The Vegas Odyssey for Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon with Arkansas Joel


I am occasionally, like all professional types, required to go to Las Vegas a few times a year for various conventions in my industry. I’ve always hated Las Vegas. I once said to my old friend from Arkansas, Joel (*named changed to protect the guilty), that when I die, if I wake up in a casino and hear the bells and whistles of slot machines going off I will know I’m in Hell. Conversely, I remember mentioning that when I die, if I awake in a beer commercial, on a beach somewhere surrounded by bikini clad young women, that I’ll know I was in Heaven. As my only devout Christian friend, Joel was a little underwhelmed by my world view.

This last winter I was once again forced to go to Vegas for some training and then a customer convention. I was in Vegas so long I was beginning to worry I’d have to register in Nevada to vote. I was absolutely miserable. I was about to lose my mind when suddenly I got a text from my old friend from Arkansas, Joel, alerting me that he and his wife were heading to Vegas the next day. I met Joel over twenty five years ago when I lived for a brief time in Arkansas. I consider those my years in “exile”, like Dante when he was kicked out of Florence. While I was unhappy in Arkansas, the people were nice, and I made a friend for life in Joel. He’s a rock ‘n’ roll and bourbon guy just like me. Joel had a young family at the time, a wife and two young boys, but he always managed to find time to step out for a drink or two with his shiftless exile friend, namely me. He was the only person I knew who could quote scripture and Radiohead in the same conversation. I imagine it was a lot like drinking with Johnny Cash or maybe Dylan post-Christian period.

After I moved back home, Joel and I stayed in touch. At one particularly dark period in my life, Joel came to KC and we were out drinking. I was lamenting something and he asked me if I knew the story of Esau and Jacob. I remember saying, “Joel, the only biblical story I seem to recall goes something like this: “God said to Abraham, “kill me a son”/Abe says “Man you must be puttin’ me on/God say “No”, Abe say “What?”/God say “You can do what you want Abe, but next time you see me comin’ you better run/Abe says “Where you want this killin’ done?”/God says “Out on Highway 61.” My photographic memory of Dylan songs aside, Joel was not impressed. He went on to tell me about Esau selling his birth right and compared it to me. He said I was taking my eye off what was important. It was a good story and it’s stuck with me for years.

While I was excited to see Joel and his wife, Tiffany (*named changed to protect the innocent), they were getting in at a really early hour in the morning, but I was still required to attend the conference I was enrolled in. I had meetings scheduled. Joel and his wife were meeting with U.S. Customs at McCarren Airport and would be free by lunch. My advice to Joel was that he should nap, while I did my conference and we’d meet later in the early evening. My phone started ringing around noon, it was Joel. He was apparently ignoring my advice about the nap. I let the call, (then the calls as he kept calling every thirty minutes) go to voicemail.

Finally, around mid afternoon, I relented and answered the phone. “Kenneth, it’s time to roll… Tiffany is taking a nap, but I’ve stayed up, drinking beer.” This was a bad sign. I wasn’t going to be able to put him off much longer. I begged off for another hour but we made arrangements to meet at the Chandelier Bar at the Cosmopolitan. I ordered a Stella, which apparently irritated him even more. Once a decade Joel turned into what we both describe as “Hostile Joel”. This was heading that direction. “Bubba, when you’re in a bar like this, you don’t order a beer, you just tell the guy to mix you up something special with bourbon.” I was impressed that he actually ordered in that vague way and the guy brought him what looked like an Old Fashion. I killed my beer quickly and ordered “what the gentleman from Arkansas was drinking” but had to almost chug the Old Fashion as Joel had an odyssey of sorts in mind.

“Kenneth, I want you to take a journey with me. It’s going to be long and arduous, we’ll have to walk quite a ways, but in the end, we will find some treasure.” Who was I to argue, Joel was hammered and this sounded like fun. We left the Chandelier Bar and headed toward Caesar’s Palace. Joel seemed to know the way by heart. He had several gift shops and lobby bars he knew about on the route we were taking, so we were able to refresh our beers about every 100 steps. Outside the Caesar’s theater, we ended up hanging around in the gift shop. Elton John and Rod Stewart both do residencies there and they were selling CDs, t-shirts and other memorabilia. I held up a pair of leopard spotted lycra tights and asked if I should buy a pair and wear them the rest of the day. I have a vague memory of singing “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” to the amusement of the shop clerk.

