Spotlight: Rival Sons,Great Western Valkyries

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Just when I thought new rock and roll might be dead… enter, Rival Sons…they pull me back in…

I was sitting in the home office last night, lamenting the fact that I didn’t have anything to write about. I’ve been spending too much time in 2016 writing RIP pieces for my rock heroes. There wasn’t a lot of music I had teed up to write about. I keep a running list of ideas but none were jumping out at me. The Rock Chick wandered through the office and quickly surmised my predicament, “You know, you don’t always have to write about “retro” music, some people like new music… gotta keep up with the times.” Oh, thank you my muse… her support is sometimes…underwhelming. I must admit the Rock Chick has a life-time ban here at BourbonAndVinyl for criticizing my grammatical correctness and my sentence structure.

I quickly consulted my list of things to write about when I found a crinkled-up cocktail napkin with the words, “Rival Sons kick ass” scrawled on it. My list isn’t on one piece of paper… it’s fluid. Sometimes “you just have to let art… flow over you.” About a month ago, I went to see Black Sabbath live at the Sprint Center… I documented the experience in these very pages. I partied that night with the Four Horsemen of the Salina Apocalypse and apparently after the show, while being force-fed bourbon, I wrote myself this cocktail napkin note. This could be the creative spark I was looking for. Before we headed into the show, at the bar one of the Four Horsemen had said, “you’re going to love this opening act, Rival Sons, very Zeppelin-esque.” I awoke the next morning with a terrible hangover and the aforementioned cocktail napkin. There was a while there, the day after the show, when I feared I was going to have to have my blood exchanged with the blood of some young virgin, Swiss school children the way Keith Richards did… beautiful people, the Swiss…but I digress.

The night of the concert, I recall being very impressed with Rival Sons. Typically during an arena show during the opening act, the fans stay outside the concert, near the beer lines and restrooms. Not so for Rival Sons. The crowd mostly stayed in their seats and watched the set. I must say, these guys were very charismatic on stage. Not a lot of banter, just straight up, bluesy, rock and roll. I was a tad put off that the lead singer was barefoot, that unwashed hippy stuff was never my thing, but other than that these guys shredded. Guitarist Scott Holiday especially caught my attention. I must admit, barefoot vocalist Jay Buchanan was pretty talented as well.

As a result of all of this, I picked up their 2014 album ‘Great Western Valkyries’. These guys have been compared to Zeppelin and Sabbath in the press, but listening to the album, only the title has a Sabbath feel. Well, that and the first track, “Electric Man”, which has a very Sabbath, riffy sound to it. “Electric Man” jumps out at you like the slap of angry girlfriend. It’s all grimy guitar and fuzzy vocals. It’s rock and roll like I didn’t think was being recorded any more. I will admit that this band is everything I thought Wolfmother would be. Frankly, I think these guys are better.

While Rival Sons’ music is informed by Zeppelin, and you can hear the references, they make it their own and make it all sound fresh. “Play the Fool” has a crunchy riff that is reminiscent of “Misty Mountain Hop” but it’s repurposed and wonderful here. “Secrets” in an odd way reminds me of “How Many More Times” but again, that may be me making the connection vs the band doing so. There is an element of Zeppelin here, but I also hear a mixture of all their influences – “Good Luck” and “Good Things” have a feel of early 60’s white blues bands like Them, perhaps a touch of Butterfield and especially the Animals. It’s probably the organ in the rhythm section that makes you feel that way. The influences are there, but not as obvious as say, Lenny Kravitz.

I will admit, the song “Rich and the Poor” is the only mis-step here. The lyrics are cringe-worthy… It’s a rare mistake on an otherwise solid record. Admittedly, the music is still strong, but the lyrics are ludicrous.

The album ends with two epic tunes. “Where I’ve Been” is one of my favorite blues rock songs in a long, long time…”how could you love me when you know where I’ve been?”… who hasn’t asked that question. The finale and centerpiece to this record is the “Dazed and Confused”-like album closer, “Destination On Course”. “Destination…” is an epic blues tune. They even bring in backing vocals from the Exorcist, which probably brings the Sabbath comparisons… The guitar solo on this song is worth the price of admission. What Holiday is doing to that guitar should be reported as a crime, and that’s a good thing.

