Gig Review: Angaleena Presley & Danni Nicholls at The Borderline, London – 20th July 2017

I was supposed to see Angaleena Presley back in July 2015, twice in fact, on my birthday and then the day after too. But due to family sickness that didn’t happen, and in the meantime, and with a second album under her belt, my admiration for Angaleena’s music and desire to see her live have only grown. Fast forward to 22nd April this year (yes I do know exact date thanks to never deleting emails) and the opportunity to buy tickets for a 2017 tour arose, and without hesitation I booked them. Fingers crossed we’d atually make it to the gig this time.

Last Thursday, July 20th 2017, and I made my wife Denise queue outside The Borderline for 30 minutes before doors opened, and we weren’t even at the front. Once inside we went straight towards the stage and managed to get front and centre. Aside from a risky venture to the bar at about 7.20pm for water, that’s where we stayed for the next 3+ hours. At the start of the evening it wasn’t Densie’s preferred place to stand, very still, and wait, but that would change. Seeing just a microphone and guitar stand on stage I was excited for the upcoming performannces, and very glad we were positioned where we were.

Danni Nicholls

Going into this gig I didn’t know Danni Nicholls, but that has is no relection on her standing in the music scene, more of me not being as up to date as I was back in the days when I ran 4000 Miles to Nashville, and incidentally interviewed Angaleena for here. Danni came on stage, guitar in hand and smile on her face. She spoke confidentally, but humbly, and at this point I wasn’t sure what to expect, but her demenor had certainly endeared her to us. Then she started to sing, and play, and with that rich voice, full of soul, accompanied by dexterously enviable guitar skills, I knew I’d disovered a special talent.

Danni Nicholls - The Borderline, London - July 20th 2017

I could be wrong, but I think it was Mary Gauthier at the Maverick Festival in 2014, who said that Americana is hard to describe, but you’ll know it when you hear it. That’s what I felt with Danni Nicholls, as her storytelling both through her songs and in between, is clever, honest and at times heart breaking. I mentioned before about Danni’s guitar playing and during her third song, which you’ll have to excuse for me not remembering the name of, I focused entirely on her hands, and marvelled as the left hand had fingers floating around the fretboard almost independently, whilst her right hand strummed and plucked with ease. This wasn’t an instrumental, so add in vocals, sung with the same heart and palpable emotion is her whole set, and I was in awe.

The only negative is that her set was just a little over 30 minutes, leaving me wanting more of that velvety smooth voice. I have a feeling what I saw of Danni Nicholls last Thursday was only the tip of the iceberg, and I’ll be keeping an eye on that tour that she mentioned when I chatted to her later in the evening. I spent all but the last penny I had in my pocket, and Denise’s wallet, getting Danni’s Mockingbird Lane album, that she happpily signed (getting things signed, in person, is a big thing for me, so being able to add more such items to the collection is always a thrill), and which has been played more than a few times over the past few days. Doing a bit more digging I see that not only does she have her debut album which she told us about at the gig, but she has this year released a live album too. I’m a HUGE fan of live music recordings, when done right, so on the top of my to buy list is now Danni Nicholls ‘The Vintage TV Recordings’.

Meeting Danni Nicholls - The Borderline, London - July 20th 2017

Angaleena Presley

At just a few minutes past 9pm on Thursday 20th July 2017, Angaleena Presley took the stage at The Borderline in London, and what followed was an hour or so of raw emotion, sung flawlessly by the one person I’d wanted to see more than any other in the last 3 years. Angaleena’s two solo albums are amongst my absolute favourites, full of songs from the heart, covering topics what she wants to sing about and in the style she wants to perform them in, undeterred by industry trends. Angaleena wasn’t shy about sharing her thoughts on the mainstream country music scene, and I and many others I’m sure, wholeheartedly agree. This was highlighted hilariously by Country, the 4th song on her recent Wrangled album. On said album it’s a heavily produced song, purposefully in the style of the music she is deservedly mocking, but it took on a new life with just her and her guitar, and had me smiling and whooping from start to finish.

This is what makes Angaleena Presley stand apart from so many others in the music. Aside from the fact that she has a silky smooth voice and is one of the best song writers around, her sense of humour is unrivaled, both in song and when she chatted to us in between. It was like being at a one woman songwriters evening, as she had us all in stitches regaling stories of her life and family, and using enough self depreciation to fit right at home here in England. It’s that personality that kept us enthralled even during a two minute period where her guitar strings just would not tune, refusing like petulant children to play ball.

Angaleena Presley - The Borderline, London - July 20th 2017

Thanks to Country to Country and the eagerness of many US country stars to tour in the UK, coupled with an ever increasing number of home grown talents, I have had the privelage of seeeing many country artists perform over the years. However none, and I mean not one single one, can hold a candle to Angaleena Presley. She really is the total package on stage and has certainly raised the bar of expectation for me now. I can still see her wry grin as she swaggered through a guitar solo, not missing a beat as she returned to the mic, to once again fill the venue with her beautiful voice. Thankfully one last song turned into two, as Better Off Red (I think) rounded off a spellbinding and soul enriching performance.

As it was announced that she would be coming to meet fans after she’d finished playing, my focus went from being at the front of the stage, to being as close to the front of the line and at the back of the venue as I could. If you want the full experience you have to be prepared to put in the effort, even if that does mean having people invade your personal space far more than is usually acceptable. Already owning a signed copy of Wrangled on CD I bought a copy on vinyl, which she signed as we chatted more about Country to Country and her previous tour, while I gushed about her performance that night.

