Monday, November 9, 2009

Old Faithful


As North American National Parks go, Yellowstone is pretty high in the popularity stakes - everyone has heard of it, so everyone comes - the hard-travelling, long hiking nature advocate rubs shoulders with the clueless nose picker who's only here 'cos they followed the dog into the car.
I fall somewhere betrween those two : to be surrounded by the uninterupted grace and serenity of nature is pretty much my favorite place to be. On the other hand, I'm only here because I'm on my way back from a gig in Montana.

Within Yellowstone, Old Faithful is the star performer, delivering to sell out crowds numerous times a day for about a century.

We sat waiting for the next appearance by the volcanic phenomenon, along with 250 or so nature enthusiast, nose pickers and their families and significant others.
About twenty minutes into our wait, from our place in the circled seating, we heard and saw from the circle's center the first gurglings from beneath the earth.
I have to admit, after spending about a day and a half in Yellowstone I had started to feel like this place was my own and that the droves of people were eating into the solitude and quiet that I value in these natural oases; "How dare they," the devil on my shoulder would whisper "don't they know you need your space?" .
My selfish surliness, however, was soon quashed as Old Faithful steadily rose into a shimmering plume of water and vapor, over a hundred feet into the air, flanked on all sides by open blue prairie sky, distant mountains and proud, towering pines. In an abstract way, the most famous geyser in the world does resemble a stage performer, like Lily Langtry in a shimmering gown of pearly white sequins, shoulders broad and held high as she sways seductively. And there I sat - her Judge Roy Bean, slack jawed and bug-eyed like a foolish school boy, transfixed by her unadorned beauty.
After about 5 minutes, she slowly brought the show to a close , retreating to her underground dressing room. No encores, and the kids, dogs, families and loners dispersed, making room for the next audience, and finding the occasional pearly white sequin in their hair.

Incidentally, if you are planning a trip to Yellowstone, pack a lunch - the food available within the park is over priced and terrible. Pity, but the stunning diversity of the scenery and wildlife more than makes up for it, and although a lot of folks focus on the volcanic splendor of the parks west side , do not leave without experiencing the north east corridor - wide open grassland that the bison call home.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Badlands


Interior, South Dakota - a frontier town on the edge of the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation, and less than a mile from the Badlands National Park, was going to be home for a few days. Larry, the ranch and campground owner, checked us in and warned us of the 105 degree forecast for the day. Warning duly noted, we headed for the desert.
The stillness here is intoxicating, and it's a tonic for body and soul just to immerse oneself in the quiet barren tranquility. Peach cactus sprung at our feet, kingbirds seemed to guide us, perching a few yards ahead, then fluttering on only to be found further down the trail, and swallows made there homes in the baked desert mounds.
The temperature did climb as predicted, and after a few hours in the sun and constant hot breeze, the idea of an ice cold beer in the shade started to sound pretty good - time for a stroll to the Wagon Wheel , downtown Interior , where a few of the locals along with some passing bikers, sat in the quiet one-room bar shooting the breeze, while the friendly barmaid swatted flies. A crock pot full of burgers , along with some fixings were set on the pool table with a handwritten sign that said "all u can eat, $8.00".
The bikers were just a few of literally hundreds of thousands that were heading to Sturgis that week for the annual Harley Davidson Rally, and the road west would soon turn into a long stream of chrome and beard from morning to night and as far as the eye could see into the horizon.
The locals were just a handful of Interior's population, which totals at 67.

After washing the dust down, it was back to the Campground for "Cowboy Stew", and here a word of warning for the vegetarian. If you are heading this direction, and I recommend you do - be prepared; options are slim, and in some cases, non-existent.
I keep to a vegetarian diet , but come dinner time, I found myself with a choice; stew or no stew, and after a few miles hiking in the desert heat, I knew that my road-food stash of nuts and berries just wouldn't cut it, so with a shrug of my shoulders and a belly that just needed filling, i grabbed a plate.
The stew was cooked slow over 8 hours- steak chunks and nine vegetables. Hearty stuff. Uncomplicated and delicious. Barb, the quiet spoken woman of the house, made sure the plate was full until I said stop.

Laying in the tent in the growing dark, I listened to the constant wind across the barren land and drifted off with images of ancient peoples with their ancient songs and stories shimmering in my mind's eye.

