Jerusalem… A Brief Portrait

[UNPUBLISHED]

Jerusalem throbs with a religious fervour, with a visceral sense of time and place, with tension you can almost cut and with a power that’s hard to put your finger on.

It swelters in summer heat, its maze of streets – in both the new and old cities – an indecipherable sprawl of foot-polished stone, undulating with the hillside, sharp left turns and dips, rivulets of some liquid or other coming to pool in the cracks, covered over with wet cardboard and shredded paper; detritus and bits and pieces that, at the end of the day, are hosed off and left to fester in the damp heat.

Damascus Gate

Outside the daunting Damascus Gate, perhaps the most formidable entrance to the Old City, long and black guns are strapped to uniformed fronts, tan pants tucked into boots planted firm on shining flagstones behind blue Police barriers. Inside the gate though, in the Old City on the final day of Ramadan, in the Muslim Quarter, the market booms and bustles and people throng. A seething mass bumping up against one another as they move from place to place, up steps, vanishing into dark corners behind the old rock, the giant walls disappearing behind as you descend into the maze, covered alleys decked with garments and plastic toys and sweets with names you can’t pronounce and shouldn’t pretend to.

We follow the stations of the cross and stop in small churches amidst lush gardens, oasis’ from the heat and noise outside. For the most part, they’re empty and quiet and our footsteps echo and we whisper just because. A lone woman kneels at the alter and starts to sing and her voice fills the entire space, ricocheting and furling back on itself and it sounds like a choir and stuns us to silence as we listen, before slowly fading out.

Temple Mount

The Temple Mount is closed and things are quiet at the Western Wall. We don yamakas and wander down to the ancient barrier and touch its smooth sides, think for a minute about what it all means. The tension doesn’t seem too heightened here, the sunshine layering the scene perhaps a pleasant distraction from what could, or what has, or what might happen. An electrifyingly religious place for so many with varied beliefs and opinions as to what it means, what happened, who has ownership, who can do what and when. The guns are still there, but they’re hanging loose and it all seems so calm.

Jordan (background)

Having dinner with the ABC middle east correspondent on the hill above town, Jordan visible through the heat haze as the sun sets. We talk shop and throw opinions and observations onto the table among the tall cans of Budweiser and bottles of red wine, olives and bread and shredded meat. Talk is cheap and as the wine flows, so to does the speculation. Half a dozen people from halfway around the world trying to dissect a place as tangled and gnarled as any on earth.

Flashes of gold from a way across the desert as the setting sun reflects back off glass in another country.

The streets around the Old City seem grey and listless. The closer you get, the busier it is though, cars and buses bumper to bumper, horns blaring. At the crossing, men and women of different religions and belief systems stand side by side, the minutia of the everyday relegating them from sworn enemies to mere people crossing the road together, with their shopping, to catch the bus, to head home, to pray, to pick up their children.

The market bustles and a young Asian man sprints past, accosts someone, seems his passport has been lifted from his pocket. The accosted man is indignant and the Asian kid nearly beside himself, potentially trapped somewhere he no longer wants to be.

Alleyways

James and I head out later, at night, to a shisha bar where we smoke giant pipes and drink cold Lebanese beer while discussing this and that. Stray cats play in the garden and jump from the trees. A young woman sitting by herself receives a birthday cake from the staff who sing to her, and we wonder why she’s there alone.

Ramadan had finished the day before, and having dinner high atop one of the local hotels, we hear what seems an explosion, but are told it’s just the signal for the sun setting and so the feast begins – seems an odd signal in this part of the world, an explosion. To get here from Tel Aviv, we’ve driven through the West Bank, a long and fast run through the desert which, before you realise, is bordered on both sides by high barbed-wire fences, cameras every fifty metres on tall poles, monitoring the scene… one doesn’t stop on this road, not even for a flat tyre, one just drives until the destination, either way, is reached.

We pass through checkpoints along the way, and the soldiers manning them look no older than seventeen.

You can see the Palestinian towns, marked by tall mosques, and the Israeli settlements, marked by red-tiled roofs and huge Israeli flags. It’s tense and I feel the car speed up a little. It seems so incongruous that this place, the West bank and Jerusalem itself, these volatile pits of possible violence and despair, are so close to Tel Aviv with its convivial feel and its cosmopolitan ambiance. They seem of different countries.

We leave Jerusalem after a couple of days having walked the flagstones and seen the people and the places. It still sat heavy and foreboding, despite the sun and the heat, a place that could erupt at any time and yet is so full of history and tales tall and true that one could get lost there for decades.

It recedes behind us in the rear-view mirror as we re-enter the West Bank, past checkpoints and guns, and seems like it wasn’t even ever real, just an imaginary place where trouble brews but where people just get on with life as if it’ll never change.

Samuel J. Fell

Tel Aviv… A Brief Portrait

[UNPUBLISHED]

Tel Aviv shimmers rippled gold from the midnight desert. A sprawling jewel against black from the tiny airplane window, disappears as we bank left, reappears on the far side. Closer now. The thud as we touch down and reverse thrust and finally, still.