Meeting Angaleena Presley - The Borderline, London - July 20th 2017

What a night. Not only did I finally get to see Angaleena Presley live and it exceeded even my lofty expectations, but I now have Danni Nicholls’ career to follow with keen interest. This will go down as one my absolute favourite gigs, and one I’ll remember fondly for a very long time.

My Name is Steve and I Love Prawnies

Rewind roughly 13 years to when my wife and I walked into Exeter town centre, where we lived at the time, and we visited a continental market one sunny summer Saturday (10 house points for the alliteration). Amid a cornucopia of smells one stood out, that being garlic, to which I am drawn to like the antithesis of a vampire. That’s the day I discovered Prawnies, as they were advertised, though I believe they may actually be lobster tails.

Prawnies

A Prawnie, as we still to this day call them, even though we have never seen them called that since, as Prawn seems to suffice, is a lobster tail / prawn cooked in a big open pan with garlic, chives, olive oil and paprika. Now anyone that knows me will tell you that I have a love bordering on obsessive for paprika, so combine that with garlic and prawns / lobster tails and you have my heart, and my stomach.

Bringing us back to the present day and a walk into our current home town, that being Hitchin in North Herfordshire, to visit the French Market, and what did I smell, and then spot? You got it – PRAWNIES! Of course I skillfullly and excitedly made my order in French that made the actual French guy serving proud, or laugh inside at the rueful attempt. Definitely one of the two, and my ego would like to think it was the former. Back on track, and once that cup of Prawnies was in my hand, and after I’d done the obligatory snapchat video, I began to devour one of my absote favourite treats in the known universe.

Prawnies at Hitchin French Market

The good thing about Prawnies is that their incredible taste belies their relative ease to make, so the taste itself doesn’t vary a lot, meaning these were every bit as yummy as the ones I had back in 2004. Of course once my wife has violently stolen a couple (that part my have been embelished for dramatic effect) I had to go back for another portion, and some garlic potatoes too – it’s a slippery slope. In a very proud moment, and after many protestations that he wouldn’t like them, even my 9 year old son tried Prawnies, and declared them to be delicious.

Until the next time I see Prawnies for sale I will just savour that exquisite taste from earlier today. I’m not sure I should try making them myself, as a failed attempt may put me off. It also wouldn’t be the same as buying them from a real life French person at a market and eating them from a plastic cup with a Lilliputian plastic fork. Ahh Prawnies, I do love you so very much.

Review: Haven Seashore in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk

As a family we have become veterans of the Haven holiday scene, having been countless times over the last decade and twice a year for the past 4 years. Saying that, we have only ever stayed at one resort, Combe Haven in Hastings. We are creatures of habit, and liking both the resort and the location, we never saw any need to change. On the one hand we might find something better, or at least equally as good. But on the other, it could be worse, much worse, and then we’d spend the whole week wishing we were back at Combe. That’s me to a tee, though I am trying to change, and my if it ain’t broke don’t fix it mentality needs to veer more towards an Adventure is out there one. 10 points for your house if you can place that latter reference.

Back on track and it was our friend Kelvin who made us choose Seashore over our beloved Combe Haven, as it was he who moved resorts. To cut a long story short, we met him at Combe Haven a few years ago where he was the entertainments manager. After 2 years he moved to Seashore, and so we decided to follow him, such was our faith in his ability. Oh go on then, add in the soppy bit about wanting to see a friend too if I must. Thanks to consecutive Friday and Monday inset and occasional days (no, me neither) at my son Lucas’ school, we were afforded our annual long weekend break in June, so on Friday 23rd off we trundled off to Norfolk.

Haven Seashore – The Caravan

We booked a basic caravan for a number of reasons, money being one, and the expectation that as it’s summer we’d not be in it much, being another. When we arrived the caravan did say basic on the front door, but on further investigation it seemed to offer much more than we were expecting. From a third bedroom, to the unused central heating, and plush decor to extra width. Whatever the level of the caravan, it was really nice, so clean and very comfortable. But don’t just take these written words as testament, take a look at this video tour and photos, which I insisted on doing before anyone could enter and unpack. The people of YouTube needed to see this caravan more than the ham and cider needed to go in the fridge, maybe.

Caravan at Haven Seashore in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk Caravan at Haven Seashore in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk Caravan at Haven Seashore in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk Caravan at Haven Seashore in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk

Caravan at Haven Seashore in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk

Caravan at Haven Seashore in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk

Caravan at Haven Seashore in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk

Caravan at Haven Seashore in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk Caravan at Haven Seashore in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk Caravan at Haven Seashore in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk Caravan at Haven Seashore in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk

Haven Seashore – The Site

Proximity to the beach couldn’t be better, as you walk out of the back entrance of the Mash and Barrel bar straight down some stairs and onto a sandy and stony beach. The beach is all sand when you walk along the coastline towards the town / pier areas of Great Yarmouth, but the stones aren’t big near Haven Seashore and there are little patches of just sand, so very manageable. Between the back entrance to the bar and the beach is an outside seating area, which at night is lit up by some overhead fairy lights and looks quite magical.

Haven Seashore Mash and Barrel Outside Seating

Haven Seashore Mash and Barrel Outside Seating Haven Seashore Mash and Barrel Outside Seating Haven Seashore Beach Haven Seashore Beach

The aforementioned Mash and Barrel is a big bar set out in a big L shape, with more than enough tables and chairs for even the busiest days. It houses a soft play area for kids, a small selection of amusement machines and even 2 pool tables. The Mash Barrel is home to karaoke a few nights a week, which of course partook in, or practically took over in my case. I blame that last Gin! It also has access to the pool area which consists of 2 indoor pools, one 4 lane slide into it’s own runoff area and an outdoor splash area. It was never busy when we were there and the water was warm, as were the changing rooms. The slides were great fun, and unlike at Combe Haven where the slide is outside, these can be used all year round, and by children of a younger age too.

