Saturday, June 28, 2008

Fink broods; Liz Phair talks dirty

First up: Fink. I saw the man play at the supremely wonderful Joe's Pub recently. It was good to break out of my usual female singer/songwriter rut, and I must say, sitting only a few feet away from him as I was, I was a little taken with his unapologetically masculine presence on the stage. He struck me as a staunchly old-school bloke - the anti-metrosexual if you like - with his shorn head, wiry form, beer-swilling, anti-fashion uniform of grey sweat top and dirty grey jeans and occassional self-conscious "nice one". His lyrics are (in keeping with his sartorial style) simple and direct, tending towards the everyday - being late for work, buying maple syrup from Asda (or not), perving at girls (in the sexy sexy Pretty Little Thing) - but his voice and guitar playing elevate the songs to another level altogether. Deep, bruising and hypnotic. Shudder. Catch him live if you can; some of his magic is lost in the recording process.

Then there is Ms Liz Phair: a pint-sized dynamo striding the stage at the Hiro Ballroom in leather vest, hotpants and cork wedges. How rock and roll is that?!

I love Liz for the honesty in her music and voice, her brazen sexuality and the f*ck-you attitude that has gotten her into trouble on more than one occassion. This gig was a celebration of the re-release of Exile in Guyville, with Liz and her all-male back up rocking through every song on the album - from 6ft 1in to Strange Loop. I have to confess, despite the fact that Supernova was one song guaranteed to get me on the dance floor in the 90's (the others were Sabotage and Connection), the first album I bought of hers was the comparitively mild-mannered Somebody's Miracle, and that was only a few years ago. However, it was interesting enough that I have been catching up on her past releases ever since.

This gig was my first introduction to Exile, so unlike many devout fans in the crowd, I couldn't sing along rapturously. However, as an Exile-virgin, the stand-out songs for me were (typically) the slower, sadder ones: Glory, Dance of the Seven Veils, Canary, Girls! Girls! Girls!, and Gunshy; and then there was the dirty shock of Flower (whoa momma!) and of course the infamous Fuck and Run.

Lord, why did no one introduce me to this - the ultimate collection of pissed off break-up songs - when I was 23 and torn up with misdirected anger and confusion?

Both Liz and Fink mentioned how great it was to be in New York, and how much they loved the New York crowds; and both mentioned previous lacklustre gigs in Chicago (Liz) and Pittsburgh (Fink). Sadly, my time in New York will shortly be at an end.

Damn, I'm going to miss this town.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The New York List*

It's all about brunch in New York! The popular places can have a wait of an hour or more, but I aim to go and eat early (10-11am) on the weekends. Most places serve bottomless coffee for you caffeine junkies.

Pastis. A New York brunch institution, in the meatpacking district. Lovely old world European style interior, serving up classy French morsels. So-so coffee, but great brioche French toast. A must do.

Mud coffee. Very cool coffee joint in Greenwich Village. Hand-picked by my friend Amy, supreme coffee vixen.

Casimir. Another great (but tiny) brunch place in the hip lower East side, on a friendlier scale and budget than Pastis.

Diner. Supremely cool diner in Williamsburg, populated by local hipsters. Watch out for the spindly outdoor tables, which couldn't contain my giant aussie legs (lots of coffee spillage).

Florent. One of the first all-night diners to open in the meat-packing district before it was trendy: soon to be closed because of the sky-rocketing rent in the area. Shame, the home fries were lip-smacking and the place has got buckets of personality.

Balthazar. Fancy-pants French restaurant on Spring Street, popular with tourists and locals alike (prepare to wait up to an hour for a table). I prefer Pastis slightly, because it is a little less hectic.

Penelope's. My favourite brunch spot so far! Very cute little cafe on 30th and Lex, with delicious home made cupcakes, coffee served in mismatched mugs and yummy, yummy food. Oh my god, the blueberry waffles with orange butter... words cannot do justice.

Clinton Street Bakery. The Best Pancakes Ever. Lovely homestyle food, lower East side.

There is such a plethora of choice when it comes to food over here, it's ridiculous. Your best bet is using a combination of the Zagat Guide (the NY restaurant bible) and a more discriminating guide like the Time Out City Guide, and of course local recommendations.

Supper. Atmospheric little Italian place on the Lower East side with exposed brick walls and pretty chandeliers.

Ali Baba Turkish Cuisine. The most delectable, smoky babaganoush I have ever tasted.

Grimaldi's pizza. You deserve one of these world famous pies after walking all the way over the Brooklyn Bridge. Just be prepared to queue (it's absolutely worth the wait).

Café Sabarsky. The rather posh Neue Gallery restaurant. Get yourself a Viennese coffee and dessert (I had the dark chocolate and apricot cake). Natalie Portman had the apple strudel, in case you were wondering.

