Much later.
There’s a table full of people from PBR beer who drink nothing but cans of PBR. Taking corporate loyalty a bit far methinks.
An artistic-looking waitress finishes her shift and joins us. She seems really cool in a leftfield kind of way.
“I’ve never been in a nightclub, they sound like awful places”
From what I’ve seen of Vegas nightclubs I don’t blame her.
It’s great to hang out with a crowd, and everyone agrees the HRH has the best “vibe” in town. But they all have to work tomorrow so eventually I’m left with just Matt and Mark closing the bar.
So much for an early night.

And so to Austin. Via Phoenix. First Class!
There’s no Business class on US Airways domestic flights so I’m upgraded. Wahoo!
Or not.
They call it first, but it’s not up to European Business class standards. They don’t even let me in the lounge in Phoenix. How dare they!
At least the flights are short and the connection smooth, and I’m soon in Austin to pick up my Camaro. No messing around this time, I booked “Exact Model”.

“That, looks a lot like a Mustang”
“Er, yeah, the Camaro we have got a factory recall”
“Great”. Although I’m not that bothered. The latest Mustang is an OK muscle car, just not as pretty to look at. And after Vancouver I’m not sure I’ll actually be driving much at all here anyway.
Especially since my hotel is only half a mile from downtown, where all the action is.
But not tonight.
I’m finally done in. I collapse into bed for some sleep and prepare for a big day tomorrow.

May 1st. And a very special day. Today I get to meet someone very special. Someone who has made a huge contribution to my life. Who’s work has been there for me when I needed it, morning or night. From the North Dakota plains, to my Kiwi caravan. Without them I don’t know how I’d cope.
“I must be one of your biggest fans” I gush effusively.
“Well, er, thank you”
“I love your stuff, people mock me for it but I love it anytime of day!”
“Good. I see you’re enjoying the Raisin Bran” says the bloke from Kellogg’s.
“Oh yeah, this is good. But I also like Start, Sustain, Just Right, Coco Pops.. oh I could go on… and you can’t beat a bowl of corn flakes”
“Riiiiight.” Says the guy, backing away slowly. Wishing he could just enjoy his hotel breakfast without this crazy Englishman.

Makes my VIP encounter tonight with Jewel pale by comparison.
When I decided to do this trip I looked if anyone I liked would be playing Austin around the time of my visit. I was overjoyed to see that one of my favourite artists would be here, and somewhat incredulous to see they were offering VIP tickets to go backstage and meet her. I believe it was the first thing of the entire trip that I booked.
So I find myself staggering toward the Moody Theatre in Austin through the afternoon heat. I arrive to find a band already playing on the balcony, entertaining the early-arrivers.
I find our meeting spot, slap on my VIP sticker and talk to some of the other guests. They all seem to be local. Jenna has only just found out today that not only is she coming to the concert, she gets to meet Jewel. Her husband surprised her with the VIP ticket and now has a spare ticket:
“Wanna upgrade?” he asks me.
“Er, aren’t the VIP tickets in the best spot?”
“No. This is row D you’re back on the mezzanine”. He even shows me the seating plan and I’m torn. It sounds like an improvement, but surely they’d give us better seats for buying the VIP tickets. Maybe the view from the floor’s not so good?
“I’ll stick with mine, thanks.”
And so we’re taken into the concert hall and straight up onto the stage. It’s a nice medium-sized venue for a few thousand people, and weird to start by viewing it from the stage. There’s about a dozen of us falling over the carefully placed equipment and taking pictures of each other.
We’re soon whisked backstage for wine and cheese, to collect our free stuff and to await Jewel’s arrival. There’s a film crew recording tonight’s performance for Austin City Limits live and they want some shots of us meeting Jewel.
“Pick up that T-shirt again!!” yells a cameraman at me. I don’t mind, he’s just trying to do his job, but he suddenly realizes and adds “…please?”
We line up and Jewel arrives.
This is the greatest moment of my life, I can die happy now. Is what one of the girls says to me. Not for me. Jewel is “Meeting” a dozen people a night, shortly before performing for thousands, and in tonight’s case, a TV crew and live internet stream. She’s not got time to be interested in our questions or stories. I respect that, and am glad she at least avoids looking bored for my picture.
Then she’s gone. The other guests seem very happy with their brief brush with greatness and we talk excitedly until a cockney-sounding geezer tells us the support act has started and we should take our seats.
We’ve nibbled the cheese but not started the wine. I risk some sarcasm.
“Are you moving us on to keep all the wine for yourself?”
Gary is from Essex, and manages the venue. We have a brief chat about the artists they’ve had through, then he points me to my seat.

