Saturday, October 15, 2011

Concert Day: Bournemouth International Centre (BIC), Bournemouth, UK (October 14, 2011)

The Royal Hotel’s comfortable bed didn’t do much to encourage me to wake up so early in the morning—8:00am—to catch the train to Bournemouth. That, plus the knowledge that I’m expecting a relatively annoying train ride: leaving Cardiff at 9:30am, arriving to Southampton at 12:00pm, then taking the 12:24pm train to Bournemouth, arriving at 1:00pm.

Well, I have had worse during the last tour. How could I possibly forget, for instance, those nightmarish night trains, or that 4 connections train ride from Locarno to W├╝rzburg. I suppose, after going through hell and back with train rides in Europe, very little can happen to actually surprise me but still I sort-of lost the will and patience to cope with such lengthy journeys.

Weather-wise, it was a good day. As we rode south towards the coast, clouds started showing less and less frequently. The typical green landscape reflecting through the window—that of rolling hills and valleys, the occasional farm, goats and cattle along the way—looks much prettier when the sky is blue, I’ll give you that.

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Arrived at Southampton Central on time. Small, crowded train station with nothing much interesting going for it—one of those train stations one really looks forward to spend as little time in as possible. Hopped to the other platform, just in time to hear that the train to Bournemouth has been delayed about 15 minutes due to some vehicle striking the railway (or something like that) somewhere along the tracks.

That’s why, after all, I prefer taking early trains—as early as possible. I can’t begin to describe the sort of anxiety one gets once plans seem to be falling through just because one train failed to arrive on time. Better get it over with fast; you can never have too much time on your hands when you’re doing such trips.

Train was late about 15 minutes. Boarded and sat by the window, minding my own business until some lady boarded right after me and chose to sit at the seat next to mine.

That usually doesn’t happen as my body typically acts like a reverse magnet on women. Sat down next to me, and me being myself, I just kept being quiet. At some point during the ride, some thugs seated a few rows in front of us started making noise, probably being “fuelled up” by alcohol.

—“I don’t understand why they do that”, she said while looking at me.

And so we went on and on about all sorts of things. Nice girl named Abby (or Abbey, I don’t know) from Southampton, with very interesting things to say. Knows how to bake and helping many people in need.

Bournemouth wasn’t too far ahead so before we knew it, we had to cut our conversation. Good talking to nice people along the road; better than spending time completely alone, or being forced to listen to idiots. We bid each other goodbye (no, no phone numbers were exchanged. But thanks for asking) and within a couple of minutes I was out of the train station; welcome to Bournemouth.


Bournemouth is a small city at the south end of the UK. It is one of the more popular beach-side cities in the UK, featuring brilliant beaches and high cliffs offering spectacular views. Last year’s tour had a stop in Bournemouth; I ended up staying in a nice Bed & Breakfast in nearby Boscombe. This time, I decided to stay closer to the venue; I ended up picking The Suncliff Hotel, situated right by the East Cliff, a stone throw from the sea.

Armed with a map (on my BlackBerry) showing the route to the hotel, I started walking towards the beach. With every step I took, more and more memories from last year’s visit kept creeping in until I didn’t feel stranger to the place at all.

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Bournemouth is quiet and relatively clean. A strong sense of tranquility holds you as you approach the beach area, walking through streets beset by greenery.

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The final turn… this road that seems to end, actually ends there. That’s where the water starts.

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A short walk west along the cliff, until I reached my hotel.

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And now look at this.

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Peace. Absolute peace. I was happy to be back in Bournemouth, especially now when it’s off-peak and things are quieter. I was also thrilled to see how close my hotel was to the beach… thrilled, until I checked into my room and got completely and utterly disappointed. Tiny room, view to the parking lot; general renovations to the rooms are definitely due.

Most of the hotels that look very nice on the outside, stretching alongside the cliffs, are actually very old buildings that have been renovated at the outside, a little bit in the inside but the rooms remained somewhere in the 19th century. This is not very strange in the UK—in general, I found hotel standards in the UK to leave much to be desired. Usually small, old rooms.