“Great Western Valkyries” is in high rotation here in the BourbonAndVinyl room… and I advise you to buy it quickly, pour something strong and turn it up… It may not be life changing like listening to Zeppelin the first time, but it is refreshing to hear a band play hard-core, blues rock again. This is definitely a band to keep an eye on. I expect big, big things. As my friend Blake texted to me recently, “Are you ready to rock?” Thank Heaven I am…

Cheers!

The Rock’n’Roll Concerts That Got Away

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Like Sinatra when he sang, “Regrets, I’ve had a few, ” I’ve had a few regrets when it comes to concerts I could have attended. Well, that and a few women I’ve known, but those records are sealed. But I feel like Frank when he went on to sing about those regrets, “But then again, too few to mention”. But then again, here I am on a Saturday night, brooding and mentioning those regrets. AC/DC is in town this weekend and I didn’t even make an effort to attend, something 13 year old me would have been pissed about, but I digress. The shows I missed out on aren’t concerts like, “Oh, I wish I’d seen Hendrix in Golden Gate Park…” I wasn’t even “potty trained” at that time. These are shows I could have actually attended without the miracle of Time Travel. These are the 6 shows that I missed by sheer stupidity. I think we’ve all been there… the chance to see a show, the ticket in our hand or dangled in front of us, but for some inexplicable reason, we didn’t go… Here’s a tribute/list of shows that I could have seen…. oh, if only, as the Faces sang, “I knew then what I know now…”

  1. U2, The Joshua Tree Tour, 1987. Arkansas Joel and I were in Atlanta for some corporate training and it just so happened U2 was playing there. Arkansas Joel and I were big U2 fans, but Joel knew more than I did that they were a band for the ages. He wanted to go down and get tix. I wasn’t familiar with Atlanta and was worried about the price. More embarrassing, I was in “love” with a girl in my class… It was a lot like that scene in ‘Good Will Hunting’ where he said, “sorry boys, I’ve got to go see about a girl.” HUGE mistake. U2 actually dressed in disguise and opened for the opening act as a country band. This may be the greatest concert I ever missed. The girl and I dated for a year. That concert would have stuck with me for a life time.
  2. The Who, Face Dances Tour, 1981. ‘Face Dances’ was the first Who album I bought. It’s a much maligned album but it still resonates with me. You can hear Pete struggling with drug addiction. My friend Brewster and I spent every dime on our tickets. We were supposed to go with some buddies of ours, Steve and Evan. We didn’t have enough money to fill up Brewster’s gas tank to get to the show. It was our ill-advised idea to siphon gas from several folks in the neighborhood… (Crime does not pay kids). We actually snuck out at 2 a.m. to do so… Brewster’s dad caught him on the return, sneak-in to the house which led to a 3 a.m. call to my folks. “What mom, I was asleep, what are you talking about gas for…” Needless to say, no Oscars were awarded that night. My dad was so mad he grounded me and forbid me to go to the concert. Like Brewster I gave my tix to Evan and Steve who sold them and used the cash to buy weed instead of reimbursing us. Douche bags. At least that led me away from the life of a miscreant… well, sort of.
  3. Neil Young, Life Tour, 1986. Neil Young’s most troubled decade was the 80’s. He finally reunited with Crazy Horse for the tepid album ‘Life’. They went on tour billed as “The Third Best Garage Band In The World”. As “Third”, there was no pressure. First place has the pressure to defend the throne. Second place has the pressure to take over first place. But in third place, you were just cool and didn’t have anything to prove. I started drinking before we left for the show, which was a two hour drive. By the time Neil took the stage I’d already thrown up and made out with the girl in front of me. Thankfully her boyfriend didn’t notice. She was pretty wasted too. I was at the show but couldn’t tell you a thing about it. I rushed the floor, from the lower deck, but actually fell over the barricade and was led out by security. I couldn’t face Drew and Dennis, my comrades that night for weeks. They continue to rave about that show but they might just be fucking with me out of spite.
  4. Queen, The Game Tour, 1980. Matthew’s beautiful high school girlfriend actually sang “Another One Bites the Dust” directly to me to entice me to go to the show with them. She ended up going to Michigan or Ohio State to study brain surgery. I know she wasn’t hitting on me, but sweet Jesus, what if she was, but I digress. Queen at their last real high point. What was I thinking? It’s not like I was a homophobe. At the time none of us believed Freddy Mercury was gay, we just thought he was British, Monty Python in drag and all of that…not that there’s anything wrong with being gay. How did we not know? Anyway, people talked about that show for weeks.
  5. Led Zeppelin, In Through the Out Door Tour, 1980. They announced the US leg of their successful comeback tour of Europe in support of ‘In Through…’ There was a guy in my high school who was arranging to charter a bus and get a group of us up to Chicago for that show, they weren’t coming to KC. I was already working the, “Mom, I’m a straight A student” angle when John Bonham died… So, this one isn’t explicitly my fault…
  6. Springsteen, The River, 1979-80. Springsteen was playing Kemper Arena in KC in February of 1980. ‘The River’ was my first Springsteen album I purchased with my own money. It was a double album which took a lot more of my lawn mowing salary. I thought Springsteen was a secret I alone held. Unfortunately my pal Brewster was also a huge fan but kept it to himself. He went to the show with some dude named “Mack” and never considered inviting me. It was February and the KC Star said, “without a doubt, this is the concert of the year.” FUUUUUCK. You just can’t get some things back.