I’m in the back row of four on the mezzanine. We’re further back than the floor seats obviously, but there’s a good view and waitress service. The support act seems OK, one bloke playing guitar, but there’s an old guy in the seat next to me going crazy
“Oh, yeah!!!”
The song ends.
“That’s my boyyyy!!!” he yells, explaining his excitement.
“You must be very proud” I say.
He explains he was a singer but never got to perform at the legendary Austin City Limits so is very pleased to see his kid up there.

During the break lots more people flood in. Amazingly for an artist, Jewel starts on time, must be the TV taping. But with more people comes more noise. At the back of the mezzanine are corporate lounges. People who think their own voices are more interesting for us to hear than that of the artist we came for. Or perhaps they just don’t think.
Jewel starts her first song, she’s singing solo and acoustic tonight.
Oh, how incredible is that voice?
Oh, how I wish the people would shut up?!
“Can you believe the nerve of some people, showing up late?!” asks the old guy.
“I don’t mind that so much as the people yabbering!”
“God loves em all” he says.
Well, I don’t.
They’re not even whispering! And there’s so many of them I can’t just ask a few to shut the hell up.
And they don’t.
Yeah, sure, they clap and whoop loudly when Jewel finishes a song, acting like it’s the greatest thing they’ve ever heard, then they chat through the next one.

It’s seriously annoying me. I’m even contemplating leaving. What’s the point in watching the show if I’m just going to be pissed off the whole time and associate bad memories with Jewel songs?
Damn, how I wish I’d taken the other ticket. I bet the people on the floor are showing some respect.
I go for a beer, and find a quieter place to stand on my way back. This is a bit better. I relax and enjoy a few songs.
Jewel’s concerts have a spontaneous feel to them. Choosing some songs on the spot, forgetting lyrics, in London she even had her mum up on the stage.
“I’d like to invite my brother up to join me” says Jewel.
See what I mean?
Jewel’s brother turns out to be the guy who did the support act. But then that means the crazy old guy sat next to me is… Jewel’s dad!
I retake my seat with increased enthusiasm. Jewel’s brother Atz is singing louder, more forceful songs, which drowns out much of the talking. Then his dad has a word with the noisiest group and they quieten down.
Finally, I begin to enjoy the gig. Atz does a couple of great songs, his dad’s going crazy.
Jewel comes back on and remembers that this is supposed to be a Greatest Hits tour, so she does some of her most well-known songs, and the morons shut up when they hear songs they recognize.
“Foolish Games” almost has me in tears. What a song, what a voice.
Jewel recounts her days living in a car, performing and working hard to be successful. She thanks the people who went out and bought her albums and helped her achieve the success she has today.
Her dad grabs me by the shoulder and says:
“That’s you, Paul!”


Then Jewel announces that her father is here tonight, and tells some funny stories about him. She then invites him to join her on stage. The crazy guy from seat 229D leaps up and heads for the stairs, and suddenly the people around me cotton on.
“Is that her Dad?!”
“Are you part of the family?”

Dad joins Jewel onstage for a couple of his own songs, and then, as is traditional for a Jewel show, some yodeling.
And suddenly, it’s over.

An hour ago I almost left. Now I’m beaming like a loony. Outside I bump into Jenna and husband, they’re very happy.
Funny old world. If I’d taken that ticket I’d have probably enjoyed the show throughout. But I wouldn’t have had such a memorable encounter!

I’ve some autographed stuff to drop back at the hotel. Then I catch the shuttle to sixth street. Austin promises to be the Live Music Capital of the World, but based on the Kiwi “Capitals” that’s just setting me up for a fall. However, sixth street is a row of bar after bar, with live music billowing from almost all.
“Just walk down the street til you hear something you like”
…is the advice of the hotel receptionist.
Sure enough I hear a band on the balcony of the “blind pig” playing rock covers, and sit down to the sounds of Black Sabbath:
“People think I’m crazy because I am frowning all the time”
Yep. This is the spot.
I get a can of “Lone Star” because it looks local. It tastes like generic pissy lager.
“Do locals actually drink this stuff?” I ask a guy.
“Nah, it’s for tourists”
“So why are you drinking it?”
“Cos, that idiot bought them!”, “We drink Shiner Bock”
I get a Shiner Bock. Half as big, twice the price, and tastes like slightly better generic pissy lager.
I’ll stick to Bud Light!