And if I once again check into a hotel room with separate hot & cold taps, I’m going to fucking freak out. Get over it, for God’s sake.

The room had the sex appeal of a 9-cars pile-up so I fled the scene, carrying my laptop on the way to the only nice place I know of in Bournemouth—that is, the Marriott Hotel which is conveniently located right atop a cliff, some 1.5km away.

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As soon as I got to the Marriott, I felt stupid for not having booked a room there for the night. Amongst the many touristic Bournemouth hotels—the ones that look good at the outside but crappy inside—the Marriott is actually a really good hotel. The American Gang with whom I spent touring the UK with last summer have stayed in this hotel, and I remember the rooms being lovely. So if you’re in town and looking for a good place to stay, just stay there. It’s obviously more expensive than many other hotels, but in Bournemouth—and also considering the hotel standards in the UK as a whole—it’s worth it.

Had some good high afternoon tea there, being seated on the porch overlooking the brilliant sea. A familiar figure was seated at a nearby table—took me a few seconds to realize it’s one of Bob Dylan’s guitar players. A polite hello and a very short conversation—nice fellow. Went on to write the previous day’s blog; I’d love to ask a few more questions, specifically about guitar playing, but I hate taking too much of people’s time, and here we’re talking about a musician a few hours before a concert.

I had much time to kill before the concert so I spent pretty much all of it in the Marriott’s lounge. Tea, coffee, whatever. Sitting in that lounge overlooking the sea—that’s really all I needed. Good atmosphere, total relaxation.

Left at around 5:30pm, as I had to walk all the way back to my hotel to put my laptop there, then walk back to the venue which is about 45 seconds walk from the Marriott. In retrospect, that was an extremely stupid thing to do. I could have just asked the Marriott to keep an eye on my backpack until I’m back.

Better use of brains… next time. 6:30pm and I’m at the venue—the Bournemouth International Centre (BIC).

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Ticket collection was a snap this time. The way the venue was set up for this concert was general admission (standing) on the floor, and seats in the upper level. As usual, I opted at the seated option and therefore I watched the concert from above.

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The concert started, as usual, a few minutes past 7:30pm in front of what seemed to be a sold-out venue. It was then, a few second after the concert’s start, that I knew that I wasn’t going to enjoy much of it, the reason being the sound. Something there just didn’t add up for me: even though I wasn’t seated all the way to the side (I’d say about 75-80% to the left), the sound seemed to be pretty uneven when certain instruments (most notably the bass guitar) dominated the sonic spectrum.

Other than that, not much to mention. Why Aye Man, opening the show and played with my not-so-favourite cyan-coloured Gibson, raised a couple of eyebrows for those who had heard it two million times before as it featured relatively fast and elaborate solos, both between verses and at the end.

Haul Away for Home was skipped, replaced by A Night in Summer Long Ago which, as always, was a pleasure to listen to. Mark only rarely plays this tune—last tour, it was only played twice (out of 87 shows), if my memory serves me right.

Good performance of all remaining songs, save for a bit of an odd Marbletown performance which seemed to be overly busy during the jam session, then dropping to a rather uneventful fade out. Not the Marbletown I got used to, but certainly pleasant.

As (now) usual, Brothers in Arms and So Far Away concluded the concert and sent a few thousands of people out for an intermission before Bob Dylan’s show, and myself—outside, again for my lack of interest in damaging my ear drums.

Post-concert photos…

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(And yes, I know. I know about the joint Mark / Bob performance at the BIC—thanks for the emails pointing that out. Still, my eardrums are rather precious to me)


The venue is located half way up a cliff, in the middle of an incline starting at the water level and leading up to where the Marriott is located. It was very chilly and windy outside, but I love the sight of the moonlight reflecting from the sea so I had to stick around for an extra 20-30 minutes. I figured it might be too cold for me to gaze at the water from atop the cliff (in front of the Marriott) so I decided to stay at the area right behind the venue which was relatively wind-protected.

