Archive | January, 2011

Frank Sinatra’s “Best of Vegas” — I’m All In!

31 Jan

A new Sinatra release is always a cause for celebration. That is especially true when you’re talking about LIVE recordings. Better yet if the live material includes performances from the ’50s and ’60s (my favorite era of Frank’s stellar career). The first 9 tracks on this collection fall into that friendly territory. The initial 3 tunes (following the introduction) were recorded at The Sands in 1961 — ring a ding ding! Tracks 5-9 are even better, thanks to the participation of conductor Quincy Jones and the amazing Count Basie Orchestra.

The music swings throughout this 17-track live collection and boasts several 1980’s performances captured at Caesar’s Palace and the Golden Nugget. Nuggets found here include Pennies from Heaven and New York New York. Have the earmuffs ready as Old Blue Eyes employs some salty language during his sometimes lengthy and always engaging between song stage patter. Hey, Frankie had some great pipes … but he wasn’t exactly a choir boy.

In the span of a few years, Las Vegas refueled Frank Sinatra’s career and Sinatra in turn became the lead figure in the city’s ascendance. It was a synergistic relationship that has since become legendary in the annals of 20th century entertainment.

Some of the finest moments in that legendary symbiosis are captured in Frank Sinatra: Best of Vegas, a series of live recordings presented by Concord Records. The 14-song set, under license from Frank Sinatra Enterprises (FSE), captures Sinatra in concert at the Sands, Caesars Palace and the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas between 1961 and 1987. The collection is a distillation of highlights from Sinatra: Vegas, the five-disc boxed set (4 CD/1 DVD) of live recordings released by Reprise Records in 2006.

 

“From his debut at the Desert Inn in September 1951, no entertainer was ever more synonymous with the city of Las Vegas than Frank Sinatra,” says Charles Pignone, author of The Sinatra Treasures, in his comprehensive liner notes to the Best of Vegas CD. “It has been said that next to legalized gambling, nothing has been more beneficial and profitable to Las Vegas than Frank Sinatra.”

All the Sinatra classics are here, performed live before adoring crowds at some of the most prestigious venues in the history of Vegas. “The Lady Is a Tramp” (The Sands, 1961); “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (The Sands, 1966); “All or Nothing at All” (Caesars Palace, 1982); “Pennies From Heaven” (The Golden Nugget, 1987); and of course, the “Theme From New York, New York” (Caesars Palace, 1982) are just some of the gems in the Best of Vegas collection. 

“If you were in Las Vegas at the same time as Sinatra, there was nothing else that could compare,” says Pignone. “Even when the entertainment in town was changing from headliners to magic and production shows, Sinatra was still the ‘main event.'”

Or in the words of Las Vegas Mayor Oscar B. Goodman, Sinatra was “the destination’s most enduring icon, an inimitable original who was influential in shaping Las Vegas’ image and entertainment scene.”

Sinatra returned to Vegas in December with the opening of Sinatra Dance With Me, at the Wynn Las Vegas. Conceived, choreographed and directed by Twyla Tharp, Sinatra Dance With Me features original recorded masters of Frank Sinatra with a big band and 14 of the world’s finest dancers.

www.sinatrafamily.com

Help Us Crown the True King of King Cakes in Mobile, Alabama

30 Jan

The baby toy tucked inside each cake is all part of the Mardi Gras tradition

Mobile, AL is the home of the original Mardi Gras in the United States. It is also home to some mighty fine restaurants. That being stated, you’d think you could find a decent king cake on practically every corner. Not so.

But I am now on a mission and I will not rest until I find the very best purple, yellow, and green sprinkled coffee cake sold in the Greater Mobile area. I’m now seeking reader recommendations, so let’s hear from you and make it snappy. The results of my not so scientific, but oh so tasty study will appear in the next issue of ALABAMA COASTING magazine (www.alabamacoasting.com).

