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 clichés 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. More...fun...later"

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.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

(Re)Cycling in Granada, Nicaragua Part 1:Machetes, Marinas & Mountain Bikes

Nicaragua may rank as the 2nd poorest country in the Americas behind Haiti but one of the side effects of having no cash is that Nicas certainly do make best use of their resources.

This frugality permeates all aspects of life. Be that sustainable eating (outside urban centres Nicas tend to grow their own veggies/keep chickens & pigs and supermarkets stock far less imports than the UK), recycling (certain plastic and cans are worth money so they are not left lying around)or transport(ubiquitous ramshackle US school buses are imported, pimped-out and always full to the brim).

In the UK you can hardly see the stars for light population but when you fly over Nicaragua at night it looks like the place has shut for the day. Nicaragua may well take the prize for the most eco-friendly country I've ever been to.
So, with resources at a premium and cars being an expensive luxury for a lot of the locals it makes perfect sense that Nicas are bike crazy. After all cycling is cheap, quick and efficient means of getting around. The Granada streets are teeming with bikes of all shapes and sizes.

Five gear mountain bikes of indeterminate make seem to be the most popular. On my way back from the baseball I saw a man riding an a bike on a busy road in near darkness with his other half riding side saddle on the crossbar whilst holding a two year old. I wonder what Boris Johnson would make of that? Despite the apparent lack of traffic lights & road rules (no one indicates so you have to slow at junctions and watch what other people are doing) cycling in Granada is excellent way of assimilating with the locals and getting a feel of this lovely town.

In Granada there a few place on La Calzada (the main tourist drag) to hire bikes. They aren't all in great nick so it's definitely worth testing them out first before setting off. I got mine from Bicimaximo which is based in the Parque Central just to the right of the custard coloured picture book Cathedral. You can hire a decent if unspectacular 5 speed for $5 (about 5 hours), $7 the full day or $22 a week. You can hire bikes with better spec but no one rides around on these so forget it unless you plan on doing some serious offroad.

They also do guided tours of the area if you feel the need for back up as there are certain areas where it may be sensible to exercise caution. The area between the lakeside and the start of La Calzada is fine during the day but a bit sketchy at night with reports of muggings and I have read anecdotal evidence that the 2hr ride up to Laguna de Apoyo has its share of problems.

Irrespective of the potential risks I love cycling and always hire a bike on my travels so I ventured along the coast past the unspectacular "tourist area", through fields and jungle and onto the Marina Cocibloca. Its an easy 4km ride on tarmac that can be easily in an hour or so. I like to do things at my own pace so I skipped the tour. In the end it all worked out OK but not before I got a lucky break.

Cycling on my own and into an area known for robberies might not win me the Einstein Award but there can be much to be said for just travelling minimally and trying to blend in. One way to do that is not to carry a gaudy back pack around like some travelling North Face turtle. This will mark you out as a gringo with something worth stealing. Keep it light, take a few cordobas and there will always a corner store selling something to eat and drink.


Although there have been reports of muggings in this area the journey on the main road to the marina seems to be OK in daylight as there are now tourist police stationed at the half way point to dissuade any would be assailants (although I'm told they are less than useless if you do get into trouble). I passed locals on horse and cart transporting their wares from the fields, cattle grazing on the shoreline and farmers chopping grass with machetes. It looks pretty idyllic and a world away form the hustle and bustle of Granada.

WARNING:DO NOT take the dirt road down to Astillero Diamante (at a junction you'll see a big sign with a diamond) as I now know many people have been mugged and even had their bikes stolen on this trail. I only learned about this particular pitfall from the caretaker at Marina Cocibloca AFTER bumbling down this pretty path bordered by fields, farms and the odd shack for about 30 mins. I was on my guard but only doubled back to the main road when I saw some dubious types up ahead. That was a wise move.

"You were lucky my friend. That area is notorious"

The caretaker started to tell me a story about how growing up in "el campo" was paradise. He and his friends used to climb trees and sleep out in the countryside at night and walk wherever he wanted without any fuss. Now even the locals have to choose their routes with caution especially at night or risk bumping into an opportunistic "pandilla".

"Kids don't want to work these days. They want the easy life so they just take nice things from other people"

It was interesting to chat to the old chap as he lamented about the ills of modern day Nicaragua and the changes it was going through. In that respect Nicaragua is no different from the rest of the western world with old school values replaced by a preoccupation towards get-rich-quick materialism. I blame 50 Cent.

Part 2 - Bells, Butterflies and Burials

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Baseball in Granada, Nicargaua - It's A Whole Different Ball Game

When you think sports in Latin America you think football, right? From Mexico to Argentina the average Brit has romantic images of kids playing keepy-uppy with oranges on street corners and crumbling stadia flooded with rabid fans in a riot of colour all garnished with flares and streamers.

Having travelled to a few of these countries I've seen that many of the stereotypes ring true. However, in Nicaragua football is not el deporte numero uno, it's baseball. Only a 2½hr flight from Miami it's no great surprise that this quintessentially American sport has taken root in Nicargaua.