From verdant English countryside to layers of burnt orange and gold, a layer of dust covers it all in a dull warmth, the heat from the dying day a slow and languid wash that envelops you as you navigate the airport, Hebrew lettering and blue and white flags and shawls draped and flaccid in the marble quiet.

In the old town, Jaffa and its ancient port, lights are lit and music tumbles from old, arched doorways despite the time of day and we sit on the top deck and drink Israeli beer after we’ve put her to bed and we catch up, smoking in the still air, wafting upward. The new city burns bright in the middle distance, white light, while below us basks in yellow, the flickering painting the cobbled streets in ever-changing layers of light and shade. Stray cats prowl and the purple bougainvillea spews over an old grey wall like spent beer from a bottle left in the freezer overnight.

The next day we wander the maze of the port, ancient and labrynthian, tiny galleries and churches hewn into rock on the side of the hill rolling up from the water. We stand on the hilltop and look across the half-moon bay. Sunlight, ever-present, dances on the water, on the stone, off the pale walls of houses shuttered against the building heat. The cats sit in the shade in high places and watch from under lidded eyes.

Across Yefet Street, into the flea market and its own twisted alleys and underpasses, antique dealers’ wares spill onto the roadways. We sit outside a café under an orange umbrella and drink weak black coffee with small glasses of water as people wander past – young and old, some with children hanging off them, in prams and strapped to chests, men on scooters with cigarettes hanging from lips and mobile phones pressed against their ears, the sound of car horns always on the breeze which comes in from the Mediterranean and becomes a part of the city noise like the talking and the yelling, the call to prayer and the music from weddings and churches, Arabic music and Jewish music, the occasional burst of a western sound, cars and trucks and bikes through the round-about at the clock tower, horns and shouting, street hawkers and people gawking and yelling.

The sound of a city shifting restlessly in the midday heat.

In the mornings, I strap her to me and we walk for an hour or so while she sleeps. I pick up one of the newspapers thrown on the front step and tuck it into my back pocket should I come across somewhere to drink coffee while we’re out but I never do, nothing is open this early. We have the old streets to ourselves and we make for the water, along the foreshore, into the maze of the port and upward, upward, steps and slopes, warn smooth from centuries of feet, so many feet, up to the crown of the hill overlooking it all and down the other side. Across the wishing bridge. Past the church facing west. Into the shade and bustle of Yefet and into the market where nothing is open and we’re hidden from the sun under shade of narrow paths and old, faded sun-shades stretched across alleys entwined with electrical wires and ornate strands of fairy lights and wreaths of coloured cloth.

We get home before she wakes and I make coffee in the kitchen and sit out the back under the passionfruit vine and read the paper until she wakes up and we have breakfast together as the rest of the house stirs and comes to join us

Everything is burnt orange and gold and there’s a layer of dust that covers it all in a dull warmth and yet it shimmers with a vibrant colour and sheen, polishing the edges and washing the roadways of rubbish and refuse, detritus from centuries of use and overuse and underuse, and the green-blue Mediterranean gently pushes up against its edge and the palm trees bow in the breeze and Tel Aviv exists, shimmering rippled gold in the midnight desert.

Stars & Hype Reviewed In Rhythms Magazine

A review of Stars & Hype: First Time Notes On The American Deep South has been published in the January / February issue of Australian roots music bible, Rhythms magazine.

Written by legendary Australian journo Michael Smith, the review goes in-depth, and make comment on not just the work in question, but also the “paradoxes that combine to make America what it is.” See below for the full review.

American Deep South Vol. 4 – Nashville, Tennessee

[Published on the Rhythms magazine website, November 2015]

Having spent a good deal of my younger adult years living in the hip and cool bustle of Melbourne’s inner north, coupled with the fact that it doesn’t take much to convince me to throw on my old cowboy boots and tap my leather-shod feet to some tonkin’ country/blues, for me Nashville was like coming home.

We based ourselves in East Nashville (thank you AirBnB), an area of town that over the past five or six years has blossomed from a working class neighbourhood into a tight-knit community of young families and single twenty-somethings, renovated little cottages on tree-lined streets and, of course, a thriving venue, restaurant, food truck and music scene.

It should be noted that East Nashville is hip as hell. I felt on many occasions over the five days we were there, trolling the bars and eateries, that my moustache wasn’t twirly enough (or at all), my skinny jeans weren’t skinny enough, and at 35 with no kids, I was far too old. We dove right in, none the less.

Before we got down to exploring however, there were a couple of bucket-list items which needed ticking off, two things which stem from the same place, but which couldn’t be further apart.

Our first night in town we head twenty minutes out from downtown to the Bluebird Café, that songwriter’s mecca, a tiny little place that for thirty-three years has acted as both a sounding and spring board for countless singer-songwriters, something Nashville has in abundance.

A non-descript little place, located in a strip mall between two hair salons, the Bluebird is an institution. It only seats a hundred people, and seven nights a week presents an early and a late set. Tickets for the week’s shows go on sale on the Monday morning, and most are sold out within the hour. People line up outside a couple of hours or so before showtime, hoping to grab one of the last few seats not sold online, or snap up any that have been reserved but that no one has turned up to claim.

