Sunday, May 31, 2009

Travelblogue: Memorial Day in Music City

Life has gotten pretty hectic lately, so I didn't get a chance to post about this earlier. But I'm here now, and would like to say the following:

I spent my Memorial Day Weekend in Nashville, Tennessee.

This statement has led to some interesting reactions from the people I know. A number of people thought it was cool and liked the photos I had to share from my trip. But others were confused and asked why I would go to Nashville, what could have prompted me to go to Nashville, and what exactly is there for one to see in Nashville?

My response? I just wanted to go somewhere I hadn't before, I also wanted to experience more of the south, and I (rightly) figured that you can always find something to do wherever you decide to go on vacation... even when it's not the most glamorous, obvious place to go.

In some ways, Nashville is no different from Any City, USA. It's got some really spiffy looking metropolitan buildings. It's got some rundown, run-of-the-mill looking shops and restaurants. There's that one street that's really lively and happening. Then there's a bunch of random boring streets that might make you wonder what prompted you to visit in the first place. But ultimately there's a lot to experience, and you can find some really neat things along the way. And that's exactly what happened to me. Here's what I enjoyed about my trip:

1. Nashville puts the music in Music City
Country music is not something I listen to everyday — when I do listen to it, it's either of the "alt country" variety, or a song by one of the greats like Johnny Cash or Patsy Cline. But despite the fact that country music isn't exactly a huge part of my life, I'm still a music fan. I enjoy seeing other people immersing themselves in it, and I love learning about music history. This is something I got to do in Nashville. First stop — the Country Music Hall of Fame, where I got to see everything from a three-neck guitar-like instrument that belonged to an early country musician to Elvis' gold Cadillac and Hank Williams' stuffed squirrels. I got a perfect glimpse into the world of country music, with its hard work and themes of heartbreak, alongside some of its tackier gaudy mementos. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Next up, the Ryman Auditorium, which was home of the Grand Ole Opry for a good thirty years or so. Since we didn't have access to the kind of money needed for a rental or taxi that could get us to the current Opry House, my friend and I decided to check out the Ryman. And it was a spectacular treat. We took a backstage tour, which meant we got to go inside the dressing rooms (which are actually newer additions to this building that first opened in 1892). We were able to learn fun anecdotes about country stars, past and present, and about how performers like Elvis, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash all managed to get banned from the Opry in some way. By the time our tour was done, we got to do a self-tour, which allowed us to take pictures on the stage of the Ryman, sit in the pews, and view some fun memorabilia like a shiny dress that once belonged to Loretta Lynn. It was definitely a worthwhile visit!

2. The history (beyond the Grand Ole Opry)
There's a lot of different historical things you can see in Nashville, and some of these things overlap with music (as evidenced above). But there's a lot more. For one thing, you can visit plantations! We didn't have time to visit the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson's old haunt, but we did get to go to the outskirts of the city and visit the Belle Meade Plantation, where we got a fun history lesson about the grounds' mansion, its relation to horse racing, and stories about the family it once belonged to. Our mansion tour guide told us that about sixty to seventy percent of the house's original belongings had been recovered when the historical society took over, so that made for a really nice authentic experience. And they were also recreating the daughter's wedding, so we got a chance to see wedding decor/food from the old days. The grounds outside the plantation are also beautiful and educational, featuring cabins, a doll house that children once played in, a carriage house with tons of old carriages inside, and more. It was a nice way to step back in time for a little while.

Another cool bit of history we discovered — the remains of James K. Polk and his wife on the grounds of the State Capitol in Nashville. We stumbled across their little memorial by accident while wandering the Capitol's grounds alone on the Saturday that we landed. It was definitely one of the more unexpected items I planned on finding there, but it was also a worthy discovery nonetheless.

3. The food
While we had a tendency to grab breakfast at Panera, since we knew it was affordable and featured comforting breakfast foods we were familiar with, we tried to find ways to enjoy authentic southern food. Our first night there, we stopped at BB King's, a popular blues club that features live music. (And some fun nicely designed t-shirts and whatnot in their "gift shop" area. The items sold are great souvenirs that don't really look like souvenirs). We wound up getting some delicious chicken, garlic mashed potatoes, and white cheddar mac 'n' cheese. Simple, but delightful. Determined to get grits the next night, we asked the waiter at Big River if we could get a side of grits (which otherwise came with shrimp) to accompany our meals. As my friend put it, "We're from the North..." and were clearly in the mood to try this little Southern staple. Turns out, I really liked the grits, even though they're just a very basic comfort food. Ours had some white cheddar in them, so I think that's what ended up making the grits so enjoyable. It was a fun, basic introduction to the region's food.