The Live Lounge complex is where the main entertainments take place and also has a bar and a shop selling Haven branded goods. This seemed a lot more modern than at Combe Haven ad the TV screens certainly helped when it came to the various bingo games. The stage can be seen from all over the room thanks too the incline from front to back, and we saw a variety of live acts including 4 chaps from Britain’s Got Talent, apparently. Between the entrance to the Live Lounge and the actual entertainment room are a big variety of amusements, plus a Burger King and Papa John’s Pizza bar.

Haven Seashore Live Lounge Haven Seashore Live Lounge Haven Seashore Climbing Wall Haven Seashore Mini Market & Bike Hire

That’s not all, as there are several parks, a climbing wall, mini golf, go karts, a well stocked shop and laundry facilities. There’s even a bike hire centre which we did actually make use of when Lucas and I took a two seated 4 wheeled peddle powered vehicle out for a 30 minute tour of the site – great fun, and only £4 for 30 minutes. Everything is set out along the beach, and while walking from one end to the other may take a little time, it makes things far easier to locate when it’s basically in a straight line.

Haven Seashore – The Staff

Having this plethora pf facilities is all well and good, but manned by staff who don’t enjoy their job and don’t make customers a priority would be a disaster. Thankfully there was no such thing at Haven Seashore, in fact quite the opposite. As I said earlier, I had faith in Kelvin as an entertainments manager, and that was rewarded with a great team of Funstars (think of a modern more energetic version of the yellow coats from Hi De Hi) who worked exceptionally well as a team and had everyone entertained each evening. Lucas even managed to get pulled up on stage for one game, and won, but this is the first time in years he didn’t get the chance to take me up too, and embarrass me in some way. I’m fooling nobody with the I’m just too act cool there, of course I love going up on stage and partaking in whatever silly antics are thrown my way – next time! If I have spelled names wrong then I apologise, but thank you to Kelvin, Karla, Amber, Rafe, Joel and Lou for making us feel very welcome and doing the Funstar name proud.

Haven Seashore Characters Haven Seashore Karaoke Haven Seashore Funstars Go Live Haven Seashore Funstars Go Live

Though the Funstars tend to be the face of the company, the rest of the staff play just as vital a role, and did so with just us much pride. From the poor girl who had lost her voice on the pool reception, to the lady on the shop who made sure I had the correct coins to fit in the parking meter on the seafront. From the bar staff in the Live Lounge who humoured my attempts to remember the correct name for Rekorderlig each night, to their counterparts in the Mash and Barrel who had to put up with my singing, which even went as far as me fetching a bar stool to perform Extreme’s More Than Words. Yes, I am that embarrassing Dad/husband/friend, but it’s all in the name of having fun. I’m trying to recall and I can’t think of one single occasion when we weren’t treated with smiles and the appropriate help, and on most occasions aid that went above and beyond.

Haven Seashore – Great Yarmouth

I intend to go into more detail in a separate article, but suffice to say that as long as you stay away from the shopping centre part of Great Yarmouth, then you’ll find a seaside resort with lots of old fashioned charm and the entertainment to match. Sticking our heads through wooden pictures for photos and trying to shoot a bullseye with an air rifle were just 2 such things we enjoyed on the pier. There were even donkey rides on the beach, and while Lucas recoiled at the idea I am 50% over the weight limit (and 10 times the age limit?) for such an experience, fortunately for the donkey. There are amusement arcades as far as the eye can see, but don’t go thinking you’ll come out with buckets full of plunder, these are tough machines where winning is but a pipe dream for most. It’s still fun trying, and we took our 6 month supply of 2p coins which Lucas used to win enough tickets for a small packet of wine gums and a football magnet that has since been left in the bottom of his bag.

Great Yarmouth Great Yarmouth Great Yarmouth Great Yarmouth

One expert tip I will impart on you is to not eat at the first fish and chip shop you see, which in our case was on the pier. My wife Denise theorised that the quality may not be as good as they didn’t have to try as hard and boy was she right. The next day we did some exploring and found the Lion & Herring Fish & Chips Shop off the main strip and were rewarded with cheaper prices, friendlier service and far superior food. I’d go back for their Scampi alone.

The main action is only a short drive, longer walk or fun train ride away. Train you say? Yes indeed, as there is a land train that runs every half an hour between Haven Seashore and Great Yarmouth Pier. It takes about 5 minutes and costs £2.00 for adults and £1.50 for adults…one way. So it’s not cheap if there are a few of you and you use it both ways, every day. We did the return journey on one day and the drove the next, as parking on the seafront was cheaper. The train is fun though, but be sure to hold on to your hat, as it goes faster than I expected. Speaking of faster, Joyland is a the charming jewel of Great Yarmouth, and one that I will be talking about a lot in that future article I referenced earlier.

Haven Seashore – The Verdict

We were back only a few days before we booked to return at the end of August. I think that gives you an idea of how much we enjoyed our stay at Haven Seashore. As much as we liked many visits to Combe Haven, we all feel that Seashore takes it to another level in almost every way possible. It’s also set in the most wonderful surroundings and whilst we like Hastings, Great Yarmouth is a far easier location to have a proper getaway and escape the normality of everyday life. We had a wonderful 4 days away, spent time with some precious friends, and fell in love with Haven Seashore and Great Yarmouth…and that delicious scampi!