Bakeries like Publix grocery store don’t miss a chance to cash in on the season

For more on King Cake lore, follow this link …  http://www.gumbopages.com/food/dessert/king-cake.html

UPDATE (3/1/2011): Go to http://www.alabamacoasting.com/ for our final results.

NOWHERE BOY Finds Its Way Into My Heart

28 Jan

NOWHERE BOY is a neatly-made period piece focusing on John Lennon’s adolescence and the complex relationship between his free spirit Mother (Julia) and her more grounded sister (Mimi). Aaron Johnson (who played the lead in KICK ASS) does a fine job portraying young John; Kristen Scott Thomas is even better in the role of Mimi. The film’s music, as you might expect, is top notch.

A group of studio cats billed as The Nowhere Boys perform several early Beatles numbers and they more often than not do the songs justice. Watch this film and you’ll better understand the inner demons that haunted Lennon throughout his lifetime. Thumbs up on this one — nice little indy flick!

RED – “Retired & Extremely Dangerous”

28 Jan

The movie RED (short for Retired & Extremely Dangerous) is fun and action packed. It’s not going to win any major awards or blow away many critics, but it features an all-star cast (Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Richard Dreyfuss, Ernest Borgnine and Mary-Louise Parker, who shines as Willis’ much younger girlfriend) and a very cool original score. It’s basically a DC Comic come to life, so turn off your brain for a couple of hours and let the lead-slinging begin!

Veteran actor Ernest Borgnine (L) and Bruce Willis (R) starring in RED

www.red-themovie.com

Clooney and Placido heat up the screen in THE AMERICAN

28 Jan

THE AMERICAN is a moody, Euro-styled thriller starring George Clooney. It’s a leaner, meaner, more grizzled Clooney. The film is beautifully shot in Sweden and Italy and features nice supporting performances by Paolo Bonacelli and Violante Placido. Placido is stunning as GC’s steamy love interest, while Bonacelli’s Catholic Father offers divine guidance to Clooney’s hardened hit man character. I enjoyed it and encourage you to give it a shot. Get it? Shot???

Violante Placido, George Clooney’s Italian co-star in THE AMERICAN

La Cocina Delivers Tasty Mexican Fare in West Mobile

28 Jan

La Cocina Mexican Restaurant is located just off busy Airport Boulevard in West Mobile. People who live in Mobile often talk about avoiding Airport Boulevard at all costs, but why do that if it means missing out on this terrific little gem? I first heard about La Cocina from a local food service professional. He also happened to be Mexican, so I felt like his advice was worth taking. I asked “Where can I find good Mexican food in Mobile?” He answered “La Cocina” without any hesitation.

With food this good, they can celebrate Christmas year-round if they so choose.

Some traditional Mexican art is etched into the wooden dining booths.

The chips are fat and crunchy and the salsa tastes fresh (and not too darn hot).

The Poblano Relleno platter (featuring sides of Mexican rice and refried beans) is a personal favorite at La Cocina. How do I love it? Let me count the ways. First, they begin with a fresh Poblano pepper. They are a dark, rich green in color and are mild with only a slight afterburn. The pepper is stuffed with marinated, grilled (almost smoky) chicken breast meat and queso fresco (a mellow Mexican-style white cheese). It is then dipped in a batter, deep fried to crispyness, and then doused in a tangy red sauce.  Sound good? You better believe it, amigo!

A closer look at the Poblano pepper stuffed full of chicken & queso fresco.

La Cocina is open for lunch and dinner 7 days a week.

Arriba!!!

www.lacocinamobile.com

Hot Club of Cowtown Does Bob Wills Proud

10 Jan

Great new CD — first rate Western Swing from Austin, TX trio.

Check it out, y’all!

HOT CLUB OF COWTOWN

Since their first recording in 1998, Austin-based Hot Club of Cowtown have grown to be the most globe-trotting, hardest-swinging Western swing trio on the planet. The first American band to tour Azerbaijan, they have opened stadiums for such artists as Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson and continue to bring their brand of Western swing to a wide range of festival audiences all over the world. But for guitarist Whit Smith, fiddler Elana James and bassist Jake Erwin, it has always been about staying true to their roots.