We ended up having to circle back to the Cosmopolitan when Tiffany woke up and called. She was hungry. At the rate we were drinking, I figured a little food couldn’t hurt. When we got to the Cosmopolitan, Joel announced that he was going to share one of Vegas’ greatest kept secrets, known only to the initiated. I shrugged my shoulders and smiled. I saw a flash of Hostile Joel when he said, “I don’t think you’re prepared for this. You’re not worthy of this kind of insider information…you’re not showing the proper reverence.” I thought of Esau, I needed to keep my eye on the prize. I tried to act contrite. We ended up walking down an unmarked hallway and discovered a hidden pizza joint and it was awesome. We took the pizza up to the hotel room and met Tiffany. Joel quickly bolted for the lobby to grab a six pack of beer, since he considered the mini bar prices to be outrageous. I’ve never really known Tiffany that well and was worried about what to say, when she plopped down on the couch across from me in the living room, and blurted out, “You know I always hated you back in Arkansas.” Jeez, first Hostile Joel and now Hostile Tiffany. Where was this evening going?

“Joel would disappear on weekends to go drinking with you. I couldn’t stand you. Of course, I didn’t know you back then, and knowing what I know now, I think you’re kind of a funny guy. I wish I’d known back then, what I know now. I was just a young mother and you were a threat. But, I’ve learned a lot since then…” she said wistfully. I couldn’t help but wonder what she’d learned that had changed her opinion of me. I always got this from the wives and girlfriends of my pals. I was the single guy. It’s so much easier to get pissed at the drunken friend than the boyfriend/husband, and I was always the target. I was hanging on every word, hoping for some real wisdom, when drunken Joel burst back into the room with a six pack. Saved by the drunken bell it appears.

Finally, after hours of drinking and eating pizza, we managed to make it over to the Venetian. One of the bars off the lobby was apparently the location of Joel’s promised “treasure.” Unfortunately they were doing a private dinner for Home Depot or some other retail outlet. Joel bribed the hostess and we slipped into the bar. I quickly hit the bathroom and when I got up to the bar, I realized why we’d taken this long odyssey in the first place. Sitting on the bar, in front of Joel, were two glasses and a bottle of the infamous, rare and hard to find Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon – Do I think you’re sexy, God damn right I do. The bar actually had the 15 year, the 20 year and the 23 year bottles. The 23 year was $250 a shot, so that was out of the question. We did a shot of the 15 year followed up by a shot of the 20 year. Bourbon, served neat. I was in Bourbon Heaven. I’d never had Pappy Van Winkle but now I am a big fan. It may be the best bourbon I’ve ever had. The difference between the 15 year and the 20 year was amazing. I can only wonder in awe what the 23 year was like. It had been a long, drunken, crazy day with Hostile Joel, but it was worth every moment to taste the nectar of the Gods… Pappy Van Winkle. There were many moments during the day I thought of bailing, but unlike Esau, I hung in there… Although I must admit, I wish I’d bought the Rod Stewart leopard-skin tights. It would have been a great picture for Instagram…

Stray Cats: Chris Cornell, David Gilmour and Gary Clark, Jr


In this post’s edition of Stray Cats, my term for random musical notes, I want to highlight three new albums that are soon to be released. Two are solo albums by Chris Cornell (Soundgarden, Audioslave) and David Gilmour (Pink Floyd) who are guys from bands I just love. The third album I want to talk about is by Gary Clark, Jr whose first album Blak and Blu just, pardon the pun, blew me away.

While I always loved Soundgarden and Audioslave after it, Chris Cornell’s solo work has always left me disappointed. The first solo song I ever heard him do was Sunshower from the Great Expectations Soundtrack which I loved. I was hopeful that song was the beginning of a great solo career. Much later he finally came out with his first proper solo album, Euphoria Morning and other than the first single, Can’t Change Me, I was utterly disappointed. I was relieved when he joined the ex-members of Rage Against the Machine to form Audioslave. It was an odd combination but it worked. I read that Cornell, inspired by Johnny Cash’s acoustic version of Soundgarden’s Rusty Cage, decided to go on a solo/acoustic tour highlighting his work in both bands and his solo stuff. He did release a live album from that tour, Songbook, which I thought was fantastic. It was the first thing from his solo work I could actually get into. Unfortunately you’re not going to hear Spoonman live and acoustic on many radio stations, unfortunately. Chris has a new solo album coming out, produced by Soundgarden/Pearl Jam producer Brendan O’Brien, named Higher Truth. The first single, Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart, is apparently informed by that solo/acoustic tour. The underlying driving instrument is an acoustic guitar. It’s not a ballad, but more of a mid tempo rocker. The first time I heard the song I thought, meh, fair. But the more I listen to this song the better I like it. I actually find myself going back to it to listen again, always a good sign. Hopefully this is a harbinger for a good solo album from Cornell. It’s overdue. With Brendan O’Brien at the helm, who tends to bring out the best of the artists he works with, I am encouraged.

