Monday, 1 December 2014

Trip Report - Destin, Florida

When Brits think of Florida they think of Mickey Mouse, babes in bikinis and detectives in pastel suits with their sleeves rolled up.  However there is more to Florida than, Disneyworld, Miami Beach and the war on drugs.

 Destin may be virtually unknown on this side of the pond but it’s a popular resort for Americans from as far as the mid west keen to get some beach action.  Nestled on the north western corner of the Floridian panhandle and perched on the Gulf of Mexico its incredible beaches and emerald green water offer plenty of opportunities for water based fun. I was sceptical about the claims but in the flesh the beaches are pristine enough to rival those in the Caribbean. 
Its not quite Robert Duvall urging on the troops in Apocalypse Now but there is a surprising amount of aerial traffic above you as you sit on the beach draining your margarita. That is because there is a large military presence in the area as the Fort Elgin/Valparaiso airport doubles up as a military base with jets and choppers a continuous rumble in the skies.

I stayed in Sandpiper  Cove  a well appointed  43 acre resort situated between Henderson State Park and the bars and restaurants of Harbour Walk. I booked with VRBO and was able to snag a studio condo for under  $100 a night inc taxes. The place is well maintained with private beach access, hot tubs, heated swimming pool, boat access, marina and a par 9 golf course.  It’s fabulous value.

 A word of warning though. In the country where car is king you will struggle if you don’t have your own transport as buses and taxis are virtually non existent.  Although comparatively near the action it was a good 40 minutes traipse to the Harbour Walk action along a pretty ugly stretch of the I98 every time we fancied a beer. Destin itself is not at all bike friendly and we had numerous reports of out-of-towners coming off worse for wear when they braved the traffic.

The HarborWalk itself is a fun experience. The boardwalk is lined with restaurants and bars like a Margaritaville and the huge  AJ’s where you can sit on the open air deck and watch the great sunsets.  On the other side are the fishing boats, charters and even a mock pirate galleon that can take you on dolphin cruises round the bay.  It gets pretty crowded in the summer but as we were they off peak there was just a steady trickle of people enjoying the atmosphere although a fair few places were closed up for the winter.

Another lively place is McGuire’s Irish pub right at the harbour with its own brewery, signature cocktails (the Irish Wake does damage) and huge portions.  With over a million signed dollar bills adorning the walls if I were the owner I’d just sell up and close now. It’s a unique venue with plenty of character (albeit the bastardized American take on Irish pubs) and a jovial atmosphere.

 First  prize in the food stakes must go to Buck’s Smokehouse bbq a blink and you miss it shack off the i98. The place serves proper southern BBQ with platters for as little as 12€. Its comparatively good value (Destin is an expensive place to eat out) and the meat literally falls off the bone.  Do not accept imitations, this has some of the best ribs and turkey I have ever tasted.

 For daytime fun we rented a two man kayak from Sailing South Watersports ://  for $35 and went out into the bay to see Destin from the water.  Its great exercise and good fun as you cruise past the expensive boats and there are opportunities to get out and enjoy some of the harder to reach beaches across the bay.  We paddled under the Marler Bridge to Crab Island, a spit of sand normally heaving with pontoons and revellers who have weighed anchor in he shallow waters and break out the Bud. We were the only people there but it was nice to chill out on Captain Nemo’s jetty and eat our packed lunch. 

Destin is a mecca for fisherman and this is evidenced but the large fish we saw hovering around the floating dock,  Their was also huge groups of harmless Moon jellyfish in the bay along with a few schools of dolphins around mid afternoon.

If you get bored of Destin there are some natural attractions within an hour's drive away (more of which in my next posts) We hired a car with Enterprise who offer a great service as they pick you up and drop you off anywhere in a 20 mile radius, and travelled an hour up to Blackwater River State Park and rented a canoe for $50 with . They dropped us off at the launch and we spent the next 4/5 hours cruising back to our car through the pristine wilderness without seeing another soul on the river. Its a pretty easy paddle through the crystal clear, ice cold Blackwater River with some lovely sand banks to stop and refuel.  Maybe we were too noisy but I expected to see a few bit more fauna seeing as we were literally in the middle of nowhere. In any event it was very calming and great for the soul.

So Destin has got great bars, great beaches, great food, natural delights and some of the friendlies people I have met.  It makes me wonder why not more people have heard of it. Disney conspiracy perhaps!

Next post: Santa Rosa and the Beaches of South Walton – Home of the Truman Show

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Live Review - Vance Joy - Concorde 2 Brighton

The calling of the musician comes to those blessed few at different points in life.  There are those who start shaking a tambourine the minute they emerge from the womb and others who have held down a number of mundane jobs before the daily grind galvanises them into cashing their chips for the alluring world of the music industry.

