The time on this trip is really flying in, Canada Day marked the end of my third week on the road and also the start of my final week away. Its an odd sort of feeling as Canada has proved so far to be the same only different. What I mean is that there are a lot of familiar things yet they can all be done differently. Yet again I find out that companies I thought were Belfast/NI only are global – my first incarnation of this was when I was a kid and was surprised to see England had Woolworth shops!
The trip has taken a lot out of me, the rest days are becoming more frequent and we are back in the land of the mosquito bites!
Trying to learn from my experiences in Argentina I went down to the Saskatoon Jazz Festival with enough chemicals to mark me out as a target for WMD inspectors. Saskatoon is a great place but Ive only seen it in the summer and trust me I probably wouldnt want to see it in winter. Its like the place hibernates for 6 months of the year then explodes into colour, sound, taste and everything else that has been hidden away. The whole town seems to want to experience all life has to offer before the Winter sets in again. It makes it an interesting and lively place. Its where my official residence is during my stay in Canada (in case the border officials are reading) but the place Ive probably spent the least time in.
All too soon we would have to leave again for the Winnipeg folk festival for the guts of a week although we did get to see Canada Day out in the park and afterwards with friends and family.
Having worked for a Canadian company in a previous life I did know about Canada Day so was interested to see how people celebrated it. I had a hog in a bap and an elephants ear. All quite traditional so Im told.
As was the barbecue in a bag. It looked revolting, you open a packet of doritos (silver foil bag naturally – other nacho chips may be available) and pour in some meat and cheese and add a spoon. You then add in some hot sauce which apparently goes with everything and then just shovel it into your gub as you walk around. Im sure somebody somewhere will have a proper description of how to serve and eat but thats it in a nutshell.
I had once spent Independence Day in the USA, I went to Disneyworld where a hurricane hit. It was almost empty apart from a few kids who had bought bodyboard type things and were then surfing down main street. I then made the mistake of going to watch the film Independence Day on Independence Day, in America. A lot less laughing during the film than when I saw it again back home but definitely more whooping and hollering. A hell of a lot more calls of ‘Go Marines’ and ‘USA, USA, USA’ etc. To be honest after the film I wanted to get the hell away from there before they got out into the car park and started shooting up into the sky.
We had briefly considered packing up the gear from the Diefenbacker park stage and just hitting the road for the 9 hour drive to Winnipeg but saw sense and planned to get up early in the morning and head East. We had difficulty with the early in the morning bit as well.
I once turned down a trip to Canada as the way work schedule worked out I would have to drive pretty much across country from Calgary to Toronto and figured that would take 2 weeks and I only had 10 days. The way we have been driving, it would have been about 2 days! The roads here have to be driven to be believed. Long, straight, flat and bugger all people here. The danger would be falling asleep so it was 9 hours of almost arse numbing tedium to Winnipeg interspersed with splash and dash stops, sometimes petrol as well and of course, food.
The air around Winnipeg was full of the most beautiful dragonflies I had ever seen. These were the full size, real deal. Clouds of them shimmering blue in the lovely warm evening light.
Pity we were going through said clouds at about 80mph.
Winnipeg has the reputation of being one of the most dangerous cities in Canada. Although thats all relative and there are dangerous spots. One thing I would say though is that if Id only seen Toronto and Winnipeg on this trip Id probably have classified Canada as been there and done that. I now see why a lot of the city dwellers aspire to a prairie life and call it the real Canada. Im very lucky to have experienced this and hope to do so again and maybe travel up North and or into the Rockies on the next trip.
Back to Winnipeg, we got in at a late hour and as I hadnt booked the accommodation I didnt know what I was in for. We were all put in a student house belonging to the University of Winnipeg. Not too bad as accommodation goes if you ignore the smoke alarms sitting on the chair, the mousetraps in the corner of the room, the no air conditioning, 40 odd degree heat and the one working shower between 10 rooms carry on. OK on the second day we had two working showers.
So important wee travelling tip, if staying in a hostel/campsite whatever get your shower at night. Another caveat to that, dont do what I did in a Geneva campsite by paying for a shower token, turning the shower on, getting the temperature just right, turning the shower off, getting bollock naked then jumping in and turning what can only be described as skin stripping ice old water. Sometimes the dont waste water environmental message has to be overlooked!
One other issue with the festival was that no photos during the workshops so I was again free to wander about the place during the day.
The pancake house down in the Forks area was highly recommended so we went down for breakfast on the Sunday morning. Id highly recommend it if you are there
At this point I was left on my own and would like to apologise profusely to the city and people of Belfast Northern Ireland. I ranted earlier about how nothing is open in Belfast on a sunday but Winnipeg this sunday morning made Belfast look like Metropolis. To be fair though it was the sunday of the Canada Day weekend and there was no-one here. And when I say no-one I really mean no-one, I felt like I was Will Smith in I Am Legend at times, wandering around with nobody else here. Canada is closed, come back tomorrow.
As usual when we arrived the sun was shining and not a cloud in the sky, now its dull and overcast and useless for tourist type photos. Thats been the problem this whole trip, what I had planned to do and what I actually have done have never overlapped. I thought climate change was only an issue with Northern Ireland ‘summers’, I see its now a reality everywhere.
So wandering round with only dull skies to photograph I just happened to walk past the Winnipeg Goldeneyes baseball ground so thought Id take a look in. Id always wanted to see a live baseball game but never had the opportunity. Similarly with NBA (the previous lockout was on when I had the chance) and the NFL (teams playing away). This time I was 20 mins late but because of the rain which hadnt started falling yet, the game was delayed. Its funny you laugh when you hear that nobody plays here in the rain, thats because in Ireland we get lovely light soft rain most of the time, today in July there were thunderstorms with hailstones the size of marbles. Ok maybe the rain is slightly different here.