Official Website: Haven Seahore

A Day at MCM Comic Con London and Why I Love It So Much

Pirates of the Caribbean or Star Tours t-shirt? Star Wars Rebel pilot backpack or classic Star Wars courier bag? Slip on Star Wars scene Vans or lace up Stormtrooper Vans? That last dilemma was easily solved as I couldn’t and still can’t locate that particular pair of Vans – just why do things go missing so often at home and where do they go? Fellow comic con attendees will recognise these kind of decisions, because even though the venue will be full of people with eye catching slaved over cosplay designs, it’s also very important I choose to wear the right thing. You never know, there could be another fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland Paris or another Disney Park at the con, and it also ties in with the release of the latest film on the ongoing series. The backpack also got the nod in case you were wondering. No point agonising over which is the perfect t-shirt just to have a big strap covering the design.

MCM Comic Con London. May 28th 2017. Stormtroopers

I usually go with my son and sometimes my wife if she’s not working, but with both of them away visiting relatives for half term, I took a friend to his very first comic con experience at the Excel, for MCM Comic Con London. On a really hot day it was thankfully pretty cool inside the venue, never more of a relief than when we had to queue for 20 minutes until general entry opened and we were constantly told to shuffle up. Personal space be damned. Once inside there’s the usual sensory overload as I try to decide to which of the 17 things that has caught me eye to head towards first.

Much f it essentially like a huge market, with rows and rows of stands selling a plethora of anime, film, comic, and video game related merchandise. For someone that lives in a small town in Hertfordshire it’s one of the few opportunities I get each year to feast my eyes on such wears, and while I may not want to buy all that is on offer, I’m always amazed at the skill and effort that has gone into producing the hand made items, and the factory produced ones too, but to less an extent. It’s also the only time I get to see so many different One Piece (my favourite anime show) items, and a leather wallet with Luffy on the front was the first thing on my maybe list. If we are talking effort, then it’s the incredible cosplay creations that take center stage. The amount of work that goes into some of these is insane, and way beyond what my artistically challenged mind can comprehend. I don’t recognise the characters portrayed in a lot of them, being unfamiliar with a lot of anime and almost the entire video games world, but that doesn’t stop me marveling at how stunning they look. Some of these are beyond film accurate and look better than what we see on the big screen. Multiple tails seemed to be a bit of a theme this year – no idea why, but they looked cute.

MCM Comic Con London. May 28th 2017. Harry Potter Funko Pop

MCM Comic Con London. May 28th 2017. Bo Peep

Though we hadn’t booked any photo opportunities, we walked past KJ Apa who plays Archie in Riverdale, the original Hulk Lou Ferrigno, Verne Troyer of Austin Powers fame and Darth Vader himself, David Prowse, and many more. I’ve met David before, and none of the others on offer tempted me enough to pay and queue to meet them, but having these opportunities is always great. At last year’s Star Wars Celebration in the same building I, along with my son and wife, met Mark Hamill – a surreal dream come true.

Throughout my life I’ve always loved to submerge myself in fandoms of various types; Pro wrestling, Star Wars, comics, Disneyland Paris and a variety of TV shows to name but a few. MCM Comic Con gives me the opportunity to be amongst like minded people, all celebrating our love and appreciation for these art forms, with unashamed exuberance. In a world that every day seems to be more full of hate and evil, for those 5 hours spent at at MCM Comic Con I can escape all that, and allow myself to be consumed by all the fantasy and fun. The people are always so friendly, and I often find myself chatting to complete strangers like I’ve known them for years. When asking to have photos with people in their great costumes I’ve never had anything but positive and enthusiastic responses, and so have captured some fab photos over the years. To all those I had photos with yesterday, and at events in the past, thank you.

MCM Comic Con London. May 28th 2017. Randy Savage

MCM Comic Con London. May 28th 2017. Guardians of the Galaxy

On the way out I asked my friend if he’d consider coming in costume next time. Of course what I was really saying is I REALLY REALLY WANT TO COME IN MY JEDI COSTUME BUT I’M TOO NERVOUS TO DO IT ON MY OWN, PLEASE SAY YES AND I’LL BE YOUR BEST FRIEND FOREVER! I’ll optimistically put him down as a maybe, but my son and wife have agreed, and thus in October Jedi Steve will be making his MCM Comic Con debut. That’s unless I figure something else out by then, and after finally starting to watch Cowboy Bebop after years of wanting to, I’m thinking spike would be awesome to cosplay as.

I never found that One Piece wallet again, but maybe all things really do happen for a reason, as on the very last stand I visited I found and bought this incredible Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles wallet, which I much prefer. AWESOME!
MCM Comic Con London. May 28th 2017. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Wallet

More info: MCM Comic Con London

Restaurant Review: Yo! Sushi at The Centre:MK in Milton Keynes

I’ve wanted to eat in Yo! Sushi for years, but my 8 year old son never seems keen and childless days are few and far between. Well today that changed, as I had a day off of work and my wife Denise doesn’t work Mondays, so off we went to The Centre:MK in Milton Keynes. After asking for recommendations last night on Twitter I was told of Blue Mondays, where 45 dishes are just £2.80 each, a significant saving for many – great time for our inaugural visit then. I should add that this was to be the first time we’ve eaten sushi in a restaurant since we visited Japan in 2001, only having had a few bits from the supermarket since then, and maybe some at a train station quick service outlet whose name alludes me.

I’d studied the menu at length last night, and even though I’m one of those people who likes to know what they are having ahead of time and being a creature of habit who often eats the same meal, repeatedly, I planned to do things differently. You see, at Yo! Sushi you can order from the menu, but you can also just grab dishes from a conveyor belt that runs past the seating areas. Making impulse decisions on food would be massively outside my comfort zone, but I was going to try. That was my intention anyway.

