Friday, May 2, 2014

The Netherlands

Often, WHEN you visit a place is as important as WHERE you visit. Statues, fountains, buildings, and landmarks take on a different tone, and context during different seasons, or even times of day for that matter. Never was this so true as seeing Holland in the Spring. I had always thought that I had seen enough Springs to have a pretty good handle on what Spring was all about, but our recent trip to the Netherlands proved that I had ridiculously underestimated the potential of my favorite season.
This is not my first trip to the Netherlands but in the past we have stayed pretty much around Amsterdam, so this was an exciting opportunity to see some of the other areas that are as fascinating as they are beautiful.

The Sites

The first place that I need to mention is the town of Eersel, where we called home for our stay in the Netherlands. Eersel is a quaint little town in the Dutch countryside, with a cute downtown filled with really great restaurants. It is located in the southern part of the country, lying on the border with Belgium. Geographically it made an ideal spot because of it's central location we could find ourselves almost anywhere in Belgium or the Netherlands within a couple hour drive.
Abdij Postel
Another convenient spot just a short, 10 minute drive across the Belgian border is the town of Postel, where there is an amazing abbey that dates back to 1140 ad. The monks at Abdij Postel have learned a great deal about brewing beer over the last 900 years!

Taking a break in Breda
One of our first excursions in the Netherlands was to the city of Breda which was an excellent place to start. Unlike many of the other towns that we would visit that had very quaint, traditional marketplaces, Breda's Grote Market is a bustling shopping district filled with a wonderful array of boutiques and contemporary styles. Then, to take a break from shopping you can sit down in one of the fantastic cafés in their main square for a coffee, or a Belgian beer. At the edge of the square is Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady). Breda's lovely cathedral was built in 1547 and has recently undergone a 5 year renovation process and was reopened to the public in 2003. Because of these renovations, it does not exhibit the grit and grime that you would expect to see on a building that's nearing its 500th birthday, and instead looks clean and modern even (as modern as any cathedral can look) which really fits with the feel of the rest of Breda.

On the outskirts of Amsterdam, lost amidst the spectacular, multicolored tulip fields, lies a botanical garden like nothing else in the world. The Keukenhof Gardens are only open for two months out of the year and attract visitors from around the world.
All across the sprawling gardens are a menagerie of eye popping arrangements, generally featuring the world famous Dutch tulips. The colors are so vibrant that I half expected that the visual cortices in my brain would fry out and leave me living the remainder of my days in a world of black and white.
Aside from the stunning gardens there are four large facilities stuffed to overflowing astonishing flowers. A person can get lost for days browsing through the seemingly endless parade of color. And then there are the smells. The intoxicating bouquet of the Keukenhof is simply otherworldly.
Nothing that I have ever experienced gave me a fuller and more complete understanding of the arrival of Spring. If the Keukenhof is not on your life's "bucket list" put it there STAT.

Paleis het Loo
Another must see national garden is at the 16th Century palace, Paleis het Loo. Until the modern era Paleis het Loo served as the Royal Palace of House Van Oranje, the Dutch Royal Family. It is a spectacular reminder of the economic might of the Dutch merchant fleet going back hundreds of years.
Coffee and King Willem pasteries
The gardens of Paleis het Loo were resplendent with gloriously colored tulips and daisies. The garden's perfectly manicured hedges are the quintessential image of a European Palace.
It is also a good reminder of the recent change in the Royal Family. The beloved Queen Beatrix (Queen Bea) recently abdicated her throne to her son, King Willem and his wife, Queen Maxima. Long live the King!

Oude Kerk in Delft
One of the things that the Netherlands, for centuries, has been famous for is its fine porcelain called Delftware,  (with the distinctive blue markings) crafted by the artisans in the city Delft.
Sepulchral monument of Prince William of Orange
As you pass through Delft's central market, the narrow lanes of stores eventually open into the city's main square. The square's centerpiece is Nieuwe Kerk (New Church). Built between 1383 and 1510, the Nieuwe Kerk serves as the family vault of the Dutch Royal Family, the Van Oranje Nassau family. Beyond the vault lies the Royal Family's Sepulchral monument of Prince William of Orange.
The more adventurous travelers may want to climb the very narrow and steep spiraling staircase to the top of the Nieuwe Kerk's massive bell tower which was built over the course of a century between 1396 and 1496 and offers extraordinary views of the city... And one hell of a workout.
From Nieuwe Kerk and the main square, it's a short winding walk through more antique shops and cafés to reach the Oude Kerk (Old Church). While the Nieuwe Kerk is more for special occasions, the Oude Kerk is more of the everyday cathedral (if indeed there is such a thing). The places of honor in Oude Kerk are reserved for famous Dutch Mariners such as Petrus Heinius, and Marten Harpertzen Tromp.
Put all together, Delft is a photogenic, walkable, shoppers paradise, and has an amazing amount to offer tourists.

The Food

Part of the fun of exploring a city in Europe is walking around a major site, or through a museum, then sitting down at a café and having a snack plus a strong coffee or beer or wine. I would be remiss if I passed up any chance to order some bitterballen and a Belgian beer. If I had to describe the flavor of a bitterballen to someone I would say that the deep fried crust dipped in mustard might remind you of a corn dog, while the soft meat paste filling has a taste comparable to cream of mushroom soup.The combination is out of this world. Particularly when paired with one of the many outstanding beers from arguably the world's greatest brewing region.
The Abbeys throughout Belgium are nearing their first millennium of brewing and the craftsmanship if their beer shows. Here is a short list of some of our favorites:
1) Grimbergen blonde
2) Affligem
3) Postel tripel
4) La Trappe Tripel
5) Duvel

As far as dinner items go, spring is the season for the white asparagus that is farmed in this area. Not as strongly flavored as the common green asparagus that I'm used to seeing, the white is also much thicker, roughly the width of a wine cork and when covered with hard cooked egg and hollandaise sauce is capable of being a meal unto itself.
The other entree that I couldn't get enough of was the pork with satay sauce. The thick peanut sauce is a decadent compliment to the meat and a recipe that I have sworn to master this summer.