Which was much in evidence due to the flooding mentioned earlier in the trip and even here where the two rivers meet the steps just went down into brown muddy fast flowing rivers and some 10 feet above the riverside walkway.
I paid my 10 bucks and rushed up to my seat to get the hot dog that seems to go with ballgames.
Then the rain came down, and my God did it rain. An hour later we were ready to start. An hour after that I realised we had started. An hour after that when the blue skies returned I thought my legs would never work again.
Dont get me wrong, for 10 bucks you can sit all day in the sun, drink cold beer, eat hot dogs and fill in stat sheets that look like world cup wall planners but its definitely up there with cricket in the arse numbingly tedious sports category.
2 hours in and we were a third the way through. I love to get a bargain and on an hourly rate this would be hard to beat but only 4 runs had been scored. I decided Id seen enough baseball when I yearned for the 9 hour driving tedium! Afterwards in the next 3 hours between the two teams they managed to score another run. This wasnt Major League Baseball and perhaps Im being a little unfair as with a few mates and a few beers or the kids and a picnic it wouldnt be a bad day out but I think I’ve been there and done that for baseball.
The weather had cleared up so I wandered back to the house taking a few tourism type photos on the way back. With the soaking I got from sitting down on the ball park seats, it was easy to hide the sweat stains in the arse of my shorts in 35C heat. Pity it took me 3 hours and 2 coffee shops to get back to the house and they had dry seats. Note to self to ditch the light grey shorts which have dark grey patches looking like Id pissed myself every time the temperature goes above 25C.
I was a bit of a sorry state the next day, Id obviously been bitten by mosquitos the day before at some point and my leg had taken a bad reaction to a couple of the bites. One in particular had grown to a blister about an inch in diameter and definitely needed treatment. I decided it would be another rest day so a bit of shopping in and around the house and some tidying up some loose ends from home on the net. It was back to my good mate Tim Hortons place for breakfast and I thought Id call into the local drug store for some cotton wool etc to dress the blister once Id burst it.
As usual I picked the line with the person who couldnt understand what the 3 for 2 offer meant, the person with the stuff with no barcodes on it, the person who couldnt remember their debit card pin and the old lady with 14 tins of catfood and a huge bag of margarita mix. No seriously you couldnt make this shit up.
All I had was a 99 cent bag of cotton wool balls FFS. My mood wasnt lightened when the girl on the till asked if I was part of the over 55 discount scheme. I suppose I should have said yes and got my discount but it took all my strength to just say the word ‘No’ and not try to beat her to death with my cotton wool balls.
At least the nuclear alert status had been removed and the people had returned to the streets, as had the heat and the thunderstorms so I spent the rest of the day wondering if I could move rooms and just put me and my stuff in the massive fridges in the kitchen. They were only filled with beer and pizza anyway!
If Im totally honest I dont do mornings. Well I’ll rephrase that, I dont do mornings without a strong coffee. Ive sort of detoxed on this trip slightly as most of the coffee on this trip could only be classified as a cup of hot brown. So being back in Canada and with Tim Hortons so close I thought Id go out and get breakfast there. We were staying across the road from the University of Winnipeg and as the storms had cleared and the old building was beautifully lit this morning I thought I’d go take a pic of it and then cross the road to my mate Tims for breakfast.
So took the photos, looked right, no traffic, took half a step forward and the wind from the bus wing mirror racing past blew my sunglasses down my nose. Id made it almost a month being careful to look both ways to be almost wiped out a couple of days before coming home. It really was a wake up call in all senses of the phrase. Go and sit down, have a coffee and just wait until you are more alert (which could really take a while).
If you havent travelled with this intensity before its one of the signs that you either rest up for a week or go home. Ive well documented my issues with my bad leg and at times you just have to sit down or take time out as you can be a danger to yourself. Even when I was fit and healthy – I would add good looking but thats a lie, I only had surgery on my leg, not my face there were times you had to just rest up. Ive done the being operated on away from home thing and its not pleasant, it wasnt pleasant for me and it wasnt fair on the people with me. So scrap the plans for spending the day and night taking photos and just see where the day takes me.
Well first of all it took me to Tim Hortons…
Not far away from the University is the Manitoba Legislature building, its a nice enough building with nice grounds from the outside but last night Id stayed up with a couple of the local musicians who were of French Canadian origin who filled me in on a bit of the history of the area and told me to go check it out and the grounds.
I wandered into the building and was met by two huge security guards armed to the teeth and wearing flak jackets. First thought was ‘well thats the end of the trip’ but like everyone else Ive met in Canada they were very pleasant and got me to sign in to the visitors book as I was from somewhere that had to be spelt out Just in time for the guided tour as well, plus it was cool inside and by now baking outside.
After the previous nights conversation I headed over to the French quarter and in parts it was just like walking into France. The streetnames, some of the businesses had only french names, the hotel de ville and a lot of other stuff. Canada so far had been a mix of home, england, scotland, north america and to some extent indigenous people. Here was a whole lot of French thrown into the mix. Im beginning to like this place more and more, maybe in the French quarter I can get some great bread and nice coffee!
The guys last night had said to me to check out the grounds of the Cathedral as one of them had ancestors who were the original white settlers in Canada, French ‘Voyageurs’ who transported the furs and eventually settled here. Their graves are still marked in the graveyard
Then it was back to work taking some photos at the Folk Festival meetings. Again the people here were falling over themselves to help out, something I wish a lot of people back in Ireland and the UK would take note of.