Restaurant Review: Yo! Sushi at The Centre:MK in Milton Keynes

We approached Yo! Sushi at midday, in spite of wanting lunch since 11am, and were greeted warmly, taken to a booth and explained the ordering process as we were newbies. Ultimate refills of water for just £1.30, from taps that are actually on the very table you are sat at? I was already in some kind of thirst quenching paradise before the food had even entered the equation. Now onto that food, and my intention to be spontaneous. Let’s just say that a combination of not knowing what things were and not wanting to miss out on the absolute best sounding dishes that I’d decided upon after my menu study session yesterday, meant that after just 1 conveyor belt choice I pressed the button on our table. Within seconds a member of staff was at our table and ready to help.

Restaurant Review: Yo! Sushi at The Centre:MK in Milton Keynes

That initial dish of tuna sashimi was nice, but probably my least favourite if our meal. I’m someone who orders chicken and asks for it to be cooked well done, just to put things into context. Duck Gyoza, Prawn Katsu, Chicken Katsu and Dragon Rolls made up our first round of ordered dishes and all were fantastic. The Katsu and Gyozas were some of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted and we had seconds of all, along with some Spicy Chicken Rolls which had a nice bite, but weren’t too spicy. The Chicken Katsu came on a bed of cabbage which covered in Katsu sauce was amazing, and gave me 1 of my 5 a day, so I told myself.

Restaurant Review: Yo! Sushi at The Centre:MK in Milton Keynes Dragon Roll

Restaurant Review: Yo! Sushi at The Centre:MK in Milton Keynes Chicken Katsu Restaurant Review: Yo! Sushi at The Centre:MK in Milton Keynes Duck Gyoza

Restaurant Review: Yo! Sushi at The Centre:MK in Milton Keynes Spicy Chicken Roll

Restaurant Review: Yo! Sushi at The Centre:MK in Milton Keynes Prawn Katsu

Restaurant Review: Yo! Sushi at The Centre:MK in Milton Keynes

After 10 dishes we decided it was time for dessert, where Denise chose Custard Dorayaki and I had the Chocolate Mochi, the latter being the only thing we ordered that wasn’t a Blue Monday item. We shared, and while I don’t usually like custard, the Dorayaki (custard in a pancake with a sharp raspberry dip) were actually really nice, but the Mochi (Sweet rice balls with a rich chocolate ganache centre) were a little slice of heaven, and so we had seconds. At that point we decided we’d better stop, to save our stomachs, wallets and dignity.

Restaurant Review: Yo! Sushi at The Centre:MK in Milton Keynes Chocolate Mochi

Restaurant Review: Yo! Sushi at The Centre:MK in Milton Keynes Custard Dorayaki

Throughout the staff were brilliant – attentive and friendly, offering to take photos and guiding us where help were needed and being chatty but not oppressive. The food was super tasty and very fresh, and seeing it made in front of us and then put on the conveyor belt was both a fun novelty and very reassuring to see. At a little over £37 it was pretty reasonable, for 2 people eating a lot of food and with 3 dessert dishes. One thing I love about the Yo! Sushi system is that within mere minutes of entering the restaurant you are eating, and for someone as fussy as me, it’s great being able to try lots of different things. After waiting so long to experience it, today’s Yo! Sushi was so good, that I’d without hyperbole say that it is now my first choice place to go and eat. I can’t wait to return, try more dishes and indulge myself with Chocolate Mochi.

A Day at West Ham – Two Boys’ Dreams Come True

I’m a bad West Ham fan, in that after decades of supporting them, until this month I’d never seen them live, let alone at their home ground, which is now the London Stadium, home of the Olympic Games in 2012. Without going into detail, I’ll just say that thanks to some great friends, I got offered that chance, something that thrilled my 8 year old son Lucas and I greatly. We chose Swansea as the game to see, or more correctly Lucas chose Swansea, as a couple of months ago he decided they’d be a team we’d (we being West Ham) definitely beat. Leading up to that game on April 8th I wasn’t so sure, as we could hardly get a draw, let alone a win, and that was against teams we should be beating handily.

A Day at West Ham – Two Boys’ Dreams Come True

On that Saturday we set off for London, Lucas in his full West Ham kit and me in my West Ham cap, spotting other West Ham fans along the way. We were blessed with a glorious sunny day and approaching The London Stadium as it stood out in the sunlight, elicited gasps from the both of us. 1 game day scarf, 2 programmes and a copy of Blowing Bubbles and we were ready to enter the stadium and get to our seats. We ended up entering via the wrong turnstile, which wasn’t actually our fault, but thanks to some friendly staff and security we were allowed to walk around half the stadium to get there – on the inside! That meant we could see the famous Bobby Moore Stand, that was our destination, from some way away, and stare lovingly at the hallowed turf as we walked around.

A Day at West Ham – Two Boys’ Dreams Come True

At our seats we were high up and in the corner, but with a fantastic view of the whole pitch. Well I looked at the pitch and all the stands, while Lucas read the programme, gaining some last minute insight before the game started. When the players came out Lucas excitedly told me each and every one of their names, and I have Match Attax cards to thank for his encyclopedic knowledge of the West Ham squad. We were disappointed that Andy Carrol wasn’t in the starting lineup, and even more so that he never actually played at all, but thankfully Lucas’ favourite player Manuel Lanzini played, and pretty well too.

A Day at West Ham – Two Boys’ Dreams Come True

The game wasn’t a beautiful display of football, but we were sitting in The London Stadium watching our team, with thousands of other West Ham fans. The atmosphere was incredible and Lucas spent the whole game literally on the edge of his seat, until just before half time, when Cheikhou Kouyate fired off a thunderous strike into the corner of the Swansea goal to put The Irons up one goal to nil! We both leapt to our feet and joined all the Happy Hammers in thunderous applause and cheers. Bear in mind that the last time Lucas saw a whole West Ham game was on television in the FA Cup when Manchester City put 5 past us. At last, a West Ham goal, and we were in the lead!