Folks, if you have a chance to see a show but have to scrape the money together. If you have to take a bus. If you have to skip school. No matter what you have to do, trust me, I know what I’m talking about here – do it and GO TO THE SHOW. Always, always, GO TO THE SHOW. If you have to steal a car, well don’t do that or anything else illegal, trust me again, I know what I’m talking about, but try to get to the God damn show. You’ll regret it if you miss it.

Sigh… I’m glad I got that off my chest. I can now put the cork back in the bourbon and sleep. Advice, Free.

Cheers!

Bob Seger’s KC 1980 Concert, Jack Daniels, & My Mom’s Knee

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My wife signed us up at a gym a few years ago. I was perfectly content to continue working out in our basement, all by myself. Such is my reclusive nature these days. Admittedly it’s been a great experience for my wife, she’s met people and made friends. For me, not so much. I keep running into people from all stages of my sketchy past: grade school, high school, college, even my current job. Talk about a motivation killer. I actually forced myself to go out there yesterday and I found myself staring vacantly at a TV screen blaring some young chick’s video. My wife startled me back to reality with the curt question, “What are you staring off into space for, you need to use that machine or move…” I hadn’t really been focused on the video, I had just seen someone I think I dated in high school. It ended badly (my fault). I mumbled a reply to my darling wife, “I’m just watching this Taylor Swift video…” She crinkled up her nose, “Honey, that’s not Taylor Swift, that’s Beyonce.” I thought everything was Taylor Swift these days… Oh, well.

Seeing someone at the gym I knew when I was in high school had me thinking. Music just seemed more dangerous back then. Punk had come and gone, new wave was big. Concerts were major events. They involved planning and cunning. You had to come up with the cash for the tickets, gas money, and most importantly booze. I couldn’t help but let my mind wander back to October 23rd, 1980 and the Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band show I saw that night. Seger was touring in support of his seminal album, ‘Against the Wind’ and my buddy Brewster (name changed to protect the guilty) and I were stoked to see him. Unlike the Springsteen concert later the next year, Brewster actually called me on this one. It was my first Seder show.

About a week before the show, we discovered a liquor store with an elderly cashier. He wouldn’t ask you for your I.D. he’d do this weird stare-you-in-the-eye thing. I was tall as a kid. I went to bed one night at 5 feet and seemingly woke up the next day over 6 feet tall, that’s how quick my growth spurt was. So I always drew the short straw and had to be the guy who went into the liquor store. My practically terminal acne couldn’t have helped… I had twice defeated the “stare-down” test. I believe I could now beat a lie detector because of this cooky old cashier. There was always more pressure to make the buy when it was for a concert.