Not a lot else happened later on, apart from a final night party and session back at the house after the show. The folk there asked if we had the like of this in Ireland – food, drink, singing, musicians.. I said we did but theres usually a casket in the middle of the room!
A great nights craic was had by all oh and I happened to sing (despite my best protestations – they were the the musicians and singers – I just had a couple) in front of a multiple JUNO winner…
…I felt her pain.
At least the following morning all the showers were fixed and so it was a 9 hour road trip back home.
Id say nothing much happened but we did make a 90 km detour just for a milkshake – not quite real rock and roll but one day we’ll do the whole entourage thing and make a point of this sort of extravagance
We had one of those ‘oh shit, cops’ moments that makes you hit the brakes even though you arent speeding…. maybe I should say, maybe if you werent just doing a bit over the speed limit because you took a 90km detour just to have a milkshake. We did say 8pm for dinner didnt we? It wasnt as big a bowel relaxing moment as the off ramp in North Dakota. Nothing in my mirrors for miles then all of a sudden the rear and side view mirrors filled with white mustang flashing its lights at me. I was about to utter ‘will you look at this wa……’ when the blues and twos came on. I’ll not say my heart stopped but it wasnt far off. In the end he just wanted me out of the way, his donuts were probably on order or something to be going that speed.
Oh and a life ambition, hanging out of the window of the car, sorry if law enforcement officers are reading, I didnt really undo my seatbelt and hang out of the passenger window to take a photo of a Canadian Pacific train… What was I saying earlier about being careful when travelling?
Theres something about the 8 year old boy in you that when a train almost a mile long blows its horn and rings its bell when it sees you being a buck eejit hanging out of a window that makes it all worthwhile.
Sure where would you get it?
..I love shopping in the USA, I havent been ‘medium’ size in nearly 15 years….
..Non-Dairy creamer – like really? WTF is that? Its just slightly less toxic watercolour paint..
…continental breakfasts – now heres a thing – Ive always understood continental breakfasts to mean two things, firstly the continent is Europe and secondly its a minimal non-cooked breakfast.
Mostly its coffee and a croissant/pastry and possible maybe a slice of bread with a slice of ham/salami and cheese and even at a push a cold hard boiled egg.
Now I appreciate that North America is also a continent and perhaps thats what the ‘continental’ refers to but lets face it, bacon, scrambled eggs, mushroom stew or something, biscuit (fecking bun!), pastry, cereal, pancakes, gravy (never seen white gravy in my life before now) and shitloads of other stuff does not really constitute the worlds definition of a continental breakfast. Full dinner for a roomfull of people perhaps but continental breakfast for one? Saunter!
Meanwhile the food tour continues and although Im going on an enforced diet from now on its primarily to try to limit calorie intake to below 10 thousand per day. Oh and I might just introduce alcohol while Im at it.
My first night in Nashville was sort of a recovery exercise, I planned to take it easy and unpack in the hotel, write my previous blog and then go to bed early for the evening.
So after the blog writing I just thought Id go down and have a look at what the hotel bar looked like….
…I left at just after one after spending an evening with an aircrew from Atlanta. It was slightly disconcerting that this was their stopover and they were flying out the next day after a few whiskeys in the hotel bar but then again its not my flight and I’m sure they will be fine. I cant really go into the conversation much because my head really hurt the next day but that was probably the long journey but in case it wasnt watch out for the Yazoo dark ale in Tennessee. I did leave the aircrew with one legacy though, as I left there was a chorus of ‘Ah for fuck sake, dry your eyes!’ I might have said this once or twice in conversations about the price of gas (petrol) and other things. I just hope that if some person on a plane the next day complains about their non-dairy creamer not being skinny or tall or any of that shite that they get told to ‘Ah for fuck sake, dry your eyes!’ The world will be a better place.
Ive resisted the temptation to join the redneck nation by not buying a pair of cowboy boots or cowboy hat. I have to say though I do quite fancy a cowboy hat, if only for a laugh but the price of Stetsons and so on would make you cry. 200 odd quid for an off the shelf pair of cowboy boots and starting at half that for hats that dont look like they were bought in a joke shop.
Besides which the hats come in boxes which would need a plane by themselves. I know I could wear the hat home but lets face it, I look a big enough dick walking through airports with enough camera gear to run a small press office never mind sticking a bloody cowboy hat on. Besides theres a slim chance I might meet someone who knows me and outside the social wearing the cowboy hat as a joke scenario…
We headed out the first evening to a place called the station inn, which is apparently quite good..
So good it was booked up and we didnt even get to the door. There is something about a place that tells you to feck away off, they are busy by using a paper plate stuck to the door. Thats the type of informality I’m getting to like around here.
It was a lovely evening and unfortunately probably the last good one for the trip to Nashville its been grey skies and thunderstorms the whole week, which pretty much rules out a lot of photography so I’ll just have to keep eating…
In the car park of the station Inn we bumped into Vince Gill. Id now idea who Vince Gill was but apparently its a big deal….
It was then time for ice cream – why? Well when isnt it time for ice cream?
I thought Id go for a wander downtown in Nashville and see if there were any hop on hop off tours available. There were but you had to hop off and on at the same spot and the busses were an hour apart. They only ran from 10-4 with I think 8 stops. Which fecking genius worked that out? I booked myself on the tour to the Jack Daniels factory on thurs instead. Which reminds me I must read internet reviews in future before booking anything else!
For the rest of the afternoon it really did chuck it down, more of a singing in the rain than an all shook up.
You know the way people tell you stories of their travels and the further it gets from the trip the more exaggerated things become? Well apart from me who exaggerates it to start with. Id just like to add on the record that everything anyone tells you about jacks BBQ on Broadway in Nashville is true.