Austin by day is not particularly exciting. Mind you, I need some quiet days. I run around Lady Bird Lake, which is pleasant , but not particularly memorable, and the highlight of my day is finding a shop with caps that are actually large enough for me!!
Maybe things really are bigger in Texas!

In the evening I’m heading to sixth street again, but need food first. I’m delighted to discover there’s a Hooters just round the corner from my hotel!
Of course I get a good conversation at the bar. Ryan is a local and also happens to be heading to New Orleans next week. He has to work in the morning so reluctantly declines a trip to sixth street.

I walk the street again and here some bluesy rock belting out of a bar called Friends. No space at the bar, so I squeeze in a gap behind a lady with a fantastic cowgirl hat, dark tassled waistcoat, dark jeans and boots. I offer to step aside when she looks to get up but she says “You’re cool”.
“No. You, are cool!”

The guitarist introduces the group as “The Eric Tessmer Band” and launches into another awesome riff. Then he launches himself off the stage and begins working his way through the crowd, giving people a close-up view of his flying fingers. He reaches the back of the bar, but he’s not done. Eric ventures behind the bar and talks to the barmaids, still playing hard.
Meanwhile the bass player is not to be outdone. He climbs off the stage, acquires a cigarette and heads out into the street, still playing.
Eric is now serving drinks.
He’s playing with one hand, lining up glasses and pouring shots.

This, is quite possibly, the coolest thing I have ever seen.

We all take a drink with Eric, whether we were in on the round or not, and he heads back around the bar.
He still hasn’t stopped shredding.
Now he heads out into the street to join the bass player. They’re still blasting away, puffing away, and checking IDs at the door.
Finally they pause for breath, and the poor drummer, constrained by his instrument, gets a chance to shine with a blistering solo.
He builds to a crescendo, the guitars rejoin and the performers storm back into the bar for the finale.
This …is fricking awesome.

I stay til the end. The ETB only take one break, during which I talk to some interesting people, then we’re drowned out by the music again. When they finally finish, Cowgirl returns and congratulates me for staying, before dashing over to fawn over the band. I head home happy.

So that’s Wednesday and Thursday in Austin. How good is the weekend going to be?

My rental car is sitting unused. I contemplate a trip to San Antonio, but the only real attraction there is the Alamo, and I’ve forgotten what that is.

One of Austin’s big attractions is the “bat bridge” and it’s opposite my hotel. A million and a half bats fly out at sunset.
I wait around until Sunset and watch a million and a half bats fly out, as described. They take their time about it so it’s twenty minutes of mild interest when I was hoping for thirty seconds of insanity: skies darkening, deafening screeches of sonar…
Oh well, the best bit is all the friendly people to talk to while we wait.

It’s Friday night. What the hell, I’m going to Hooters again. This time I meet George from Houston, who desperately wants to move back to Austin.
If I could find a place where it’s as easy to meet women as it is to meet men at an American Sports Bar I’d be married with three kids by now!

“It’s a shame you’re not here for South by SouthWest”

I use the hotel shuttle to get downtown again, and the receptionists are bitching about the cold weather. It suits me just right!

Apparently sixth street gets a bit young on the weekends so they suggest the Warehouse district where the older folk go (the over 25s).
But the bands are few, far between and seem pretty lame. I head back down sixth street to discover many of the bars don’t have live music on a Friday. The streets are packed with drunken “teenagers” in high heels and posh frocks queueing to get into bars blaring the same old HipHop tunes.
I can enjoy this stuff around a Vegas pool, but in Austin?

Eventually I find a half decent band, but nothing memorable.

Saturday. Still tired. Maybe I’m broken. Good job there’s less than a week left.
Back to Hooters and another new friend:
“My friends are buying ammo by the ten thousand. We’re arming ourselves for the coming civil war. Do you know that, thanks to Obama, every child is born fifty-three thousand dollars in debt to the Chinese?!”
“It’s a shame you’re not here for South by SouthWest”

Let’s try the South Congress district tonight.
Nope. No fun there.

Back to sixth street. It’s still packed with drunk kids grinding against each other, but there’s one oasis. A refuge of talent and performance away from prats in backward caps poking laptops.
The Irish pub isn’t very Irish, but it has live music in the shape of…The Eric Tessmer band!!
Here we go again!!

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