David Gilmour, legendary guitarist/vocalist of Pink Floyd’s solo career has been even spottier. I bought his first solo album (on vinyl) from ’78 and either an ex stole it or I sold it at the used record store down in Westport. I do have 1984’s About Face which was better but I could not get into 2006’s On an Island. The new album is called Rattle That Lock. Like his last album, On an Island, most of the lyrics are written by his novelist wife, Polly Samson. I heard that the lyrics are inspired by the 2nd book of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” poem so I was hopeful that maybe this had a Pink Floyd-y type theme to it. The first single is the title track. As usual the guitar solo’ing is exceptional. His guitar is so lyrical, it speaks volumes more than any lyric his wife comes up with. I can recognize his guitar anywhere. The track leaves me cold mostly because of the vocals. I love Gilmour’s voice but on this track he sounds strained, like he’s singing in a key he can’t quite get to. I fear this might be another disappointment but I’m reserving judgment till I hear the full album.

Finally, Gary Clark Jr’s long awaited follow up to Blak and Blu, entitled The Story of Sonny Boy Slim is finally coming out. I even love the title. The first single from the album is The Healing, replete with blistering guitar and a gospel vibe, which you’d expect from a song named The Healing. I really like this song. If you dig the blues, you’ll love this song. Even if you don’t dig the blues you’ll love this song. I read in Rolling Stone that Clark was very conscious of the “sophomore slump” many artists go through. There’s a cliche that you have your whole life to write your first album and 6 months to write your second. He recorded it down in Austin while apparently consuming lots of vodka, which is very BourbonAndVinyl, if you ask me.  He’s taken his time and if this first salvo is any indication, it’s well worth the wait.

It’s shaping up to be quite a fall for rock ‘n’ roll! Listen and Enjoy!

The Rock and Roll Drinking Songs iPod Playlist (for Nancy, my friend)


One of my wife’s best friends, Nancy, passed away a couple of years ago from cancer. It was a very sad time for both my wife, me and everyone who knew Nancy. She was one of my favorite people on the planet. I like to think, even though she was my wife’s friend, that Nancy was my friend too. It was an honor to have known her. Usually you meet your wife’s friends and its a polite if distant relationship at best. That was not the case for Nancy and I. The thing that clicked for Nancy and I was her love of rock ‘n’ roll. She and I were total iPod junkies (we’ll set aside the arguments about sound quality for now, nothing sounds as good as vinyl). Well, in all honesty, we clicked over music and the fact that she loved to drink. Every time she came over to the house for a bout of drinking wine or exotic vodka cocktails, she would always have a new song to play for me. Nevermind the fact that all the songs were usually a woman singing a sad song over a piano, it was just great that she wanted to share her music with me. She came to the house one time with a tiny book crammed with suggestions for different, themed playlists. There were hundreds of them in this book. I miss her dearly, and her photograph, taken with my wife, remains on my bar to this day.

I am terrible at putting together playlists, my wife is the expert on that one. For all I know about music, my tastes vary way too much to put together a coherent playlist. I like old, new, obscure, popular, loud, quiet, party and cerebral music. I like it all. Every time we have a party my wife puts on a play list and without fail someone leans close to the speaker, shushes me and then asks, “Who is this singing, this is awesome?” When I put on a play list at a party, inevitably someone says, “Can we put on that music your wife played at the last party.” Oh, well.

However, when you start a blog entitled “Bourbon and Vinyl” it’s probably inevitable that eventually you’re going to put together a playlist of songs about drinking to listen to, well, while you’re drinking. Most rock songs about drinking fall into two categories: sad laments about the evils of drinking or angry denunciations and warnings about the evils of drinking. However, if you’ve spent as much time listening to music as I have you will eventually find those rare rock songs that celebrate the joys of having a nice cocktail. I’m talking about upbeat songs that celebrate having a good time. So, without further adieu, here is my Drinking Playlist. This one’s for you Nancy, salute!

These songs were chosen in no particular order. I list them in the order I thought of them. I like to put the iPod settings on ‘shuffle songs’ so the songs play in a different order each time I play them. Pour something strong, make sure you’ve got a designated driver and enjoy! Again, don’t drink and drive, people.