Remaining willfully out of the musical mainstream, Hot Club of Cowtown have created an international cult following for their sonic personification of joy and unique sound inspired by their namesakes: “Hot Club” from the hot jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli’s Hot Club of France, and “Cowtown” from the Western swing influence of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.

Though Wills’ pre-WWII recordings have always been the fundamental inspiration for Hot Club of Cowtown’s repetoire and style, it has taken the band a dozen years to fully honor the King of Western Swing. A fortuitous tour in England in the spring of 2010 led them to London’s Specific Sound studio, where they spent two days recording a 14-song marathon of Bob Wills tunes. The result, What Makes Bob Holler, is a tribute to the American music icon, respecting Wills’ legendary music while putting Hot Club’s own signature on each song. “We have been meaning to make this album for a long time,” says James.

“This is music from the days when guys toured and sat on a bus with no air conditioning, no real food, for days. We heard a story of a fiddler the Wills band picked up in California and by the time they had driven to the Midwest, he was dead and nobody even knew his name. They pried his rigor mortis’d body off of the bus and left him under a lamppost somewhere in Kansas,” says James, “It was a different time. These guys were pretty hardcore.”

What Makes Bob Holler presents the most convincing evidence yet that Hot Club of Cowtown may be on to something. By digging even deeper into their roots and refusing to modernize, the band offers up one of their most exciting recordings to date. The disc is an imaginative pairing of obscure B-sides with some of Wills’ most popular work. Tunes like “Big Balls in Cowtown” and “Stay a Little Longer” are numbers that “people always love when we play them live,” says James, “so it was was a no-brainer to gather them into a record.” Others, like “Osage Stomp” and “The Devil Ain’t Lazy,” might not be as well known, but they are in the spirit of what originally attracted Smith and James to this music. “We’re playing what knocked us out about Western swing in the first place — the early fiery energy and jazzy improvisations,” says James.

What Makes Bob Holler may have taken two days to record, but the band has played these songs on tour for years. The album reflects the same spirited live vibe and offers the band a terrific platform to show off their ace musicianship and flaunt these inspirations: Smith’s hot electric guitar played through a vintage 1936 Gibson amplifier, James’ sometimes gorgeous, sometimes frenetic fiddle, and Erwin’s jaw-dropping slap bass, all mixed with three-part harmony vocals.

Smith (Cape Cod, MA) and James (Prairie Village, KS), originally met through an ad in the classified music section of The Village Voice in 1994, and played together in New York City before relocating to San Diego in 1997, where they spent a year playing for tips and building up their repertoire. By 1998, they had relocated to Austin, Texas and in 2000 added Jake Erwin (originally from Tulsa, OK) on bass, finalizing the Hot Club’s lineup.

Like any scrappy modern band, Hot Club dwells between the daily grind of touring and the euphoria of its live shows. Years of crisscrossing the USA in a silver Ford van through a landscape where local traditions are becoming more and more diluted, and modern life more electronic, have galvanized this Texas trio who are more devoted than ever to keeping their music sincere, free of irony, and focused on a simpler time.

What Makes Bob Holler arrives on the heels of 2009’s more eclectic Wishful Thinking, an Americana radio Top 100 album lauded by the Austin Chronicle’s Jim Caliguiri as “the Cowtowners at their peak,” and David Eldridge, in the Washington Times, as “one of the year’s most unexpected listening pleasures.”

While What Makes Bob Holler focuses exclusively on Bob Wills music, Hot Club of Cowtown’s live show will remain an engaging mix of what the band does best — whatever moves it at the moment, setlists be damned. “We have faith in the system that is the band. This energy that we plug into and it takes us away,” says James. Smith describes their shows as “like a rock ’n’ roll show . . . people pick up on the energy and the sincerity.”

“What the trio has is a rare thing,” says Smith, “There’s a chemistry that’s unmistakable.”