Gene Simmons was a primary school teacher in Spanish Harlem before embarking in a career in panto-rock, Ozzy Osbourne worked in an abattoir slicing open cow’s stomachs whilst Jack White was a master upholsterer in Detroit specialising in chaise lougues. Jay Z, meanwhile, concentrated his efforts on selling crack cocaine to the residents of Brooklyn. Everyone’s got to make a living.

Only 18 months ago Vance Joy, AKA James Keogh, swapped the lucrative but ultimately soul destroying world of law for the Elysian fields of folk music.  His career has been going gangbusters ever since.
Following the half hearted completion of his law degree Joy chipped away at Melbourne’s open mike scene until the success of uber-single Riptide, a radio-friendly sunbeam of folk-pop, from his debut EP God Loves You When You’re Dancing catapulted him out of obscurity. Now Vance inhabits a world of sold out tours, A-list radio play and a 5 album deal with Atlantic.  

However, judging by tonight’s performance, it is probably best he doesn’t flog all his law books just yet.

Emmylou sets the tempo for the night with an acoustic guitar motif slowly building to a crescendo before entering Mumford & Sons territory when the bass drum kicks in. It’s a sonic template he uses again and again throughout the set and it starts to get a little repetitive.

A mid tempo Red Eye sounds harder live than on record with pounding drums and interesting harmonies.  The early 90’s sound is enhanced by a drummer, who when unleashed, flails away like he is playing in Motley Crue.

A big cheer goes up from the crowd when a ukulele is produced for old favourite Play With Fire which could well be a Fleet Foxes B-side. The crowd sings along to the track but they are given little encouragement to get involved elsewhere during the course of the night.

Things improve with the alt-country vibe of Winds of Change which has a memorable melody that suits Joy’s Buckleyesque falsetto. We witness a bit of history as it is the first time the band has ever played that song live.

Whilst the bulk of the ladies in the audience smile with lovelorn intoxication and Joy’s film star looks they will only get him so far.  Whilst everything is competently played there is a distinct lack of variety and dynamism to the performance. Songs like Snaggletooth, Best That I Can and My Kind of Man meander along similar folky cul-de-sacs. The mid tempo strumming is screaming out for a guitar solo or a counter melodies of any kind.  Frankly, it’s all a bit drab.
The contrasts in Joy’s song writing/arranging skills are magnified when he performs a finger picked cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark. It is a wonderful version and it has the audience rapt but it shows how far he needs to go to mix it with the big boys.

The Dylanesque From Afar and Mumfordy Wasted Time show promise before the inevitable climax of Riptide (a song which was partial written as long ago as 2008), which swaggers in with a rollicking energy otherwise missing for the rest of the set.

It’s a fabulous song and Joy is new to the art of stage craft so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.  He will surely become more confident and accomplished on stage (and on record) as his career progresses.  As Leonard Cohen said if he knew where all the good songs came from
“he’d go there more often”
Let’s hope Joy isn’t just passing through that magical land on his way to his final destination of Onehitswonderville.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Live Music Review - Angie Stone - Concorde 2 Brighton

In this era of Rhiannas and Beyonces, Angie Stone’s brand of measured R&B could be considered something of an anachronism. Into her fifth decade Stone has outlasted an army of  ass-shaking pretenders and she isn’t about come out on stage twerking or swinging naked from a wrecking ball.  She’s much too classy for that.

Her sound firmly recalls the golden age of soul music albeit filtered through the hip-hop prism that categorized its neo-soul revival in the mid 90’s. Tonight’s set leans heavily on her break out debut, Black Diamond, from 1999 which pleases the sold out crowd who have come in such numbers that they are spilling out into the bar.

Stone is a Baptist and her performance is rooted in the church where all the best soul singers have paid their dues. The tone is set for the evening with the fabulous gospel harmonies of Lover's Ghetto offsetting the tracks sultry Michael Jackson sampling funk.  Stone gets the opportunity to really let loose her impressive vocal ability as she trades lines with her incredible backing singers.

Green Grass Vapours slinky groove about the benefits of marijuana is probably not a subject you’d hear discussed in a Sunday sermon but it reflects Stone’s urban subject matter as is Bone To Pick (Wit U) about a cheating ex who may have twigged he was the star of the story when he confronted Stone about its content.

“Did you write that song about me?  If the shoe fits....” 

Stone’s plays us her favourite song, the laguid Everyday co-written with former paramour D'angelo.  Its musically very similar to D’angelo’s  Jonz in My Bonz, a song she also co-wrote for Brown Sugar, as it shares the same burbling organ percolating in the background.