In the mornings, the sourdough pancakes and coffee formed the foundation for a good days hiking, and a sign in the kitchen proclaimed that the sourdough starter for the pancakes was used on a frontier wagon train over a hundred years ago. I'm glad they left the recipe here. Barb was once again at the ready with coffee pot and watchful eye for any empty plates and cups that needed filling, while in the background the matriarch, a small slight grey haired woman, hovered at the stove with a pitcher of pancake batter.
Bleary eyed bikers and fellow road trippers filed in from the morning sun, and we ate our fill before heading out to explore.



Jeremiah Smith , in 1823, gazed upon the badlands for the first time and was the first white man to do so.
One hundred and eighty six years later I looked out onto that eery moonlike landscaoe for the first time, but how strange it must have been for Jeremiah. I at least had heard and read about the badlands and so had an incling as to what I could expect, but for Jeremiah, he may well have wondered if he'd somehow slipped into another world.
It is at once prairie and desert, submerged and elevated; canyons formed by ancient rivers long dried up, and hills eroded over centuries of inexhaustable winds, blindly taking everything but the hardest substances with it. Jeremiah could have been forgiven for turning and running.

This was a hunting ground of the Lakota, who had named it "White HIlls"- a neighbor to the Black HIlls further West. French trappers referred to it as "les mauvaises terres a traverse" or "bad lands to cross". The name " Bad Lands" stuck. So much so that the Lakota began to use the term, due to the new trading relationships that were cultivated with the trappers.

Once again while laying in a tent in the shadow of the main ridge later that night, my mind wandered to the bare feet, moccasins and bison hoof that had trod right where my head lay , now part of a working ranch with a campground attached. How many had woken as I had that morning to a sunrise over an open grassland, the distant landscape eroded over aeons; the quiet , eery mounds pressing into the sky above ? And over how many centuries? Once again, the constant, gentle wind lulled me to sleep.

video

The wind seems to own the land here; 20 million years of it rushing across the sandstone and prairie had created it's unique moonlike character, and I 'm guessing it must be a force that man and beast has to reckon with every day out here - the flat landscape lending itself to snowdrifts in the winter, and rapidly changing conditions in general, but of course these are the very things that bring us here - the unique serenity, the bejeweled night sky unlike anything a city dweller can possibly see, and the wide open window to another time.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Snowshoe Country Lodge




Up in the north woods of Minnesota, about an hour from Two Harbors on the north shore of Lake Superior, is he Snowshoe Country lodge and log cabin building school.

We headed there from Lake Itasca and met some friends for the weekend. The plan was to build a fire, hang out , grill food and enjoy the cabins.
The cabins had electricity and the water was hand drawn from a well nearby.
Outhouses were also close by, as were the ever-present mosquitoes, who seemed to have a particular liking for my chosen brand of bug spray. We had all arrived there about 3 ish, and it was early evening, after some napping and quiet time, before the silence of the woods had really soaked in.

We lit a fire. The sun was beginning to set and the bugs all came out of the pines to feast on our juicy city skin, so we figured the smoke might keep them at bay.

We had finished a dinner of corn on the cob, potato salad and asparagus grilled on a barbeque pit outside one of our log cabins.As we sat around the fire , frogs began their evening chorus, and the wolves' call and response floated in and out of the deep blue sky around us. it seemed that they were talking to each other from miles apart, and that we were somewhere between, like accidental eavesdroppers.

We put the fire out and headed for bed. Outside the window, the frogs' lazy chirping began to fade and the occasional wolf howl would break the growing silence inside, a bug or two had found their way in, ready for seconds. Some of em got lucky. Some of em didn't.

Lake Itasca




Lake Itasca, where the mighty MIssissippi takes it's first trickling steps on it's two and a half thousand mile journey south, has surrounding it some stunning Jack Pine forest and wildlife and, thanks to the State Park and Department of Natural Resources,some fine family camping and outdoor facilities a the ready - pontoons and bicycles are ready for renting and the trails are breathtaking.

The headwaters of the Mississippi, flowing from Lake Itasca, are a great attraction, partly because it's one part of that great river that can be crossed on a few stepping stones before it gradually reaches it's massive girth many miles south.