Katz's Deli, where Sally proved to Harry what great manipulators women can be. It's a lot grimier than it looks in the film, but the girl behind the counter wouldn't accept payment from a fellow Melbournite, so I can't complain.

Nobu next door. Slightly cheaper and easier to book than Nobu, this is the best meal I have had in the city so far - amazing. Promise me you'll go there and try the fresh yellow tail sashimi with jalapeno, and also the rock shrimp tempura. Still drooling.

Adrienne's pizza bar. It's a pleasure eating outdoors on a warm night at this great upmarket pizza bar. The street is lined with bench-style tables, hidden away on a cobble-dy street near Battery Park.

The Empire diner. I can't believe it didn't occur to me to visit an old fashioned American diner. It took an out-of-towner to suggest it. Proper old-school burger-and-milkshake-at-the-counter territory, served with a smile and a wink.

John's pizzeria. Famous pizza pie joint on Bleecker street. Atmospheric, with years worth of names carved into the small wooden booths, but Grimaldi's pizza is superior in my book (I think it's an Italian vs. American thing.)

Alcoholic beverages and bars are not my strong suit, I have to admit - I am a lightweight and don't like noisy, crowded bars - but here's a list of the few places I have visited. Don't forget your ID!

Ayza chocolate and wine bar (Midtown). Try a "flight" (3 little samplers).

Flat Iron Lounge.
Groovy bar with retro cocktails, near the iconic building.

Under the volcano. Atmospheric (and very dark) tequila bar in midtown. Fierce margaritas.

Divine Bar, right near Times Square. The cinnamon toast with caramel ice-cream was sooo good, but you might feel a little self-conscious ordering the "Stinkin' Dirty Whore-tini". Try the Angel's Tit instead (truly divine).

Darkroom. A photographer friend (appropriately) roped me into coming to this low-ceilinged den and I enjoyed myself dancing inanely to Stevie Wonder and other crowd-pleasers.

8 Mile Creek. Surprisingly tasteful Australian themed bar in NoLIta (north of little italy). You wouldn't really know it was an Australian bar, except that you might be offered a Tim Tam with your drink.

Superfine. A bar in dumbo which is exactly that: super fine. Fantastic G&T with lime, kick-ass music, and rotating local artworks on the walls.

You gotta see some live music if you come to New York, it has been hands-down my favourite thing to do here - there are some great small venues and you are spoilt for choice when it comes to gig listings.

Smalls. Even for jazz-novices like myself, an umissable experience.

NYC Town Hall. I caught Flight of the Conchords here, but they have all sorts of stuff on - classical, poetry, world music. Lovely old-fashioned theatre with good views from most seats, right near Times Square.

The Mercury Lounge. Proper dark and dinghy rock venue on an intimate scale, East Houston. I saw the fragile but heart-breakingly beautiful Joan As Police Woman here, with New York's coolest in attendance (including a Warhol wannabe).

Bowery Ballroom. My favourite NY music space so far. Beautiful mid-sized venue in a stylish 1920's building in the lower East side, showing loads of cool acts. I caught the very lovely Laura Veirs here (supported by Liam Finn).

Southpaw. Laidback (but supportive) local venue in Brooklyn, far enough from the beaten track to make you feel like one of the locals. I saw Hayden here.

Summerstage. A series of free concerts over the summer in Central Park - what could possibly go wrong? Well, it could pour with torrential rain and thunderstorms on the day Vampire Weekend are playing...but aside from that, much fun to be had.

Joe's pub. My (and Fink's) favourite New York venue. If you call ahead and book a table, you can sit right by the stage and enjoy dinner and drinks while you listen in this intimate space.

The Hiro Ballroom. I saw Liz Phair rocking out at this sumptuous kung-fu-style venue, with paper lanterns hanging from the curved dark wood ceiling. Very cool.


Falling Water. More Pittsburgh than New York, but worth the pilgrimage to see the most beautiful example of mid-century American architecture around.

The New York Public Library. Gorgeous building, worth going in for a look. I went to see the Gutenburg bible, but nearly cried when I discovered the actual, real life Pooh, Piglet, Kanga, Tigger and Eyeore, once owned (and obviously well loved) by Christopher Robin Milne.

Avenue Q on Broadway. Cute and funny. I was hysterical at interval: I don't even remember why. Caveat: The Americans will never touch the British when it comes to humour. I think I was just high on life at the time.

Coney Island. I don't think this counts as "cultural", but it's certainly an "experience". Shoot the Freak, ride the Cyclone, ogle the carnies and tuck into a world famous hotdog. Not for the faint of heart. Scheduled for redevelopment, so get there quick if you want to experience the authentic tawdry-run-down-fairground atmosphere.

The Guggenheim. Another cool Frank Lloyd Wright building full of cutting-edge modern art.

Neue Gallery. I tracked this down after spying a Klimt poster on 5th avenue. I adored it: it is a Klimt-groupies dream. And the most gorgeous display of Wiener Werkstätte jewellery imaginable.