After her favourite song we get a cover by her favourite artist; Al Green. She says she hasn’t played it much but you would have never have guessed as Stone takes it to church on the classic For The Good Times. After summoning the spirit of Aretha the Hammond organ segues into Guilty from new album Rich Girl which shares the same chord progression and we are suddenly in a full blown South Carolinian gospel service. 

The crowd are asked to put our hands in the air to praise the Lord.  Even though the bulk of the audience are probably atheists they acquiesce and a lovely moment is shared. Stone’s amazing backing singers then take centre stage and give it the full gospel breakdown. Lord have mercy!

“Where my girls at!?"

Stone changes the tempo with the upbeat swing of Pissed Off a song about female empowerment which is more Beyonce than Spice Girls. Stone admits that her good friend Beyonce has stolen her thunder on that front but tries to get the crowd to sing the refrain from one of her more obscure songs in the middle. The problem is the crowd don’t know the song and the whole things falls rather flat.

"Don't be ashamed to enjoy yourself.  You bought a ticket right?"

Although being wronged by her man is a recurring theme to much of her output just to show she is not just another jilted man hater Stones gives us the rolling bump ‘n grind of Brotha, an old school R Kellyish celebration of strong black men. The delicious two note guitar lick courtesy of guitarist James Owens gets the hips a-dipping.

Before the obligatory encore the sunny groove of No More Rain (In This Cloud) spreads over the audience like butter on hot crumpets.  Stone’s feather-light delivery recalls a lost Syreeta track, the retro vibe perhaps influenced by the judicious Gladys Knight and The Pips sample.

When Stone returns to the stage her band run the old Prince number  of going through some of her back catalogue only to tantalisingly stop after a few bars to play something else

"You don’t want that one.  I got too many songs"

The audience isn’t stupid and they know that one track has been conspicuous by its absence tonight.   I Wish I Didn’t Miss You is a lesson in how to take a sample and make it your own. It pinches the riff from the Temptation’s Backstabbers but takes the song into a completely different dimension.

Stone’s talented band goes to town and runs through a variety of genres including reggae, blues and salsa before the audience start pogoing to a rock version of the song.  When you’re as good as Angie you get the crowd to do the ass-shaking for you.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Live Music Review - Robert Glasper - Concorde 2 - Brighton

Jazz has long had the reputation for being the unique preserve of uber-cool, beret-wearing beard-strokers smoking Gauloises in dingy basements.  Heads are nodded to improvised solos and diminished 9ths are talked about in reverential tones.  It’s a select club and there’s a good chance you are not invited.
Grammy winning Houstonian Robert Glasper has done his best to open up the genre with his contemporary amalgam of jazz and hip hop.  He is the go-to-guy for heavyweight  acts such as Maxwell, Q-Tip and Common hoping to sprinkle some of his jazz seasoning over their urban offerings. 
Beanie hat on and smoking a cheroot Glasper strolls on stage and perches behind a wall of keyboards playing the role of band leader with a practiced calm.  First up is Glasper’s take on Kanye’s No Church In the Wild which sets the tone for the rest of the evening with an atmospheric paired down arrangement, Derrick Hodge’s bubbling bass  and a vocoder laden vocal from Casey Benjamin.   
The charismatic Benjamin is tasked with most of tonight’s vocal duties subbing on the guest-laden tracks from Black Radio and its sequel which feature the likes of Anthony Hamilton, Snoop Dogg and Bilal all of whom were unlikely to pitch up on a cold Tuesday evening in Brighton.  Tonight he is decked out with an impressive quiff, beard, biker jacket and vest that make him look like a black George Michael.
The disco scratch of Nile Rogers guitar is substituted for some descending scales and weird synth burbles for their cover of Daft Punk’s Get Lucky changing the tone to such an extent that there is a ripple of satisfaction when the crowd eventually work out what they are playing.   Benjamin’s Herbie Hancock referencing vocals are interspersed with some ingenious Max Headroom stuttering audio effects.
Let it Ride picks up the pace with some with some intricate drumming from Mark Colenburg expertly conveying the songs delicate drum and bass texture.  This is the start of the show dedicated to the jazz nerds who coo loudly when a particular break or key change is delivered.  Glasper plays a long complicated improvisation simultaneously on two different keyboards, basically because he can.
I Stand Alone starts with a striking John Legendesque piano break that segues into an extend bass  solo from Hodge which recalls motifs from Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain. It’s technically brilliant but so is a research scientist in a lab extracting stem cells from bone marrow.  Both hardly classify as Saturday night entertainment.
 Jazz fans may want to appear cooler than thou but they can’t help stifle a cheer when Radio 2 staple Lovely Day gets an airing. Benjamin’s vocoder lends the track a light funk that offsets the heavy hip hop beat laid down by Colenburg.
Basment Jaxx/Dizzee Rascal collaborator Vula Malinga then appears on stage to give the crowd a welcome break from the vocoder. Her sublime Minnie Ripperton register works well in harmony with Benjamin and her sultry vocals include some Badu-like scatting on the cover of Floetry’s Say Yes and are good enough to make Glasper leave the stage in mock admiration.
Up next is All Matter song Glasper co-wrote with Bilal.  I had the privilege of hearing the track played live at the Jazz Cafe a few years ago and Bilal’s band blew the roof off.  This version doesn't have anything like the urgency of the original and suffers from Glasper’s dissonant chords. Benjamin breaks out the alto sax midway through for an extended solo and we are on another one way trip to Noodlesville.
“Brighton rocks!”
exclaims  Glasper but he is beaten by the clock after another vocoder heavy  reworking of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit takes him past curfew with no time for an encore.
There was me thinking jazzers were good at keeping time.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Live Review - Miles Kane Concorde 2- Brighton

Ever since Noel decided that no amount of money was worth putting up with the petulant man-child that is his brother Liam there has been an Oasis sized hole on the music scene that no one has had the balls and the tunes to fill.

Miles Kane shares the same musical DNA as the Gallaghers with his no nonsense retro inflected rock ‘n roll. This mutual appreciation society as led to Noel turning up to do some backing vocals on his first album, The Colour Of The Trap and Liam offering a support slot on the Beady Eye tour. Celebrity patronage, model girlfriends and cool haircuts ensued.

Tonight, such rock ‘n roll credentials have garnered the attention of the police as a van is surprisingly parked outside the Concorde in readiness for the potential for knuckle draggers. Sure enough the packed venue has more than a whiff of testosterone and there is no queue for the ladies toilets. The beery crowd attempt to coax a tardy Kane from the comfort of his dressing room with some terrace chanting.

“My-Yalls, My-Yalls, My-Yalls”

Fashion is funny thing and although Miles is something of a style icon his penchant for drainpipes, mop-top and brightly coloured roll-necks bear more than a passing resemblance to The Big Bang Theory’s Howard Wolowitz.

When he finally appears, he seems to have toned down his Mod look with a short back and sides (he must have done a 2-for-1 deal with Leighton Baines) and a comparatively sombre patterned shirt.

Miles emerges all guns blazing and sets the tone for the rest of the set. He will play loud and hard. Inhaler is an explosive start and its repeated retro riffage drills into your brain. Counting Down The Days has an epic chorus that Kasabian would be proud of and sounds a lot more beefy than on record.

The minor chords, clattering drums and Doorsy vibe of Kingcrawler gets the crowd into a frenzy and a mosh-pit develops at the front of the stage accompanied by a shower of beer. My favourite track from new album Don’t Forget Who You Are is the punchy 60’s beat pop of Better Than That with it’s back beat and buoyant Taxman riff. The call and response chorus is fabulous and shows what he is capable of when he puts his mind to it.

Unfortunately, not all tracks are of such a high standard. A few are pretty pedestrian and stomp along in search of a tune. The glam-rock strut of You’re Gonna Get It tries hard but crashes on the musical shoreline in a blizzard of strobe lights and Little Illusion Machine (Wirral Riddler), an Arctic Monkeys B-side, is pretty dreary as is My Fantasy which only comes alive in the final few bars.

Kane could do well taking a few pointers from best pal Alex Turner whose song writing is in a different league at the moment. The peppy psychedelic pop of Taking Over is an improvement and really gets going during the driving middle eight. It is reminiscent of Paul Weller’s forays into blue eyed Northern soul. During the dirty rock of Give Up Miles segues into Sympathy For Devil and whilst he doesn’t have Keith Richards’ loose funk the song is a welcome example of how rock ‘n roll can simultaneously be edgy and melodic.

To credit Kane he has the bulk of the audience eating out of the palm of his hand with his proto-Gallagher swagger but I find the “Let's f*cking have it!” shtick gratiing as the gig wears on. Personal preferences aside his energy is to be admired and here he cajoles the crowd into singing the song’s extended refrain

“You’re pretty good looking but I’m looking for a way out”

Despite the competent playing, the enthusiasm and the amps turned up to 11 I’m left feeling short-changed. Miles seems capable of more than simply appealing to the lowest common denominator but perhaps he is canny enough just to give this crowd what they want: no frills rock ‘n roll escapism.

For the encore we get a welcome change of tone with the acoustic The Colour Of The Trap which he dedicates to

"…all the ladies"

It sounds like something Buddy Holly might have recorded and reflects the more nuanced work he did with Turner on The Last Shadow Puppets album. Kane rounds off the night with Don’t Forget Who You Are and we are back in T-Rex territory with its driving chorus and the crowd friendly “Na Na Na’s”. The songs refrain continues to be chanted long after the band leave the stage, I head off into the night and the police start to warm up their truncheons.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Live Music Review - The Darkness - Brighton Concorde 2 07/12/2013

Pop music has always been a little too po-faced for my liking. To be taken seriously as an "artist" you either have to the act the tough guy, get your kit off or appear mysterious. There's not much room in today’s charts for "comedians". Humorous acts are instantly dismissed as novelties and relegated to the Christmas hinterlands or Comic Relief telethons.

So when The Darkness came blazing into our lives in 2003 in a blur of spandex, testicle-constricting vocals and sense of escapist fun it was hard to know what to make of them. I remember hearing their breakthrough hit I Believe In A Thing Called Love and thinking its big dumb riffs and mad multi-tracked falsetto were the perfect antidote to the sea of boring earnest mediocrity doing the rounds at the time (Beddingfield and Stereophonics I'm looking at you).

I wasn't the only one to catch the hair-metal bug as debut Permission To Land sold by the denim jacket load. Even the cynical music press embraced The Darkness's tongue-in-cheek love of rock 'n roll excess. Don't forget this is a band who won an Ivor Novello for Songwriters of the Year in 2004. There’s craft in their cheese.

After the party comes the hangover and the band started overdoing the Alka Setlzer (wink wink) as they begun to embrace the rock ‘n roll lifestyle a little too readily. Bassist Frankie Poullain was acrimoniously sacked and the good vibes that had powered the first album evaporated. As a result sophomore album One Way Ticket To Hell...and Back was an over-produced dogs dinner.

In 2006 Hawkins thought he might as well go the whole hog with the rock n roll clich├ęs and promptly checked into rehab for drug abuse. True to form the band split and members of The Darkness spent the intervening years time playing in poorly received side projects like Hot Leg, Stone Gods &; British Whale. Hawkins got clean (he sips on nothing stronger than bottle water tonight) and the inevitable band reconciliation followed. The second coming would yield the album Hot Cakes in 2011 which, although selling like lukewarm crumpets, was a handsome return to cock-rocking form.

So what of The Darkenss of 2013? Justin emerges on stage looking lean and mean sporting his usual Lycra onesy and a new beard/moustache combo that makes him look like th d'Artagnan of hair metal. Poullain is back on board & tonight seems to have come dressed as Prince circa Purple Rain with his extravagant bouffant, tache and flashy trench coat. Fans will be pleased to know that it's (absurd) business as usual from the guys.

Tonight's set is a game of two halves. The first is a hodgepodge of old tracks, new songs and covers. The second part is Permission To Land played in its entirety (big cheers at this news by the predominately older rockers who make up much of tonight's audience). The new song is The Horn which distils The Darkness to its ludicrous essence. Its balls out rock silliness with operatic flourishes. Sample lyrics

"Take off your dress, undo my tux
Stick your long,sharp nails
into my pale buttocks"

Curse of the Tolland Man is The Darkness doing prog-rock and maybe the only misfire of the night. It’s a non-album track from 2005 and it lacks the band's usual immediacy. With its new age lyrics and odd time signatures it sounds like a Jethro Tull B-side. That's never a good thing. Their cover is Radiohead's Street Spirit (Fade Out) which has been injected with steroids and kicked up the arse. It's an inspired makeover. Ed Graham's drums sound like a herd of horses about to trample you to death and Justin falsetto is so high it’s barely audible to dogs. It's magnificent and I actually prefer it to the original.

At half time Hawkins takes exception to a chap in the first few rows who has been filming the show since the start and tells him it’s illegal

"not to mention f*cking distracting. It’s this kind if sh*t that's killing music"

He then invites the entire audience to record the next part so they can upload it to YouTube.

"…as it will blow your f*cking mind"

The roadies come on stage for an inordinate amount of time and appear to be adjusting the drum kit for what is about to come. I was fully expecting the drum kit to levitate or spin in the air a-la-Motley Crue but with the crowd poised for something amazing Graham does nothing more than the most basic of drum fills, like a 3 year old given a toy kit on his birthday. The crowd dissolve into laughter. The Darkness may appear ridiculous but they are certainly self aware.

Sonically it’s hard not to hear echoes of Queen in The Darkness back catalogue and there is much of the Freddie Mercury in Justin Hawkins live performance. There are the outlandish outfits, the showmanship, the impeccable vocals and the easy rapport with the crowd. At one point during Growing On Me he stops and conducts the audience in an impromptu sing-along with a raising and lowering of his arm. He literally has the audience in the palm of his hand.

During Love Is Only A Feeling one middle aged fan emboldened by beer now feels its time to go for a spot of crowd surfing. He is doing well for a minute until his girth becomes too heavy for those supporting him and lands head first with a one way ticket to the concrete.

That's not the end of the crowd based fun. We are treated to an extended version of Love On The Rocks With No Ice with Justin getting on the shoulders of one of the roadies and riding him into the audience. He solos as he creeps closer to where we are standing all the while being groped by various rabid fans. He doesn’t miss a note. To top off an excellent show we get an encore of Christmas Time (Don't Let the Bells End) with the guys dressed up in their Xmas outfits (bobble hats, tank tops etc). I dread Xmas but this even managed to unearth the yuletide spirit buried deep within me.

The Darkness is in every shape and form a stadium band so it’s a privilege to see them in such close proximity. The songs, their attitude and their musical ability all scream Wembley Stadium. They may be a joke to some but it’s a punch line that keeps on giving.

Monday, 10 February 2014

TV Review - Secrets of South America - Extreme Beauty Queens BBC3

Whilst the UK is a country obsessed with the weather, celebrity sex-lives and mediocre karaoke competitions Venezuela is a country obsessed with beauty. Girls of 4 don't play in the park but go to "beauty school" and practice putting on make-up and learn how to sashay down a catwalk. Having produced more Miss Worlds than any other country the obviously are doing something right but this pursuit of perfection comes at a cost.

Reporter Billie JD Porter spent 6 months in this peculiar part of Latin America following some of the aspiring beauty queens and the circus that surrounds them. Lets put it this way; if you are slightest bit ugly or overweight Venezuela is not the place for you.

Venezuela's equivalent to the X Factor is Our Latin Beauty (Nuestra Belleza Latina) and their Simon Cowell is Osmel Sousa, a camp beauty impresario with over 40 years in the business. Sousa knows about queens because he is one. He has the power to make or break careers and during his reality TV show contestants go through the mill until they are broken, emotionally and physically, until they fit Sousa's ideal of airbrushed "perfection".

With borderline OCD the smallest of details are seized upon and criticised. Ass not perfect? Get liposuction. Teeth too big? File them down. One contestant talks about him sotto voce.

"If you need a nose, face or voice changing he will tell you"

His show culminates in a grand final held in a huge sports stadium watched by TV audience of 50 million people. Despite Sousa being the paternal figure in Venezuelan pageantry his waspish comments do not show much compassion for the contestants. When one of them passes out due to lack of food his response is

"If you feint like a beauty queen, get up like one"

He is interviewed by Porter for his response to the feminists who protested against Miss World when it was held in London in 2011.

"Those protests were staged by Ugly Bettys who have no chance to be beautiful. All were horrendous"

His solution to virtually all flaws is to recommend plastic surgery.

"Nature has not been kind to some women"

To be fair to him he does practice what he preaches and has had so much work done he looks like Elton John and Barry Manilow's lovechild. You get the feeling he thought Zoolander was a documentary.

 In the UK beauty pageants died out with in 70's along with Tiswas and the "friendly" pat on the bottom so its curious to see why Venezuelan women still aspire to this Charlie's Angels image of plastic-breasted beauty. The answer may be that this beauty ideal is the one that wins competitions and doing well in Miss Venezuela opens doors in a country with very few opportunities.

Despite the poverty that affects large parts of the country families see expensive plastic surgery as an investment in the future the same way a public school education may be a short cut to a well paid job in the UK.

Porter interviews Maya an 18 year old aspiring beauty queen living in the run down Caracas slum of Santa Cruz. Her family saved up and forked out £7000 on new boobs, nose and dental work despite her looking stunning to begin with. The family make sacrifices not just because she is their daughter but because she is their meal ticket out of the barrio. Caracas is one of the most dangerous cities in the world with on average of a murder every 40 minutes and you can understand its citizens desire to move up the property ladder.

Hugo Chavez may have died but his legacy of his radical Bolivarianism lives on. Food shortages are commonplace since the state nationalised all the farms and Porter films an angry queue of women hanging about on street corners for basics like eggs, milk and toilet roll. Its no wonder aspiring beauty queens will literally do anything to win competitions. Careers, boyfriends and health are all sacrificed.

Perhaps the most shocking evidence of their desperation is that in an effort to loose weight Maya had a plastic patch sewn onto her tongue that makes solid food too painful to eat. All her meals are taken liquefied. You thought the Atkins diet was bad?

Its is a relief to hear the mother of another contestant reject this surgical madness 

"She doesn't need surgery. Who is competing? Is it the most beautiful girl or the best surgeon?"

With the BBC3 docu-bar being kept artificially low by the lightweight Stacey Dooley, Extreme Beauty Queens was a fascinating glimpse into this anachronistic way of life. Despite being a self-confessed newby to Latin America, Porter comes across as Alan Whicker in comparison to Dooley.

Of course it helps having someone as unhinged as Osmel Sousa as the centrepiece for a documentary but the whole hour had the air of an episode of Louis Theroux Weird Weekends about it. I can pay it no higher compliment.

Whilst a little green around the edges Porter did not shy way from asking probing questions but did so with an easy charm that got her subjects to open up to her. Let’s hope the remaining couple of episodes on South America are equally as entertaining.

Catch it on iPlayer for the foreesable future.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Cycling In Granada - Nicaragua Part 2 - Bells, Butterflies & Burials

With my trip to Puerto Asese under my belt I felt confident about tackling some more of Granada's sights by bike. I got hold of a flyer from Bicimaximo about a little known Butterfly Reserve that they said would make a good little day trip.

Before heading west out of town in the direction of the cemetery I made a quick pit-stop at the crumbling Iglesia De La Merced. I asked the caretaker at reception how old the church was but he looked a little flustered as he wracked his brain for an answer.

"Don't worry amigo, this is not a test"

Turns out it was built in 1534 and has been ransacked by pirates, bombarded by armies and shaken by earthquakes. Yet here it still stands in all its faded glory. Think of La Merced as the charming old sister, wrinkled and wise, to the flirtatious Catedral showing her knickers just down the road. The interior of the church itself is fairly plain by Latin standards (although I did notice this rather unfortunate tile work on the floor)

For a measly dollar you climb up the bell tower where you can enjoy panoramic views of the city and the magnificence of Mombacho. Early morning or sunset is best time for photographers but you will be fighting for space with the tourists or in my case the bell ringer who must surely be deaf by now.

After the quick pit stop I headed west, out of town, to where the old cemetery is located. Latin cemeteries have a certain faded charm and Granada's is reportedly the oldest in Central America with a wide variety of tombs, mausoleums and large monuments. It’s well maintained with many of the tombs made from expensive marble and embellished with photos of the deceased. I thought it was rather a nice idea to have photos adorning the tombs, a visual reminder of their occupants in better times.

I did notice a few sketchy people just hanging about in some of the alcoves so I didn't linger for too long. It’s a pretty big place and you can easily become cornered in the less visited outskirts so best to keep your wits about you.

Stepping out of the cemetery entrance I took a right down Calle de las Comedias where the houses start a take a turn for the shanty. I was beginning to think this ride might not be the best idea when I stopped to ask directions for "el mariposario" from a local lady who looked at me stony-faced like I'd asked to have sex with her daughter.

With only my rudimentary map to guide me it was a case of continuing along the paved road further into the suburbs or taking a dirt road into the wilderness. I took the latter. It turns out this dirt road is the same one that goes all the way to Laguna de Apoyo and you will see real poverty on its margins, a world away from the posh restaurants in the tourist quarter.

Tin roof shacks with mud floors, no electricity and a coterie of raggedly dressed children are commonplace. A man in the street is aggressively slashing at some wood with a machete as chickens run about his feet. I give him my biggest, warmest and most respectful smile.

Despite the grinding poverty many of the kids are lovely and wave at the weird gringo passing by on his bike. A trio of little footballers decked out in fluorescent green Barcelona tops show me their skills as they practice their shooting between two decapitated tree trunks.

After about 45 minutes and a few wrong turns I finally make it to the butterfly sanctuary. It is currently run by a couple of cheery volunteers from the Midwest who are keen to know how I made it all the way out here. Their passion for nature is instantly apparent and they tell me how they quit their jobs and are trying to spread the word about this corner of the world.

They are in the process of improving the sanctuary's online presence whilst erecting a few more signs on the road to make the place easier to find offline. It might look like paradise but the couple tell me there are challenges to living in a log cabin in the middle of a Nicaraguan forest

"Every time I think I miss a home comfort I think about how cold it gets in Michigan in the winter"

The grounds are privately owned and rely on admission fees to survive. A bargain $5 gets you a personalised tour of a large netted area in front of their cabin where all the butterflies are fed, protected and encouraged to breed. The air is alive with a multitude of different species. Huge blue Morphos lazily fly about the enclosure and drunkenly sip on fermenting banana as they becoming steadily drowsier as the day progresses. There is also a 1km interpretive trail that you can wander which is pretty relaxing (you are literally in the middle of no-where). What it lacks in nature it makes up for with its tranquillity.

One my way back to Granada I am crawling along in some terrible traffic.

I really shouldn't have made my return journey during rush-hour.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Live Music Review - Mark Morriss @ Sticky Mike's Frog Bar Brighton

In life there are some jobs that are plainly harder than others. They go in this order: Prime Minister, A&E nurse, England manager & stand up comic. Long hours, pressure, scrutiny and an early heart attack await those lucky incumbents.

Shortly behind these in terms of stress levels comes the acoustic solo artist. There's no backing band to cover up your shoddy fretwork, no harmonies to compensate for your flat notes and no colleagues to protect you should the crowd turn hostile. Alone and " unplugged" this type of show is the musical equivalent of taking your pants off, walking down the high street and displaying your wares to the general public.

So, it's a brave man who treds this lonely path. That man is Mark Morriss, former lead singer of thinking man's Britpop stalwarts The Bluetones. Their commercial peak may have been the mid-90's but the band continued to release a series of fine albums after debut Expecting to Fly and only split in 2011 due to public apathy and a desire to broaden their horizons.

Having seen The Bluetones a number of times I can confirm that his line of self-depreciating, witty audience interaction is only rivalled by Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley. Gigs tend to be about three quarters music and a quarter top quality banter. Tonight's decision to fill his set list with a good chunk of solo material is explained in typical fashion:

"I've just been supporting Shed Seven...there is a lot of sportswear at those gigs. I have to spoon-feed that lot. But this is Brighton..."
In fairness new album A Flash Of Darkness deserves a good airing. Whilst the familiar blend of dark-hearted power-pop will be familiar to Bluetones fans there is a variety and skill displayed here that confirms his position as a hugely talented and versatile songwriter. Tracks are quirkily arranged and orchestrated with horns, harmonium, synth and woodblocks and there is a classy core running though the record that belies its fan-funded gestation.

My album highlight Consuela gets an airing tonight with a chorus so uplifting you would have to made of stone not to sing along to it. It also includes the following peachy couplet about a much maligned 80's detective from Jersey.

"You can say what you like behind my back
You can keep on my case like your Bergerac"

Mark is known for his tongue-in-cheek cover versions having previously aired such classics as Phyllis Nelson's Move Closer, TLC's Waterfalls and Frank Sinatra's That's Life. Tonight he doesn't disappoint and takes us to power ballad heaven with medley of Lionel Richie's Hello and Drive by The Cars. There is nothing more satisfying than exposing a guilty pleasure as the crowd attempt to stifle their giggles.

"If there is anyone working for the cruises let me know."

Crowd favourite Keep The Home Fires Burning still sounds as good as it ever did and I'm Sick from debut solo album Memory Muscle powers along like a freight train. Mark's voice is still in fine fettle and has a quality that would put many of his Britpop contemporaries to shame. Shorn of horns & backing vocals it still delivers even if he has to do some of the solos with his mouth.

"Christ that was tense! I can't keep that up all night. Lets have a ballad for fuck sake"

Mark then slips in the bombshell that The Bluetones are actually going to reunite on the road next month, albeit temporarily, with a gig in London and possibly a few more. The Brighton crowd are too cool to get demonstrably excited but this is big news. Later Mark jokes that it isn't a reunion as such but:

"a chance for the rest of the band to get away from their families"

Next up is the woozy Space Cadet which is a forthcoming single and we're are told will be supported by a dazzling new video which is welcome evidence of new label Acid Jazz's desire to plug the album as best it can. It wouldn't have been my choice of single but what do I know. It's Mark's favourite song off the album but the music scene being what it is he is not a man to get his hopes up. On its chances of being number one?

"Don't go down to Paddy Power"

This Is The Lie (And Thats The Truth) sounds like a jaunty old English folk song about a delusional suburbanite trying to convince himself he is better off living alone. Its perfect for an acoustic outing and its the sort of thing you couldn't see anyone else recording.

By the time the bluesy intro of Marblehead Johnson gets and airing the crowd are fully engrossed by the intimate atmosphere created at Sticky Mikes. It's neither stifling nor particularly amphibian down in the basement and turns out to be quite a lovely little venue for this kind of performance.

 "I can see some of my stalkers are here. See you outside the Co-Op"

Mark steps off stage for the briefest of seconds to get his contractually mandated encore

"It's been a bad day I just need by ego boosted"

and then its request time. The floor is then open to the inevitable calls for Slight Return

"Fuck Slight Return up the arse!"

is the response from Mark. Instead we get Barbra Streisand’s Woman In Love, a deliciously ridiculous choice of cover, and the apt closer Sleazy Bed Track as it was getting pretty late.

Despite the lateness of the hour Mark takes time to chat to a few of us after the gig. I am pleased to report he is just as charismatic off stage as he is on it. He chats away like we have known him for ages.

Perhaps for the nicest man in music life as a solo artist isn’t so difficult after all.