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The sight of the sea brought back memories from the last tour—from the highs of having been accompanied by four joyful Americans throughout the UK (we had a lot of fun together) to the lows of feeling rather lonely walking along the beaches in Brighton, which is another sea-side city on the UK’s south coast.

I then came across this. Good luck getting out of that one.

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Time for late dinner. The area surrounding the venue features many pubs (serving garbage food) and a few low-cost restaurants, but I already had my eyes set on Tiien—the Thai restaurant adjacent to the Marriott. It had an interesting menu—not cheap, though—and so many diners that I felt comfortable stepping inside for a bite.

Well, what can I say. The food was terrific but service left much to be desired as it seemed as if too many people were involved in the entire service chain. One guy to welcome you, another one to show you where to sit, another one to offer you drinks, another one to take your order and yet another one to actually serve you the food. At the end, you end up with three different people asking you (conveniently enough, when your mouth is full) if you’re enjoying your meal.

Food was good, though. I’d recommend it. Their coconut rice is mouth-watering.

Meal went by quickly and off I went back to my hotel. Wireless Internet was only available at the reception area, so I stuck around the lounge writing my blog while the hotel’s band was playing, begging people (50 years old and up) to dance. Unpleasant at best, but what wouldn’t you do for proper Internet connection.

Tired, I got to sleep at around midnight. Correction: I went to bed at around midnight, but fell asleep much later. Found it very hard to fall asleep, mostly because of the intimidating, claustrophobia-awakening design of this room.

That stupid room.

Skip this hotel.


Signing off this post at around 2:20am in Lille. Was a good day today. Stay tuned.

Isaac

Friday, October 14, 2011

Day-Off in Nottingham, UK & Concert Day: Motorpoint Arena, Cardiff, UK (October 12-13, 2011)

I usually prefer using “days off” (that is, days in which no concert is being played) for travel, rather than postponing travel to the same day as the concert. I learned the hard way that even when you assign the probability of “0%” to things getting screwed up, something unexpected can always happen when you rely on public transit so why risk it.

On the other hand, I have been to Cardiff before but never been to Nottingham; knowing that Cardiff is a relatively small city, I decided to spend the day off in Nottingham, walk around for a bit and do the train ride to Cardiff the next day.

Nottingham’s city centre—that is, the area with most life in it and where tourists start exploring the city from—is bounded by Upper Parliament Street in the north, Maid Marian Way to the west, the Nottingham Canal to the south and highway A60 to the east. I suppose Upper Parliament Street is so named because it is, really, upper. From the canal at the south to Upper Parliament Street at the north, one would constantly walk in an incline—not a terribly difficult one, but still.

To make a long story short, Nottingham’s city centre is pretty and charming; well, we’re not talking about Prague or Vienna here but still, comparing to other places I’ve been to in the UK, Nottingham is of the prettier ones. A city traveller, who isn’t much into architecture and history, is unlikely to wish to spend more than a couple of days here, though.

Kings Walk is a tiny charming little passage leading from Upper Parliament Street to a pleasant square boasting a few interesting dining options, clubs and a few local pubs. Good spot to hang out, between having lunch at Prezzo (which became my favourite UK-based Italian food chain) and sipping coffee at Caffe Nero, two doors down (free Wi-Fi there. In fact, spotting free Wi-Fi areas in Europe—the UK included—isn’t as easy as it is in North America so once you find one, stick to it).

Went down King Street and took pictures of whatever I found pleasing to the eye.

One of Nottingham’s primary attractions is the Old Market Square, which is the biggest open pedestrianized city square in the UK.

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Tourist’s signs kept nagging me to visit Nottingham’s Castle, so I figured it might be worth the while visiting. Turned out it’s located a few meters away from the location where I got lost yesterday trying to find my hotel.

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I was getting hungry for breakfast already so I skipped the paid visit to the castle’s interior and went to hunt for something to eat.

