Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Drinks in A Vizinha, Lisbon

Posted 06 May 2012 — by Jonathan
Category General, Travel

I like the jumble of things in Lisbon. Nothing really matches. The old and the new sit adjacent; ornate tiles are juxtoposed with scrawled grafitti,  dark winding alleys are half lit by sunlight, and totally different areas sit side by side, impatiently resisting easy navigability with map-defying, cascading hills. Even in the smallest spaces the contrasts are evident; record shops which sell books and jewellery; little clothes boutiques selling two-euro, pint-sized cocktails, and arty cafes are filled with mismatched furniture. It’s a city of real informality – people look great but their outfits look instinctive not considered. On Liberation Eve, one of the biggest nights out of the year, we saw precisely one party dress.

In Bica, we stumbled into a tiny whole-food shop and cafe, A Vizinha, still open at 10pm on a Thursday night. A few chairs and tables were assembled at the front of the store, where little groups sat chatting over bottles of wine. We mooched in and ordered small beers, unfolding local freesheets and collapsing onto a little sofa which looked out over our fellow drinkers. The mood could not have been more inviting or welcoming, yet everyone talked quietly, undemonstratively, drinking slowly, taking their time. It was as intimate as any English pub and at the same time utterly different. We sat with our drinks, with the walls lined with tins of sardine pâté, gluten free pasta and tofu. It being only 10.30, no-one was really out yet, so our drink was peaceful and quick – it was perhaps the gentlest, most comfortable thirty minutes of our week away.

There are a million lovely places in Lisbon, so recommending one over another is almost counter-productive; but if you’re in Lisbon and fancy a sit-down, this place is lovely.

A Vizinha, Rua da Bica de Duarte Belo, nº14, Lisbon, Portugal

Records in Libson #1: Louie Louie

Posted 30 Apr 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Travel

A classic independent record shop in the heart of Chiado, Louie Louie is an old school, vinyl-heavy record shop. It reminds me of indie shops in London during the 1990s, before the craze for recommendations, listening posts and detailed categories kicked in. Louie Louie stocks plenty of decent contemporary vinyl from the UK and USA, but it’s notable for a decent stock of portuguese indie and traditional fado, as well as bins of soul, world and latin releases.

We stumbled in late on Thursday afternoon and I immediately began planning purchases, fingering my much-diminished envelope of euros. I’ve yet to to tire of discovering record shops; their importance to me throughout my life has been such a reassuring constant that I quickly feel at home whenever there are records to leaf through – writing this I can hear the dull thud of cardboard sleeves thudding against each other as I browse, or the light click-clack of plastic hitting plastic as I flick through shelves of CDs. Posters on the wall, free magazines on the sides, and the high counter, usually pock-marked with stickers. Louie Louie fits exactly into my mental vision of what a record shop represents, and as such I recommend it highly, should you get the chance to go.

(For more esoteric and expermintal music, try MateriaPrima, on Rua Da Rosa, or for a picturesque and old-fashioned traditional fado store in the Baixa, try Discoteca Amália on Rua Áurea – both of which I’ll blog about presently).

Louie Louie, Chiado, Lisbon

Louie Louie
Rua Nova da Trindade – 8-A (ao Chiado)
Lisbon, Lisbon Portugal

Pasteis de Nata in Belém, Lisbon.

Posted 29 Apr 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Observations, Travel

The quite beautiful Fabrica de Pasteis de Belém is justly famous as the most picturesque dining destination in the busy, imperial suburb of Belém, just a few kilometres west of Lisbon. It’s impossible to visit the town – which was the launching post for Vasco de Gama when he made the first sea-voyage from Europe to India back in 1497 – without noticing, amongst the open spaces, modern art galleries and intricate palaces, this ornate, bustling little bakery and cafeteria. But it’s also hard not to wonder if, somewhere down the line, this achingly authentic establishment (which is famous for it’s delicious, sweet pastries) lost its purpose, and began to exclusively serve the tourist community rather than the locals. When we arrived, on a cloudy weekday afternoon in late-April, the queue stretched down the road and spoke in many languages.

Happily, we’d already been tipped off that a visit to the nearby Pasteleria Chique de Belém would be just as fruitful – the Pastel de Nata they sell are not served in such picturesque surroundings, but they’re every bit as fresh and had a determinedly sugar-agnostic diner like me marvelling over the complimentary textures; the warm, sweet custard filling and the incredibly light, flaky crust. Really amazing – if you get the chance to visit Belém, be advised that you’d be stupid not to try some. (Not being me, of course, with my quaint reluctance to eat chocolate, cake, pastries or ice-cream, not trying a Pastel de Nata in the town that invented them, would probably never occur to you. Anyway.)