Unbelieveable food, tender slow cooked bbq’d meat falling off the bone and without doubt apart from a BBQ I had in Canada the best meat dinner Ive ever had in North America. If you only get to eat out in one place in Nashville, make sure its Jacks.
After jacks we went to the famous legends corner honky tonk bar and there was a guy called Matt Mason playing here. He has just won Country Music Television’s next superstar competition. Id never heard of it but apparently its a big deal…
We tried to make bookings for the Station Inn the following night for some famous show or other and halfway through the booking answering machine message I got facebook messages to not book it.
Now I grew up listening to all sorts of music, Ive all sorts of music on my portable mp3 player (mr Jobs doesnt sponsor me so I wont advertise him either) as well as my non i-whatever phone. From classical to rave, rock, pop, irish trad, irish contemporary, african, country and western and so on. Every sunday morning it was Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Elvis etc on the radiogram.
And I knew what the Grand Old Opry was as a lot of the live recordings were from there (and San Quentin ) I knew it wasnt the modern building before me but rather a black and white version of the old building in town.
At this point I’ll add a bit about the net reviews of the Grand Ole Opry calling it redneck central. Well it is and it isnt. I was spectacularly unimpressed with a lot of the cheap ‘buy my album and latest song for our troops’ shite from the first few performers. I hate that, wheeling out injured soldiers and the like saying they are heroes. Dont get me wrong I think anyone that dons a uniform and puts their life and limbs on the line in the name of their country should be looked after for life if they get hurt and if they are killed their families should be well looked after.
If you are going to dedicate stuff to wounded soldiers then give them all the fecking money, they need it more than you do. Not 10% or any other such crap, continue with your convictions.
Similarly theres a hell of a lot more innocent civilians lying dead and injured in squalor in far flung places due to actions of said military, but few people care about them, and they wont further anyones career.
The second half of the bill was just pure entertainment. I dont care who you are or what type of music you like but good music is good music.
Jeannie Seely had the place in stiches and despite being over 90 years of age Little Jimmy Dickens rocked the place.
The final act was a guy called Rodney Atkins who had some issues with his mikes and all that but still had the place roaring. Hes quite well known and although Id never heard of his stuff, its apparently a big deal…
Just a word to stave off any potential ligitation, the photos of the performers at the Grand Ole Opry are for illustration and blog purposes only, they are not for resale or intended to be offered for sale. That should satisfy the lawyers and PR people – although they were all quite nice and at least allow personal/blog use.
If I havent pee’d enough people off with the slight politics talk, I’ll now go on to religion seeing as Im on a roll… …Other than back home I have never seen as many churches, anywhere (ok possible exception of Rome but they are predominantly one religion). Its big business here and I mean big business. The bat building (AT&T) is only 1/3 full yet the religious ministries buildings are expanding. Drive out into the country and its seriously like driving through Northern Ireland, you are falling over churches.
I was told another ‘must see’ was the Loretta Lynn ranch and we drove like lunatics to get to the ranch for the last tour of the day at 4pm. Its a bit weird in all honesty, theres a reconstruction of her daddys old wooden home to show the poor beginnings. In reality I wouldnt mind living there as its bigger than my house! Yep a coal miners daughter was a hard life, no doubt about that but until the early 80s we were still crapping in an outside yard toilet and no central heating or running hot water.
Our tour guide had all the charisma of an England football team manager and glossed over certain bits (or just couldnt be arsed – which is more likely) but if you have an interest, its certainly worth a visit. Particularly to see the community that exists there now, theres a camping park, playground, communal grounds and a bike racetrack.
By this stage having raced out our stomachs thought our throats had been cut so instead of the bland pseudo motorway service station food we had been eating we stopped off at a wee mexican roadside diner.
Without doubt the best mexican food I have ever had and this coming from a guy who gave serious thought to opening a mexican restaurant in Belfast. A fail on the pics of the food but I was soo hungry I didnt bother, just a quick grab shot of the outside afterwards. Guess we might have to stop there again on the way out of Nashville tomorrow…
…another quick stop on the way back was to the Hickory Hollow Mall. It was advertised as being huge but its partly closed and a lot of the shops are shut, looks like the recession has hit it hard and a few tumbleweeds wouldnt have been out of place, just like some of the centres back home.
It did have the biggest American flag I have ever seen in my life though. Wonder if its just up for the upcoming 4th July celebrations or if its a permanent feature. The americans do love their flag everywhere.
Today it was off to the Jack Daniels distillery. Id booked a tour to take me there, to another distillery and a quick trip to Lynchburg town square for a bit of shopping (or lunch in my case). I missed breakfast as it was an early start and was worried Id be completely paralytic by lunchtime due to the whiskey sampling…
Only later in online blogs and reports did I notice that the distillery is in a dry county, so they arent allowed to serve you samples. Like seriously, WTF? Come to Jacks famous distillery and have some lemonade? It was nice lemonade but come on, if you are selling bottles of stuff that is only available here, then at least allow us to sample them somewhere. FFS! Like seriously, catch a fecking grip. Thats not on and a serious pisser to any whiskey fan. Then again to be fair any serious whiskey fan isnt going to touch most of it with a barge pole. Maybe its a marketing ploy, you have to wait until you get home to find out its dark pish in a bottle.