  1. AC/DC – Have a Drink On Me, “with a glass I’m pretty handy”, indeed I am.
  2. The Doors – Roadhouse Blues, “I woke up this morning and I got myself a beer…” I have to admit this song totally reminds me of college.
  3. Cream – Strange Brew. This song was recorded in the 60s so I’m not even sure it’s actually about “brew”, but it’s Cream, turn it up loud.
  4. The Rolling Stones – Pass the Wine (Sophia Loren), “Pass the wine and let’s make some love”. That Mick Jagger just knows how to live.
  5. Eric Clapton – Bottle of Red Wine. This is a great, obscure track from Eric’s first solo album produced by Delaney Bramlett. Great guitar, as you’d expect.
  6. The Eagles – Chug All Night. This nugget is off the Eagles’ first album. It’s obscure but has a great dueling guitar solos at the end.
  7. ZZ Top – Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers. We’ve got wine and liquor on the list, we needed a lusty beer drinking song. Billy Gibbons’ guitar is amazing on this song.
  8. Lynyrd Skynyrd – Whiskey Rock-a-Roller, “women, whiskey and rock ‘n’ roll is all I understand.” Oh, Ronnie Van Zant, as the Greeks used to say, “those who the Gods love die young.”
  9. Elton John – Elderberry Wine, “drunk all the time, feeling fine on elderberry wine”. I don’t even know what an elderberry is, but Elton makes it sounds great.
  10. Thin Lizzy – Whiskey in a Jar, there’s also a great version of this song by Metallica, but I went with the original.
  11. Kiss – Cold Gin. Luckily I didn’t get into music until well after the Kiss craze was over. I had friends who were in the Kiss Army and I’m pretty sure they’ve all hidden those photographs, if not out right burned them. I was never crazy about Kiss but they have a handful of songs that I do enjoy and this is one of them. Its gin and its cold. Let’s have some.
  12. Van Halen – Romeo Delight, “I’m taking whiskey to the party tonight and I’m looking for somebody to squeeze”. This describes every Saturday night I had in college. Diamond Dave at his best.
  13. AC/DC – Carry Me Home. This may be the funniest song on this list. There does seem to be a preponderance of drinking songs in the AC/DC lexicon. This one is from the old Bon Scott (RIP) days in which the protagonist is pleading with a lady at the bar to give him a place to crash. I think we’ve all been there.
  14. Foreigner – Double Vision. Title track from their second album. Great riff.
  15. Boston – Party. OK, I’ll admit this song has nothing to do with drinking, per se. But any song with lyrics like, “there’s a party and nobody cares what we’re doing there” at least has the spirit. And every good playlist should have some Boston on it.
  16. Van Halen – Bottoms Up. I think Diamond Dave is talking about a glass, but he might just be talking about a woman…either way, it just works.
  17. Scorpions – Blackout, “I had to blackout…” Not something I would advise anybody who isn’t a German rock star with a cadre of handlers, drivers and lawyers to manage this situation. But it is a monster riff.
  18. Guns n Roses – Nighttrain, “take your credit card to the liquor store”. Ah Axl, what went wrong?
  19. Green Day – Hitchin’ a Ride. Again, I’m not sure the protagonist is falling off the alcohol wagon or something more sinister. You never know with punk rock. Great song, though.
  20. AC/DC – Whiskey on the Rocks, “a double or a shot”. I prefer mine neat.
  21. Rod Stewart – Cigarettes and Alcohol. I know this is an Oasis song but Rod seems like he’d be a lot more fun to drink with. I saw Oasis and frankly the lead singer, Liam seems like a dick.
  22. Airbourne – Cheap Wine & Cheaper Woman. These guys are a poor man’s AC/DC from Australia. Something about this song just appealed to me.
  23. Rod Stewart – Legless, “I’m in the mood, I’m in the mood to get shit-faced tonight”. Now there’s something you don’t hear in a rock song every day. I am so delighted Rod started writing songs again.
  24. Sammy Hagar – Mas Tequila. Well you knew this guy was going to be on the drinking playlist. He started a tequila company.
  25. Hell Yeah – Alcohol and Ass, a song I’m proud to tell you my wife turned me onto. I laugh every time I hear this song.
  26. The Rolling Stones & Buddy Guy – Champagne and Reefer (Live), “give me champagne when I’m thirsty…” This was originally done by Muddy Waters and I was tempted to put his version on this playlist, but Buddy Guy’s guitar will melt your face off on this live version done with the Stones.
  27. Lou Reed, “The Power Of Positive Drinking” – A late discovery for me… love it.

Well, there you have it, my Drinking Songs Playlist. Turn it up loud and as always, Enjoy!