Songwriters In The Row

We catch the early show, a Songwriters In The Row session, featuring four local singer-songwriters – Jesse Terry, Michaela Anne, Alex Wong and Lizanne Knot – each playing a song, passing the baton down the line. It’s a fascinating way to assess music, each player exhibiting a different style, each player bringing their own strengths and weaknesses to the table. It’s a listening room, so people are quiet, respectful. This is where people get their start, and it’s exciting to be in a room that holds so much history.

Speaking of history, and in direct contrast to the Bluebird, our second night in town we deck ourselves out in our most outlandish country-wear (including the dark cherry red boots I bought from a second hand joint in Austin), and head to the country music hub of the universe, The Grand Ole Opry. Both the Bluebird and the Opry are, fundamentally, about country music. But they could not possibly be more different.

Where the Bluebird is a quiet listening room, the Opry is big, bold, loud, brash, AMERICA. It’s such a blatant change, we can’t help but sit through the show with big grins plastered over our faces at the pure and un-ironic fanfare of it all. It truly is an experience, one I can’t recommend highly enough, no matter what strain of country music you’re into.

The Grand Ole Opry, of course, began as a radio show in the mid-‘20s, which makes it the longest running radio program in history. It gained popularity quickly back then, becoming a four-hour program featuring any number of traditional performers, moving in 1943 to the Ryman Auditorium, before settling at its current home, The Grand Ole Opry House, in 1974. The House was seriously flooded five years ago, but it’s been restored to its glittering best.

We’re treated to a number of musical acts over the two hours, from the glitz and glam of modern, contemporary country – The Willis Clan (a troupe of eleven brothers and sisters who I believe were on America’s Got Talent last year); John Rich; and Brad Paisley – to some serious old school country talent from the likes of Jesse McReynolds and the Charlie Daniels Band.

The former group are fine at what they do, but are hardly my cup of tea. McReynolds though, with his group behind him, huddled around the one mic playing the sweetest bluegrass you’ll find anywhere replete with perfect vocal harmonies, was astounding. As was Charlie Daniels and his band – man, their version of ‘The Devil Went Down To Georgia’ was incendiary, Daniels himself on fiddle, he almost set it alight, went through at least two bows during the course of the song – magical stuff.

The biggest crowd response went to Paisley, this is the modern day Opry after all, but as a whole, this was some serious entertainment, something you just don’t see over here. We were taken backstage afterwards for a tour too, which is recommended if you’re after the history of the place. We headed back to HQ and sat out the back with a couple of beers to debrief – epic stuff indeed.

A good deal of the rest of our stay in Music City was spent exploring both East Nashville and The Gulch, an area just out of downtown that used to be an industrial hub, but which has now been gentrified and is home to craft breweries, artisan distilleries, quirky shops and a myriad music venues.

We stayed well clear of Broadway, Nashville’s equivalent of Bourbon and Beale, preferring instead the more downhome style East Nashville offers in spades. There ain’t no problem finding good eats in Nashville – The Pharmacy on the edge of EN laid down some serious gourmet burgers; Pomodoro some fine tapas (fancy mac ‘n’ cheese, good stuff); and Mas Tacos, man, you want good and quick Mexican in the mid-south, this is where you go. Most of these places have a daily happy hour too, good for cheap cocktails pre-dinner, along with any number of arty beers for a couple of bucks. I’m not much of a craft beer man myself, preferring a working man’s brew like Bud, Lone Star or Pabst (all basically as close to VB as I could get – I’m a classy guy), but when in Rome…

And of course, Nashville’s claim to culinary fame, hot chicken. And by hot, I mean spicy. As we head out on the last day, we stop in at Pepperfire, which is perhaps the most aptly named place we patronise all month. We decide it can’t be that hot and so get a serving of chicken tenders extra-hot, potato salad and beans on the side.

Big mistake – this was so hot, we couldn’t finish it. I tried hard, it tasted so good. But I feared permanent damage to my taste buds, and so had to leave some behind. Highly recommended, but note they don’t muck around with their spice levels – I’m still sweating.

Music venues, there’s a million of them. Just down from where we stay is the Five Points area, a five-way intersection stemming off Woodland Street which offers music in abundance. We have a beer at the Treehouse one night, no music, but we strike gold our final night in town.

The Basement East, a little further out from Five Points, looks like a bunker from the outside, but once through the doors, while it is a bit cavern-like, has the best sound I’ve heard all trip. We catch the last couple of songwriters showcasing their weekly spots (The Danberrys and another whose name I couldn’t catch), before the Sunday Post begins and it’s rock band time. We catch about five bands all up, for five dollars, few cold brews, not a band place.

From there, we stroll back Five-Pointsward and sidestep into The Five Spot. Now this place, with its sticky carpet, its dark back-alley ambience, its cheap beer and smoky beer garden, is my idea of heaven. The band playing the late slot are Heath Haynes and a rag-tag bunch of musos and they specialise in tonkin’ country/blues with a healthy appreciation for a rockabilly tangent – I’ve found my people.