Pasteleria Chique de Belém, Rua Junqueira 524, Belém. (Right by the Belém tram stop – get the 15 Tram from central Libson)

Illustrated Reykjavik

Posted 05 Jan 2012 — by Jonathan
Category General, Travel

A quick aside for the visually curious; I have a huge affection for hand-drawn maps, and this illustrated, easy to navigate map of Reykjavik is absolutely lovely. As if I didn’t want to go to Iceland’s capital city enough! This is a lovely bit of illustration. Do click through.



The peaceful Vosges

Posted 02 Jun 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Observations, Photos, Share, Travel

While we were in Alsace earlier this month, Anne-Sophie took us up into the Vosges mountains, where we spent a few hours clambering through a series of impeccably preserved, incredibly interesting, World War One trenches. It was quite an experience, although one that seemed to spark in all of us – except perhaps Anne So – a vague feeling that there was something important missing from our individual knowledge about the events of the Great War, or just a dissonance so huge between our lives and those lost then that punctured a hole in our capacity to imagine what it must have been like to have been living and fighting on the Front. We tend, here in Great Britain, to see the wars from a very British perspective, and unless my lack of awareness is atypical, we have a far more realistic sense of the travails of the Second World War than we do the first. We speculated, walking around, that much of people our age’s visualization of war in that environment comes not from books, nor even films, but rather from video games – although I’ve never played a war video game in my life, so I guess that’s not the case for me.

What did I feel? Mostly I think I just felt a sense of serenity, inspired by the stunning views and pin-perfect temperature, and a kind of placid fascination, which manifested itself in the kind of self-indulgent over-intellectualization you’ll find in these paragraphs. We talked a lot about how it must have felt, without really understanding. But once or twice, down in the cool dark chamber of a trench, I felt a glimmer of panic, a sense of the immensity of what was faced in that place. I need to read more about it. At times we stood at points where the French and German trenches were a matter of 20, 30 metres apart – a stunning contraction of distance in a vast landscape. Then, seeing a branch shiver in the wind or hearing the snapping of undergrowth, you could get something of that claustrophobic closeness – the notion of your enemy appearing suddenly before you.

Mostly we talked, paradoxically, about the near-century that has passed since. We speculated – in an uninformed kind of way – about how the forest would have slowly been repopulated with trees, about wildlife timidly returning to a landscape pockmarked with the echoes of gunfire. The incredible thought of a century of near-peace in a mostly unchanging landscape is quite something. It made us wonder, actually, if there might not be some potential in a book which was called something like ‘A Natural History of War in the Twentieth Century’ – a study of the impact of conflict on the natural world, on flora and fauna. Oddly I can’t find anything online that does that. We spent a lot of the weekend, actually, talking about bats, frogs, butterflies, the sound of cicadas. On the way down the mountain we passed a stationary deer, and it was – unsurprisingly – quite magical. We drove past and it stood alert in a pose which was simultaneously full of movement and perfectly still. Unmoving, and yet taut with the expectation of flight.

Here are a few photos from the afternoon.

Drinking in Strasbourg

Posted 25 May 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Observations, Photos, Travel

This Sunday afternoon, I sat outside the lovely Berthom bar, in central Strasbourg, with my friends Vic, Alec, Ant, Anne-Sophie and Rich. We actually stumbled upon the bar about eight months ago and immediately fell in love with it; the stylish font on the sign, the dazzling menu of beers, the dark alcoves and friendly waiting staff. This time, barely recovered from clambering breathlessly up hundreds of steps (and 66 metres) to the viewing platform of Strasbourg Cathedral, we collapsed gratefully into our seats and ordered:

A Maredsous 6 Blonde and a Bel Pils, for me. The former a very refreshing Belgian beer, slightly sweet and dry, with a nice, burnt, orange colour, the latter a plain but hugely drinkable pilsener from the Duvel stable.

A Faro Lindemans and another Maredsous 6 Blonde for Vic, who (rightly) found the former – a Belgian Lambic beer – unbearably syrupy, although it also had a counterbalancing (but not very pleasant) sourness, too. The latter, as mentioned above, made up for the ordering faux-pas.