The lake was given it's name by Henry Schoolcraft, who took the latin words "verITAS" (meaning "true")and "CAput" (meaning "head") to form Itasca - there had been many previous claims of the headwaters' discovery from many sources, including the Spaniards in the 16th century and many others, but the true head was found when Mr Schoolcraft employed an Ojibwe native as his guide - of course the Ojibwe knew where it was all along, but no one bothered to ask. Henry, however, had been a long time friend of the native peoples:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Schoolcraft

Also found in abundance along Elk Lake are Minnesota's State Flower ; Lady Slippers:

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Thanks

From across the sunny street, I heard "'Scuse me, sir?". She was pretty - late 20's/early 30's maybe, blond with blue eyes, and a tanned, weather-worn complexion in old dirty clothes; an over-sized yellow sweater and raggedy jeans.
"Would you have fifty cents for the bus?" she asked as she crossed the street towards me.

As I fished in my wallet I asked "Where you headed?". "Grand and Fairview - my sister's".

I handed her a dollar; "There you go". She said "Thanks." and walked on.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Taste of Minnesota- St Paul July 4th

The grounds of Harriet Island were packed with kids and families enjoying festival food and celebrating the birth of their nation in the warm evening sun - the choices of fatty goodies were endless, and the varieties of fairground staples like bouncy castles and cuddly toy booths went on and on.

But what brought me here was the promise of an Elvis Costello show in the open air, so after my buddy Rob and I enjoyed some fries and funnel cake, we started to gravitate along with the other music lovers towards the main stage, although I did stop along the way for a root beer float made with 1919 Rootbeer. Yum.

Elvis Costello and the Impostors



Elvis took to the stage around 8pm . With the city curfew set at 10, that gave him 2 hours to do his thing, and given the amount of "thing"s Elvis has to chose from, I wondered which one he'd bring with him tonight , being a man that wears as many musical hats as he does.



Of course , being the professional that he is, he brought the hat that fits best - not the astute, eloquent razor sharp troubador that sang to and with the Bob Dylan audience I last saw him perform to, but rather the high energy balls to the wall rock band fronman that makes the funnel cake go sown easy and lets the kids stay up late.



This lady, along with many others , enjoyed Elvis very much.


Elvis and the Impostors played through an hour and a half of Costello classics like "Watching the Detectives" and the occasional cover. The Impostors swung like a big Swingy thing on the planet Swingy, and being a rock show , they indulged in a little extended noodlings on their respective instruments.

Elvis himself was cheerful and upbeat with the crowd, and by the end of the show, I was left with a feeling that I've always experienced at a Costello show, and that is that the dynamic of one large group of people watching four people make a noise had disappeared, and that we were really just all standing in a field together, and four of us were playing some kick ass rock n roll.

The band encored with "what's so funny about peace, love and understanding' which segued gracefully into "the tracks of my tears" and "suspicious minds".



At the top of the show, St Paul's mayor, Chris Coleman, offered: "It's the Fourth of July -what could be better than having Elvis Costello play at your birthday party?"

As Rob and I headed homeward under a canopy of red. white and blue fireworks over the MIssissippi. I had to concur.



America celebrated her 233rd birthday with Elvis Costello, and on July 5th , at 233 and one day, she celebrated in St Paul with..........

The Bret MIcheals Rock of Love Bus Tour!!!!!!!



i got there a little early - I wanted to check out...

Adler's Appetite

- the band built around Guns 'n' Roses drummer Steve Adler. I missed the start of their set, and got their in time to here the singer's last chorus of "So Fuckin' EEEZZAYY!! " come to it's crashing finale. Unfortunately I nissed out on what it was he was having such "EEEZE!" with . If it's that easy, I thought, maybe I should have a go. I'd been toying with the idea of planting a victory garden. Maybe that's what he was referring to.



I watched a few numbers, waiting for the pounding RRAWWWKK rhythms to re-awaken the obnoxious 14 year old metal head that I was sure still slumbered within, but it wasn't to be. I headed back to the root beer float stand, ordered a double, and, thinking I'd be sharing it with the 14 year old within, was left with the 38 year old without, wondering if Heavy Metal was ever what it used to be, and where had I left my early AC/DC records?



I faced into the crowd once more - a crowd made up mostly of teenagers and their parents. The lady in front of me was rather excited about her purchase of some Sham WOW!s ( hey- it's the best shammy in the world ok?)




"MINN'SOTA _ YOU RAAAAWWWWWKK!!!!"



Steve Adler and his Appetites were leaving the stage. It was about 7ish and the crowd was starting to thicken; some of the more serious punters were doing there damnedest to get as close as they could to the barrier that kept us all about a hundred yards from the stage. Anything inside the barrier was 50 bucks .