A Day at West Ham – Two Boys’ Dreams Come True

At half time the guy in front turned around and said how much he’d enjoyed Lucas’ commentary for it’s innocence and honesty. It was non stop, and continued all the way through the second half too! At one point Lucas shouted with excitement and then looked sheepish and up at me as if to say sorry. I had to reassure him that showing your passion, however vocally that may be, at a West Ham match was not only allowed but encouraged. He certainly took that to heart and enjoyed cheering West Ham, and admonishing the referee at times too. No, not by singing that song, though give it a few years and I’m sure he will.

A Day at West Ham – Two Boys’ Dreams Come True

Though Swansea gave us many causes for concern in the second half, West Ham managed to hold on to the lead and win, their first victory in quite some time, and since. What a way to experience West Ham live for the very first time, because any other game recently would have had our emotions ranging from disappointed to bitterly disappointing. Everyone around us was great and we saw nothing but well natured fans on both sides. We had a truly magical time, and it was one of those special father and son days I’d hoped it would be, and have we’ve even talked season tickets. Earlier in the afternoon on the way to our seats Lucas had looked up at me and said this is a dream come true. It was one of those moments I’ll remember for the rest of my life as it melted my heart. Me too son, me too.

BBC Radio 2 Country Saved My C2C: Country to Country 2017 Weekend

BBC Radio 2 Country Saved My C2C: Country to Country 2017 Weekend

For a few reasons, which don’t need to be detailed here, for the first year since it started in 2017, I didn’t attended one single second of C2C: Country to Country (C2C) down at The O2 in London. On paper it wasn’t the greatest line up for my tastes, though seeing Brad Paisley on the Friday and Zac Brown Band on the Sunday would have been my top picks, the former being one of my absolute favourites.

As a big country music fan in the UK, C2C is THE ultimate 3-day weekend of music, and not being there had me feeling quite deflated. Enter BBC Radio 2 Country, a pop-up digital radio service that appears a few days before C2C and broadcasts many shows with a variety of presenters, and most importantly, all of the main stage acts from Friday through Sunday. So this year I tuned in and experienced C2C at home.

Without actually being there, this really was the next best thing, with some great shows presented by the likes of Sara Cox and homegrown UK duo The Shires. On Friday I managed to catch some of Jennifer Nettles, half of Chris Young and all of Brad Paisley. Having dinner with friends on the Saturday meant I missed all of that, but thanks to the listen again service on BBC iPlayer, I’ll be catching up on the Daruis Rucker and Reba McEntire performances.

Sunday was the highlight for me though, as I tuned in for the whole evening and got introduced to Brothers Osborne and Marty Stuart. These were both unknown to me and contributed to my lack of desire to get tickets. Oh how wrong was I, as both were absolutely spectacular, and showcased some incredible guitar prowess, something I always look for and cherish in music. Maren Morris in between these two was the disappointment of the night. I’ve heard a few of her songs on the radio and really liked them, but live she didn’t impress one bit. I did think maybe the sound was off, as it can be in The O2 at times, but Twitter was awash with praise. Strange, but I do still like her studio produced material and even had a friend pick me up an autographed copy of her CD at C2C. I’ll have to go to one of her shows on person, at the very least to see My Church performed live

BBC Radio 2 Country Backstage

The main event were Zac Brown band, who much like they did in 2014, blew the roof off the venue, with a combination of their much loved original material, and some triumphant covers. Two of those, The Who’s Baba O’ Riley and Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, were highlights of my radio experience of C2C, and I dearly wished I’d been there in person for that night, and the others in all honesty, as the atmosphere alone is usually enough to compensate for acts that don’t push my buttons.

I am truly thankful for the BBC Radio 2 Country service, for without that I’d have had a weekend bereft of C2C, and that would have been a sad weekend indeed. Many of the artists did backstage sessions for this service, which are available to listen to now, but for a limited time. As are the main stage performances, so I’d head over there now if I were you, and relive C2C while you can.

Not only did BBC Radio 2 Country allow me to enjoy C2C 2017, but it gave me the motivation I needed to book early bird tickets for C2C 2018, which I did last Wednesday. So next year I’ll be there once again in person, but I’ll also be tuning in to BBC Radio 2 Country in the days leading up to it, and listening back to the performances as post festival blues kick in.

Photography for the Sake of Photography – A Somewhat Unsuccessful Photo Session

Almost verbatim, my words yesterday to my wife were I’m going to take my camera into town and take some photos, because I haven’t taken any for ages. I should have known at that point not to expect anything good to come out if it, as photography is about passion, not necessity. Well, photography as a hobby anyway, I can’t speak for the professionals, but I’d imagine passion plays a big part there too.

So off I strolled into town, took a few snaps, tried to be inspired, and these are the results.

First off was St Mary’s Church in Hitchin, which looks beautiful on a sunny day, especially reflected in the river that runs past. I took the obligatory straight on photo, and that can be seen below.

St Mary's Church Hitchin

It’s a pretty photo, but I’ve taken it so many times before, as have most people who walk past. In fact it’s probably the most regularly posted photo on Hitchin Facebook groups. So wanting to be a bit more creative I got down to ground level, and took what I thought was a much better photo of the church, through the stone pillars of the wall that surrounds the car park on the other side of the river.