We while away our last hours in Music City toe-tappin’ and Bud-drinkin’, reminiscing on all we’ve seen over the course of the past month. It wasn’t just cities, we road-tripped from New Orleans through Cajun country, followed the river up into Mississippi, stayed in Natchez, Jackson, Indianola, Clarksdale, and from Nashville headed to the Smokys for a few days prior to heading home. I can’t nominate a favourite place or part of the trip, but suffice to say, this was a pilgrimage, a savage journey to the heart of the American music. It was wild, it was free, it was untamed and loose and AMERICA. I’d recommend it to anyone.

American Deep South Vol. 3 – Memphis, Tennessee

[Published on the Rhythms magazine website, November 2015]

I’ll preface this piece by saying that because of a tight schedule, we only spent two days in Memphis, which I can tell you isn’t nearly enough time to delve into the incredible history this Tennessean city is custodian to.

The birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll and soul music, and the conduit through which most southern blues passed on its way north to places like Chicago, Memphis is ground zero, truly a musical mecca, and a city which wears that tag with pride upon its collective sleeve.

Beale Street

Basing ourselves out of the upmarket Madison Hotel in downtown (a rock ‘n’ roll haven in itself, having hosted a plethora of touring acts from Radiohead to the Chili Peppers and all in between), we used what little time we had to hit three Memphis-specific areas – BBQ, museums and Beale Street. As one should.

Beale Street is similar to New Orleans’ Bourbon in that it’s a party strip, lined with a myriad bars and restaurants, all boasting live music and cheap beer – no matter we were there mid-week, Beale Street caters for all comers, seven nights, 365.

Proceedings begin in the beer garden section of Kings Palace Café where a family band – three brothers and a sister on vocals – are encouraging all to write their requests on “the back of a twenty dollar bill” and drop it in the bucket. Then they play it, their repertoire is extensive, and although they lack punch on the quieter numbers, they cook on the faster tunes.

From there we head east, plastic go-cup in tow, and take a seat in the Blues Hall, which is the juke joint section of the Rum Boogie Café. Billed as the last juke on the street, the Hall is a long, narrow room that essentially is as it sounds. We catch the McDaniel Band (all dressed in white pants and red shirts), who lay down a blistering set of Chicago-influenced blues, much to the delight of those wanting to dance – good stuff.

We wind it down by stepping into the Rum Boogie proper and sit in the pavement section and watch it all go by as The Lucky Losers pedal their suave brand of soul/blues inside. Memphis’ NBA team, the Grizzlies, have a game just around the corner at the FedEx Forum, and so foot traffic swells at around ten in the evening before tapering off leaving just the mid-week revelers. Good for people watching.

Earlier that evening, it’d been all about BBQ. Memphis is renowned for it, and acting on a hot tip, we headed down to Central BBQ for dinner, an easy stroll down Sth Main Street. This place is an institution, has won a slew of awards, and it’s easy to see why. We dig on the pork plate, potato salad and slaw, green beans and big cans of Pabst. It’s divine and I wish I had more stomachs so I could go back again and again.

Still on food, and food other than BBQ, our first night in town we were hosted at Eighty3, the restaurant attached to the Madison. I feel I must apologise to executive chef Max Hussey, who I’d met in the lobby earlier in the day, because by this stage of our trip, all I wanted was something simple and familiar and so I ordered steak frites. Most unadventurous.

The food was great though – the restaurant’s signature skillet cornbread, probably the best scallops I’ve ever eaten, a 12 ounce prime ribeye and, on the advice of the chef, deep-fried Oreo cookies and cream to finish it up. The lady behind the bar accidentally poured someone else a Maker’s Mark which they didn’t want, so she slung it over my way. They know how to look after a weary journo at the Madison and Eighty3, no doubt.

Wednesday day, prior to our Beale Street sojourn, was all about museums, and two in particular – the Civil Rights Museum, which is housed in and around the infamous Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in 1968, and the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum off Beale.
The Civil Rights Museum, which essentially traces the history of the civil rights movement from the 17th century through to today, is hands down the most comprehensive and emotionally-charged museum I’ve ever been to. We were in there for three and a half hours and only covered a little over half, such is the depth it goes to, the history it covers.

It hits hard too, we left emotionally drained, the utter horror, fear and complete disregard for humanity reverberating in our minds – from slavery to segregation, Jim Crow, the Freedom Riders, marches to Selma and Montgomery, it’s incredible and more than a little sad. And yet there’s triumph in there too – the Civil Rights Museum covers it all, I will certainly be back to finish it off.

We head from there to Rock ‘n’ Soul, which by comparison seems lacklustre. It’s not, but perhaps don’t go and walk through straight after the Civil Rights. It does cover a lot of ground though, from the blues players heading north in the early part of the 20th century, the bustle of Beale Street at the time where players came to ‘make it’ (including Mr BB King), to the birth of soul and rock ‘n’ roll over at Sun Studios. It’s only a small museum, but it does a good job of keeping things precise, giving you a nice overview from which you can then explore in more depth by heading to Sun or Stax or one of the many other musical museums in town.

Speaking of the former, on our way out of town on the Thursday morning, we make the detour and stop in at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios, a little way out of downtown, along Union Avenue. Writing this a couple of weeks later, at the end of a five week trip through the deep south, I can say that Sun was my favourite place of all.