The tour was interesting because I was there but nothing I didnt know from 30 miles up the road in Bushmills. Im sure some of the residents of Bushmills would like it to be a dry county but at least there to get to taste versions before they do the hard sell on you. Even in the town of lynchburg they can only sell you the empty bottles. The town is just a square and they were setting up for their frontier day so it wasnt much to write home about. I wandered off through the rest of the town and got talking to the local sheriff. Well as usual I was going to get my collar felt and talked myself out of it We had previously agreed to spend the rest of the time at the town and skip the second distillery – if they werent in a dry county Id feel even more short changed than I do now. The ‘entertainment’ on the bus consisted of episodes of the Beverly Hillbillies and some other black and white show – andy something or other.
That was it really, slept on the bus on the way back and really pissed off that I now feel obliged to give a tip when I’d paid 45 dollars for a fecking bus ride oh and the 7 hour trip included the hotel pick up and drop off times as well which were an hour either way. Im glad I went but Id not really advise anyone to do it unless they were a real JD fan and one of the local busses would be quicker and a hell of a lot cheaper.
Right its getting to the stage where the immortal words of one of my friends comes to mind ‘lets get the f*ck out of dodge’. Close enough but maybe theres enough time for one more ice cream or maybe those cowboy boots after all. Tomorrows overnight and start of the journey back north should be interesing. In the last week one of the towns we travelled through has been evacuated due to flooding and tomorrows overnight could be in one of the US’s most dangerous cities. And no its not dodge city!
I think my headstone should say something along the lines of ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’ but more likely to say ‘watch this’ or ‘I know I shouldnt be doing this but whats the worst that can happen?’
Ive been here (whereever here is) too long already as I wanted to add ‘Eh?’ at the end of that sentence.
Its hard to tell where I am or when I am or what bloody year it is. I know Im sitting in the hotel foyer in Nashville, that bit is easy, it says it on the leaflets in front of me. I havent slept in the same bed twice in almost two weeks. Now normally that would be one hell of a boast but by now it just means a pile of washing and not believing what the gps says.
It was a simple concept this trip, Saskatoon to Nashville 2-3 days of easy driving, sightseeing, looking around us, 5 days in Nashville and the same on the way back. Put into that few a words and saying it not too loud and not mentioning it to anyone with any sense in their head and it really did seem like a good idea at the time.
We started well enough, we left Saskatoon early on Friday night (I think it was Friday, I had to look it up) and hit Regina and stay at Nathans house (promised Nathan a mention in the blog, so there you go Nathan, youve got a mention and thanks again for letting us stay at your house). So Nathan had been away himself for a while so looked a bit shell shocked when we arrived just before midnight. Nathan was off up himself in the early hours of the morning, before we’d managed to prise our eyelids open. I had heard a lot about him, his trips to the world cup in South Africa and various other football games. At another time we’d probably have spent a lot of time swapping football stories over a few beers but it wasnt to be – maybe in Brazil
We had great intentions of getting up and on the road early but it was absolutely chucking it down. Id been introduced to the concept of basements in Canada, where we tend to convert attics to add extra rooms, all the houses here seem to have basements to do the same job, Nathans was superb with the TV room underground. Also its common practice here to take your shoes off going into the house, probably why all the carpets and floors look really good years on.
But you dont want to hear about that, you want to hear about the Wicklow Cafe which was about as irish as well something that isnt really irish. I misread the menu and ordered their 8 oz burger, but what I had ordered was a double 8 oz burger. It was big enough to choke a horse or as a mate of mine once remarked, thats probably the whole arse of a cow…
Now I take pride in being able to inhale food rather than just bite, chew and digest like normal people but even I had to take one of the burgers out so I could get the rest in my gub.
Im pretty much setting the scene for this trip, its all really about the food to be honest.
That and the ‘Are you hungry?’ ‘No, but I could eat something’.
As we drove south the fields on both sides of the road were flooded, and I mean really flooded, at one point the protective banks had burst on the road and we were sent out the way by a cop, it will be worse probably by the time we get back. The train line was flooded and the trains stopped, some of the wee villages had their fire crews out pumping water from the centre of town. It really did look like something out of a disaster movie…. ….it would turn out to be small change.
The next big hurdle was the US border, last year I went to Argentina and the stupid idea of having to clear US immigration even though I wasnt leaving the airport for a transfer meant that one of my exit visa cards wasnt collected by the air crew. So at some point I thought I was going to be scooped. I didnt fancy sitting on a case for 11 days in the arse hole of nowhere waiting on my friends coming back to me. It would also be difficult trying to justify my photo selection for the tour book. ‘But these look like all the same pictures of the same place with feck all but horizon’, ‘Ah you dont understand art’, ‘get the f**k out of my office and dont come back’. Maybe I could get them to buy postcards and stick them in the album.
Even though Id a new passport I thought something would sting me so I got called into the office and there on the wall was my mate Barack of the Moneygall Obamas. I thought it might not be wise to mention this at this time. It was bad enough we crossed the border in an SUV with totally blacked out windows. Now my car at home has the rear windows tinted, the guy tinting them said not to get the limo tint would look like I was in a hearse…
…so even the border official couldnt see me, but of course the xray they were taking of the car probably did. What do you mean they dont x-ray the cars….
I suppose it could have been worse, I could have been chained up with a gimp mask in the back seat, I nearly bought one of those once, for a photo prop you understand but I did think that if the plane went down and my family went to identify my belongings, even though I was dead, it would be a hard one to explain. Still…
Oh and the old Jedi mind trick of ‘you dont need to bring me into the office’ didnt work either.
Anyway to exaggerate a really nothing happening, I got through and passed from the arse hole of nowhere Canada to the arse hole of nowhere USA. I dont mean that to be derogatory because they were definitely the best arse holes of nowhere Id ever been. Nothing but flat boring land for miles. It is weird and interesting but after 1000km it all gets a bit, well, ‘samey’.
As the sat nav had said we dutifully turned left at North Dakota and kept driving into the night.