A couple of strong beers for Ant; I forget what the first was, but it was a heavy, dark, bitter concoction (and very nice for it). The second was the dark variety of the first beer I had – a Maredsous 8 Brune which was lovely – malty, thick, and laced with something spicy. Both these beers were 8% ABV and upwards. Brills.

A very sweet, light, fruity Pêcheresse for Anne-Sophie, which came – like all the beers at Berthom – with a really beautiful label. And I can’t recall exactly which beers Alec and Rich had, but I recall a very pale Vedett Extra White sat on the table, and also another brune, so thick and dry it was essentially stout. There may have been more.

Given false confidence by all this booze, we took these (very transparent) photographs of a guy we liked the look of. He totally knew.

Fish market, Marseille

Posted 26 Mar 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Observations, Photos, Travel

Nothing in Marseille was a disappointment, in that the city was everything I expected and a bit more – a bit more relaxed, a bit friendlier, a bit hipper, a bit more beautiful. But I did expect something from the daily market – held down at Vieux Port each morning – which it didn’t quite deliver. But it was nothing more than size; and the fact that it was smaller than anticipated – just a row of perhaps ten stalls set against the waterside – didn’t in any way reduce the amount of colour or life. Indeed, with most stalls stocking a still-wriggling haul, life was in no shortage.

The fish themselves were a wonderful variety of colours, and magnificently ugly. We seem to be obsessed with eating beautiful fish in the UK – Waitrose’s fish counter is a measured display of smooth, silver scaled treats. Here in Marseille, I discovered, they draw little distinction between the perfect, shimmering form of a sardine and a wonderful series of red, blotchy, lumpy, out of proportion little fellers – heads bigger than their bodies, fins apparently replaced with malformed little wings, twisted at the edges like loose leaves of lollo rosso.

The nicest sight of all was the fisherman, unloading fresh catches and untangling nets. The most compelling the fish surgery; heads getting roughly seperated from bodies on blood-stained plastic trays. Seagulls – lacking the rude manners of Brighton’s flock – waited patiently for the remains to be discarded into the water.

Rapping, Cours Julien

Posted 21 Mar 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Observations, Travel, Video

Cours Julien is a wonderful artisan quarter in the 6th arrondissement of Marseilles; a bustling square full of cafes, bars and boutiques backed by a series of graffiti-covered streets which boast a treasure trove of bric-a-brac shops, record stores, and a sequence of restaurants specializing in just about cuisine you could name. I’ve tons of photos to share, but in the meantime this video speaks volumes for the spirit of the place. Set up in the middle of the square, on Saturday afternoon, amidst dozens of happy hipsters, trendy dads and insouciant teens, was a guy with portable piano. At one point, two kids stepped up and shyly took a microphone each – and summoned up the following collaboration.

First day in Marseilles

Posted 21 Mar 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Observations, Photos, Share, Travel

“You know”, I said to Lyndsey on Saturday afternoon, sat on the beach at Catalans, just along the coast from central Marseilles, “if I miraculously earn myself a decent pay rise at some point in the next few years, I’m not going to spend a penny of it on improving my day-to-day life. No upscaling the flat and paying more rent. No wardrobe renovation. No splurges at Resident Records. I’m not going to change a thing EXCEPT that I’ll use whatever the raise brings in to fund a sequence of citybreaks through the year”.

Could there be a better way of spending that money, after all? I think we all spend far too much of our time weighed down by domestic concerns, and where once I could put emotional distance between a week and a weekend, too often now I find one bleeding into another. A weekend away does wonders. Not just geographical distance but pyschological space.

We decided to go away for two nights quite late last week, and I’m very glad we did.

And glad we chose Marseilles, too. One doesn’t automatically equate the month of March with Mediterranean sun, so although the forecast was good I hesitated before plumping for a weekend in France’s southernmost city. But actually the weather was great, and Marseilles – so often characterised as Paris’s unruly, chaotic little brother – was simultaneously sumptuously beautiful and thrillingly edgy.

Our plane touched down around midday on Friday; and Marseilles airport is a funny little place. It’s not exactly tinpot, for it’s a major hub, but it’s all exposed wires and undecorated walls; steel barriers and customs sheds. The bus into the city immediately demonstrated that for all that Marseilles is a Mediterranean city, Southern France is a great deal more verdant than Spain or Portugal.