The Wheels

As that we rent a car everywhere we travel, I thought that it might be fun to include a review of each car. Mercedes CDI
Mercedes-Benz CDI
As Americans when we think of a Mercedes we the thought we conjure is of the uber elegant luxury imports for sale in the States. But Mercedes makes mid ranged cars as well, and are rather common in Europe. Far from a luxury sedan, the CDI was a fuel efficient station wagon with a diesel motor. It had a high MPG which saved us a lot when it came to the expensive cost of fuel in Europe. The diesel was not underpowered either, and ran at a pretty good clip down the Autobahn in Germany, with not a lot of torque but held good speed. But the car itself left quite a bit to be desired. One feature that took some getting used to was the motor turning off whenever the vehicle came to a stop, even though this was to conserve fuel, it was still kind of annoying. The stereo and navigation system were over complicated and poorly laid out, even once we got the language set to English (which was no small feat). And it was loud, not as in road noise but in all the little bings and boops of the warning lights and bells, including warnings for driving to long suggesting that you take a break. Adding to this effect was the periodic traffic updates that would cut in even if you were listening to something other than the radio, like a cd or iPod, the traffic updates would blare out (I realize that has nothing to do with Mercedes but it added to the overall feeling of the vehicle). Overall if say that it was a dependable enough vehicle that got good fuel economy but was filled with lots of annoying quirks in the cab.


I was so happy to get a chance to see more of the countryside in the Netherlands, I have spent time in Amsterdam before but could never say that I knew the country well as a whole. So this was an amazing experience for me.

Prince William of Orange

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Napa Valley, California

(photo by Ursa Davis)
Ah, California's legendary wine country had been on our to-do list for far too long, and we were excited to get it checked off. We had paired this trip with our trip to San Francisco, which gave us a week in the city to run run run, and followed it with a week in the more relaxing and tranquil country pace of Napa Valley.
We had rented a place just south of Sonoma, which was a cute little 2 bedroom cottage placed on a working farm. There were lambs, and baby doll sheep, and pygmy goats just outside our door. There was also a spice garden for visitors to use, but unfortunately we could not take advantage of that as that we traveled during the winter. One thing that made the farm setting so interesting was that it was a constant reminder of the fresh, quality ingredients that were being served at all the restaurants that we ate at on the trip, and I'll get more into that later, but suffice to say that the farm was a wonderful backdrop for the trip.

The Sites

Let's face it, I know myself. As a person, I have a strong tendency to gorge my on whatever ideas, or experiences are the order of my day. When I need some new music I will schedule a trip to a 3 day music festival and watch twenty consecutive concerts. When I found the joy of birding, it became an all consuming passion for about a year and a half. That is my nature, so while my love of wine never really goes away, I do, from time to time, feel the need to taste, try, and explore new wines. And so it was time for Ursa and I to head to wine country.
(photo by Ursa Davis)
We have been to southern California's wine country around Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo which was nice with it's quaint atmosphere, and it's farmhouse style wineries. But that was a shadow of the Napa Valley's huge estate style wineries. Without comparing wines, I will say that Napa does the high end, ostentatious estate wineries better than anyone else.
Over the week that we were in Napa Valley we visited so many wineries that it would not do to try and review them all here. I will instead just pick a few of my favorites.
(photo by Ursa Davis)
Most of the wineries featured tunnels dug into the rolling hills,to store their wines in a temperature controlled environment. Jarvis Winery took that idea one step further and built their entire winery underground. They had a lovely facility and absolutely exquisite wines. One of the signature features of the Jarvis tunnels was created as a result of a design flaw in the tunnels themselves, and that is the waterfall. When underground water breached the wall of the facility, there was no reasonable way to fix the problem, so they embraced it and designed a cosmetic waterfall in the tunnels to deal with the stream of water while beautifying their facility. As for their wines: The wine that struck me the most was their 2008 Cabernet Franc, a varietal that I typically don't enjoy because of the strong tannens but that Jarvis was able to craft a Cab Franc that was actually mellow which I found extraordinary. Amazingly the Cab Franc wasn't even my favorite of their wines, it was just so much better than any other of it's kind that I had to mention it. Though the wines were a little out of our price range, this was definitely the best tour and tasting that we went on.
(photo by Ursa Davis)
When it comes to wine, I think that our best stop was at Cliff Lede Vineyards. The signature grape of the Napa Valley is the Cabernet Sauvignon. This variety grows exceptionally well in this environment, consequently every winery in the area produces a Cab, and they are all worth a try. But Cliff Lede's 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon is the single best that we found on this trip and perhaps the best that I've ever had. We also picked up a bottle of their FEL 2012 Chardonnay which was very dry for a Chard, which I prefer over the buttery ones that are more common. I would also like to say that our host, Art, was one of our favorite hosts that we met on this trip. We first met up with him at Casa Nuestra Winery and he gave us several great recommendations, then we made a point to visit him where he worked at Cliff Lede for the tasting there. Good people, and great wines, that's what a tasting room is all about.
(photo by Ursa Davis)
We expected to find some great Cabs on our trip, but when we did our final bottle count we were surprised by the number of white wines that we came away with. To be fair, Cabernet Sauvignon is the most expensive varietal, partly because of the process used to make it, so we got priced out from buying too many of those. But also there was the fact that there were just lots of great whites around that caught us by surprise. One example was at Charles Krug Winery with their 2012 Sauvignon Blanc which was an absolutely stellar wine.
We also found a disproportionate number of dessert wines. Based on how often we use them we had only planned to pick up maybe one, but found ourselves hauling three home. One such find was at Orin Swift who had a Port that we simply could not resist and another was at James Cole who had made a Merlot Ice Wine that was very unique. Merlot is a very bold grape and they had used it in their ice wine to deaden some of the overwhelming sweetness, it was delicious.