Stray Cats (Random Music Notes) – Keef, The Faces, Rod and JT


As I mentioned in the ‘Mission Statement’ for Bourbon And Vinyl, I am very focused on older artists making new music. These older “classic rock” artist’s new music tends to get overlooked or ignored completely these days. I have already tried to shine a light on the amazing Fats Domino tribute album, Goin’ Home and will from time to time try to throw some light on other newer music from the artists who have meant the most to me. Occasionally this will take the form of what I call “Stray Cats”, named for the great Rolling Stones tune, which is my way of organizing a few random thoughts.

Keith Richards has a new album coming out in September, Crosseyed Heart. Keith’s first solo album, Talk Is Cheap was a tour de force. It’s been described as the best Stones album not made by the Stones. His follow-up Main Offender didn’t quite have the same energy as Talk, but still had some great tracks like, 999 and Demon. I don’t know what the new album will hold but I can not stop listening to the first track, Trouble. It’s a classic Keith riff. He’s working with his old buddy and X-Pensive Wino partner Steve Jordan on the production. Jordan also provides some great drumming on this track. Intrepid studio guitarist Waddy Watchel (Steve Nicks, Don Henley, Warren Zevon) provides some Mick Taylor-esque guitar solo’ing. This tune is just fun to turn up loud. It doesn’t hurt that it could be the theme song for my wife’s cat, but that’s another story and I don’t want to get off topic.

One of rocks greatest and most overlooked bands, The Faces, has finally answered my prayers and will reunite. Well, I should say partially reunite as Ian MacLagan sadly passed away last year and Ronnie Lane passed away quite a long time ago. The Faces boasted Rod Stewart as their front man, Ronnie Wood (later of Stones fame) on guitar, Kenny Jones (later of the Who) on drums, with MacLagan on keyboards and Lane on bass. The period of 1970 to 1975 when the Faces were together were not coincidentally the time period of Rod’s greatest solo work. These guys have been rumored to be getting back together for years but it always gets scuttled at the last minute. Rod didn’t even show up when they were inducted to the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame. I tend to agree with Ronnie Wood that Rod’s money guys and handlers don’t want him doing anything where he has to split the check. So we have to settle for a one night, one-off reunion for Prostate Cancer in the UK on Sept 5th. Lets hope a) someone has the sense to tape these guys and b) that this might spur on some further Faces activity in 2016.

Speaking of Rod Stewart, he also has a new album coming out in October, Another Country. Have no fear Rod isn’t going country music on us. Many of us had given up on Rod Stewart when he quit writing his own songs and then started doing those awful American Songbook schmaltzy, crap records. While writing his autobiography Rod apparently became inspired to write again and released the album Time a few years ago. Well, I’d given up on Rod but since I’d been publicly bitching about him not writing his own stuff any more, when he finally did, I felt obligated to buy the album. And I’ll tell you what, I was damn surprised. It was a solid record. Now, apparently inspired by current events, Rod wrote a collection of songs from the view point of soldiers who are away from home, in “another country”, hence the title. Rod has always been a fan of the “letter to home” style songs, just put on You Wear It Well as a refresher. His first single from the song is another tune that’s in high rotation at the house. Its a Mumford-y thing called Love Is. You can find the video on YouTube. I shouldn’t like this song as much as I do, but damn is it catchy. It’s a very folky tune, back to his roots. I have no idea what the album will be like, but this catchy Love Is has me hopeful.

Finally, James Taylor has also returned to writing his own music. He hadn’t released an album in like 10 years but returned recently with Before This World. Now, James isn’t exactly rock ‘n’ roll, but the guy sings like an angel. I used to put on his Greatest Hits album, and it was money with the ladies… of course, those records are sealed. The new album is brief at only 10 songs, and it sort of quickly glides by but its a solid effort. It’s nothing earth shaking but its a pleasant album for a hungover Sunday. And I will admit, my daughter came in the room while I was playing this album and said, “I feel this is a guy we only listen to at Christmas…” Out of the mouths of babes, as they say.

Thus concludes the Stray Cats for today. My advice is check out a few of these tunes. You may find something you like. Enjoy!

Minneapolis’ Nye’s Polonaise and the Weird Ride Across the Mississippi River


Weird stuff happens to me when I go out drinking in strange towns. I was traveling recently and this is a vague approximation of what went down on that weird and twisted night…

I have business these days that takes me to Minneapolis. I never thought in my wildest dreams I’d spend time in Minnesota. When I was younger the word Minneapolis conjured visions of people ice fishing, Bud Grant and the Purple People Eaters with their fans shivering in the blowing snow. In short, I always considered Minneapolis a winter wasteland. But then I started to travel there for business and all the perceptions of my youth flew out the window.