Bret's stage needed a little more set-up time of course; the mic stand needed red white and blue scarves hangng from it, and of course they had their own back line of speakers , all emblazoned with BMB (Bret Micheals Band? Bret Micheals' Babes? Bret Micheals' Bus? Bret Micheals is Bald?), and then came the inevitable hanging around, at least for the crowd.
All told, the band weren't ready to hit the stage 'til just after 9. But wait- curfew's at 10. Dang. Y'think they didn't know?




"Awesome awesomeness. Awseome Pawrdy. Y'guyz're awesome..."



BMB tore though a bunch of Poison hits. The band were full on, and Bret is the consummate front man. The crowd was eating out of his hand and by the time he got 'em singing with him on "wunna my fav'rit sawngs", namely "Sweet Home Alabama", he could do no wrong, and he only had about 35 minutes left not to do it in. Sweet gig.


Time for me to wander around the fairground..........



- pretty much says it all.


- guess she's fresh out......


"Cmaan...it'sa Titanic...'s fun..."

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Corrales, NM





Rolling into Corrales on a sun-baked spring morning, the quiet, rural landscape quickly put all thoughts of airports, bag-checks and shuttles completely out of our minds. So intoxicating is the gentle beauty of this place that it's hard to imagine being any place else while walking the winding roads; we walked the short distance from the venue to our director's house, who treated us to a lunch from the Flying Star, and the best Veggie Burger I have EVER tasted. The digestion of said burger was greatly enhanced by a short sit by the pool with Rosie, the chocolate Lab who hung out with me for a little bit. NIce girl. Kinda quiet.

We played at The old San Ysidro Church, no longer functioning as a church but a venue, it dates back to the 1800's, and was restored to it's present adobe and hardwood grandeur in the 80s. With fabulous natural acoustics and an idyllic setting the program of events here draws folks from all over, and we played to an audience that spilled out the doors into the afternoon sunshine .
The arts community here is rock solid and over the years has cultivated an eclectic schedule of musical events. I shared a beer or two with opera nuts, multilinguists , folkies, jazzers, wine aficianados, very friendly dogs and folks who were just plain ol' nice.
Quite a diverse crowd for a town of only 7,000 or so.

As I relaxed in the evening with some locals, I spotted the mountain range that sat in the distance, noticeable at once for the fact that it sits on an otherwise flat landscape, and inquired to know more. "Oh" came the reply, 'the Sandias". When I asked what that meant, I expected something grand and devotional, evoking the romance of early Spanish culture.


"Watermelon", came the response. Maybe it was the beer, or the altitude(same as Denver) or both, but I could have sworn they said "Watermelon", which indeed they had. My new friends must have sensed my confusion because they quickly offered an explanation; at a certain time in the evening, for no more than a minute during sundown, the mountain turns a shade of pink, reminiscent of the meat in a watermelon . The locals refer to this as the "pink moment" . "Pink" for obvious reasons, and "moment" because it really is that fleeting. Apparently, I just missed it. No matter, the beer was good. Our post-gig-reception host, John , kept a good cellar, and was adamant that I try the Northern Cap Winter. I'm glad he made me do it.
My other beer discovery of the evening was the Marble Brewing Company's IPA, and the two adjectives that come to mind are the same that were once used to describe a punk rock band I was in many many years ago - weird but good . It was like no other IPA I 've tasted. the hoppy bite was met in the middle by the citrus tang, and they jostled for first place while i sat back and enjoyed the show that was going on in my taste buds

A short hop from there was our lodgings for the night. Judith and George Newby run the stellar Sandhill Crane B and B in the community. I stayed in The Cowboy Room, a testament to the Western Art indigenous to the area, and also home to a Red Ryder BB Gun as seen in the movie " A Christmas Story ", carefully mounted over a portrait of Red Ryder himself in later life, and not surprisingly to anybody that knows me, that's all it took to send me reelng in childish reverie, re-running in my mind's eye boyhood stories of masked adventures and cowboy hereoes of the ol' west. Hi Ho, Patsy - Wake Up.

Speaking of wake up, breakfast started with a hot cup of eye-opener, followed by a poached pear, fresh muffins, scrambled eggs, locally grown arugula and roasted asparagus, all cooked by Judith's deft hand as we chatted about whatever- everything from baseball ( we're both Cubs fans) to the roadrunner that appeared on the garden wall as we ate .