The Food

What makes California such a fantastic place to visit is the food. When a chef has the absolute freshest, high quality ingredients, it does not take much to produce a great meal. Napa Valley is a foodie Disneyland that I compare, somewhat, to Paris' cafes in that you don't really need to plan your day around where to eat as that virtually everywhere you stop will have outstanding food.
On the advice from a friend we had dinner at Tra Vigne which I am glad that we did. It did, however, become a good news/bad news situation. The good news was that we started with the Mozzarella Cheese "al Minuto" and the bad news was that it was so good that I vaguely remember the rest of the meal. It was such a simple dish of fresh mozzarella, made in house, on a grilled bruschetta, drizzled with a locally made olive oil and some decorative salt.It was the very picture of elegant simplicity, and was so unspeakably delicious that it caused me to forget parts my childhood. Yes, it was THAT god damned good.


Napa Valley turned out to be just what we hoped for and what we needed, a great place to relax, and recharge. A place where wine and food are viewed as a form of rt, and the mesmerizing landscape is dotted with elegant vineyard estates, and country farms alike. It is a lovely place to visit. But I will say this: when compared to southern California's wine country, Napa has the edge in high end, budget busting luxury and better restaurants, and Paso Robles has the edge in laid back atmosphere and being less presumptuous. For my money, while I preferred the pace in the south.

(photo by Ursa Davis)

Thursday, March 6, 2014

San Francisco, California

(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
After a small hiatus from traveling, and a challenging winter in Alaska, I was really looking forward to this trip to San Francisco. And our patience was well rewarded, because the only thing about this trip that wasn't completely amazing was the weather.
(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
In the week leading up to this trip, Prudhoe Bay had been hit by a cold snap and the temperature dropped to -46 F and with the wind chill factor it was more like -72 F. So Ursa and I had been keeping a close eye on what the weather in California was doing. It stayed in the 70's and beautiful until we finally arrived, then the skies clouded up and it got drab and rainy for the whole week we were in town, which was really unfortunate. But short of the weather not cooperating, San Francisco was everything we had hoped it would be.
The other thing that struck me was the look of San Francisco's residential areas. It very much reminded me of Paris in that all the homes are of a similar row house style, but also they are so very unique from one another. Each home is interesting and different and has so much character that it really gives the entire city, not just the touristy spots, a really beautiful look and feel.

The Sites

The Neighborhoods: We were fortunate to rent an apartment for the week which was located on top of a hill in between two of San Francisco's most iconic neighborhoods: the Castro district and Haight-Ashbury. The house was on the bottom floor of the cutest, historic cottage all done in brick. It was a lovely place, in a fantastic location, and perfectly set the tone for our week in the city.
In 1967's Summer of Love, more than 100,000 hippies descended upon one small neighborhood of San Francisco near the corner of Haight and Ashbury Streets and began a social movement that changed America. As I walked around the neighborhood, and got a feel for it's size, it really started to sink in what a cultural crucible this must have become. All within the same 2 blocks of Ashbury Street you had Janis Joplin, Country Joe McDonald, the Hell's Angels, and The Grateful Dead. Just up the hill was Graham Nash, and a few blocks further down lived Big Brother and the Holding Company, just around the corner from the punk band Flipper.
(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
Today, hippie culture is alive and well and the street is dotted with tie dye couture, head shops, vintage clothing, curiosity shops, and record stores like the well known Amoeba Records.
A short walk down the hill in the other direction from our place one found a very different vibe in the Castro district. While in the Haight, Ursa and I were playing a game we called "Hipster or Homeless?" there was less ambiguity of style sense in the Castro. The residents of San Francisco's famous gay neighborhood took a great deal more pride in their appearance clad in clean white tee shirts, brightly colored skinny jeans, and the most unbelievably awesome coiffed hair ever. The Castro was the friendliest, most accepting, laid back neighborhood that I've ever been in. Everybody treated you like an old friend. It was really wonderful.
(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
The third iconic neighborhood in San Francisco, that is a must see on everybody's list is Chinatown. Lots of cities have A Chinatown, but this is THE Chinatown.
(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
San Francisco's Chinatown is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia. I've been in several other Chinatowns in cities like Vancouver, Toronto, and Portland but those all comprised only a few blocks while this one just kept going on and on. And the souvenir shops in those other cities were really kitsch with junk that looked like it was falling apart while it was still on the store shelves. As we shopped around San Francisco's Chinatown we were surprised at how much really nice stuff there was to buy. The most fun we had was buying tea at Vital Tea Leaf where we sat with a really charming and fun couple and talked with the store's owner Ming while sampling sips of dozens of flavorful, nuanced teas.