After my first trip to the “Twin Cities” I discovered that Minneapolis is truly a hidden gem of a city. I mean, the winters are brutal, but I think most of the natives are Nordic types descended from actual Vikings and they don’t seem to care. In the winter they have an intricate system of walk ways, similar to an ant farm I briefly had as a child, to navigate the cold streets. In the summer, the city opens like a flower. Granted I think summer only lasts about 36 hours up there, but it is awesome.  The downtown has a long road, whose name escapes me, that is filled with cafes, restaurants and groovy bars with great live music. Each of these places seems to have an outside patio and when I was up there recently the patios were packed with people who were partying like bears coming out of hibernation. Well, if bears partied when they came out of hibernation instead of eating salmon.

I was staying at my usual hotel where I ran into a business acquaintance of mine, Keith (*name changed to protect the guilty). Keith, who like me is not from Minnesota, was there with a small group of hearty natives and they were doing what I’ve noticed many Minneapolis folks do – drinking like Vikings. After a drink or two, I realized that Keith was pretty loaded on the rye he was drinking and I was about to slip up to the room when suddenly I was pulled into this hearty mob because they told me they wanted to “show Keith and you downtown”. What harm could that cause?

We started on the roof patio of a British pub that was packed with Twins fans but soon got restless. There was a pregnant woman in the bar and that always causes anxiety in drinkers, unless you’re at a Kid Rock show where I’m guessing it’s common. Someone in the group of natives decided we would pub crawl all the way down this main drag of bars and at the very end we’d find an oyster bar where we would dine. I’m no seafood expert but based on geography I was wondering what kind of quality oysters one would find in Minnesota, but hey, I wasn’t going to argue with a group of Vikings. We hit a small jazz bar where we were asked to quiet down as we were drowning out the vocalist who was trying to scat. I hate scatting and frankly I thought we were doing a public service in shouting her down. We hit a bar/restaurant with a vaguely Asian theme and then a tequila bar. Things were getting out of hand. I came to realize that we were never going make the oyster bar, which I was quietly thankful for. One of the natives, while we were in the jazz bar, told a story about a ruptured testicle which had also greatly reduced my desire to eat oysters. I mean, do the math there.

Eventually, the crowd began to thin out. It was Keith and I and two of the natives, one dude and a lady a few years younger than me. The gal was saying the oyster bar was too far to keep going. I thought this would be my chance to get back to my hotel room and barricade the door, when suddenly someone said something about a place called Nye’s.

“Yes, yes, we must take Keith and his friend to Nye’s. It’s essential that they see it before its torn down in a few months.”

I had never heard of Nye’s but apparently it is a Minneapolis institution. Once voted one of “America’s Best Bars”, it was local landmark. Alas, it had been destined to close in the near term, it was losing money. My interest was piqued. I had to check this place out. The full name of the bar is Nye’s Polonaise. It was opened in 1950 and apparently for Minneapolis’ youth it’s a right of passage to go to Nye’s and buy your first legal drink. The only thing that made me feel this might be dubious is that it was a piano bar and had a “famous” polka room. Every family reunion I attended as a child there was some drunk, distant cousin of my father’s with an accordion so naturally I was alarmed by the polka reference.

I incorrectly assumed Nye’s was somewhere on this main drag we were meandering on but I was wrong. We were going to have to catch a cab to get to Nye’s. This concerned me because I knew despite how far we’d wandered thus far, I could still get back to my hotel on foot, if it became necessary to run to avoid the authorities. A cab ride seemed dicey but the next thing I knew I was in the back of a cab, rushing through the Minneapolis night time toward’s Nye’s.

I’m no geography expert, but I had no idea the Mississippi River cut through Minneapolis. But suddenly we were jetting across a massive bridge, headed over the Big Muddy. I couldn’t help but wonder where the hell we were going. Keith, who was slightly drunker than I was, was more disconcerted than me. He slurred, “Hey, wait a minute, nobody told me we were going to Canada?” He was apparently as confused by the Mississippi River as I was, except he apparently thought we were crossing the border. I was also wondering how close Minneapolis was to Canada but I was too drunk to be sure. Keith, who seemed to become more agitated the farther out on the bridge we got, suddenly, yelled, above the wind blowing in the open window of the cab, “I don’t have my passport?” The mood in the car was turning weird. The cab driver, a kind Ethiopian gentlemen was laughing hysterically because we were stupid enough to think we were in Canada.