This wouldn't be the first time, and probably won't be the last time that I wished I had more time to hang around in a place before the airport beckoned, but suffice to say that although I might not make it back as soon as I'd like to , you , dear reader, should pack a bag as soon as you can. You won't regret it.



Ojai, CA




Sitting in an orange grove in the april sun, the scents of lilac, honeysuckle and lavender danced around each other in the morning air. Woodpeckers nested with their young high over head, and the air seemed to teem with life - bees dashed from blossom to blossom. Ladybugs rested on their spot. A butterfly wafted by as lizards(geckos? salamanders? lizardry is not my area) chased each other playfully around the tree trunks.

This was my morning off in Ojai, CA, a couple of hours north of L.A. . "Ojai" is a Native American word fro "nest", and, breathing in all that it has to offer, the logic of the name is clear - with the rolling hills of the Los Padres National Forest keeping a watchful eye, it seems that all life abounds in the valley below.



Some years before, while playing in the Napa Valley region of California, also known for it's natural beauty, a local I befriended made the comment; " Y'know if the pilgrims had landed here in the west, they wouldn'ta bothered goin' East". Again, the logic was clear, and I couldn't help but be reminded of that comment as i strolled around the sun-soaked community of adobe-style, shops, restaurants and coffeehouses that cater to a population of around 8,000 or so, made up of retirees, locals and the extremely well-to-do.

Just before last night's gig in the area, I asked our host if this balmy cloudless weather was a typical spring day in these parts. "Oh yes", he nodded, and predicting my next question he added, " and a typical winter one too."

Yup, it's pretty easy to see why some would come here and make it their business never to leave - it became a haven for those who heard the words of Jiddu Krishnamurti in the first half of the 20th century, who had a retreat here and was visited by the then creme de la creme of the social scene; Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Aldous Huxley, Jackson Pollock, The Beatles, to name a few.
But as both Mr. Krishnamurti knew well and George Harrison wrote about, all things must pass
and soon we too would leave. With our songs sung and our mission accomplished and an outbound flight itinerary in hand, it was time for us to pass through airport security, bringing the memory of the place with us . I reckon Mr Harrison probably liked it here.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Airports




I'm catching a red eye out of Newark NJ. In my ears I have some field recordings of Son House , Willy Brown and Leroy Williams - a soundtrack of such raw and brutal honesty that it has the effect of making every body in the strip-lit forced air of the terminal look naked.

A friend of mine once voiced the opinion that if God had meant us to fly, he would have provided more legroom. Havng clocked up a considerable pile of airmiles since then, I would have to offer the addendum that he would also have made airports enjoyable, but that's just me being grumpy, sitting as I am with a growing flu, jetlag, and a missing guitar, thanks to my expert airt travel providers who shall remain nameless. Althought the idea of a missing guitar might seem to warrant some alarm as a professional guitarist, I'm feeling eerily calm, due mainly to the fact that this isn't the first or indeed the second time this has happened.

On one occasion, a reluctant delivery guy who's job it was to re unite me with the main tool of my trade, suggested that I wait til the morning - "How will I recognise you?" he offered as a reason to go home early rather than deliver. "I'll be the one onstage without the guitar" I suggested. "How" he queried "will you recognise me?" "Won't you be the one holding my guitar?" I politely offered, to which my worthy opponent succumbed. and shortly after arrived at the venue where, like a silver screen romance, our eyes met and we knew at once we had found each other. He should never have doubted our bond. Kiss me, you fool.



I've always felt that the word 'Terminal' should never be used in any association with an airport, serving as it does only to reinforce the purgatorial aspect of the waiting experience, and one can only wonder if purgatory offers little battery powered sudoku games, bags of over priced trail mix and a wide variety of inflatable neck rests to browse through as the minutes turn to hours.

But we are incredibly adaptable creatures, and there are always games of our own invention- like guessing if the airline representative's visage is a study in consummate professionalism, or they are genuinely interested in helping . Bless 'em - their task is not an easy one, and many times have I watched the hapless traveler , unable to curb their ire, burn mercilessly at the hands of the all powerful flight attendant who , with a well practiced "we'll re-route you, sir", dooms the poor unwitting victim to an extra leg on their journey, who then slowly loses energy and succumbs, like an insect gradually drowning in the deadly ooze of a venus fly trap, struggling in vain to free it's legs and quietly wondering to themselves "wha' happened?"