(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
Golden Gate Park: Far more than just a walk in the park, this park offers a lot to do for the city. First and foremost is the famous deYoung Museum of Art.
(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
I love seeing museums with bold architecture like the Denver Art Museum, or the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton, and the striking tower of San Francisco's deYoung reminds me of those other landmark museums. Inside the museum there were the choices of exhibits that you would expect of a major metropolitan museum, some of which we gravitated towards like the American Paintings, or Decorative Arts exhibits, others such as the African Art, or Art of the Americas exhibits were not to our taste and we skipped over. One artist that we never skip over is Dale Chihuly, whose blown glass pieces have become ubiquitous in most museums across the country, and, increasingly, around the world.
(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
Across from the deYoung Museum is the California Academy of Sciences which hosts an exciting evening event for adults only called Night Life. We booked the VIP tour which was well worth the extra money considering that not only do you get preferred seating for the planetarium show, a guided tour, and an open bar 'cause who wants to be sober while getting scienced up.
(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
The high points of the Academy of Sciences are it's completely green roof, the planetarium, it's rainforest dome, and downstairs it has it's aquarium exhibit. But all of that cool stuff belies that fact that the Academy is first and foremost about science, and those things are really just the outreach programs to educate and get the public involved in science. A part of the VIP tour was to go into the labs and ask questions of the scientists on staff. The ones that we talked to were going through the tedious work of skinning, stuffing and categorizing bird species. Not stuffing and mounting the birds like a taxidermist might for a display, but putting them on a pegboard for easy storage.
(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
The other public destinations that Golden Gate Park has to offer are it's many botanical gardens. We went to two: The Conservatory of Flowers and the San Francisco Botanical Gardens. The Botanical Gardens were laid out nicely, and you could tell that the plants were healthy but, unfortunately, because of the time of year that we were there, there was very little flowering and the gardens were not as impressive. Fortunately the Conservatory of Flowers would be doing as much flowering as you can stand. Their collection of orchids were really impressive.

The Events

A lot of times I focus on just the music scene in a city, but in the case of San Francisco I felt like there was so much culturally to do that to limit the discussion to just music would be a disservice.
One of the great cultural experiences that we had in the city was to attend the ballet. I wish that had some photos of the performance but cameras were not only against the rules, but, frankly would be dangerous for the performers onstage. The program that we saw was separate pieces from three different ballets. The first was from Act II of La Bayadere called "The Kingdom of the Shades", it was followed by a piece written by 80's hair-metal veteran Kip Winger and was really lovely, although maybe a little discordant (which I actually liked the sound of but thought it was a little out of place). The final piece was from Firebird and was very likely the best, most visually beautiful, and most moving dance piece that I've ever seen.
That is not to say that we did not attend any musical events. Our favorite was at SFJAZZ which is a beautiful venue. We saw the Amina Figarova Sextet perform a fantastic set in a beautiful room. The Joe Henderson Lab is a great room for a jazz show. It is surrounded on two sides with windows so as the show is going on you can watch the cityscape drift past. Jazz is like any art, it effects people in different ways. While I like the type of wandering, impressionistic jazz that Amina Figarova plays, it is Ursa's least favorite style of jazz. But even so the skill and artistry of the Amina Figarova Sextet was apparent and even Ursa enjoyed the performance.

(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
The final cultural event that we attended was to go across the Oakland Bay Bridge all the way over to the UC Berkeley campus to attend a lecture by the renowned theoretical physicist Dr. Michio Kaku. A large part of what makes Dr. Kaku such a great lecturer, educator, and writer is his sense of humor, and his ability to bring complex ideas back to popular culture references that his audience can understand. His new book, that he is touring to promote, is titled "The Future of the Mind" and discusses how technology has, and will continue to, unlock the abilities of the human mind. From chips implanted in the brain that can help people write on computers or move robotic appendages (and eventually control exoskeletons) to help the physically handicapped, to the BRAIN initiative which will map all of the neuropathways of the human brain and unlock the mysteries of mental illness. Imagine a world where you surf the internet using your mind, or dangerous jobs like firefighting or astronauts being done by surrogate robots controlled by people's minds far from danger. The future will unlock an exciting new frontier for the human mind.

The Food

(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
San Francisco has a well deserved reputation as a foodie city, and we did our level best to put it through it's paces. But frankly, I got the distinct impression that it didn't really matter so much where you went, because around every corner was another place just as good if not better. I would have had better luck listing places that were not delicious, but unfortunately I never found any. Here are a few choice gastronomic delights from around San Francisco.
For breakfast I was a big fan of walking down to the Castro to a great little cafe called Squat and Gobble which had great omelettes, and breakfast sandwiches. They also were a crepery which I am usually a sucker for, but all of their other offerings were so good that in my several trips there, I never once tried the crepes. Which says a lot.
For lunch, our first choice was the most memorable. It's tough to get good middle-eastern food in Alaska, and both of us were looking forward to a taste of some. And we couldn't have made a better choice than Le Mediterranee Noe. I'm not going to bore you with the details about how great their great combination plate that I ate or the delicious babaganouj that Ursa ate... I'm going to bore you with their coffee. Their coffee was served in the Turkish style by boiling the extremely finely ground coffee grounds with sugar and cardomom and a little water in a small brass container called a cezve. The coffee ends up extremely thick and strong, but not in any way bitter like one might expect. It was spectacular.
(photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
For dinner we had an amazing French culinary experience at Bisou Bistro. Yet one more place in the Castro, it's funny that all of our favorite food experiences were in this same neighborhood. We had the escargot appetizer which stole the show for the rest of the meal, though everything was delicious and the wines that the waiter suggested were spot on. Also there is a great deal to be said for presentation, and Bisou really does plate their food wonderfully. A great choice for dinner.
For dessert we found a place that specializes in a variety of bread puddings called Schulzies. They served their bread puddings like scoops of ice cream, and even had their store set up in an ice cream parlor style. A very cool idea, and delicious.