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First, I considered this:

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… Might not be the best idea, though. A quick mediocre sandwich at Le Petit Four (L4P) turned out not to be a far better alternative, but did the work with respect to eliminate hunger.

Nottingham’s Council House…

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… And a few more pictures to try and demonstrate what Nottingham’s streets are like.

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I certainly loved this one. Look at that, a new deal from McDonald’s: the new all-in-one breakfast wrap: Sausage, bacon, egg, potato and cheese. Of course, it’s in a wrap rather than a bun; wraps are healthier.

Another stroll around…

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… And I went to the canal area. That’s how I discovered that the path from the central railway station to the hotel is about 10 minutes if you know what you’re doing. Apparently Google Maps isn’t set to optimize for routes that involve crossing through a mall.

The canal area is not too bad on the eyes and offers a few inviting patios.

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This all, however, doesn’t take too long to be fully impressed of. Back to the city centre.

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At some point, I was looking at the display of one of the optics stores. Something in the poster looked awfully familiar. Heck, these are my glasses—the exact model and everything. What the hell does this guy think he’s doing, showing them off like that? And why does he look so upset?

(The fine print made me understand why this guy looked familiar. That’s Tobey Maguire.)

Proud of myself for once in my life being able to pick a clothing item, or an accessory, that later becomes a fashionable item rather than the subject for immense ridicule, I proceeded to have lunch. I seemed to recall passing by an interesting Indian restaurant the night before so I decided to give it a shot.

Visiting Tamatanga turned out to be a mistake. Not because of the food—the food was wonderful. The portions, however, were huge and it was so good that I couldn’t just put the plate away. The rest of the day was pretty much ruined as I felt so tired and sleepy after that lunch that I couldn’t do anything except for sitting in my hotel catching up with the world.


It’s a three hours boring train ride from Nottingham to Cardiff. Leaving at 10:00am, I made it for an early morning to allow enough time for breakfast, coffee and a bit of unwinding. Yes, I reached the point in my life when I value unwinding after morning coffee; I suppose I should go ahead and start a family now.

Nottingham is nothing too exciting in the morning. The trams crossing Upper Parliament Street are filled with students going to school (apparently there are some popular campuses here) and others rushing to work, but that’s about it. Not too many people out there for morning coffee or the little pre-work enjoyments I have become so accustomed to living in Canada’s west coast, where work & career typically come second after life’s little presents.

If one ignores for just a second (well, hopefully one could ignore them for more) the noise and pseudo-joy on the face of students here (“pseudo-joy” as you can’t really tell whether their sober or not), one may reach the conclusion that Nottingham isn’t an extremely happy place. I had the same feeling walking through the streets of Dublin, Glasgow and Manchester as well; people seem to be older, more reserved, sometimes worried.

This may have something to do with the economy. Europe’s economy is making its sure way to the toilets as the EMU (European Monetary Union—that is, the Euro Zone) is struggling to find ways to finance its debts. The currency that was once close to pose a threat to the USA dollar as the preferred international currency, is now in such a deep pile of crap that people out there wonder whether it’s going to even survive.

The UK, too: The UK isn’t a part of the EMU, but still. Sifting through the pages of the Daily Mail this morning in Pret-A-Manger, quite a few articles discussed issues that are, directly or indirectly, related to the altogether depressing situation of the economy. Unemployment in the UK is soaring, and is now at its highest in 17 (!) years.

Houses and commercial real-estate is for sale everywhere, for ridiculous prices. A huge number of families, who worked their entire lives to pay their mortgages believing that their house is their “biggest investment”, have now paid off their properties that are not worth much nowadays—nowhere close to what they used to be worth before the subprime crisis hit the world in its testicles.

I seem to recall, a few months ago, reading about some billionaire who went to play poker one night and lost about $20,000,000 within a few hands, and left as if nothing happened. Now, I am not known to be the most aggressive supporter of communism myself. Finances and economy are actually two hobbies of mine, but one doesn’t have to be a communist in order to realize that something in the western civilization’s grasp of “capitalism” is just plain wrong.