It looks like nothing, from the inside and out. A small, non-descript building with a little diner / gift shop in the front, a tiny museum upstairs and a recording studio out the back, it could just be some dive somewhere. It looks old, tired, bland, particularly the studio.

But it’s not. It throbs with an intensity. It positively shakes with history. It leaks it all over you.

I stand on the same black gaffa ‘x’ on the floor where Elvis stood when, in a desperate last-ditch effort to get Phillips’ attention, he started strumming Arthur Crudup’s ‘That’s Alright Mama’, in that fashion that essentially started rock ‘n’ roll. I see the cigar burn on the lower E key on the piano, from Jerry Lee Lewis’ cigar. There’s a giant photo on the wall of Elvis, Carl Perkins, Lewis and Johnny Cash, all in the studio at the same time, just hanging out. It happened just over there, on those nondescript plastic floor tiles, the same ones that Phillips laid himself.

The place is magic, pure magic.

And so our short stay in Memphis comes to an end. There’s so much more to see in a city that’s full to the brim with musical history, and I’ll definitely be back. If you’re in any way partial to basically any music whatsoever, then I suggest you do the same.

 

Samuel J. Fell stayed at the Madison Hotel courtesy of the Memphis Convention & Visitor’s Bureau and the Madison Hotel. He was hosted at Eighty3 by the Memphis C&VB and Eighty3. Passes to all museums were courtesy of the Memphis C&VB and the respective museums. Thanks to all organisations for their help and hospitality.

American Deep South Vol. 2 – New Orleans, Louisiana

[Published on the Rhythms magazine website, November 2015]

New Orleans is a city of stark juxtaposition. Home to the bawdy and loose French Quarter, where good-time bad behaviour is merely a part of the make up, step outside the European styled buildings aligning narrow streets, and you find neighbourhoods the complete antithesis.

Wide, flat roads and tired looking houses, run down cars and shops with boarded windows. It’s confronting in many respects, and seems like a different city from a different time, compared to the more gentrified areas scattered about the Big Easy, one of America’s most famous towns.

New Orleans has a pride in itself though, and not the big and loud pride you’ll find in Texas, but an understated pride. It’s a feeling in the air, unmistakable – the city has suffered its fair share of injustices, and yet its people soldier on, determined to keep living in a city known for living like no other.

We’re there for four nights, the first two spent in a room in a small house in the Faubourg Marigny district, slightly east of the Quarter, just over the Mississippi River from Algiers Point. It’s an ‘up and coming area’, home to a growing population of bohemians and artists and amongst the auto shops and fast food joints, we find organic supermarkets, yoga studios and the booming St. Roch Market, a small building boasting a myriad artisan food stalls and bars. We’re there for lunch one day, I have the BBQ’d pork belly Po’ Boy, an upscale version of a Louisiana classic.

We’re only a five minute walk from the top of Frenchmen Street, and this is where New Orleans comes into its own. Just outside the Quarter, Frenchmen’s, in comparison to Bourbon Street, is a strip lined with bar upon bar where the focus is squarely on the music, as opposed to the drink. Sure, in any bar on Frenchmen you can tip your beer into a plastic go-cup and wander down to the next joint as you can on Bourbon, but the crowd here is a music crowd and so while loud and loose, it’s fun and friendly, conducive to good times, good music, good people.

We stop in at The Spotted Cat and watch Andy Forest blow some harp in between sips from a large cup of Maker’s Mark. We stroll south and sit outside Bamboulaswhere Chance Bushman’s Rhythm Stompers have everyone in thrall as they knock back five dollar margaritas. The band play a heady mix of rag-time blues and trad jazz, a fine way to ease into a Friday evening.

We wander further down Frenchmen onto Decatur Street, which leads into the Quarter proper, and find ourselves in the divey Aunt Tiki’s, a black hole of a bar open 24 hours a day, a clutch of regulars sitting down the front, dank and dark, a truly beautiful place where I feel completely at home, joking with the two bartenders (one of whom has had more to drink than I), sipping on Jack Daniels with Budweiser chasers, just soaking up a New Orleans Friday night.

We head back to Frenchmen’s at some point and end up at Café Negriland dig on the funk and soul of Higher Heights before calling it a night and heading home, marveling at a scene as alien as any we’d ever seen. It’s a street where you can spend a lot of time, and so we’re here the night after too, taking in as much music as possible, hopping from joint to joint, not a bad one among the lot – Frenchmen Street has a lot going for it, truly one of the best parts of New Orleans.

The French Quarter itself is indeed something to see. One of the most highly trafficked tourist spots in the world, it’s a place that never seems to stop. We wander through at around lunchtime and the place is heaving, people everywhere, most carrying a drink of some variety (whether merely a beer in a plastic cup, or a literal fishbowl of some questionable looking fluro liquid), the party atmosphere almost a physical being.