There is a reason why San Francisco is on the short list of America's great cities. It really has everything; culture, food, sights, history. We enjoyed our time there immensely. At the end of any trip Ursa and I always have a conversation about "I really liked that town, maybe we can get back there some day," or "I wasn't such a fan of that place," but for San Francisco we were in the camp of, "We are TOTALLY coming back here!" This town jumped right to the top of the list of favorite cities we've visited.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Getting the sense of a city while traveling for business can be tricky, though not impossible. I recently got the opportunity to travel down to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to inspect some new equipment that my company is purchasing. An extra half-day was scheduled into my plans just in case I needed a little extra time. Fortunately I didn't need the extra time for work, and got to spend it exploring the city. But where to begin?

The Sites

In the late 70's and early 80's the city of Milwaukee became an icon of America's middle class through the TV series Happy Days, and Laverne & Shirley both of which are set there.
As one of the great industrial centers of the United States, the factories and shipping industries supported a working class that resonated across the nation. And there are a few must-see sights around the city that were made famous, in part, because of the role they played on these programs. The first such site was Milwaukee's city hall, which was prominently featured in the opening of Laverne & Shirley. As I was taking a cab into downtown, this is where I had him drop me off. Several of the cities attractions are a short walk from this central point. The cab ride was also well used as a chance to get some tips and ideas from the taxi driver. If you want to know the best places to go, quiz a cabbie.
The next landmark that I wanted to see, was the Bronze Fonz, a bronze statue of the legendary Happy Days character, Arthur Fonzerelli, who was played by actor, Henry Winkler. Located along the Milwaukee River Walk, the Fonz is there to greet tourists and locals alike with his thumbs up and the word, "Eyyyyy" on his lips. Stay cool Fonzy.
Pabst Brewery
The characters in the series Laverne & Shirley worked at the fictional brewery, Shotz, the filming for which took place at Pabst Brewery. This local landmark was originally founded by Jacob Best in 1844. The Best family were the founders of not only Pabst Brewery, but also Old Milwaukee, Schlitz and Plank Road Brewery (which later became Miller)
The brewery took it's name from Captain Frederick Pabst who married into the Best family and helped to grow the brewery into America's largest brewer from the late 1800's until 1946. Cap' Pabst was one of Milwaukee's most beloved figures. Contributing to local philanthropic projects, building the historic Pabst Theater, and treating his hundreds of employees with uncommon generosity. The Pabst Brewery was closed in December of 1996, and sat empty until 2001 when it was sold to historian Jim Haertel who has begun the long process of restoring this amazing piece of local history.
One historical note that I learned while touring the Pabst Brewery was the link between the rise of the Milwaukee breweries and the Great Chicago Fire. Prior to that event, most American cities each had their own localized beer. But when the Chicago Fire wiped out that city's beer maker, they had to call upon the bottlers in nearby Milwaukee; who, along with breweries in St. Louis, developed a series of icehouses along the railroad line to keep their beers cold until they could be brought to market. This is how the first interstate distributors developed.

The Food

I would truly be remiss if I journeyed all the way to Milwaukee, Wisconsin and left without eating at least one bratwurst.
The city's strong German influence has left this swath of the country with two gastronomic icons, beer and brats, neither of which should be missed for any reason. My only problem was where should I get one from? I had two choices: either I could go to Milwaukee Brat House, or the Old German Beer Hall; both conveniently located next door to each other. Unable to make a decision I went to both, my favorite was the Milwaukee Brat House where I had a fabulous brat covered with sauteed onions and mushrooms, covered with cheese and served on a pretzel roll, with a heaping helping of cheese curds, and a couple of ice cold beers. Everything a growing boy needs.

Overall Milwaukee struck me as a good example of a city in transition between the 50's model of a downtown industrial center full of manufacturing jobs and factories; to a modern, hi-tech city where the downtown is focused on an urban living environment. Consequently, some of the areas of downtown are very new, trendy and cosmopolitan; while others seem like run down, boarded up factory districts. If urban renewal had a face, it would be Milwaukee's. It is a city with a rich culture, good food, and unique lifestyle that maybe doesn't get the high praise for a tourism destination that maybe it deserves.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival 2013

The Snail creeping it's way through the festival
It's May 4 here in Anchorage as I sit down to recount my trip to Coachella, I cannot escape the irony of having playoff hockey on the television and a steady spring snow coming down outside while I tell you all of my trip to the desserts of Southern California. As most of you know I make an annual trip to a different music festival every year. Usually this trip is in the fall, but this time I chose a spring festival as a way to thaw out after a long winter up in Alaska.
The other difference between this and other festivals that I've gone to in the past was that this time I went by myself. In the past, I've always had my trusted compatriot, Bird, along for the ride as well as usually a few other characters as well. While the presence of my friends was of course missed, it did make this a more focused music experience. I was free to roam around not worrying about where anyone else was or if they could find me, or having to periodically meet up with anyone; I could just go and explore and take in all there was to see and do.