Yet the city itself is resplendently decked out in the colours of the Med; eggshell white, olive, mustard, cornflower and terracotta. It is immediately rather scruffier than Paris, and walking down from the Gare Saint-Charles it was hard not to notice – with not the least bit of discomfort – how few pink-white faces there were. Outside coffee shops and tea-houses groups of men sat pulling at cigarettes and tiny coffees, dressed in the uniforms of arab Marseilles; a moustache and a Fez for those over 40, a tracksuit for younger generations.

Turning down to Vieux-Port, all begins to change – the buildings smarten up and more and more white faces appear – but the general feel of Marseilles is integrated rather than segregated; it’s a lively city, ethnically, with huge numbers of Italians, Armenians, Algerians and Tunisians. Like most ports, it feels like a working city (despite the fact that it boasts the country’s highest unemployment), and we spent three days pretty much without hearing another English accent. The odd surly waitor aside – of course – I found the whole place exceptionally welcoming; blunter, warmer and a great deal more laidback than Paris.

Having traversed the Port, with its fleet of lovely white-sailed fishing boats, and wandered up into the stunningly picturesque streets of Le Panier – the historic district North of the harbour which Hitler dynamited, having declared it “a mass of criminals, under-humans and saboteurs” – we sat out on the balcony at La Caravelle (34 Quai du Port, 13002 Marseilles), a small bar at Hôtel de Ville: one of the few buildings in the area which – happily – Hitler spared. I knocked back a couple of small, strong lagers and nibbled on delicious olives while Lyndsey merrily embarked on a run of mohitos which would eventually take us from bar to bar and decimate our plans for an early start to our Saturday.

In Bar Marengo (21 Rue Saint Saëns, 13001 Marseille), an unadorned bar where little distraction is provided from the serious business of drinking, we topped up our glasses and tried out our French on the incredibly friendly barman. Lyndsey started each sentence hesitantly (“Bonsoir. Je voudrais une pression et un mohito”) before transitioning seamlessly into flirtatious Spanish.

Around the corner, in Polikarpov (24 Cours Honoré d’Estienne d’Orves, 13001 Marseilles) the bar-staff forgot to charge us for cocktails and danced heedlessly around to the Talking Heads (“realisant mon espoir / je me lance, vers la gloire”) while we held our empty glasses out towards them, pleadingly. Somewhere along the way we had decided it was too late to eat and simply resolved to order more cocktails.

Je suis retourné

Posted 20 Mar 2011 — by Jonathan
Category Photos, Travel

I’m back in Brighton after a couple of pretty wonderful days in Marseilles; me and my girlfriend decided a last minute city break was in order, both as a celebration of my having resolved a precarious job situation, and in order to recharge our batteries with a bit of sun. Sun in March is, of course, hard to secure – but Marseilles, a fantastically vibrant city on the edge on France’s Mediterranean coast, provided it in spades; so we spent two days walking, eating, drinking, and basking as the Mistral – a cool wind which rushes down from the Southern Alps – met the heat at Vieux Port, a gloriously serene harbour which is right at the centre of the city.

There was plenty more than just the port, of course – but for now here it is; as nice a focal point for a city as any I’ve yet encountered.

Studying in the clouds

Posted 13 Nov 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Photos, Travel

Kids wander round these campuses barely looking at the mountains surrounding them. I guess they get so used to them. I can’t. I nearly bumped into about four people walking round the campuses, head (almost literally) in the clouds. If it wasn’t so cold here, I might refuse to leave.

University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

Music in SLC: Slowtrain & The American Shakes

Posted 13 Nov 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Travel

Salt Lake seems to have a really friendly music scene. On Sunday afternoon I sat in a cafe downtown -adjoined to the quite wonderful Sam Weller Books – and logged on to the internet, wondering if I’d find a local indie record shop. My hopes weren’t especially high – I remember trying the same thing without success in both Atlanta and San Jose – but I swiftly located Slowtrain Records, which looked pretty cool and which was, conveniently, just round the corner from where I was sitting.

Downtown areas in the US often seem to me to be rather peculiar places: they share with British city centers a concentration of hotels, banks, restaurants and conference centers. But shops are hard to find, often cast out to shopping malls outside the Downtown area, or else located where you’d least expect them. Despite it’s Downtown location, Slowtrain is sat right at the end of a thoroughly suburban seeming parade of stores off to the right of the city centre. If I hadn’t known it was there, I would have stopped walking and turned back. But it was there, of course – and what a find.