The night of the show, I pulled out the flask sized bottle of Jack Daniels we’d purchased the previous weekend and stuffed it into the front of my pants. I pulled out the t-shirt and flannel shirt I had on and covered the bottle. I just had to clear about 15 minutes in the living room with my mother, my dad was out of town, and it’d be off to Kemper Arena to see Bob Seger. Fuck yeah! There was just something about Jack Daniels and rock and roll. I had seen the iconic pics of Jimmy Page swilling the stuff backstage at a Zeppelin show. There was a photo of Mick and Keith huddled around a bottle of Jack Daniels while recording ‘Exile On Mainstreet’. Oh yes, I was carrying the rock and roll flame. Even if I was carrying it hidden in my crotch. The top of the bottle stuck out where my belly button was but I just pulled out my shirt a little more and folded my arms, like I was hiding an unwanted hard-on in math class (we’ve all been there).

I sauntered down to the living room like Paul Newman in “The Sting”. I was a gangster. I was one with Mick & Keith. The TV was on in the living room and my mother, always an anxious woman, was bounding around the house. She was cooking dinner for my brother and racing into the living room to see the show. I wasn’t really focused on her, she was more of a blur around the house. Suddenly, she was standing beside me, in front of the TV. There was a woman in tights and gym clothes moving around the screen to some awful music. I thought she was having a televised seizure. My mother exclaimed, “Oh, Jazzercise, I love this…” I couldn’t help but mutter, “Ma, you wanna be careful here…” But before I knew what was happening my mother was doing a jerky imitation of what was happening on the screen. My mother had gone from cooking dinner and pestering me to exercising with little to no warm up. There was no way this was going to end well… I just kept thinking, at least she’s distracted. That’s when I heard the loud “pop” noise followed by a blood curdling scream from my sainted mother. Yep, she’d blown her ACL. She crumpled to the ground like a rag doll. I was going to bend over to help her up, but I had a bottle of Jack Daniels crammed down my pants.

She was frantic and I wasn’t much better. I knew I had to do something or I was going to miss the concert. This was Bob Fucking Seger, ma. My buddies were supposed to pick me up any minute. I didn’t want to leave my mom laying on the floor, but she was sort of forcing my hand. I quickly called the neighbor lady, my mom’s best friend. She could hear my mother caterwauling in the background and she suggested I call an ambulance. Jesus, how was I gonna pull this off? No one told me that when you call for an ambulance, the cops come. That information might have altered my strategy. Within minutes I had two cop cars in front of the house and a cop in my living room, standing over my mother. I stood, with my arms folded in front of the Jack, next to the cop, over my prostrate mother. “So, your mom says you’re gonna see Seger tonight?” I wanted danger, here it was…”Well, yeah Officer Friendly, I’m kind of a music nut…” He was eyeballing me like I was a “person of interest”. We continued to make small talk until my little brother finally emerged from upstairs to see what all the flashing lights were about. I was soaked in sweat. I had visions of the cop realizing I had whiskey in my pants, (and on my breath, I’ll admit I’d sampled the fire water) and going berserk with his night stick, beating me about the head and shoulders until I was laying next to my mother on the ground. With my brother now engaged with “the heat” I slowly moved outdoors to the front porch. The ambulance had finally arrived and was in the driveway. I waved meekly, while holding the Jack with my other hand. I looked like I had an upset stomach…

It was at that moment that Brewster’s car pulled up. I lived on a cul-de-sac. He was literally on top the two cop cars before he knew what was happening. I could see the look on his face – half questioning, half utter terror. If I’d lived on a through street he’d probably have kept driving. Although since I was holding the whiskey, I had some leverage. I immediately bounded off the front porch. I pointed to the front door for the EMTs and said, “She’s in there, I have to go now…” With my head bowed and my hands on my stomach I raced for the car and practically dove into the front seat. Brewster slowly turned the car around and then raced out of my neighborhood.