Primarily of course , airports are not as much about the arriving as the leaving, which may well be what lends them a sort of character-less-ness (?), and the waiting does make for some great people watching, and even the delays serve to bring us all to one common level - the delayed. Oil man, fireman, musician, kid, drunk, mom, monk, gambler; we can all be late, lose our luggage, or find ourselves in a hotel we thought we'd never see. I'm going to sign off because it appears my flight's on time. I guess you never can tell.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Tacoma WA



This may seem odd, but having spent a few days in Tacoma's climate, it makes sense that there's a glass museum here. Bear with me. The weather here is changeable, with varying degrees of cloud cover in any stretch of daylight hours, so the light here offers an ever-changing hue from the streets, and presumably,a kaleidoscopic spectrum of refraction in in what I'm told is a bewildering array of glass sculptures in the afore mentioned Museum of Glass.

I say "presumably" because my schedule didn't allow for the leisurely perusal that i hoped for, but I did get a chance to take in the town.

Built on the Puyallup Valley, Tacoma's architecture is an interesting mish mash of turn-of-the-century grandeur, and working waterfront practicality. The theater we played, The Rialto, was originally built as a silent movie theater with full pipe organ,and has some of the best natural acoustics I've ever heard .

Just a few blocks down to the Puyallup River, tamed gradually over the last century by engineers, and you stand in the heart of a working dock, and all of it happening under the watchful gaze of Mt. Rainier (above), the most prominent peak among four others around the valley.
The five peaks are the focus of legend among the native Puyallup tribe , who tell of five sisters who were turned into peaks, one of which, mt. Rainier, was told by the gods to "be grandmother" to the valley below, which she did, via the high rising Puyallup River, providing the fundamentals for life to flourish in the valley below.

This was my first sojourn to the Pacific Northwest, and to make a completely subjective obsevation, I couldn't help but notice how 'mid-western" it felt, rather than "coastal". In short, as I sat in Alfred's cafe, with a calzone and a pint of Manny's Pale Ale, it felt more Chicago than San Francisco. Friendly folks, used bookstores and , as one expects in this state, very good coffee at every hands turn, as indicated by the tiny bathroom size drive-thru espresso cabins perched in every Mall parking lot. That's jut my take, but if you have anything to add, let me know.

Havre MT


Rolling into Havre (pronounced "Hav -er") is something that prospectors and pioneers have done since the birth of this nation, and we may have been the first Irish band to do so.
We didn't get funny looks from behind curtained windows, or the canned music didn't come to a scratchy halt when we entered the hotel lobby, but if it had, we wouldn't have been too surprised.

The town still has the feel of a western frontier, perched up in the high lonesome plains about 2 hours from the Canadian border , and the noon day sun was steadily melting muddy snow from the quiet streets.

Between soundcheck and gig , I had time for a quick walk around the town, which presented me with the occasional bar/casino, closed down cafes and stores, and in the thawing afternoon, a train yard which , for the enthusiast, evokes all the wide-eyed romance so many of us little boys-on-the-inside enjoy , with a statue of James J. Hill, founder of the Northern Line, and resident of St Paul MN ( one of my favorite towns) front and center outside the station. Yeah, I spent a little time.

Casinos and motels dot the main drag, which is also padded with some of the more modern and ubiquitous fast food chain peddling burger or "chicken"

The gig came and went, the sun rose above the snow-flecked town, and our time in this little patch of our great planet was coming to a close. Plus, I was hungry.......

I opted for "4B's", the 24 hour diner across the street with a casino attached, and grabbed a booth . In the corner , four R.O.M.E.O.s ( Retired Old Men Eating Out), chatted over coffee, until one of them explained he'd better go "or she'll wonder where I am".

a smiling young local girl served me coffee and eggs, breezing around the fading decor making sure we all had enough of everything, and about a half hour and eight bucks later, it was time for the road again . Pulling away I wondered what it must be like to live here. I'm guessing I'll never know.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Fort Benton MT




Recognised as Montana's oldest town, locals will proudly tell you that this is where Montana started - much to the chagrin of our Butte-born driver. Situated as it is high up on the Missouri River, fur trappers and hunters quickly established Fort Benton as a trading hub, and today still draws hordes of outdoors enthusiasts as well as history buffs eager to follow the tracks of Lewis and Clark on their pioneering journey westward to the Pacific, which was pretty much where the band was heading after this stop, and we griped that although Lewis and Clark didn't have the relative luxury of air travel, neither did they have to check instruments, or go through security - it's all relative.