Slowtrain has operated out of SLC since 2006 and little wonder it’s a success – it’s a classic independent record shop, with a great section for staff recommendations, a bunch of featured local acts (and an in-house record label) and a sizable selection of decent indie vinyl (with a nice line in heavyweight reissues). Having looked around for a few minutes, I approached the girl behind the counter and asked if she had any tips for local gigs and bars. She was really helpful, highlighting at least a show a night for every day that I’m in the city, plus a couple of good places to get a beer. What’s more, she suggested I come back that same evening for an instore and album release party by a local band, The American Shakes.

I returned at seven, to find a charmingly decked-out basement below the shop with a little stage and three rows of classroom chairs, and a bunch of locals milling around, laughing and talking.

The American Shakes are the project of singer-songwriter Brent Dreiling, with friends and other SLC scene luminaries backing him up (aren’t you always disappointed when bands turn out to be projects, rather than real bands?), something occasionally apparent when he dictates tempo to his bandmates rather than leaving it to the drummer. But their sound is integrated and full, not the weak complimentary backup that band-leaders often seem to either insist on or end up with.

Musically, they were pretty great, their sound a combination of countrified indie, bar-band rock and, most interestingly – if subtly – 60s psych, recalling at times a double-denim twist on The Zombies or the more melodic end of Nuggets-era garage. Bassist Jake Fish’ instinctive, melodic playing and some terrific pedal steel guitar playing prove real highlights.

The least convincing aspect of their performance, counter-intuitively, is Dreiling’s occasionally weak vocal projection. His voice isn’t without it’s charms – far from it – particularly on the more measured numbers, but lifting it above the fray sometimes proves difficult.

Nevertheless, it’s a show that I greatly enjoy, and I’m left with the impression that Salt Lake is probably a pretty great place to be in a band – it’s on the national circuit (Kate Nash, Ghostface Killah and The Hold Steady all play the city this week), centered round a cool record store, and seemingly pretty friendly and self-supporting, too. I’ve not, sadly, found time for another show since I’ve been here, but with luck I’ll manage one more before the weekend.

You can listen to – and buy – The American Shakes’ debut LP, Begin, here, and follow Slowtrain on twitter here should you wish to be plugged in to what’s happening in SLC.

Here’s a recording I made of the band – hope they won’t mind me sharing. This song’s called ‘Tucson, AZ’.

[nb - a few days later I picked up a copy of their LP (on limited vinyl with a free CD) and it's great. Hope these guys make it over to England at some point.]

On Salt Lake City

Posted 12 Nov 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Observations, Share, Travel

I like arriving in cities in darkness. My plane touched down in Salt Lake City on Saturday evening, too late to see anything from the aeroplane window bar the anonymous smattering of lights that designate homes, roads, hotels; lights that could belong to any city in the world. In my taxi, the driver was at pains to reassure me, as we travelled the few short miles from SLC International to downtown, that I needn’t worry about the city’s conservative, Mormon background. A lot has changed round here lately, he says – it’s a modern, liberal city. (Later, I’ll discover that to cross a road in Salt Lake, you have to pluck an orange flag from a bucket on the sidewalk and charge out, waving it).

All around you, in the morning, he said, you’ll see the mountains. If I’d arrived a day later, actually, he’d have been wrong, so shrouded was the city at the start of the week with mist and snow, but on the morning after my arrival, Sunday, I sprang out of bed towards the window, and swept the heavy curtains back to see a sight that couldn’t be further removed from the gentle slope of the Sussex Downs I see from my bedroom window back in Brighton.

Salt Lake is not a big city. Like a lot of places in the US, it’s sprawling – wide and flat (but for the hotels, which rise up in the horizon, formulaic and ugly) – but it’s open and navigable, and necessarily limited in size by the mountains that surround it. It’s sat in a basin, around 4500 ft up – really high in the scheme of things and easily enough to feel more out of breath than normal after running to catch a tram – and squashed between two ranges. The Wasatch on the right hand side; a jagged run of enormous slate grey peaks, capped with snow, and the Oquirrh mountains on the left; lower, flatter, earth-brown. To see them towering over the city is really quite a sight.

There’s nothing conventionally beautiful about the Downtown area itself. Built by the Mormons, back when they saw it as the future epicentre of what would eventually be an all-conquering faith, it’s designed on a rigid grid system radiating out from the temple, with the roads so wide they seem to occupy roughly 50% of the surface area of the city. Most of the buildings are functional rather than extravagant, with many tipping over into the straightforwardly ugly.