Time to find somewhere to stay and being behind schedule we were never going to make it to Sioux Falls so we settled on Jamestown and spent a while driving round to find a hotel room and ended up in the Holiday Inn for the night.
Jamestown is famous for having the worlds largest buffalo statue. We saw it at speed from the road and it was a massive bloody buffalo statue. To be fair though I dont know what competition they have and if someone told me the worlds largest buffalo statue was 3 feet tall I would believe them.
Time to hit the road again and now whizzing through South Dakota, trying to keep within the speed limits. Whilst we did have the technical wizardry of a sat nav, my co-pilots had their trusty map with the route in yellow highlighter. Long thought out in advance but not the route I would take but hey looked more interesting. Of course the map was a one off, bought for the purpose, treated with care as it was the blueprint for the journey, carefully looked after, folded up properly and stowed in the same place.
Then of course some shit for brains photographer decided that a photo of the map with on the car bonnet (sorry hood) with a couple of coffee cups on it would add to the journey. I should have of course used empty coffee cups….
…it will dry out…
…besides its more lived in, needs some tomato ketchup, blood and maybe a bit of vomit and wee stains to make it a true road trip map but maybe thats just going too far.
Time for lunch, well its always time for lunch or should I say breakfast, even in Dennys at 10pm I asked what was good there and the manager read out the entire menu but highlighted the breakfasts!
It was a nice wee local restaurant with a staff of about four thousand, with more staff than customers but the people welcomed us in and asked where we were from and what we were doing etc. Really nice to see and the food was good too. This is a half skillet apparently. Id hate to see the size of a full one.
We were a bit unlucky as we hit about 50 miles of roadworks on the trip down to Sioux Falls and Sioux City. The plan was to see if we could get down to Kansas City or St Louis for the evening. Although I might make a detour along the way to visit someone I know from the internet. Now normally every person I have met on the internet or converse with is nice and a good person – I have to bloody say that, most of you are reading this and know where I live. But occassionally you just come across someone who one day would benefit from two fairly well built Belfast boys turning up on their doorstep in Hicksville USA, saying nothing and just smacking them in the mouth. ‘Thats for nothing, wait until you do something’. Wont be such a smart arse in forums then would we? Oh and we could still do it on the way home
All joking aside, the journey from Sioux Falls to Kansas City was a bit of a nightmare but nothing compared to what the people living there have went through. We had all vaguely heard something about floods last year and this but hadnt even thought it would impact on us, after all it was a while ago, wasnt it.
We were all dozing off through the afternoon as the heat creeped up but one ‘holy f*ck’ from me had everyone looking out of the window. Long diversions into the countryside as the main road just went straight under the Missouri River. The levees had been breached and there was devastation everywhere. Roads closed, houses covered, streetsigns just sticking out of the water and fields just looking like a big lake with trees sticking out of it.
Its one of the issues with travel in the US, all the roads seem to be a grid system, odd numbers north/south, even numbers east/west but when a road is closed you have to go across and then down and this added maybe a hundred miles to our journey. It did make it more interesting… …interesting in a Top Gear visits Alabama sort of way. Or put in the Belfast vernacular, a couple of dicks in a pickup truck and an ex cop car ‘acting the ballix’. Racing each other and us stuck in the middle, unarmed, in hicksville usa…
We managed to gt rid and get back on the highway again, just in time to ignore the roadsigns for the last 1000 miles or so that advertise which turns off the motorway turn into gas stations, food establishments and hotels. No we decided to take the turn off that took us into downtown St Joseph. Now buildings that are boarded up, people sitting on their porches eyeing up the fresh meat, sorry visitors. 20 mins of driving around produced the sort of physical reaction that meant it would be difficult to put a playing card between our arse cheeks…
Im not exaggerating how bad this place looked, earlier on the trip there was the floods devastation and we had driven through an area that had been hit recently by a tornado with the odd building wrecked but this was on a different scale. Maybe getting a few rifles as soon as we crossed the border might not have been a bad idea.
We decided to push on down the road to catch up time and go halfway between Kansas City and St Louis in a place called Columbia and try and find a hotel. It was my turn to drive and although I dont think Id ever driven in the US at night, nevermind in pishing rain, in a thunderstorm that there were weather warnings about, I thought Id give it a go. After all whats the worst that could happen. Besides which it would be a dry run for the return trip in case we were running late and had to drive through the night to get back to safety, sorry Canada.
One thing I discovered early on is that the US could fecking do with cateyes and luminous lane markers on the interstates and highways. Driving in heavy rain at night it really was a case of keep it between the hedges. The whole driving experience was interesting. A few friends work for a company that makes the see sensors that measure tyre pressure and other things to do with the wheels. These seemed to be widely used in the US and is it any wonder. There are so many different road noises, all of which would have me normally pulling in to check for a flat tyre, wonky wheel or part of the car falling off! But the sensors would tell us if there was any problem with the tyres. Good idea. Now tell us where the road is and we are laughing.
I managed to make it through the main part of the thunderstorm without shitting myself, well mostly.
As the roads cleared I just saw on the side of the road some sort of animal, now it was like a racoon or badger. It ran right across the road in front of me to the central reservation. Id slowed down but driving this big boat of an american car at night, in the rain on the wet road I wasnt going to break too hard.
Unlucky for the Racoon who was on a suicide mission and having made it to safety decided to retrace his steps.
This led to the inevitable ‘thump’ ‘thump’ and the inevitable ‘f*ck’ ‘f*ck’ from me. Silence from the rest of the car and then this big broad Belfast accent ‘Joe, weve had this car for three years and havent hit nathing! You bloody hit a raccoon on your first attempt’.