As Bob Wills might say, “Aaaaaaaaaah Haaaaaaaaaaah!”

www.hotclubofcowtown.com

Callaghan’s Irish Social Club in Mobile, Alabama

2 Jan

Callaghan’s is without doubt one of my favorite hangouts in Mobile. I have lived in the area for almost 2 years now and it took me a while to find my way here. That is not unusual. In fact, I have met Mobile natives who don’t know where it is. Shame. Because once you find it, you certainly won’t forget it.

It doesn’t look gangbusters from the outside. It is, after all, a rather boxy, 1920’s era building (once a butcher shop). But there is a certain charm to be found in it’s somewhat plain Jane exterior. It may have something to do with the surrounding neighborhood, which consists of a cluster of historic homes and cottages dating back to the early and mid 20th century. Callaghan’s is the centerpiece of the community — and has been for many decades.

Here is an example of a neighborhood cottage across street from the pub.

Here’s another one. They are so cool — and really not that pricey either.

Daily specials at Callaghan’s — always worth a look. Creativity still lives here.

Outdoor patio seating is a good call at lunch — if the day’s weather permits.

Our dining table – filled with old Mobile memorabilia from days long past.

They make one of the best burgers in Mobile – and they have awards to prove it.

Funny — and true!

Irish Curse on wall at Callaghan’s. The walls are filled with eye candy like this.

Callaghan’s Chicken Philly — my go-to sandwich for lunch. It is served on delicious, fresh baked bread and filled to overflowing with chunks of chicken breast, onions, green peppers, and tons of good cheese. I typically order this with a side of housemade chips or Callaghan’s tart cucumber salad. They brew really good iced tea too. It’s always a good call (sweet or unsweet) if you’re working or if it’s not yet 5 pm. I must admit that this line of thought isn’t always in vogue at Callaghan’s. Mobile is a fun loving city and, for many, work can always wait until tomorrow.

John “JT” Thompson is a terrific host and you will feel like a regular upon your first visit. The atmosphere is so warm and cozy, they’ve got HD TVs all over the place, and you’d be surprised at all the first rate musical acts they are able to consistently book here. Robert Plant even stopped by for a pint or two after playing a recent show in Mobile with his Band of Joy. That should give you an idea about Callaghan’s worldwide reputation. ESQUIRE magazine ranked them one of the best bars in the USA. Doesn’t surprise me a bit. I just hope the rest of Mobile doesn’t find out about them. I feel like I’m on the right side of a well kept secret and, selfishly, I’d like to keep it that way. At least for another decade or two.

www.callaghansirishsocialclub.com

Our first stop at Huckleberry’s Bar-B-Q in Fanning Springs, Florida

2 Jan

We had passed Huckleberry’s before, but it wasn’t exactly meal time. This time, we found ourselves in the heart of the lunch hour. The sign out front on Highway 19 (pictured above) looked promising enough. The boys were asking for BBQ and this was pretty much the only BBQ joint in town. Fanning Springs isn’t exactly Orlando, you know.

The view from the outside of Huckleberry’s. Great name. And who can resist the image of a pink pig roasting in red hot flames? Well, perhaps the pig. Or a vegetarian. I am neither one. These types of visuals usually result in a fine roadside meal. You are always taking a bit of a risk, yet that is what the adventure of road trip dining is all about. Sure, we could have stopped at Burger King or KFC. But how many times do you find yourself in Fanning Springs, FL? It was time to once again step out of our comfort zone and try something new.

This festive pig greeted us as we stepped into Huckleberry’s .

Luckily, we weren’t packing any heat this day.

Words of wisdom.

My BBQ pork sandwich — it was OK … not great. The service was fast and friendly, but the chopped pork seemed old and tired. Huckleberry’s offers several sauce options. All of them were fine. However, none of them stood out as being exceptional. The baked beans (my choice of side item) were also just so-so. Straught out of the can??? Maybe.

A taste of the interior decor at Huckleberry’s. Lots of country chic and FL plates.