The Lineup

Blur, The Stone Roses, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Jurassic 5, Modest Mouse, Grinderman, Bassnectar, Dog Blood, How to Destroy Angels, Passion Pit, Tegan and Sara, Band of Horses, Beach House, Metric, Phoenix, The XX, The Postal Service, Sigur Ros, New Order, Hot Chip, Grizzly Bear, Knife Party, Benny Benassi, Franz Ferdinand, Two Door Cinema Club, Moby, The Decendants, Yeasayer, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Vampire Weekend, Social Distortion, Wu Tang Clan, Pretty Lights, Eric Prydz, Tame Impala, The Lumineers, Dead Can Dance, La Roux,
James Blake, Excision Grimes, Local Natives, Of Monsters and Men, Infected Mushroom, The Japandroids, Divine Fits, Luciano, Stars, Johnny Marr, FOALS, Seth Troxler, Wolfgang Gartner, Nicky Romero, Modestep, Tommy Trash, Thomas Gold, The Shouting Matches, Dillon Francis, Four Tet, Aesop Rock, Alt-J, TNGHT, Jake Bugg, Earl Sweatshirt, Polica, Sparks, Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, Purty Ring, Youth Lagoon, Lee Scratch Perry, Dam-Funk, DJ Harvey, Jamie xx, Deathfix, C2C, Beardyman, Lord Huron, Palma Violets, Skinny Lister, James McCartney, The Neighborhood, Raymond Roker, Mario Cotto, Violent Femmes, Simian Mobile Disco, Spiritualized, Pucifer, Cafe Tacvba, Portugal. the Man, The Make-Up,
Bat for Lashes, Richie Hawtin, Major Lazer, Freddie Le Grand, Dropkick Murphys, Ben Howard, 2 Chainz, Janelle Monae, Danny Brown, Wild Nothing, Booka Shade, Trash Talk, Julio Bashmore, Bingo Players, Allen Stone, El-P, The Selector, Pusha T, Kill the Noise, The Evens, Biffy Clyro, Theophilious London, Baauer, Zane Lowe, Birdy Nam Nam, Action Bronson, Jason Bentley, The Wombats, Guards, Mona, Savages, Shovels and Rope, Reignwolf, Cassy, Kids These Days, The Colorist, Vintage Trouble, Been Trill, The Gaslight Anthem, The Faint, Hardwell, Paul Okenford, Dinosaur Jr, Raider Clan, OMD, Roni Size and Dynamite MC, Kurt Vile and the Violators, The Airborne Toxic Event, Father John Misty, Tanlines, Rodriguez, Alex Claire, Paul Kalkbrenner, Jessie Ware, Loco Dice, Jamie Jones, The Three O'Clock Disclosure, Mimosa, Cloud Nothings, Thee Oh Sees, Dub FX, Maya Jane Coles, Jeff the Brotherhood, Smith Westerns, Dirtyphonics, Joris Voorn, Danny Avila, Ghost BC, DIIV, Little Green Cars, Mord Fustang, Robert DeLong, White Arrows, Deap Valley, Wild Belle, Adrian Lux, Ladies Night, JDH and DAVE P

Day 1

My biggest concern about Coachella was the sun. I have the pasty white skin of an Alaskan at the end of winter and stepping out into the California dessert for 12 hours, I had the potential to get dangerously sunburned. I of course took precautions with the strongest sunscreen that I could find, but I still had to worry. I wanted to make an effort to spend the early part of the day in the covered tents as opposed to standing outside at the two main stages during the heat of the day. With that in mind, I made my way to the Sahara Tent, which would feature EDM acts all weekend, to watch C2C.
Here's my thing with EDM, I enjoy listening to it, but I don't necessarily enjoy seeing it live. It always has cool light shows, but is not otherwise all that interesting and the crowds that they draw generally annoy me. The fact is that at a festival I want to see a rock concert not go to a night club. I understand the appeal, but it's just not for me. That is why I wanted to make a point of getting to one of the early shows at the Sahara Tent, before the crowds got too out of hand. And I'm glad that I did. The French turntable quartet was an early crowdpleaser. Lost in the whole EDM explosion in recent years has been the efforts of DJ's who still actually scratch records, which is why it was so unique to see four DJ's step up and do what they do best, which is get crowds jumping.
The silhouette of The Shouting Matches in front of a beautiful backdrop
After C2C finished up I was killing off some time before Jake Bugg started, I purchased a frozen lemonade and wandered into the Gobi Tent to gave a listen to The Shouting Matches. They were playing an easy groove that just sounded like California, and for the first time the thought finally set in that I had arrived.
As I listened, I noticed a guy sitting crosslegged in the grass and hopelessly scratching away at his copy of the festival lineup and trying to plan his day. There is an inherent flaw in trying to bring order to your day at these things, believe me I've tried. The fact is that maybe you see the band you want, maybe you don't, maybe you get there and get there and can't see shit, maybe you get distracted along the way. It's better to live in the moment and keep your plans loose. The only planning that I did was to find two or three bands per day that I really wanted to see and let everything else just happen.
I applauded for The Shouting Matches and then walked over to the next tent to hear Jake Bugg, who I have heard a lot about. He has a folksy rock sound and a truly distinctive voice.There is no denying Jake Bugg's singular talent as a songwriter and on guitar as well, but I have to say that he is not the most entertaining showman. That's probably the only chink in his armor, because other then that Jake Bugg is an impressive rising talent.
Now it was time for one of the bands that I was really looking forward to, Metric. It was interesting that the band that preceded Metric was a great example of a band for whom the main stage was just too big. They may have been good on a smaller stage, or a more intimate setting, and to be followed by Metric made their poor booking all the more obvious. Emily Haines dominates the stage in a way that only headliners can, she had more stage presence than anyone I had seen all day. Their music is infectious and their show was awesome.
The Palma Violets
Throughout the day I spent most of my time at the Mojave Tent which had a stellar lineup, and whenever I didn't know which way to turn, the Mojave was my crutch.
"Chilli" Jesson takes the plunge into the crowd
That is how I found myself hanging out near the front of the stage for a band that I had only vaguely heard of, The Palma Violets. In the Darwinian world of music, some bands succeed because of their musicianship, their performance skills, their dance moves or what have you... But some bands are able to survive through sheer force of will. Such is the case with the Palma Violets, who possess a bruising intensity that announces in no uncertain terms, "we are unstoppable." This was without a doubt the best show of the day which included the headliners. "Chilli" Jesson thundered through their set like a pissed off Matt Smith and whipped the crowd up into a frenzy with his unbelievable intensity. It was a unexpected treasure of a show. I only bought one t-shirt at the merch stand at this festival, and it was the Palma Violets, what else can I say?
Nick Cave of Grinderman
As far as headliners go, I decided to stick around the Mojave Tent for the headliners, as that I was just more interested in them as opposed to the larger Main Stage or the Outdoor Stage. So I just hung out where I was and got to the front row for Grinderman. This weekend was to be a Nick Cave double feature, with his band, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds playing as a headliner on the third night and his dirty little side project band, Grinderman, playing on this first night, with me in the front row! I'll tell you this much, there are few entertainers as energetic on stage as Nick Cave, and this was a rawkus and furious paced show, the highlight of which being "Honey Bee (Let's Fly to Mars)" which I posted a video of above.
How To Destroy Angels
The final show of the evening was one that I had been very curious about for some time. The side project of Trent Reznor, How To Destroy Angels had only performed live on two other occasions and their fantastic show had been much buzzed about.
How To Destroy Angels
The majority of the performance featured the band, fronted by Trent Reznor's wife, Mariqueen Maandig, behind a semitransparent screen to an awesome effect. It was less like a rock concert and more like a performance art piece. The whole show seemed like watching an exhibit in some alien menagerie. Even when the screen was pulled to the sides the lighting intentionally avoided emphasizing the band members, which was an effect that I found fascinating. Mariqueen Maandig is a striking figure, and Trent Reznor is a musical genius, but I simply could not get past this performance on the stagecraft level which was absolutely brilliant. This was a perfect way to cap off a wonderful first day of the festival.