I felt awful for leaving my mother, but man what a concert that was. Buzzed on adrenaline and Tennessee sipping whiskey I was blown away by Seger. He opened with “Nine Tonight” and I was in rock and roll heaven. By the time he played the guitar solo in “Her Strut”, mid-concert, we’d abandoned our lower balcony seats and headed for the floor. We slipped past security and made it up to the stage in time for “Let It Rock” the monster encore. Drew Abbott, a true unsung hero guitarist in rock music, stood in front of me and destroyed his guitar solo. When the show was over, Brewster and I just stood there passing the Jack, as people filed out and the roadies took the stage. I had suddenly remembered my poor, frail mother, lying on the floor, when suddenly to my right a blonde woman had pulled up her shirt to reveal her two lovely breasts to the roadies in an attempt to get back stage. They were the first boobs I’d ever seen at a concert. I thought I’d died and ascended to Nirvana. All thoughts of familial loyalty fluttered from my adolescent mind.

Now that’s danger…

Rock and Roll and Jack Daniels… They belong together. Do you have a concert story to share? Comment and I’ll post it.

Be careful out there folks… Beware of any exercising mothers… Stretch out ladies…. and as always, Cheers!

Confessions of an Ex-Grinch: My Christmas Epiphany

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I went through a long period in my 20’s and early 30’s where I absolutely hated Christmas. I ended up marrying “Mrs Claus” so choose what you hate carefully. Karma is a bitch. I don’t know why I hated Christmas. My parents and especially my grandparents always went all out for Christmas. We’d go to bed and they’d drink and set up toys. I remember waking up one Christmas morning and excitedly coming down to the tree to find that “Santa” had brought my brother an I an army set of Union and Confederate soldiers. Not only did Santa bring us this awesome gift but the tiny plastic soldiers were actually arrayed in a mock battle scene in front of the tree. There were dozens of these tiny blue and grey soldiers and my drunken relatives had stayed up late, setting them up in this wildlly elaborate battle scene. Hats off to my relatives. We’d set out cookies and milk and once we went to bed my grandfather dutifully ate them. I always thought this was proof positive that Santa existed and oddly never suspected my parents of subterfuge.

Maybe that was my problem with Christmas. After years of huge spectacle it became a rather quiet and staid affair. I’d go over to mom and dad’s, my sainted grandparents having long since passed, and we’d eat and quietly exchange gifts. It was always just my parents and my brother and I. My brother and I were both single at the time and my brother remains so to this day.

My family is extremely hard to buy for. It probably didn’t help that I was somewhat distant if not estranged from my family for a long time. The 20’s are tough years for some of us. My brother remains a mystery to me to this day, although we’re a lot closer than we used to be. We finally made the effort to connect but that’s another story. I never know what to buy my brother for Christmas. The only thing I can think of to get him, that he’d truly enjoy, would probably violate the United Nations ban on human trafficking. Ahem. “Made in China” are his favorite words.

My mother and father have everything they’ve ever wanted. They literally are the human embodiment of “the man who has everything”. For years I spent money buying my father every garment you could think of with a KC Chiefs’ logo on it but quickly ran out of hats, coats and sweatshirts to buy for him. My sainted mother actually eschews us buying her anything at all, like she feels guilty accepting gifts from her children. One year she asked for a breadbasket. Why not just ask me to stop by the grocery store and pick up some rolls. I ask for a Christmas list every year and she turns into the Sphinx. All I get back is a riddle. “Oh, Kenny, you don’t have to get me anything, just come by the house once in a while.” Sigh.

There was no one in my life back then. Or more correctly, there was a revolving door of people in my life back then. This may have also been a factor in the “hating of Christmas”. My high school girlfriend and I should have broken up at Christmas my freshman year in college, but she waited to do me that favor until April Fool’s Day, which was actually very fitting. Oddly I went through a series of breakups after that and generally they always occurred before the holidays or during them. That always puts a damper on the festivities. I never bought a tree nor made any effort to decorate my apartment in any way. I lived on Kansas City’s famous Country Club Plaza and every year the buildings are outlined in luminous Christmas lights. They turn the lights on every year in a big celebration on Thanksgiving night. I figured that was enough Christmas decoration for anybody. My mother, to mock my holiday despair, bought me my lone Christmas ornament, a stuffed Grinch hanging by a Christmas wreath. My wife hangs in my entry way every year to this day.