But it’s evocative of a kind of America with which I feel somehow familiar, despite having never been anywhere like it before. It’s simultaneously the America of the Mountain West, on the edge of the Rockies, and a kind of window into everytown America, the America of the middle. It feels resolutely typical, ordinary, lacking the bustle and pace of places in the US I’ve been before. A look at the films shot here is quite instructive – mainstream, suburban stuff like Dumb and Dumber, High School Musical, the Halloween sequels. It’s not metropolitan, urbane, well-off. But nor is it rural, down-at-heel or impoverished. It’s everyday America, and a million miles from Europe.

Perhaps if I lived here I’d find it maddening, the closed-off-ness, the scale, but as a visitor, as someone who can’t help getting excited about his travels and the weird, amazing, wonderful differences from place to place – I absolutely love it here.

Here are some shots taken downtown, just off to the right of all the ugly hotel buildings.

Review; Lou Donaldson live in the Village

Posted 11 Nov 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Share, Travel

Wow, on my last night in New York City I did something I’ve meant to do for some time but never quite got round to, mainly because I’ve never quite known where to start, wanting to take in some proper NY jazz, but not wanting to do it in some aneasthetised tourist spot, paying an arm and a leg for the pleasure. Once or twice I’ve nearly gone to some heavily advertised jazz club, but never felt it was the right option. On Friday, having gone for a couple of drinks in the Village after work, I set off back towards my hotel at about eight o’clock, intent on giving up my last night for some well deserved rest – an early night.

Walking back towards where I thought the subway station was, I passed under a delapidated red awning. Glancing up I read the venue’s name. ‘The Village Vanguard’. It was a name I vaguely recognised, but I thought nothing more of it and kept walking. I must have walked another couple of hundred yards before I realised I was headed in the wrong direction. I turned around and retraced my steps. This time, as I passed the venue, I glanced absent-mindedly towards the doorway, and a sign stopped me in my tracks. Hand written in marker pen on a piece of white paper: Lou Donaldson.

I’m a long way from being a jazz specialist, but I know that name well. Donaldson is one of jazz’s greatest alto saxophonists. A student of Charlie Parker’s, his soulful, populist Blue Note jazz puts him up amongst the absolute masters of his art, even if fashion moved away from him (the good humoured octagenarian cheerfully derides ‘fusion and con-fusion’ from the stage). The opportunity to see him live, in exactly the sort of small, run-down, bohemian venue I always imagined hearing jazz was obviously too good to miss.

I opened the doors and went in, clambering down the stairway to a small, bustling room, carpeted in red with photos of jazz heroes covering the walls. Tickets were $30. I held out three notes and smiled excitedly at the guy on the door.

“Do you have a ticket?”, he asked. I shook my head. He shook his head. Damn.

But not all hope was lost; if I headed up to the awning, he explained, there was a reserve queue. If I waited there, they’d let me in in an hour if the place wasn’t full. Ugh. I headed upstairs. There were already eight or nine people stood at the awning. I weighed up my options, and stretched my fingers experimentally in the cold Manhatten air. It might be a long wait. I decided to stick it out.

About 40 minutes later, starving, very cold and desperate for the loo, I began feeling a bit negative about things – not least because a steady stream of people, clutching tickets, were heading through the door. The reserve queue was up to about 15 people. Suddenly, a man – broad shouldered and shaven-headed – veered towards me. I stepped back, hoping to avoid an exchange. He said something about a ticket. I wasn’t sure if I heard right. Happily, he repeated it.

“You want a free ticket buddy?”, he asked.

As the guy placed a ticket in my hand, explaining that someone he’d been supposed to be bringing had dropped out, I grinned and thanked him. To my right, someone said – in a tone of voice which suggested they weren’t entirely pleased for me – “you got lucky”.

I certainly did. Five minutes later I was sat downstairs watching Lou Donaldson and his band take to the strange. Donaldson is relatively frail, as one might expect of his advanced years, but his playing is just magnificent, and his range, tone and power is completely undiminished. He’s also a born entertainer, whipping the crowd up with jokes and anecdotes, every inch the performer. He brought a physical, crowd-pleasing quality to jazz which I don’t think I knew existed – this wasn’t cerebral, although it was undoubtedly complex. This paradox is, I think, what I get out of jazz. Compared to many of his peers, Donaldson is conservative by nature – he even has a pop at Miles Davis for ‘stopping playing jazz’ at one point, but it’s truly remarkable that within his populist boundaries he still creates sounds so dazzlingly inventive and unorthadox. On several occasions his playing reduced the audience to open-mouthed expressions of wonder. The applause he received after each solo was as warm as it was awed.