It doesn’t matter how rich you are and what made you rich. Beyond a certain amount of wealth, extra millions of dollars are extremely unlikely to change much in your lifestyle; giving it away to those in need may as well be the best thing you can do in that case. Unfortunately, over time, the appetite for wealth only creates bigger appetite for even more wealth; it is apparently very hard to be aware of the worldly benefits of giving when your mind is occupied in finding ways to make your well-standing bank account break new records.

Proponents of extreme capitalism argue that imposing bounds on wealth (for example, by significantly hiking taxes paid by billionaires, as per Warren Buffet’s proposal) is unfair and capping people’s willingness and eagerness to maximize their own potential.

And I say—that’s pure bullshit. The most significant advancements in history were not made possible by extremely rich people spending $20M a night on poker games; they were made possible by hard-working, dedicated people who loved what they were doing. That love & passion fuelled their willingness and eagerness to maximize their own potential; it was not money.


The train ride from Nottingham to Cardiff features quite the repeating view of something along the line of this:

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Which is nothing too interesting, so I decided to spend the ride watching a movie and a couple of Coupling episodes:

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Arrived at Cardiff Central Station at around 1:30pm. I am not new to this place—the Get Lucky tour had a stop here. Back then, I was accompanies by a great gang of four joyful Americans, now I’m all lonely here so I’m not expecting much action to take place.

The same central train station with signs in both English and Welsh—what a strange language; same dirt around the train station area, which disappears the closer you get to Saint Mary Street which is at the core of Cardiff’s central area.

Last year when I stayed in Cardiff, I stayed in a “hotel” named “Sandringham Hotel”, and it turned out to be one of the worst hotels I ever stayed in—a shithole better suited to host rats than people. Having learned my lesson well, I booked the Royal Hotel, a surprisingly affordable three (or was it four? I can’t remember) star hotel right at the city centre. Situated in a very old building, the hotel is very clean and quiet, boasting clean, well-equipped rooms.

Tonight in Cardiff, then, I definitely intend to sleep well.

Quick setup at the hotel and I went downstairs for food—not before I checked TripAdvisor’s website to see what’s worthy of digesting in this city. According to TripAdvisor, “Casanova” is an Italian restaurant located in Cardiff’s city centre and is ranked as #4 restaurant in the city. Who am I to turn down a challenge for Italian food. Went there about fifteen minutes before they shut down (and re-open for dinner), great, tasty 2-course meal for the ridiculous price of just under ten pounds. Go there if you’re in the area.

One of the early indications I had that this place knows its food, was this:

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This is what a menu should look like. Simple, short, not too complex (their dinner menu is different).

Dinner been consumed, I went on a short march along the city centre’s streets:

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The hotel I’m staying in…

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Entrance to the Market Building…

And then a walk along Saint Mary street:

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Cardiff features the Cardiff Castle, which is said to be a mighty castle but, as is my habit when it comes to castles, I sufficed with looking at it from where enemies used to look at—the outside.

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And for some reason, I really wanted to take this following picture. It just looked… I don’t know. Welsh.

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Time left to kill before the concert was happily spent in Coffee #1, the same coffee place whose sofas hosted my ass last year. It’s considered to be the best coffee place in Cardiff and, by the taste of the (decaf; don’t ask. I had to) espresso, I can see it happening.

Cardiff’s city centre area is small, nothing that can’t be thoroughly explored over the course of one day. Most hotels are concentrated in Saint Mary street, and by walking up and down the street and occasionally letting yourself get lost taking unpredictable turns, you’re bound to see most of what the city centre has to offer.

It was around 6:30pm when I left my hotel towards the venue. On my way out, a smiling bartender waved at me from behind the hotel’s bar, a gesture I couldn’t resist responding to despite the fact that she was blonde (what do people find blonde hair so fascinating for, I don’t know. Chestnut-coloured hair… now you’re talking. My first high school crush. Some things don’t change).