Day 2

Fire up the Tesla coils!
The second day of Coachella was a lot more up and down. The highs were higher and the lows were lower; the bands that were good were crazy good, but the bands that were not crazy good were thoroughly mediocre. The weather was the same, the sky was clear and the sun warm, but the grounds where the festival was held were becoming overly trampled and the dust was beginning to get out of hand. Every time the crowd began to dance, every time a mosh pit broke out, it kicked up a dust cloud that made the venue look like a stockyard. My lungs were so caked with dust that I felt like I did when I used to smoke, though, I suppose, it's good to have a reminder about why I quit.
The day started off with a bang... or rather a savage, bluesy snarl. Most bands that play early in the day have the chore of cajoling the crowds out of their hangovers and back to life. But not Reignwolf, they were not there to stoke the embers, they were there to light the fuse. Jordan Cook took the stage alone, with nothing but his gritty, growling guitar and a kick drum, and opened an explosive set that left the crowd howling for more. Make no mistake about it, this band is the genuine article. If this band happens to be traveling through your town (especially my Seattle friends where the band hails from) don't walk, run, to get tickets. Reignwolf is a rising talent and a worthy show to see at any venue.
Unfortunately such a pace could not be sustained and the next couple bands that I went to were really average. I don't want to say that they were bad, because they were definitely talented, but I just felt like I had seen dozens of bands just like them before, or maybe it was the high number of bands that I had already seen that made them look plain, or maybe it was the heat.
Whatever it was, I found myself walking aimlessly around the festival grounds feeling unsatisfied, so I made my way over to the Main Stage a little earlier than I had planned. Again the old adage proved true that it is better to be lucky than good, because I had managed to bumble into maybe the better stage performances of the festival.
Vintage Trouble
The music scene has seen a resurgence of neo-soul acts in recent years, and while Vintage Trouble may fit into that category it is terribly unfair to pidgeonhole an act this talented. Their lead singer, Ty Taylor, whose vocal stylings brought to mind the memory of Wilson Pickett, managed to dance his way right out of his pants...literally. Approriatly enough, he managed to rip his pants from knee to crotch during the performance of their song "Pelvis Pusher."
Dropkick Murphys
As soon as Vintage Trouble wrapped up their set, the front of the Main Stage began to fill up with sweaty, thick necked hoodlums clad in Celtics jerseys who were getting themselves juiced up for the huge mosh pit that would be generated by veteran brawlers, The Dropkick Murphys. There is nothing like some good natured thuggery to stir the Irishman in us all. By the end of their set a fog of dust had settled in on the festival grounds so thick that I expected to see Hunter Thompson wander through the cloud covering the Mint 500, and searching for Horatio Alger.
The heat, the dust, the mosh pit all got to be a bit much for me and I had to retreat to a shady spot to listen to the next band, The Violent Femmes, from a distance, which was a terrible disappointment to me because I was really looking forward to seeing them.
The Make-Up
How lucky for me though that Coachella is full of great options, while I was let down about the Femmes, it did allow me to bumble into one of the most unique bands that I saw all weekend, The Make-Up. I'm not really sure how to describe the performance of D.C. post-punk legend Ian Svenonius other than to say that he's like a kooky, confused, microphone swallowing prophet. The Make-Up stands as a good reminder to us all that music doesn't always have to be technically superior, and it doesn't always need to speak to your soul. Hell, it doesn't even have to make sense, it just needs to be fun. That's it. That's all that matters.
The Selector
After that little gem, I watched the sun go down with the ska band, The Selector. I'm not going to say that The Selector was particularly outstanding as far as ska bands go, but I will say that of all the live shows that I've ever seen, ska shows are always my favorite. The crowds there are positively infectious. You can't see any ska act and leave upset. It's just too much fun.
From there I went over to the Mojave Tent and watched the EDM act, Simian Mobile Disco. Which, while not the most entertaining performance, I did like their sound. But more importantly I went to that show so that I could get a choice spot to see headliner, Franz Ferdinand, from.
Franz Ferdinand was always one of those white whale bands for me. It seems like I always just missed out on seeing them, or there was a scheduling conflict or something always just came up and I just couldn't make it happen.
Franz Ferdinand
Which is why I was so excited, and made such a special point to see them this time. And I was not let down. My original plan was to get from Franz Ferdinand back to the Main Stage to catch Phoenix, but it just wasn't to be. The oppressive heat and the dust had taken too much of a toll on me for the day, and I had to call it quits a little early. What can I say, I felt like I had inhaled an entire sand dune.