4. The people's commitment to Southern hospitality
I'm in my early twenties and can sometimes look a bit younger according to people I know. Yet I've never been called ma'am so much in my life! Everyone — including an elderly gentleman working as a tour guide at the Ryman — called me "ma'am," while addressing me. And people took out time to help me and my friend out whenever we seemed to need a little help with our sightseeing. These all sound like very basic things, and it's not like I don't experience politeness up north, but there is something very sweet and sincere about the people of Nashville. Their kindness was a pleasant supplement to our trip.

5. The "odd and end" sights
The AT&T building (or "Batman Building" as pictured at the top of this post), hokey tourist shops, the number of stores selling boots and cowboy hats — all of these were really fun things to see on the side while we were vacationing in Nashville. In fact, I might have gone a little overboard trying on different hats. But I didn't bring any back, so I consider that a rare moment of self restraint.

There is also a replica of the Parthenon in Centennial Park, a beautiful structure featuring an enormous golden-colored statue of Athena.

And another "odd and end," though it doesn't really seem to fit anywhere here: the Cheekwood Botanical Garden, which houses an art museum and tons of gardens including a water garden, herb area, Japanese garden, and more. The grounds are beyond huge, and there's so much to see that one might as well spend an entire day in there. Sadly, rain and a decision to eat something wound up cutting our visit short. But I can totally imagine myself going back to Cheekwood someday just to explore it further.


All in all, it was a tremendously successful trip. And while I wish I'd had a car of my own to get around in from time to time, there really was plenty for us to see and do in the two-and-a-half days we spent there. Next time I go back, I'll try to venture out further and see what else I can find.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Franz Ferdinand play NYC's Roseland Ballroom, 5/7/09

Franz Ferdinand first came on the scene five years ago, with a self-titled debut that is arguably still their most popular album to this day. But the band is still alive and kicking, and currently touring in support of their latest album Tonight: Franz Ferdinand.

I finally got a chance to see them live at New York City's Roseland Ballroom this past Thursday, and I'm glad to say that they truly lived up to their reputation as a fantastic live act. The band members seemed genuinely excited to perform in the packed venue, and their constant energy was infectious, causing attendees to dance and sing along throughout the show.

Frontman Alex Kapranos oozed confidence, swaggering and pouting in true rock star fashion, while jumping around and throwing in some high kicks. It was impressive to see how well he could still play while performing these antics. He also threw in a bit of humor, poking fun at guitarist/keyboardist Nick McCarthy, who injured his foot during this tour. Kapranos referred to McCarthy as the man with "one and a half feet," and the good-natured McCarthy grinned and made it a point to wave his crutches around every time he hobbled on and off stage.

As far as the set was concerned, the band did a good job of mixing things up by including well-loved songs from their debut, as well as their previous album You Could Have It So Much Better. The band fiddled with the tempo on songs like "Walk Away," and there were times when Kapranos just skipped the singing altogether to let the audience fill in the words. Songs like " 40' " (much "trippier" live) became major highlights during the show.

The concert wound down with a high-energy encore, starting with "Ulysses" and continuing with "Lucid Dreams," which was the epitome of organized chaos. Opening act Born Ruffians joined Franz Ferdinand for the latter, pounding away at a drum kit during the song's synthesizer-fueled ending. Franz Ferdinand then brought down the house with their final song of the night, "This Fire," nearly causing a riot near the front of the stage where attendees danced and jumped around in a fervor that caused the floor to shake. "We're gonna burn this city," indeed.

Watch an excerpt of Franz performing "The Fallen" (the opener from You Could Have It So Much Better) during Thursday night's concert, and then check out the full setlist below:

Setlist: Bite Hard, Dark of the Matinee, No You Girls, Tell Her Tonight, The Fallen, Michael, Turn it On, Walk Away, Twilight Omens, Do You Want To, Take Me Out, What She Came For, 40', Outsiders

Encore: Ulysses, Lucid Dreams, This Fire

(Crossposted at Pop Wenches)