St Mary's Church Hitchin

My first thought is that I should have taken the photo nearer to the wall and had the pillars as a thin frame on the two edges, and not as such a big feature of the photo as they are here. I could crop it down, but really the view of the church between the pillars is not sufficient that cropping will add anything. The sun was shining which made using my Sony DSC-WX500 a little tricky, even with the tiltlable screen. It’s times this that make you realise how useful a viewfinder is. But I’m not going to make excuses – I really didn’t take enough time composing the shot, and should have reviewed and retaken rather than the shoot and run tactics I used.

I used the black and white function and added a single colour tint to it in Photoshop, trying to convince myself that this adds something to my poorly composed shot, but I’m not sure it does.

Hitchin St Mary's Church

Next to the chruch is the town market, and thinking I could be clever and take a photo of the sign for the market, and have the actual market in the same shot, I took this next photo.

Hitchin Market

I think the bright colours betray the gritty atmosphere of the market so I added a steampunk filter using a Photoshop action downloaded from Spoon Graphics.

Hitchin Market

This one isn’t so bad, though the filter may be a bit strong – something to play with the next time I use it. Still, much better than the original colour vision and it gives the look of a photo from yesteryear, which is what I was after.

Around the corner and a particularly unflappable (terrible pun intended) bird sat atop a hedge, allowing me to get pretty close and take a few photos.

Bird on Hedge

Bird on Hedge

What I like about these two shots is how different the bird looks when stretching up, as opposed to just casually standing in a more relaxed pose. It’s almost like two different birds, especially being taken from different angles with different backgrounds. That’s 3 uses of the word different (4 now) in one sentence – I promise to improve both my photography and the depth of my vocabulary for the next article. The photos aren’t setting the world on fire for creativity, but the zoom on this little compact camera at least performs well.

An arty shot of a padlock on a fence was the idea in my head, but a rather pedestrian shot of said object was the result. I changed the photo from colour to black and white in Photoshop, because that automatically makes it more arty, right?

Arty Padlock Photo

This last photo utilised a function in my camera that turns the image black and white, except for one colour. Given the colour of my orange juice I chose yellow as the colour to keep.

Partial Colour Photo - Yellow

I’m sure there are better uses of this function and now I know it exists I can try to come up with some, but look closely and you’ll see other patches of yellow in the photo aside from just my drink. I particularly like the slight yellow colouration that appears on the first page of my book, projected from the orange juice in the glass with the sun behind it.

So that’s it, the fruits of my first photo session in quite some time, and while galleries are not going to be clamouring to display them, maybe they aren’t as bad as I first thought. I certainly need to work on my composition, something I sometimes find hard with a small compact, which is daft. Creativity comes from within, not from the equipment.

Top 7 Films of 2016

So why a top 7 and not a top 10, or even a top 5? Simply because I’ve only seen 7 new films this past year that I’d consider good, or better in most cases, so I may as well include them all.

1. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

I’m sure this comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me, and though I do think it suffers from a lack of pace at times in the first half, the second half more than males up for that with some of the greatest battle scenes ever witnessed in a galaxy far far away. Absolutely has to be seen more than once as there are far too many references and nods to the other films to take in the first time. Plus there’s K-2SO, a fantastically sarcastic addition to the droids we love group within the Star Wars universe.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

2. Batman vs. Superman

All I heard between the cinema and Blu-ray releases were how bad this film was, and I’m not sure if the extended Blu-ray version was just that much better or the lack of expectation on my part made for a nice surprise, but either way I really liked Batman vs. Superman. It was gratifyingly dark, something I’d like to have seen in the massively underwhelming Captain America: Civil War.

3. Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

I had this at number 2 until 5 minutes ago, but honestly I think only because of love and loyalty to the Harry Potter universe. In reality this was a really good film with some interesting characters and more interesting beasts, but it lacked the heart and charm of the Harry Potter stories. This needs a second viewing, and this time I can approach it with the knowledge that it’s from the Harry Potter universe but very much not a Harry Potter film. Something I knew, but still watched in hope.

4. Deadpool

Funny, violent, funny and violent. It’s everything you could want from Deadpool, in by far the best Marvel film of the year, of those that I’ve seen. Of course this one doesn’t sit within the Disney created Marvel Cinematic Universe, which in this case no doubt helped it. Thanks to it’s success both critically and financially, there are sequels and team ups being discussed and planned – Good Deadpool.

5. Star Trek Beyond

Whilst I’m not sure it reached the heights of the first two, this resurrection and reboot of a franchise that I had very little time of in it’s previous forms, offered up a greatly entertaining and beautifully shot third film. The threat was serious and I didn’t guess the twist – not much more you can ask for with Star Trek.

6. X-Men Apocalypse

The second film in a row in this list where it’s 2 franchise predecessors were better. It was still good though, and especially in showing us more of the backstory of Eric/Magneto’s character. Likewise we get introduced to Scott Summers/Cyclops as the foundation of the modern day X-Men is formed. Much like Days of Future Past the threat is a very serious one, almost insurmountable at times, but that only adds depth to the lengths they have to go to defeat it.

7. Zootopia/Zootropolis

A much hyped film that I saw on DVD and found charming, funny and somewhat original, but didn’t live up to the hype surrounding it. That’s not to say I didn’t like it, as I did, but just not to the extent I thought I might. I think that’s the problem with being an active member of the Disney community – there’s always going to be a high level of rose tinted praise, probably not too dissimilar to my appreciation of Star Wars. My son loved it, and especially the character of Nick Wilde whose story is the most interesting throughout.

Before I sign off I must mention Suicide Squad, which even more than Civil War was my biggest letdown of 2016. Being such a fan of the Civil War comic book event I knew it couldn’t live up to that, and it didn’t. Not even close. However, Suicide Squad had more of chance, but it failed miserably. They took the names of the characters from the comics and that’s about it. Aside from Harley Quinn they stripped away the essence of what made them the interesting characters they are, and gave us a film that plodded and bored for large parts – something I’d never associate with Suicide Squad.