Bourbon in particular is happening, the smell of vomit and urine from the night before still very much on the nose, hawkers from the myriad bars on the pavement out the front, bands playing loud inside. We hurry through, not really our scene, and find refuge in Jackson Square in Louis Armstrong Park, just north of the action, where we can sit on the grass, read the plaques on the dozens of statues around the place, take it easy in a city where you get the feeling things don’t slow down, ever.

The second two nights in town, we stay at the Maison Dupuy on the northern edge of the Quarter. Built on the site of America’s first cotton press, it’s now a grand old dame of a hotel, a collection of five buildings grouped around a pool and courtyard, an old time opulence about it that makes it more endearing than high-end. We base ourselves there as we explore the rest of the Quarter, including the historic Voodoo MuseumCafé du Monde and the Hotel Monteleonewhich has a revolving carousel bar and serves up audacious cocktails and turns out to be a good spot to watch the more upscale Quarter clientele and watch the LSU game on the televisions about the wood-paneled room.

We spend our final day in town walking from the Quarter to the Garden district, over Canal Street and through the CBD, through the arty Warehouse district which opens up into one of the most genteel places in town, an area of big, old houses sitting on verdant grounds, ancient oak trees lining the pavement, their big old roots jutting through the concrete creating steps you have to navigate with care.

Many of the houses carry historic value, and it seems like we’re in another world, one that boasts an easy wealth, a long history and a casual attitude, tucked away from the grotesque action of the French Quarter, a quiet solitude. We wander through Lafayette Cemetery Number 1 too, soaking up the history and enjoying the serenity.

Our final night sees us at the rather impressive Royal Sonesta hotel on Bourbon, sitting in on The Tuxedo Jazz Band’s set at the Irvine Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse. These cats know their way around everything jazz, and despite the fact it’s a Monday night, they put their all into it, infusing it with a carefree and fun vibe that has the growing crowd getting into it, call and response, high-octane and velvet smooth. This is some real N’Awlins jazz, buy some real N’Awlins players, truly a solid set and a fantastic end to proceedings in The Big Easy, The Crescent City, N’Awlins, where the faint of heart fear to tread, and the rest of us stagger out, sated and full.

Speaking of full, it’d be remiss of me not to mention Gene’s Po’ Boys, where we stop on the way out of town. These are the real deal, giant sandwiches on French bread full to overflowing with roast beef, cheese and gravy. It’s a giant, sloppy mess and as I write this, around a month later, it’s still one of the best things I ate, hands down.

 

Samuel J. Fell stayed at the Maison Dupuy courtesy of the New Orleans Convention & Visitor’s Bureau and the Maison Dupuy. He was hosted at Irvine Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse by the New Orleans C&VB and the Royal Sonesta. Thanks to all organisations for their help and hospitality.

American Deep South Vol. 1 – Austin, Texas

[Published on the Rhythms magazine website, November 2015]

By way of explanation – until now, I’d never been to the States. I’ve grown up listening to the music that was born here, I’ve grown up listening to music inspired by same. But I’ve never actually been able to get over here to sample it for myself.

Of course, thanks to the strong festival scene at home, I’ve seen a myriad acts from the US who themselves grew up listening to, and playing, the music of America – blues, jazz, bluegrass and country – but getting to the source has been uppermost on my mind ever since I started working at Rhythms, back in the early 2000s, doing things behind the scenes for Brian Wise.

He’d come back from New Orleans’ Jazz Fest, Austin’s ACL festival, a host of others, with stories I could only dream of. I almost got it together enough to head over in 2006, but Hurricane Katrina happened, and so that opportunity passed on. Until now, when my wife Claire and I made it a priority, and so headed over for five weeks to get amongst it, so to speak.

As such, what follows in four installments, are my thoughts and experiences on the four major music cities in the American south, beginning with the Live Music Capital of the World, Austin, Texas.

***

Austin is a hell of a town. Hot and flat, it sprawls over a vast area towards the eastern border of the state, an hours flight west of Houston. For a long time, it’s been known as a place where you can find live music any night of the week, a place overflowing with country talent, dark and dingy honky tonks, Tex Mex food by the truckload, dusty cowboy boots Texas Two-Stepping around polished concrete dance floors.

Salt Lick BBQ

It’s also known for its BBQ, and of course, we’re not talking the kind of BBQ we know here at home – throw a steak and a few snags on the barbie – but the slow smoked kind of BBQ… ribs, brisket, pulled pork and chicken; add in some ‘slaw, potato salad and beans, and you’ve got yourself a hell of a meal.

Staying with family, who have been living in Austin for a year or so and who know where to look, we head to the Salt Lick BBQ, about half an hour out of town. It’s on a big property which also has a tired looking vineyard on it, has a huge outdoor area where one can sit and indulge while listening to some music, set up over in the corner. You get out of the car in the dusty parking lot and you get hit by the smell straight up.

We get a mixed platter – brisket done three ways, pork ribs, sausage. The potato salad and ‘slaw are expected and just added onto the side, along with huge chunks of soft, white bread. You sit down and they plonk big styrofoam cups of ice water down on the table, which you need, and big tubs of house BBQ sauce. It’s an experience.

The lean brisket I don’t really care for – you need the fat on there to really get the flavour. The ribs are great though, the beer is cold, and despite the fact the guy in the corner with the guitar is playing pop covers, it’s a place I’d definitely recommend.