That chit-chat took another ten minutes out of my planned pre-concert tea time, although it seemed to have been worth it as it granted me free, unlimited post-concert tea in the hotel’s bar—a promise that ended up being completely and utterly false.

Quick walk to Costa Coffee (this coffee chain must be the UK equivalent of Starbucks in North America’s west coast. They’re everywhere. At least their coffee is, unlike Starbucks’, drinkable), taking pictures along the way:

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And then off to the Motorpoint Arena for the concert.


Last time I was here (May 2010), this placed used to be called “The CIA” (Cardiff International Arena). I wasn’t too sure about that fact when I looked up the map to get to the place, which explains why I was a little concerned. That, plus the fact that no website (other thank MarkKnopfler.com) carried the start time of the concert—not even Live Nation’s website, which informed me that the start time is “TBD”. MarkKnopfler.com mentioned a 7:30pm start time so I acted upon it.

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Long time standing in line to pick up my ticket, mainly courtesy of people who had found it appropriate to carry on arguments with the tickets’ sellers at the counters. A line the length of the Great Wall of China was already behind me when I finally collected my ticket and tried to make my way outside, to stand in yet another queue for entering the venue.

The way the arena is set up is that there are seats in the back and on the sides, and general admission (standing) block at the front. When booking my ticket for the show, I opted at the seated option, however when I entered the arena, I noticed that there weren’t too many people already in so I decided to give my seat up and went for the standing area instead. Parked my bottom on the floor around ten metres from the stage, at the very center and waited for the show to start…

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… Which it did, a few minutes past 7:30pm.


Usually a restful day means a better concert the day after for this band; but after playing four concerts in a row, the day-off was apparently immaterial for the band’s performance as the show yesterday was just as great as the one in Nottingham. Perhaps because they know it’s a relatively short tour, and concerts themselves are shorter than those in full-fledged Knopfler-only tours, who knows.

Same set list (to my recollection) was played, except that we got the usual Done with Bonaparte rather than the extended one (Nottingham was certainly lucky for that one). Something sounded a bit lacking at the beginning of What It Is’ melodramatic part, took seconds to realize that it was the keyboards (playing the soft strings at the background) missing.

It’s those tiny periods when you realize how important and paramount keyboard work is for Mark’s music—nowadays as well as back in the Dire Straits days. Mark’s style is so intertwined with Guy’s keyboard work that the two seem inseparable. I suppose that’s bound to happen when two musicians play together for 30 years.

Cleaning My Guns followed, with Richard opening with the usual 12-strings sequence and then Ian demonstrating vicious drum work before the entire band kicks in. Later, in Sailing to Philadelphia, I was happy to see Jim becoming better involved in Mark’s and Jim’s ending sequence. I seem to recall Guy Fletcher asking for positive and negative comments about the show—I’m not sure what level of detail he was asking for but my own two cents would be to make Jim’s piano work integral during that sequence.

Nothing out of the ordinary for the rest of the concert, except for some unruly concertgoers in the back emitting a fair amount of noise during the opening of Haul Away for Home, a song that really doesn’t call for any sort of noise whatsoever. Brothers in Arms (in regular tuning) and So Far Away concluded the concert shortly before 9:00pm, and I fled the scene (this is a small arena; I prefer to avoid even thinking about how loud things were going to get during Bob Dylan’s show).


Most businesses in Cardiff’s city centre (apart for, of course, pubs) are already closed at 9:00pm, at least during weekdays. The walk back to the hotel was, then, much less exciting than the walk to the arena.

Popped into the hotel’s bar, where I was previously promised an unlimited amount of hot tea in exchange for my company. Unfortunately the bar was a bit too busy for either side to be keeping their part of the deal. A good cup of tea was followed by some hot chocolate, then off to the room to prepare for the next day and get a good night sleep.

Signing off this post in Bournemouth, where I’m sitting on the brilliant terrace of the Marriott. No, I’m not staying here (unfortunately), but I remembered this terrace from my last time here, last year. Great place for some afternoon tea and a few bites.

Later,
Isaac