At the best moments, I think I captured something of the experience of jazz which I was craving – something rich, physical, incredibly harmonious and welcoming. Thank god I was given that ticket. On a few occasions I glanced over to the bar, where I spotted my benefactor. Of every person in the club, he seemed the most enthusiastic; dancing ecstatically on his bar stool and hollaring his approval. THANKS.

Here’s the last three or four minutes or so of Donaldson’s set – a nice rich recording too; my Zoom H1 always picks up brass instruments really well.

Jeff Lewis, Mosquito Mass Murderer

Posted 05 Nov 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Travel

Just seen the totally amazing Jeffrey Lewis play live at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe; more to come later, but couldn’t resist sharing a recording I made of his unexpected (but very charming) foray into rap; this is ‘Mosquito Mass Murderer’.

Jeff Lewis - Mosquito Mass Murderer (right click to download, or click to listen).

On the offchance that you’re reading this in New York, can I just recommend The Housing Works Bookstore as the most amazing place. Fantastic collection of books, lovely beer, great events (I watched the election results come in there on Wednesday too) and most importantly, it’s all for a great cause; an entirely voluntary business where all proceeds go to homeless men, women, and children living with HIV and AIDS in New York City and beyond.

Paris iPad drawing

Posted 05 Aug 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Drawings, Travel

Me and Ali went over to Paris to see Sam and Laura the other week; we had a truly lovely time and very much enjoyed the chance to charge enthusiastically around beside the Seine, in the Marais, and round Montmartre. The following drawing/collage was composed on my iPad on my return, comprising as it does a mixture of photos from the trip, tracings, freehand drawings and slops of virtual paint. Thanks so much, Sam and Laura, for hosting us!


For those interested in the details; the black and white background is a photo I took of frayed posters on a wall in Belleville; the colourful green overlay with a drawing of a dove is the wallpaper of a bar called La Barourq by the Quai de la Loire where we played boules. Laura is riding a velib just round the corner from the same place, and Sam is stood, drenched, by the Seine, where we’d just run through a sequence of fountains. The sign is from the Bellevilloise, a little theatre space where we saw a Burlesque show on Sunday afternoon. The boy, stood centre, was scribbling happily on a large blackboard down by the Seine on Saturday. There was a ukulele workshop in the same place. And the scribble to the left is an abstract sort of thing drawn over the orginal background, as is the protester above the map. The face right of centre is based on a stencil spotted on a wall in Montmartre. Anyone know who it is? Too handsome to be Camus.

A night out in Williamsburg

Posted 30 May 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Travel

On my first night back in New York earlier this month, I decided to try something outside Manhatten. In all the times I’ve been to New York I’ve managed to do a bunch of sightseeing, I’ve caught a series of pretty good gigs, but I’ve always stayed in the comfort zone of the areas I know. So I figured that I’d head over to Williamsburg and see Real Estate at Monster Island, supported by a bill of fellow New Jersey bands. I caught the L Train over the river and spent five minutes standing on Bedford Avenue trying to figure out which way to walk. It was already dark by the time I arrived, with rain steaming up my glasses and adding weight to my clothes. Bedford Avenue itself is just awesome; a lively, colourful thoroughfare with great cafes, bars, foodie hangouts and record stores. Turning south, and towards the East River, Brooklyn became quiet – I strolled through deserted streets, becoming slightly disconcerted by the remote route I was taking.

In the end, Monster Island was pretty hard to find. Essentially an unmarked, unsignposted basement in an old factory building down by the river, I only found it by anxiously circling the deserted looking building a couple of times ’til I spotted some kids so conspicuous in their hipster attire that they could only possibly be looking for the same place. They swanned up to a big metal door and strolled straight in. Feeling stupid – I’d walked past it a couple of times – I followed them in.

The venue was terrific; a sweaty, brick-lined bunker styled as a venue in only the most cursury of ways, it contained a bar which was essentially a plank of wood propped up on stool, a huge sofa so knackered that one collapsed to almost floor level when one fell back into it, and a little stage accompanied by an enormous, floor-rattling PA system, tonight playing nothing but antique African funk and psychedelic rock. Feeling slightly awkward for being on my own, but nevertheless excited to be in such a strange, intense little venue, I ordered a beer and waited patiently – and for quite some time – for the first band to come on.