Day 3

For me, day 3 was the most intriguing lineup on the Main Stage and Outdoor Stage which would mean that I would have to brave the dessert heat for most if not all day. Fortunately they gave free water bottles for anyone along the front rows of the two main stages. So that is where I chose to camp out for the day. There was really only one band that mattered to me, The Airborne Toxic Event. To make sure that I got the best spot for them I made a point to show up early for the act that would precede them.
Ghost B.C.
That act was one of the most curious bands at the festival, Ghost B.C. They were curious because having a theatric , Swedish, goth metal band in the middle of a perfect summer day just seemed wrong somehow. I'm sure the festival promoters had a tough choice, either a) put them on a side stage after dark (where they would have been awesome) or b) putting them on the Main Stage during the day. They opted for the latter and for Ghost B.C.'s part they did fine, but I would have rather seen them light the braziers at night. But I do have to say that if my intent of attending a music festival was to experience music that I normally wouldn't, this band definitely filled that purpose for sure.
While I was amused by Ghost B.C., I was outright giddy for the next band. This would be the third time that I've seen The Airborne Toxic Event live, and the thought of seeing them again was like a much anticipated visit from an old friend.
This band is everything that I love about music: great musicianship, brilliant lyrics, and first class showmanship. The first time that I saw them was in Austin, Texas, at Austin City Limits Music Festival, and the second time I saw them was in Boston, Massachusetts  while they were on tour with a string quartet. I can honestly say that this is probably my favorite contemporary band touring today.

Once Airborne had wrapped up I picked up a quick lunch and some more water, then made my way to the Outdoor Stage to enjoy the remainder of it's lineup. And that lineup began with another band that I had previously seen, Dinosaur Jr. I saw them once in San Diego, where Henry Rollins did a live interview with them for his radio show before they took the stage. In that interview, Rollins said that the only way to listen to Dinosaur Jr is monstrously loud. And indeed, that it the way they prefer to listen to themselves, as they barricade themselves amongst a huge wall of deafening monitors.
As Dinosaur Jr thundered away I kept noticing these rough looking, band t-shirt and bandanna wearing, long haired roadies popping up out of the wings to snap a pic on their iphones. It happened so often that it begged the question: what does it say that you are the band that all the roadies make a point to see? I'm pretty sure that the guys in Dinosaur Jr would take that as the highest form of compliment.
Tame Impala
Following Dinosaur Jr was Tame Impala, who was the best band that I didn't know that I knew. Throughout the show, as I listened to the Australian jam rockers, it seemed like I kept saying to myself, "Oh, they wrote that one too?" The other thought that I had, according to a note to myself was, "this shit would be great to get stoned to." Take that for what it's worth.
Pretty Lights
Next up was an EDM act appropriately named Pretty Lights. Derek Vincent Smith, who performs under the name Pretty Lights has a stage show that is very comparable to a fireworks display set to music. My feelings about EDM as a live performance still applies however: I just have a hard time putting a computer generated audio beats and a pre-programmed laser/light show on the same level as a live musical performance. Sorry.
Wu Tang Clan
The final show of the festival was a reunion of the legendary rap group, Wu Tang Clan. I feel a certain journalistic responsibility here to confirm all previous reports that "Wu Tang ain't nuthing to fuck with."
I was a little bit surprised by this show as that it was up against the festival's main headliner, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and I did not expect the crowd to be this big, or nearly this crazy. And make no mistake about it, this crowd was crazy! The crush at the front was unbelievable. And just in case nine of the illest MC's in the world throwing down on stage wasn't enough they topped off their show by having a full orchestra backing them up.

The Playlist

1) Breezeblocks     Alt-J
2) Float On     Modest Mouse
3) Micky Mouse and the Goodbye Man     Grinderman
4) Welcome Oblivion     How to Destroy Angels
5) Becoming Insane     Infected Mushroom
6) Wu Tang Ain't Nuthin to Fuck With     Wu Tang Clan
7) Gimme Sympathy     Metric
8) Save Yourself     The Make-Up
9) Best of Friends     Palma Violets
10) Fields of Athenry     Dropkick Murphys
11) Lightning Bolt     Jake Bugg
12) Nobody Told Me     Vintage Trouble
13) Elephant     Tame Impala
14) No You Girls     Franz Ferdinand
15) There's No Other Way     Blur
16) Start Choppin     Dinosaur Jr.
17) Timeless     The Airborne Toxic Event
18) Happy (feat. Derek Martin)     c2c
19) End of the World     Deap Valley
20) Red Right Hand     Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds