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.