It was first introduced in the 19th Century by American importer Albert Addlesberg and popularised by US Marines stationed in the country. Despite Nicaragua's turbulent past and impoverished present the country has a 4 team professional baseball league (La Liga Nicaragüense de Beisbol Profesional)that runs from October through February. 

It comprises of the Indios del Bóer, the Tigres del Chinandega, the Leones de León, and the Orientales/Tiburones de Granada. Most of the Nicas I spoke weren't really that interested in the national league but were pasionate about "las grandes ligas" i.e. Major League Baseball.

Nicaragua may not have exported the volume of top players to the US as Cuba or the Dominican Republic but they can be proud of the likes of Dennis Martinez who broke numerous pitching records during his 23 year playing career. Currently only Everth Cabrera (San Diego Padres), Wilton López (Colorado Rockies)and Erasmo Martinez (Seattle Mariners) currently play in the MLB.

So, when in Rome or in this case Granada I thought it only right to check out one of the games from myself. After getting confirmation of a 6pm game via their Facebook account (they don't have a website) I jumped in a shared cab (you could walk it but its wise to spend the 15 cordobas) and headed to the

Roque T. Zayala stadium or "el estadio" on the outskirts of town on the main Managua road.

The stadium is Nicaragua in microcosm: rough and ready but with tons of character. Pitching up in the dark and stumbling through the dusty car park I was a little wary of what to expect. How rowdy do baseball fans get after a few beers? A long line of people were queuing at a ticket booth for the main standing area which you could enter for about 30C$ (just over a $1). I thought I'd go for the comfort of a plastic chair and splurged 70C$ for "el palco" or the posh seats behind the batting area. There was no queue for this line. With this you get a program so I caught up on what Los Tiburones had got up to.

Walking up the gangway into the main arena it was obvious that this wasn't a must win game as the stadium was half empty and no touts had come to try and flog me tickets in the car park (I was warned this might happen) so I could sit wherever I wanted.

The teams took to the field without a huge deal of razzmatazz but after about 10 mins play was abandoned as a freak storm deluged the pitch and the fans in the cheap uncovered seats were getting well and truely drenched. Things started to get a bit heated as they were shouting for the gates that separated us to be opened so they get into our enclosure. The stewards and police seem to mull over the implications of this for a while before relenting and letting the soggy mass in. This was great as the atmosphere soon perked up.

First of all lets start with the food. None of your rubbery pies or reconstituted hotdogs here. A constant procession of food & drink vendors shout their wares at you as the cruise up and down the aisles. Quesillos (cheese filled tortillas), Vigoron (pork rinds & cabbage wrapped in banana leaf), Cerviche (raw fish marinated in lime served out of coolers), Asado (roasted meats) sweets, sandwiches, tiny bags of nuts (with a thin moustachioed guy constantly shouting Nipi,Nipi,Nipi,Nipi! on a loop) are just some of the delights you can sample from the comfort of your seat.

Whilst football in the UK has only recently moved from its white working class male roots baseball in Nicaragua is a family affair. Nicaragua in general is a very young country (the median age is 23 compared to 40 in the UK). Maybe its a remnant of Catholicism, maybe there's not much on the TV or maybe they can't afford babysitters but the stadium is full of the little critters running around and causing havoc. It makes for a pleasant atmosphere. Those who run the club even let the street kids come round with sacks to collect the discarded cans and bottles. There is nothing like poverty to encourage you to recycle.

An annoying habit that the Nicas have got from the American cousins is their obsession of sponsorship and advertising. Virtually everything is sponsored in some shape or form. At virtually every pause in the game the stadium announcer would boom out the same four adverts. One for a steak house, one for rum, one for a travel agency and one for Marfil soap which I've still got stuck in my head as I write this.

"Jabon Marfil!!!!! Lava, lava y nunca se acaba!"

It's brainwashing taken to Clockwork Orange proportions. I would have bought a box of the stuff just to shut the guy up!

As the innings moves past the half way stage the brass band starts to crank up the volume and we are treated to some booty shaking in the aisle from one die-hard as he is cheered on by the crowd. Then, apropos of nothing, the stadium announcer decides to play The Village People's YMCA during a break in the activity and the crowd all does the synchronised dance moves. This makes me very happy.

Rival fans are not segregated and a tiny group of Tigres fans sat to my left were getting progressively drunker as the game wore on. By the end they were hammered and took to questioning the sexuality of the Tiburones pitcher. At the end of the 9th with the game tied at 3-3 they were loud but they exploded into rapture when deep in the 10th with bases loaded their batter hit one over left field above the despairing gloves of the Tiburones outfielders. Game over.

Overall it’s a great night out and a unique glimpse into an aspect of Nicaraguan culture. It’s an assault on the senses and a must for baseball virgins. In Granada there is no better place to pop your cherry.