What could I say? I must have been in slight shock as what I thought I would say and what I actually said are two different things.
Firstly, ‘God I hope that was a raccoon and not a man in a fancy dress suit or davy crockett hat’
closely followed by
‘have you ever hit a pigeon? They just explode in a hail of feathers you know!’
Hard to drive through the night when you are fighting back tears of laughter..
We reached Columbia without further incident except to find out there was almost literally no room at the inn at 1am. So we would all have to share a room.
It had been a traumatic experience and eventually something has to give. Now if you consider Id been eating enough food to keep a small nation going for a week you can see where this is going.
When you make that sort of bathroom deposit, generally speaking a formal written apology might be more appropriate than the old ‘you might want to give that a minute before going in to clean your teeth’.
Id like to formally apologise to my travelling companions for any inconvenience or stinging eyes, runny nose or general feeling of illness caused as a result of my actions.
No more cracker barrell platters for me. Well not for a few days anyway.
Its late now and Im in a half decent hotel in Nashville and its time to get on with the rest of the trip so thats it for now. Just to say we took a quick run into the Gaylord Opryland hotel. And yes for all the Norn Iron people reading this who have just spat out their coffee, yes indeedy theres a huge hotel run by the Gaylord corporation. Now its childish immature and just plain wrong to laugh at the mention of the word Gaylord but you have to admit when you see a big butch guy who would beat seven shades of shit out of you wearing a t-shirt and cap with the words ‘Gaylord Security’ all over it, its hard not to laugh.
The place seemed quite dead and it wasnt until we went on the boat tour (yes they have an indoor river with fish and ducks and everything) that we realised that this time last year the whole building was under 20-30 feet of water. The mall across the parking lot still hasnt re-opened – probably a total loss. The cinema still has advertising posters from May 2010 on the walls. Brings it all home with a bump.
The gig and album photos have all been to a particular brief, with his last gig, it was in May Street Church so it was a mixture of promotional music photographs as well as showing something of the architecture of this old church. We have another couple of shoots planned which will emphasise the irishness of his music but not in the traditional view of the green leprechaun view of irishness. Stephen is from Belfast and there is no doubt that all of us of the same age carry some baggage with regard to this place. Its a place we love but its also a place where a lot of people emigrate from for various reasons, a lot of it in the past has to do with the troubles.
Some of us also emigrate for good reasons and Stephen is one of them. He met his Canadian wife Tera in Belfast whilst she was in intern for the local ice hockey team. I used to be involved in the supporters club for the team and thats how I came know Tera and then Stephen. As with everything in this small place you find out friends and families are intertwined and the whole ‘I recognise you from somewhere but I dont know where’ comments. Particularly if you have never met before, ever!
You may wonder what Im rambling on about but a couple of years ago Stephen gave me an acoustic version of his song ‘Streets of Belfast’. I thought it was a great piece to put to an AV slideshow of images of Belfast and got to work. I put the video up on youtube and my website and really forgot about it.
In his new album Steven has re-recorded the “Streets of Belfast” with full production, so I thought I’d rework the photo and audio slideshow as well with more up to date photos of Belfast. Ive put it up on youtube once again and the link is below so get a cup of tea or coffee and enjoy the next three and a half minutes (more later).
I was familiar with Streets of Belfast but I hadnt heard the rest of the latest album. Stephen like myself is fond of a long story or two so he was telling me about waiting for his flight home to Belfast before Christmas. As he was standing in the queue for check in, with all the thousands of people and delayed, cancelled flights, he saw a soldier in the queue in front of him. The guy probably had the dust from whatever combat area he had just come from still on him. Stephen overheard the guy saying something like ‘ma’am, I just want to get home’.
Looking from behind at his combat boots, camouflage trousers, kit bag, Stephen said he thought of me and said if I was there I would make a picture of that scene and it reminded him of his song on the new album ‘Leaving’.
So I got a copy of the album and it was a couple of days before I could sit down and listen to it properly. I played leaving over and over again. It tells something of a personal story for Stephen but it also rings true for many of us. Particularly poignant in the current economic climate in Ireland where once again we export our greatest natural asset, our people.
Of course its not just the physical act of leaving that the song applies to but for things like going to university, getting married etc.
Then it was a case of marrying the photos up to the video. It was an interesting project as the Streets of Belfast one was straightforward, tying the images there of a fixed place in with the song. The Leaving one had to have a good balance of not just Irish/Belfast images but also ones that would appeal on both sides of the Atlantic (and perhaps be recogniseable) as well as internationally.
As usual I put too many images in the original draft so there were a few refining emails then sending out the video to a few people to get their views. Ive included the final version below, hopefully it does the song justice, so go get another cup of tea or coffee and sit back and watch.
As with Dance Photography Music photography is another passion of mine.
Its very similar to dance photographically technically, you have a few people on a stage moving at times quite quickly under mixed lighting with no scope to say ‘here hold on a minute, can you go back a sec and repeat those lines’.
With larger bands/acts you tend to get better lighting but not always the case and in recent years the move towards led lighting which seems to be just above candle power in output has meant that gig and band photography remains technically challenging. Saying that of course the latest range of digital cameras almost turn nighttime into day and if they have a live view mode you could almost use them as night vision cameras. It makes sure that any student with a half decent camera and half decent lens will get a useable concert photo. Saying that at todays current prices for gig photos, even students with high street off the shelf equipment would still find the prices too low.