With a population of around 1500, Fort Benton is a pretty tight knit community where agriculture and rail along with tourism keep everything ticking over, and the streets stay quiet as the river rolls by, where , as the girl in the diner put it, "not a lot happens, and that's just fine."

Arguably, Fort Benton's most famous citizen was a border collie named Shep, who lived in the 1930s and , after his master's death and removal by train to his final resting place, waited patiently on every inbound train thereafter for his master's return, digging out a home for himself underneath the station platform, and living on scraps from the station agents and employees that came to adopt him; a small town story that perfectly befits this small town.

Where possible, I like to leave the last word to the town itself.......



Billings MT



Landing on a snowy night in Billings Montana, I wondered if the Montana of memory would be waiting for me in the cold light of day, or if I had just made the whole thing up over time. Tomorrow would tell, and by the time I had checked in to my hotel and pulled my boots off, I found myself taking a 12 story look at a sleeping town, feeling far from home and missing the warm smile that for the next 11 days would have to be imagined at the other end of a telephone. Bill Withers was right, I thought; ain't no sunshine when she's gone.

The hotel was a stone's throw from the town's birthplace - the Billings Stockyard, established by Frederick Billings, then president of the Northern Pacific Railroad, and as I drifted off into a well overdue sleep, my last memory was of a lonesome whistle riding the frigid dark, and the low rumble of boxcars past my window.

Morning, and somewhere on these snow covered streets, i figured there must be a place to eat. Seeing as this was new terrain for me, I decided to take the scenic route, and soak up what I could. One thing came back to me from my previous Montana experience - the friendly locals. People say hello on the street with a natural ease. I had grown up in a small own where this was once the norm, but seems to have vanished with the new breed, but here in Montana, it's still part of a person's day.

Eventually I found myself in Mc Cormick's cafe, chowing down on an omelette made with the freshest ingredients I think I've ever tasted, in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere of locals and travelers. I was reminded of William Least Heat Moon's observation that a diner can be gauged by the amount of calendars hanging on the wall - a good one having upwards of four, a bad one only one if that.

But in the thirty years since he made that observation, I guess a lot has changed, and although there wasn't a calendar in sight, I couldn't have asked for a better respite from the blowing snow.

Montana knows what it is and is completely comfortable in it's own skin. I felt no sense of striving - just doing. It seems, to me at least, that people tend to their work, and say hi to each other along the way - maybe a testament to the state's rural and ranching past or not. I don't know .

Before the show, I waited in my hotel, and scanned from my window the now thawing streets, and saw that Billings is a flat grid surrounded on all sides by steep bluffs, an industrial town with the outskirts dotted with generic chain stores, and downtown supporting local businesses old and new. After leaving Billings in the rear view mirror, I'm left with the confidence that wherever I am when I think of Billings, Billings is just working ahead, and ready to say hi whenever I get back.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

NYC



There's not a lot you can say about the big apple that hasn't been said - the only thing that comes to mind is that everything you've heard is probably true, and I'm sure someone's beaten me to the punch on that one.

New York feels and acts like one symbiotic whole. I get why some people love it and never leave, and i get why some can't stand the place, and why native New Yorkers just don't get that.

Ironically, in a town that holds some of the country's most iconic attractions - the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty et al - the real attraction is the city itself. My advice to the casual visitor is to save the admission fees and just start walking, and walking aimlessly - take a left here, turn right on 5th, check out that store.......

New York moves comfortably fast; two words you don't hear together very often, but it's part of the towns character, which is what this place is all about .
There's plenty movies that owe New York an Oscar for a supporting role, and not just Woody Allen movies.

It was a cold January afternoon when the percussionist and I decided to take a stroll. Central Park was white, and the bare branches stretched into the cold grey sky.

Mickey Mantle's restaurant was buzzing with lunchers, and horses waited with their buggies for willing tourists and love-struck couples with a penchant for sub-zero horse rides.

We nosed around a few music stores on 48h street, relaxed with coffee and cheesecake at a busy greek deli on 5th, and after watching the world go by for a while, it was time to head back to he gig. All together, time well spent in the city that never sleeps.

New York's a city that happens in the corners of your eyes. It's a city of sights, sounds and smells, and that myth about New Yorkers being unfriendly? Quite the contrary - they just get to the point quicker.
So the thing to do is to just show up. Walk around. If you have a destination, ask a local for directions. You'll get a quick answer.