A few days later, we head a bit further south to stay with some friends in Lockhart. To be honest, Lockhart isn’t a place I’d recommend visiting, there’s not a lot going on, but it’s a town that has two things going for it – Black’s BBQ, and Mario’s Tacos. Blacks is a non-descript building in the downtown area that smokes the best brisket you’ll ever have. I get around the brisket sandwich, and as I write this, four weeks later, it is indeed the best BBQ I’ve had all trip. Cheap too.

Stubbs Gospel Brunch

As for Mario’s, Mario is a tiny Mexican guy with silver teeth who operates out of a clapped out old truck parked in the lot next to the local servo. He doesn’t speak any English, doesn’t follow any hygiene rules, but what he does do is make the best breakfast taco you’ve ever had in your life, for a dollar twenty-five. They’re pretty small and I could have eaten three, but I had one and I can still remember the taste. The green spicy sauce as an accompaniment is a must – great stuff.

A couple of nights before this, we’d hit La Caribe, a genuine Tex Mex joint on the northern edge of Austin. It looks like a bunker from the outside, and the ambience inside leaves a bit to be desired (fluro lighting, neon beer signs adorning every available inch of wall space), but their food is top notch. They also have margaritas which have a reputation for being the strongest in Austin – their slogan is that you can’t send them back. The waitress even warns you of this as you order. We order anyway, a good time is had by all.

In Austin on a Sunday? Get yourself down to the StubbsGospel Breakfast. Stubbs is an institution in Austin, a legendary music venue, and on Sunday mornings (you need to book), they host a massive buffet breakfast, while a top shelf gospel band hits top gear on the stage downstairs. I fill my plate with bacon, catfish, brisket and beans and tap my feet to the tunes channeling up the stairs. Unlimited coffee refills wash it all down – this is a must do.

As far as the music itself goes, we sample the gamut. I head down to Zilker Park for the second weekend of the Austin City Limits Festival (which you can read about here), three days I barely survive, mainly because of the heat – autumn hasn’t yet arrived in Texas. The absolute highlight for me however, came on our second night in town, courtesy of the world famous Broken Spoke.

The Spoke is a genuine tonk. It used to stand on its own on the outer edge of town, but as Austin has grown, at the whim of developers, it’s now sandwiched between two giant apartment blocks on South Lamar Boulevard, which is a shame, but which hasn’t done a damn thing to dilute its ethos, its appeal, its downright authenticity. It looks like it’ll fall down at any second, it smells odd and it’s grotty as hell, but it is one of the best music venues I’ve ever been to in my life.

We head in early to take advantage of the Texas Two-Step lesson, which runs for an hour and is hosted by a rough-as-guts Texan woman who ain’t taking no shit, but who guides us novices through our paces, and after an hour, we’re steppin’ around like we’ve been doing it for years (slight exaggeration). That done, Austin legend James Hand gets up with his band and the dancefloor is swamped. They play real country music, yee-haw, and the packed house loves it. This is just a downhome, red-dirt kinda place, an institution, the ‘last true dance hall in Texas’, a must for anyone with even a passing love of anything remotely linked to the Lone Star State.

Also recommended is the Continental Club on South Congress (a great little strip with a stack of restaurants, cafes, vintage stores and clubs), which plays anything from country to rock ‘n’ roll and everything in between. We catch a young band as we wander through one night, their name escapes me, but I’m reliably told by the guy on the door, that the old guy sitting in with them is a Grammy-winning pedal steel guitarist, who’s name I don’t catch. He’s good. The young guys, not so much.

Over at ABGBs (Austin Beer Garden Brewery), we sip on a myriad of their homemade brews and catch a set from a local band called Girl Pilot, who infuse a good dose of well-written pop music into the country mold, a trio who I imagine would slay it on Triple J. Good stuff, something a little different.

A mate of mine, CR Humphrey of Old Gray Mule fame, who lives down in Lockhart, takes us out one night (including to La Caribe), and we end up at King Bees on the rough east side of town (best not to walk around there by yourself after dark…), where we catch about half of The Little Jimmy Reed Band, who take a few songs to warm up but then settle in to a blistering set of Chicago-influenced blues. It’s good and loud, the Lone Star beer is two dollars and all is well. Austin is a fine town, you certainly need more than a week or so to fully explore…

The Broken Spoke

[Published in The Saturday Paper, February 20/2016]

Two-Step Program

Everything is bigger in Texas, from the hats and trucks, to the stories and steaks. But nothing is bigger than the legend of The Broken Spoke, the last of the true Texas dance halls, writes Samuel J. Fell.

She’s only about five foot tall, but Terri White isn’t one to be trifled with. She stands in the middle of the polished concrete dancefloor, in the large back room of legendary Austin honky tonk The Broken Spoke, hands on her hips and through narrowed eyes, looks at us all.

The men, around twenty of us, are lined up down one side, female partners opposite on the other. White is barking orders, tells the women to step right. My wife, Claire, accidentally steps left, the only one to do so, like in a Three Stooges film. White’s eyes narrow further. “You’re going to be my troublemaker, aren’t you,” she says to Claire, who turns bright red and tries not to laugh.