So you have two options, get smarter and shoot better pics, or give up. Well I have sort of done both. The market isnt enough now to sustain top of the range kit, ability to wire in onsite within seconds etc etc. Occasionally you do get ‘big’ events (Id the first UK pictures of the Arctic Monkeys after they hit it big and Id shots of Boyzones first night comeback) but in general theres someone beside you who will be happy to see their name in print and a willingness with most mags to be happy to accept a straight up and down shot because they dont have to pay a penny (or very little in subscription).
It means that the majority of shots arent by specialists any more and those that do submit have little or no imagination compared to those shooting every day. It was always going to be a hard sell anyway in Ireland because you can spend your life shooting every upcoming band for none of them to ever make it or get that middle of the tour shots, which unless stand way out from the crowd wont be much different from the 20 photographers in 10 countries before you.
Thats not to say there isnt merit in it or indeed money to be made but promoters dont really want photographers to cherry pick who they will shoot and theres always some give and take to help promote new acts in return for inclusion on the wish list for lady gaga or whoever is hot at the minute.
Add into that the current recession in the UK and theres less gigs about, people cant afford the 50-70 quid for a concert ticket that they used to spend only 2 years ago maybe once a month or in concert season, once a week.
People also have this glamourous idea that gig and concert photography is one of the best jobs in the world. Well the realities are somewhat different. The three songs and you are out rule applies. In some cases you dont get three songs, you might get 2 or one. One group came out recently to a video as their first song. So that leaves about 6 minutes to get the banker shots and try to get a good folio of shots that will spread across a range of publications. Quite tight going. Then after that theres the mad dash to get 3G or wifi connection to get your edits into the agency before everyone else does. Thats a lot of adrenaline and quite often it can be totally exhausting.
Try shooting a festival where its shoot, edit, wire, shoot, edit, wire, etc etc for maybe 6 or 8 hours. Add that over 2 days and just give me a sleeping bag in the corner.
Having said that some of my most loved shots come from this type of environment. Often you are in a pit of 4 maybe up to 10 or 20 photographers and in order to eat the following month you have to make sure every single shot counts. Trying to get interesting angles, tell the story, show the emotion and tie the images together really gets the cold sweat down your back going. I remember one act who I wont name was slightly under the weather coming out on stage and out of 400 shots of one band member I got 2 with their eyes open, and thats with them using a prop to keep them vertical during the show.
Another one I distinctly remember was lit by one single red spotlight, which by itself was enough to give a half decent exposure. Thats assuming they werent swaying backwards out of the light most of the time. Looking at the photos it reminded me of those old kids tv programmes where the clown with the big shoes was nailed to the floor and swayed backwards and forwards because of it.
With some groups they seem to go out of their way to make things difficult for you. One group who are notorious with photographers deliberately keep most of the stage lights off for the first three songs and once the lead singer said to us ‘right thats the freeloaders gone, we can get on with the show’. Charming. Hope you dont do anything stupid in your private life in the future… Another keeps the photographers at a huge distance away, takes your kit bags off you and has one security person for each photographer who ‘escort’ you ‘quickly’ out of the arena…. yes…. Particularly galling as you sit on the cold stone ground wiring pics in to see people with cellphones and compact cameras in the crowd uploading to flickr with impunity. Again the old maxim of being nice to people on your way up as you may need them on your way down.
I’ll not even give credence to the travelling pr company who thought it would be a good idea to put us in the crowd with all our equipment at a rappers concert. I have to say Ive never laughed as much as at the skinny white boys from belfast with their calvin kleins falling down round their arses getting down with the boyz in the hood. No seriously lads, take a long hard look at yourselves.
Then theres the concerts where you pray that the golden liquid flying towards you from the crowd is cheap lager beer and not the end product of an afternoon spent drinking that beer. Newcomers often ask why some of us at festivals shoot with our hoods up on sunny days.
Compare that with the hard working PR companies who get you spots in the press room, sort out wifi, keep you fed and watered and see if theres anything you need. Ive even had Louis Walsh sitting over my shoulder helping with photo selection. Normally something you try to avoid when you are sitting wiring away and someone over your shoulder is saying ‘oh thats a nice pic’, ‘ I like that’, ‘lovely’. I was just about to turn round and tell them to foxtrot oscar when I saw it was Louis so told him to pull up a chair.
As you can probably tell I wouldnt classify the most of it as fun so when a friend of mine Stephen Maguire mentioned to me that he was doing a gig in Belfast in support of Nanci Griffith I jumped at the chance to photograph it. I’ve known Stephen for a number of years now and we have become friends. Ive done a lot of static work with him for posters, album covers general PR, headshots etc but as most of his concert touring is in Canada I rarely get the chance to see him live never mind photograph him. In fact I’d never seen him live and was worried that I’d be too busy looking through the lens that I wouldnt even hear the gig. Its one thing that people ask after a gig, ‘what did they play’. ‘I dunno’ is invariably the answer as you are too busy concentrating on the job in hand then you are out.
Stephen was playing in quite an unusual and intimate venue, the May Street Church. I’d photographed it a few years earlier for the local press as it was rumoured it was closing due to dwindling attendances due to population movement out of the city centre. Its trying to regenerate as a venue and coffee shop downstairs as well as the church. Stephen was supporting Nanci Griffith as part of the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival.
I have to say Ive never been as nervous photographing a gig in my life. Id never done it for a friend before and chatting over a coffee minutes before the gig I dont know who was talking the bigger pile of shite, me or Stephen. I stuck to my 3 songs rule and then slid up the aisle into the gloom to enjoy the rest of the show. I know Im biased but you know the way it is with friends, you will give support regardless of how you think they did. Well I thought Stephen was superb, great audience interaction and a great buzz during the set. I hate the phrase but its probably the one time you will hear me say it, Stephen, you rocked! (invoice is in the post).