When at last we pulled up in front of the bar, Keith I leaned into the window of the cab driver and I said, “I only have American dollars, do you still take those in Canada?” which only caused Keith to freak out more and the cab driver to laugh louder. He kept trying to reassure us we were still in Minneapolis though we were having trouble understanding him through all the laughing he was doing.

A few steps later, we were in Nye’s…and it was spectacular. Keith whispered in my ear, “Don’t be alarmed, they may be speaking French here, we might be Quebec…” and he quickly staggered up to the bar. All the furniture was covered in what looked like plastic seat covers. This was the grand daddy of all dive bars. In the corner by the front door was a piano behind which was an older woman and she was belting out what I believe might have been a Taylor Swift song, but how would I know what that was?

As quickly as Keith had run up to the bar, the woman we were with kicked her shoes off and sat down squarely at the piano, right across from the singer. Her shoulders hunched over and she stared at the pianist with an intensity I’d never seen before in a bar. There was a college a girl who was dancing around the piano area and a line from a Springsteen song popped into my mind, “Angel starts to shuffle like she ain’t got no brains…” This was getting weirder.

An elderly woman was given the microphone and stood up and did a stunning rendition of Strangers In the Night, during which a round of drinks arrived at the piano that drunken Keith had sent over. Next a bald guy at the end of the bar was given the microphone. He sang an old 50s rock song but he changed the lyrics of the song so it was about a man with bad dandruff. He was like that guy on PBS, Mark Russell, who used to do piano based, politically satirical songs. After the song he was introduced to Keith and I as “the local satirist.” Keith muttered, a little loud, “That’s not satire, that’s just stupid.” The Local Satirist was not amused.

He asked where we were from and I muttered, “Kansas.” He said, “Kansas’ main exports are coal and wheat, which business are you in?” I wasn’t sure that was true or not but he was angry with Keith and I didn’t want to get kicked out. Before I could answer his query, Keith leaned forward and said, “We’re coal barons, don’t we look like it?”

Luckily at this point, the woman we were with requested to sing “the Billy Joel song about the picture from Sears.” Somehow, the woman behind the piano knew she was talking about Scenes From an Italian Restaurant. But since we’d already ridiculed the Local Satirist and claimed to be Coal Barons, the pianist was refusing to play a song that long unless we tipped extra. After a quick collection we tipped her $20 and I expected this woman we were with, who had been very boisterous all night, to blow the lid off the Billy Joel song but when they gave her the microphone, suddenly I could tell she was seized by what Hunter S Thompson called “the fear.” The best she could do was mumble, in a low voice, “Bottle of red…uh…. bottle of…white.” The pianist was underwhelmed.

The evening began to devolve from there. I seem to remember Keith staggering and falling into the college girl who was dancing around and a table of drinks being spilled. I was going to slip into the polka room, next door, where a band was playing loudly but I decided discretion is the better part of valor and finally agreed with Keith, “leaving, what a good idea.” We quickly staggered out to the curb where I pulled up Uber and summoned a driver.

Keith seemed calmed by this momentarily but then suddenly panicked and said, “Does Uber come to Canada? Without my passport, I’ll have to ride in the trunk…”

Maybe next time, I’ll go to Nye’s without Keith. It really is a spectacular bar.

Satellite Radio, Katrina and Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino

2560px-RIPFatsYouWillBeMissedLow9**Picture from Wikipedia

For reasons unclear, during the George W Bush administration, among other things, they recklessly deregulated the radio industry. In the past, there were limits to how many radio stations one person or company could own. Once the W administration deregulated the radio industry, those limits were removed. There was quickly a consolidation of radio station ownership by a limited number of corporations. As these big conglomerations grabbed up all these formerly independent radio stations, they did what corporations do – they standardized. So we went from thousands of independently owned and operated radio stations to McRadio. Formats and playlists were all changed to a repeatable, profitable formula. The playlists were shockingly short and apparently based on what was popular in the past. On rock radio you are more likely to hear Springsteen’s Born to Run for the millionth time instead of The Rising. In essence, they killed conventional radio with the exception of very few stations like WXRT in Chicago, which remains the gold standard of FM radio. Nothing positive comes from this sort of thing.

Luckily, about this time, satellite radio came along. I signed up as soon as I could and for me, terrestrial radio was from then on, dead. I was thrilled with the dozens of stations and formats. But even with all those choices it was hard to keep up with  new music releases. Social media and the “inter web” help but sometimes music just slips through the cracks for me. I was surprised a couple of weeks ago when I was in the car, listening to satellite radio and I heard Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers doing I’m Walkin’ an old Fats Domino tune. I had no idea where that song came from. I had never heard it anywhere. It was an awesome song. How could I have missed this?