Liam The Younger were dreadful at first; heavy, directionless garage rock for three or four minutes, then steadily better and better from that point on, to the point where I was grinning like a maniac by the end, my good humour compensating for me the sheer shock of the volume right up next to the speaker. The band, led by the pissy, prissy and titular Liam, played a purposeful, skilled and bad-tempered set of loose indie rock, somewhere between Bob Dylan and late Pavement. Between songs Liam stared annoyed at his bandmates, poured sarcastic scorn on the audience, and played some mesmerising songs. Very excited about this guy – he had that classic indie rock chip on the shoulder, cf Malkmus, but could really write and play. Great stuff.

Up next were two band who were impressive but nothing amazing. Big Trouble played noisy, dextrous dream pop, but they seemed to be intent on reproducing the early work of the young Boo Radleys; an odd choice, given they had the power to think bigger. I amused myself by working out which song from ‘Everything’s Alright Forever’ they were re-working on each track, and singing the original lyrics along loudly. Family Portrait, pictured below, were much better, but not my sort of thing at all – heavy surf-rock mixed with garage rock and pysch. Expertly performed, but I got rid of Nuggets box-set years ago.

Real Estate made up for it. Their music is wonderfully vivid; extremely pretty, harmonic, hypnotic compositions which I witnessed open mouthed through a sudden fog of pot smoke, the room shimmering and throbbing before me. Their trebly, tremulous guitars wash over everything, but their success is achieved by the shape and balance of their songs, which are actually driven by a really accomplished rhythm section – psychedelic indie with a lovely even keel. They’re capable, too, of really lovely turns of phrase, which always helps.

“Suburban dogs get afraid when it rains,
Suburban dogs bark at slow moving trains.
They’ll run from your house and come back the same day
Suburban dogs are in love with their chains”.

Show over, and a touch effected by the sequence of beers and the sweet, arid scent of the air, I stumbled out into Brooklyn and strolled euphorically through the streets, by now getting absolutely hammered with rain. Somehow, eventually, I found myself back on Bedford Avenue and soon after awoke, smiling, totally refreshed (but slightly mystified how I got back) in my hotel room, with Manhatten once more washed clean and sunny.

120 Hudson Street

Posted 04 May 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Photos, Travel

To fly or not to fly

Posted 20 Apr 2010 — by Jonathan
Category General, Travel

I sent an email to the Guardian earlier, as they’re proving perhaps the best source in terms of providing information pertaining to the volcano situation, and in terms of providing practical advice. I note that they’ve just posted my email up on the website, although offered no suggestions as yet.

Here’s what they printed.

Jonathan Shipley has a dilemma readers may be able to help with:

Another question for you, if I may. I’m another traveller stranded outside the uk; in NY as it happens, so it’s not been a terrible burden. But nevertheless I do need to get back and am very unsure what to do. My dilemma is that AA rescheduled me onto a flight back from Chicago first thing tomorrow am (weds) which I have no way of knowing will happen or not. (Flying into Heathrow). In order to make it, I’m booked onto a flight to Chicago this evening. My question is, do I complete that first leg of the flight? If I use it and the second leg doesn’t happen, will I find it harder rescheduling again? I’d rather be in NY than Chicago, as work has an office here, but I’ll be furious with myself if I stay here and then the Chicago flight leaves as planned tomorrow. Any advice? Bit of a tricky one, I know…

Anyone have any suggestions? Genuine question – I’m really not sure what to do.

Down in Dumbo

Posted 20 Apr 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Observations, Photos, Travel

All being well – in other words, assuming that the signs are tomorrow morning that there’s a fair to middling chance of flights restarting – tonight may be my last night in New York, and that fact didn’t really sink into ’til about 7 o’clock tonight when, gazing out of my hotel window, I realised I had perhaps an hour of light to get out and about in. Pretty much by a process of prior elimination (I’ve now ‘done’ – in the most elementary a fashion – most of NY), I picked a place I’ve never been and piled out of my hotel and onto the Subway.

The place I picked was Dumbo, the contained, art-loft dominated enclave just over the East River (the acronym stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), an area I plumped for because I dimly remembered it being a lively place for graffiti. As it happened, I didn’t see any, largely because as soon as I arrived I saw the enormous darkk buildings of Manhattan looming over the river and knew I had to rush North to take some photos of the skyline before the light went. I headed to the to the Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park, on the river bank.

It was truly magical – this small patch of green space takes you right down to the water’s edge, and I sat there, silently, listening to the trains buzzing past on the bridge above, and to the gentle pulse of the river washing up against the shore.

The sight was truly spectacular.