One year, as usually happened, I broke up with someone right before Christmas. December 20th was the date, and oddly I remember it. More accurately, the Rock Chick broke up with me but again, that’s another story for another time. We ended up married, so you never know. So, as usual, I was to go to my parents on Christmas Eve, spend the night and then drive home at some point Christmas day. My brother was in town. It was a carbon copy of the prior year and the year before that and so on, and so on. Before I headed to my folks house I stopped in O’Dowd’s my local haunt and started ordering martini’s. “Bring one of these every 15 minutes until I look ready for Christmas…” After about an hour and a half in the bar I felt I’d steeled myself for the impending holiday and headed to my folks. It was my intention to sit in my parent’s darkened basement and stare at the secondary tree they kept down there. Yes, my parents have two Christmas trees… they literally have everything.

Everyone except my father had gone to bed and I was sitting in the basement, clutching my wine glass to keep myself centered. Christmas I hated, Holiday Drinking I loved. My father came down to sit in front of the tree with me, when his cell phone rang. I thought something was wrong, who would call at 11pm on Christmas Eve? “Come with me, I need your help” my father exclaimed as he jumped to his feet. I followed him up to the garage where he quickly opened up the garage door letting in the cold. There were two brand new, shiny, kiddy bicycles sitting in the garage. “Gee dad, you shouldn’t have…I think Craig and I are a little big for these.” My father, as usual, was not amused, “They’re not for you smart ass, I’m storing these for the neighbor. He bought them for his kids and since there is a foot of snow on the ground, you’re going to help take them to his house while I stay here in the warm house.”

At that exact moment, a guy about my age came shuffling through the snow and up the driveway. Only moments before I’d been sitting alone, lamenting the fact I’d always be alone. Now a guy my age appears as if to underscore the point, to grab two bikes for his kids. He thanked my father profusely and I grabbed one bike, and he grabbed the other and we set off down the road to his house. His excitement at playing Santa for his kids and giving them their bikes was palpable. As I pushed that bike through the snow, I look up at a the stars and the snow flurries in the air and his excitement began to stir something inside of me. I suddenly felt connected to Christmas again. I remember looking at the guy and thinking, this could be me. I could own a home and have a family. It’s not too late for me. This guy not only gave his kids bikes that year, he gave me something too. He gave me the key to Christmas.

We rolled the bikes into his living room and the place reminded me of my grandparent’s house when I was a kid. I was like the Grinch… I felt my heart, which had been three times smaller than everybody else, suddenly swell to three times bigger than normal. I felt the despair and dread of Christmas fall away. I walked back to my dad’s house slowly but oddly for me, joyfully. I finally realized what I’d been missing. It’s the giving and the doing for others. There are so many people who as Bill Murray says in “Scrooged” that are having “trouble making their miracle happen” that we can all help. (No wonder I always weep during that final scene in that movie, I was that guy.) The day after Christmas I sought out a couple of charitable organizations and I started volunteering. I donated some money, even though I really didn’t have a lot. I didn’t have my own family so I started giving to my community. This may have been fundamental for most folks but somehow I’d lost touch with that.

If you’re alone, if you have a big family, whoever you are and whatever your circumstance, don’t forget what I forgot – the Holidays are for helping those less fortunate than you. And believe me, there is always someone less fortunate than you are. Even small acts like dropping some change in the Salvation Army’s bucket can help. And the giving and the doing for others feels great… Again, as Bill Murray said in “Scrooged” you start to “want that feeling, you get hungry for it” and that spirit of Christmas can stay with you, year round.

Every year my wife hangs the Grinch ornament up. For me it serves as that little reminder of that night, years ago, when I pushed a couple of bicycles through the snow, the year I got to play Santa for the first time…. and I smile.

Happy Holidays and as always, Cheers!

The Vegas Odyssey for Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon with Arkansas Joel

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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…

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

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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.