Central Park Boathouse. Fortify yourself with an American-style super sweet breakfast at the Express Café before heading out for a row on the lake. If you are feeling energetic (I was), hire yourself a bike from Metro Bicycles (cheaper than the Central Park bike rentals) on 88th and Lexington for an easy cycle round the entire park.

Wicked. The front row seats are allocated via a ballot system - turn up between 5 and 6pm to put your name down and take your chances for the 8 o'clock show.

BAM. The Brooklyn Academy of Music to be precise, but they also put on plays and have a cinema where I saw a bunch of short animated films from around the world, with a Q&A session afterwards.

Whitney Museum of American Art. Great but dissappointingly small collection of modern American art, including Hopper, O'Keefe, Oldenburg, Pollock and De Kooning. Luckily they had one tiny room in the basement dedicated to my all-time favourite sculptor: Alexander Calder; as well as a collection of exquisite Mapplethorpe polaroids.

P.S.1. Contemporary art museum in a converted school building in Queens, affiliated with MoMA. Very cool and definitely worth the trek. I saw a brilliant show around the themes of "flags, weapons and dreams" - a great insight into the underbelly of the American dream.

MoMA. This is the best collection of big-name modern art I have seen in the world - truly awesome. A fantastic space and a definite must-do.

The Met. For some reason, I was expecting the Met to be a bit fusty and boring, but it blew me away. Utterly amazing collection of artworks from throughout the ages, from ancient Egyptian to contemporary American.

New York Botanical Gardens. I spent a very wet and humid Sunday traipsing around this lovely park, seeking out the Henry Moore pieces which are on exhibition at the moment. A serene retreat from the city, up in the Bronx.

*To be updated during my stay.

Not the worst chat up line I've ever heard...

I'm walking home from the Whitney, after a crazy detour through some kind of bubble fest that was happening on Broadway (tons of people making soap bubbles with various implements including: automated bubble guns; huge Y shaped contraptions that produce monster bubbles; and old school 'o' on a stick bubble makers), passing by a 300-strong yoga class that was taking place in the middle of Times Square (only in New York, right?).

I'm negotiating my way throught the throng of fat American tourists when a tattooed guy with a mini-mohawk calls out, "Hey, you dropped your sunglasses!" as I walk by. I look back, confused, and he says "No, I'm just kidding. They're on your head. Do you like comedy?"

I notice he is handing out flyers for a comedy night, like many other poor shlubs peddling tickets around Times Square, centre of the entertainment universe. I smile at my dim-wittedness and shake my head no as I keep walking.

"No? Do you like skinny white guys?"

Friday, June 13, 2008

I truly do heart this big, brash, beautiful, crazy city

Jackhammers pound belligerently in the distance. Taxi drivers beep by way of conversation with pedestrians and other drivers. The occassional wail of a siren or the insistent honking of a fire truck breaks out, cabbies slow to move out of the way. And beneath it all, the undercurrent, when all the other noises conspire to cease for a blessed minute, the rush and hum of Manhattan rises up from the island and filters into my 29th floor apartment.

New York. New York! This trip has been so incredible, so enjoyable (apart from that slight touch of appendicitis) and so easy, really - that I find myself feeling more relaxed than I have in a long time, despite the hubbub. I realised yesterday that I haven't felt worried about anything in my personal life since I've been here. And for me, a chronic worrier from the time I achieved self-consiousness about age 4, that has been an incredible respite from my usual way of being.

I'm still a little lazy, quite vague and dreamy, and prone to pessimism when things don't go my way, but these last 12 months have been quite a journey for me. Sorry to get all self-help on your asses - and believe me, America is the place for self help, whether by drugs, books, drugs, television, therapy or more drugs - but I am in a very good place at the moment and can't remember ever having enjoyed myself more.

As I said to my mum on the phone this morning, this trip has been the highlight of my life so far. Seriously. I know that sounds dramatic, but really, it has! All my other travels, wonderous and amazing as they have been, have been ever so slightly tarnished by worry niggling around my edges. Here in New York, with the practicalities taken care of by my work and the knowledge that this is a temporary state aleviating my need to worry incessantly about the future - I feel totally immersed in my pure enjoyment of this great city. Central Park, Brooklyn Bridge, eating burgers and drinking milkshakes, seeing broadway shows and going to lots of gigs - indulgence and entertainment have become my way of life over here, and unhealthy as that may turn out to be (physically or spiritually), I am enjoying being me, being here now, more than ever.

Even the prospect of returning to London isn't bothering me at this point. Come back to me in a few weeks and you might find a somewhat different story (no one changes that much, after all) - but right now, I feel serene and bouyant and lucky. It's a very good feeling.

Apologies for the gushing. It's possible karma will decree that I get mugged as soon as I leave the building.
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