I’ve always loved Fats Domino. For me he belongs on the rock and roll Mount Rushmore along side Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. His piano playing is such a fundamental influence on everybody who came after him we tend to forget how important he was. You can have Jerry Lee Lewis, give me Fats Domino. Even his songs about breaking up had a joyful resilience to them. Fats always seemed happy. For me Fats was always the sound of New Orleans. When you travel to the Big Easy you see Louis Armstrong all over the place, but for me, Fats is the man when I think about New Orleans.

As I started to research where this Tom Petty version of Fats’ song came from, I found an article about Hurricane Katrina. Apparently Fats was in New Orleans, at home, when the hurricane hit. He had refused to leave his home, apparently concerned for his wife who was ill and eventually had to be airlifted out of his house by a helicopter. There were rumors that he had drowned and someone actually spray painted RIP on the front of his house. Katrina was a horrible disaster, but luckily Fats was spared and was actually very active in raising money for displaced musicians.

All of that horrible back drop is what led to the 2007 tribute album for Fats, called Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino. I don’t know if this album was put together to raise money for Fats or for the New Orleans’ musicians who had been up-ended by Katrina but there was a charitable intention for the record. Now, tribute albums can be dicey. Some artists choose to cover the artist being honored with extreme reverence. Some artists choose to turn their cover versions inside out and completely reinvent the song. For the most part the best tunes on tribute albums find some middle ground between reverence and experimentation. Typically there is such a diversity of artists that tribute albums tend to be a bit of a hot mess. There was an Amnesty International tribute album for Bob Dylan a few years ago and it was all over the place. I tend to treat tribute albums like a buffet – pick the few songs I like and leave the rest. That’s what is so remarkable about this album, it hangs together so well. I think the key to the coherence of this amazing record boils down simply – its Fats’ songs. There is common ground on these songs that holds the album together despite a wild diversity of artists and styles. The other thing about this record that is remarkable is the level of talent that showed up to honor the Fat Man.

There are not one but two Beatles who actually contributed to this record. John Lennon’s 1975 version of Ain’t That a Shame from the Rock ‘n’ Roll album starts this album in a rollicking way. Paul McCartney, brilliantly teamed with New Orleans’ pianist Alan Toussaint, turns in a reverent version of I Want to Walk You Home. The contribution by these two could sum up their partnership – McCartney reigned in Lennon a little bit and Lennon pushed McCartney. Regardless they both turned in great songs for this record.

The list of great artists only begins with the two Beatles. Elton John does a great version of Blueberry Hill. Robbie Robertson, Randy Newman and Neil Young, yes, Neil Young all show up and contribute great songs. The diversity of the artists on this record is amazing: Willie Nelson (country), B.B. King and Taj Mahal (blues) and Herbie Hancock (jazz) all turn in distinctive versions of Fats’ tunes and yet they all seem to fit together. B.B. King’s version of Goin Home is one of the true standout tracks on here.

Bonnie Raitt, Lucinda Williams and Norah Jones all contribute great tracks. However, I must admit, an artist I wasn’t familiar with, Corinne Bailey Rae is probably the stand out female artist on this set with her live from Tipitina’s One Night of Sin. Give me a lady singing about sin any day.

It’s a treat to hear artists of this caliber performing beloved songs by Fats Domino but the guy who blows the doors off the album is Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant. Plant’s voice is like fine wine, it becomes more nuanced and smoother as it ages. He has two contributions here. He does a soulful vocal turn on It Keeps Rainin’, which probably should of been the title of this album considering its flood backstory. But its his take on Valley of Tears that is the best thing on this album. It’s just Robert Plant’s soaring voice, accompanied by the Soweto Gospel Choir and some percussion. It’ll give you goose bumps.

There are really very few mis-steps here. Everything Lenny Kravitz does any more sounds like a cheap imitation of Sly and the Family Stone, and he doesn’t fail to do that on this record. Art Neville’s Please Don’t Leave Me is so stripped down it sounds like a demo. Bruce Hornsby’s Don’t Blame Me is recorded at such a tempo you wonder if he was in a hurry to catch a cab. There are some local New Orleans’ bands that show up toward the end of the set. If you’re not into horns and piano you might not enjoy those songs but then again, if you don’t like horns and piano you probably didn’t like Fats to begin with.

Listen and Enjoy!