An old timey bacon press. They really do exist. I haven’t seen one — or heard anyone speak of one — in quite some time. What does it do? It flattens bacon in the pan during the cooking process, insuring that the entire strip of fatty goodness is cooked evenly. Who likes those white, chewy curls at the end of a piece of otherwise perfectly cooked bacon? Not this guy. Perfectly cooked pork … something that is hard to find … even in the Deep South. And sadly, you won’t find it at Huckleberry’s either. Fun little dive, nice folks — but not on our A list of Q joints … that’s for certain.

www.huckleberrysbarbq.com

Our Return Visit to Apalachicola, Florida

2 Jan

The Coombs House Inn (above) was once again our home base on this brief visit to the FL panhandle. Apalachicola is Florida’s seafood capital and the Coombs House, along with the historic Gibson Inn, is a great choice for overnight accomodations. Lizette, our hostess this go around, was very helpful — from booking our stay to serving breakfast to offering up local dining tips.

Asian accents inside the Coombs House Inn. It is a tastefully decorated estate.

The Raney Room — our accomodations for the evening. Comfortable!

Our breakfast of Egg Souffle, fresh fruit, & hash browns. This picture doesn’t do it justice. It was delicious — especially on an unseasonably chilly, overcast morning along the Gulf Coast. We were also on the receiving end of some tasty snacks and good wines during their Saturday evening guest reception.

That Place Off 98 was suggested by Lizette as a favorite dining spot for locals. It once was on Highway 98, but is now relocated to downtown Apalachicola. The name stuck — that must mean people liked it. Right? It looked cozy enough, so we hit it for lunch on a Saturday afternoon. It was something of a late lunch for us and the crowd in the dining room was light. Guess that’s to be expected since they were missing the weekday business crowd.

The doors were decorated for the holidays. Beautiful colors, huh?

The dining room at That Place Off 98. A casual place – as is Apalach in general.

Panhandle Stew — the highlight of my meal. In fact, I might even say the dining highlight of the entire trip. Yes, it was that good. Think a really good clam chowder … minus the clams … plus loads of taters, carrots, and fresh Gulf fish. Huge chunks of fish rising out of the creamy stew like gigantic icebergs of moist, flaky deliciousness. The cup was not enough. I needed a bowl. Check that — I should have ordered a bucket full. Amazing stuff. If only I could score the recipe.

“Oysters Apalach” with garlic and parmesan cheese. Small but mighty in flavor.

The Hole in the Wall Raw Bar was our dinner destination. Cool little place — and I do mean little. It is very clean inside and the help made us feel right at home. We were seated at the tall boy tables in the center of the dining area. A young couple next to us were already hard at work peeling the shells off some freshly boiled shrimp.

Menu specials at Hole in the Wall. The price was right for raw oysters!

I started with a very meaty cup of gumbo. It was delicious … especially after adding a dash of salt and a splash of Tabasco sauce. They sure don’t skimp on the ingredients. Much like my Panhandle Stew earlier in the day, the gumbo at Hole in the Wall featured huge chunks of meat and vegetables. Really hit the spot on a bone chilling evening.

Eileen ordered this delicious boiled shrimp platter. Just $10.95 for all this!

Gator mural inside The Hole in the Wall. A fine example of coastal folk art.

Little Mom & Pop seafood markets like this can be found all over the region.

The Owl Cafe is another popular downtown eatery. Maybe next trip???

The main entry at the Owl Cafe. Nice looking place for dinner & drinks.

Don’t miss this wonderful antique store. It is chock full of nautical delights.

Vintage scuba helmet — glub, glub, glub. Would look great on my mantle piece.

Life preservers — not the candy kind — but still SWEET!

Other nautical finds to be discovered at The Tin Shed in Apalachicola.

This old graveyard is directly across from the Coombs House Inn.

Another old seafood market. My colorized version for added affect.

Sunset over the Apalachicola Bay — such a lovely part of Old Florida!

www.apalachicolabay.org