White has been teaching novices like us the Texas Two-Step for years. It’s a southern tradition, and people travel from miles around to learn from the little master, who four nights a week bullies and cajoles, snaps at and occasionally encourages any and all willing to slide their two left feet across the floor.

The lesson runs for an hour or so, the house band providing the music, the dancers themselves the entertainment – for a seasoned Two-Stepper, it can’t be a pretty sight.

After an hour or so however, White has us more or less Two-Stepping under our own steam; her job is done, and so the billed band – Austin mainstay James Hand – step up and start their set, and from the low-lit areas surrounding the floor, the regular crowd materialise, the locals who know the Step, who specifically come out to the Spoke on a Friday night to dance. A lot of them are good, really good.

Texas has a reputation around the world as being a rough, gruff, outdoorsy kind of place, where men are men and don’t mess with us. Which makes it all the more fascinating watching these rough, gruff types gliding expertly around the dancefloor – it quickly becomes apparent that this is a normal Friday night out for them, time spent in a true dance hall where the gents ask the ladies to dance, a few beers are put away and a damn fine time is had by all. It’s enchanting in a way, a glimpse of that fabled southern hospitality, where being a gentleman is key, and dancing isn’t a dirty word.

This year, the Spoke celebrates its fifty-first anniversary. Opened in 1964 by James White, Terri’s father, it’s now an institution, the “last of the true Texas dance halls”. From the outside it looks to be on its last legs, leaning slightly to the left, a relic from a bygone era. Inside, holes in the low ceiling have been patched with bits of wood or tin, nailed on, a quick patch job. It smells a little odd too, a mixture of stale beer, fried meat and Texas sweat.

But it’s the real thing, a genuine tonk toward the outer edge of Austin on Sth Lamar Boulevard, the big through road that runs straight and true down to the river and across to downtown. Virtually nothing has changed since the early days when Willie Nelson would perform, prior to becoming famous, when Bob Wills would drop in for chicken-fried steak, when Dolly Parton, Roy Acuff and George Strait would turn up to either play or just listen – such is the lure of the Spoke.

It used to be outside the city limits, but as Austin’s population has swelled, the developers have swooped in and so it’s now sandwiched between two high-rise apartment blocks, its low-set build and dusty parking lot in stark contrast to its surrounds. Which is part of its appeal – no matter how steady the march of progress, the Spoke has remained as it began, a getaway from the pressures and realities of life, a little shack where you can dance, drink and have a good ol’ time.

Having spent an hour sliding around the polished concrete, I’m in need of some respite and so head out the front where I find a quiet spot in the carpark amongst the dusty pick-up trucks to roll a smoke and generally soak in the old country ambience. It’s around this time that Tom the Texan walks up to me, tells me he’s lost his smokes and can he bot one of mine. Fine with me, I tell him. He rolls a skinny one quickly, no filter, sticks it between his lips and pulls a box of matches from his pocket.

Tom the Texan is at least six and a half feet tall, bull neck, big hat and a hanging gut. He leans back against the hood of the closest truck and gets to talking. Tells me he works for the Texas something-or-other, I don’t quite catch it, but he emphasises his narrative by pulling out from under his shirt a large gold badge on black leather, hanging from his neck like some sort of ominous good luck charm.

Turns out Tom the Texan is a bodyguard of some sort, in town in this instance looking after one of the bigger acts playing the Austin City Limits music festival, down by the river at Zilker Park. He tells me it’s his night off, hence the visit to the Spoke, somewhere he comes whenever he’s in town, but he won’t tell me which artist he’s charged with. Later on I look at the festival program and figure it’s either Deadmau5 or Drake, The Weekend or Florence & The Machine.

He tells me he worked for eight years for an Iranian businessman who owned a couple of clubs up in Dallas, and that he looked after one of the cast of Jersey Shore when he came to Texas. “I thought, don’t bring that Yankee down here,” Tom says, “but he was all right. You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.”

He finishes his smoke and shakes my hand, tells me to call him Tom and that his close friends call him TFT. “Trick Fuckin’ Tom,” he elaborates with a big laugh. I’m not sure if that’s because he’s a tricky fella, or because he’s partial to ladies of the evening, but he’s off into the bar before I can ask, leaving me by myself to wonder in silence.

Back inside, owner James White has jumped up on stage and is singing with the band. He’s decked out in cowboy bling – ten-gallon hat, shining belt buckle, outrageous red western shirt, what look like snake-skin boots. White used to be in the army, but is now living the honky tonk dream. Word is he writes a mean country song to boot, loves to get up with the band to sing.

I shake his hand as we leave, a little later on, tell him we came a long way to be here. His hands are surprisingly soft for one who looks like they’ve done it all. He has a twinkle in his eye, you can tell he likes hearing how far people have come to see his place.

We walk out the front into the carpark and order an Uber, which seems far more in step with the towering, gleaming apartment blocks on either side of us than where we’ve just come from. Testament to its history and derelict elegance though, that the Spoke is still standing. Albeit with a slight lean.