There are many films from 2016 that I’m yet to see that could break into this list, and if it lives up to the hype more than Zootropolis, then Moana could be the most likely to do that. I also need to see Dr Strange, Arrival, the new Ghostbusters reboot, The BFG and probably many more. In 2017 Star Wars Episode 8 is the one that I’ll be most eagerly anticipating, but with new Pirates of the Caribbean, Spider-Man, Kong, Guardians of the Galaxy, Justice League and Cars films, to name but a few, there is much to look forward to.

Gig Review: Ward Thomas at The Portland Arms, Cambridge – 13th October 2016

Even though they are one of my absolute favorites to watch live, this past Thursday was the first time I’ve seen Ward Thomas in just over 2 years, and that in itself is a tragedy, but one that was thankfully rectified. Back when I ran the 4000 Miles to Nashville blog I wrote about Ward Thomas numerous times, both album and gig reviews – take a look there to see my thoughts on their previous musical output. The Portland Arms in Cambridge is a short walk from the city centre, and is a pub which has a 200 person venue attached to it. A very intimate setting for a number 1 album selling act, but along with the location, was one of the main reasons I chose this leg of their Cartwheels Tour. Even just approaching the pub I could see how far things have come for the Sony Music signed Ward Thomas, with their tour bus parked outside!

Gig Review: Ward Thomas at The Portland Arms, Cambridge - 13th October 2016

The support was a young lady called Una Healy, whose name rung a bell, but I wasn’t sure from where. She came on stage and announced that she was about to sing these 6 songs for the very first time – we were her guinea pig audience, but that she used those words. It didn’t show, as she sang beautifully and played guitar with poise and skill. Back in August she announcer her signing as a solo artist with Decca, and described her new musical direction as acoustic pop rock folk, with hints of country – perfect description of what we heard that night. Of course, had I read that press release before the gig I’d have realised that Una’s previous work was with girl band The Saturdays.

Gig Review: Una Healy at The Portland Arms, Cambridge - 13th October 2016

She has an album coming out at some point in the future and all the songs were from that upcoming release. Based on that, I’ll certainly be buying it, as she showed a great range in such a short time, from heartfelt ballads to uptempo numbers that drew more on the pop rock side of things. The highlight for me was a song she wrote about her daughter, and how they both look to the moon when apart, knowing the other would be looking up too. I’m not familair with The Saturdays, though I’m sure I’d recognise some of their songs, but Una Healy has a night future as a solo artist ahead of her and has a strong strong and versatile voice that perfectly fits the new direction she’s going in.

With 4 band members as well as Catherine and Lizzy, this is the biggest set-up I’ve seen Ward Thomas play as, but their set started off as classy and haunting as ever. It’s at this point I want to tell you what sing they kicked things off with it but if I’m honest I can’t be certain. That’s not a knock on the music, but more on my memory of set lists and just being caught up in the excitement of seeing them play live again after so long. I think it was Good On You from their new Cartwheels album, but don’t quote me on that. Whatever the song, it was clear to me that their vocals were as gorgeous as ever, and those harmonies were every bit as good as I remember.

Gig Review: Ward Thomas at The Portland Arms, Cambridge - 13th October 2016

I can only guess that the Ward Thomas twins are a dream to work with in the studio because live they are faultless, and always do the almost impossible task of improving upon their recorded work when on stage. In the past 2 years they have gone from nudging the Radio 2 playlist to regulars, and even made it to Radio 1 just recently, something they amusingly alluded to as the one song that was deemed cool. It’s Guilty Flowers that Scott Mills liked if you are wondering. What hasn’t changed is their demeanour in front of a crowd which is warm, welcoming and fun, but in a heartbeat going from sisterly banter to unrivaled vocal magnificence. This is all with Lizzy having a cold, which you’d only know from her slightly red nose, not from her triumphant singing.

The set consisted primarily of songs from their latest album Cartwheels, which might leave me pining for songs such as From Where I Stand, but is completely understandable and nice to see these new songs performed live. I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve seen Lizzy play keyboards as well as guitar, and along with Catherine’s increased use of guitars showcases how much they are growing as musicians. The endearing bond that only twin sisters have is also still present, with looks at each other whilst singing, which now and then leads to them singing at and with each other, often with smiles that as as a member of the audience looking on you feel compelled to mimic.

Gig Review: Ward Thomas at The Portland Arms, Cambridge - 13th October 2016 Gig Review: Ward Thomas at The Portland Arms, Cambridge - 13th October 2016

Cartwheels on CD seems a little more in the pop rock direction than From Where We Stand and on first hearing I likened some of the new songs to Fleetwood Mac. With the expanded band they certainly have a bigger sound with certain songs, like the aforementioned Guilty Flowers, but also gave us some incredibly tender moments with beautiful ballads such as Proof and Cartwheels. The latter I first heard when I saw them play at The Green Note in London back in 2014, an even smaller venue than this. While Catherine and Lizzy are the obvious focus, the band are not just backing musicians and play a big part in the sound, especially guitarist Dan Gordon who has been with the since the beginning.

Gig Review: Ward Thomas at The Portland Arms, Cambridge - 13th October 2016

Coming on for not an entirely surprising 2 song encore, they finished off the night with Cartwheels lead single Carry You Home. This is a song that manages to build from a soft piano accompanied vocal, very quickly into a full band anthem. I don’t use the word anthem lightly here – Carry You Home sounded that way when I first heard it on Spotify months ago, and live it’s every bit as rousing, with added live magic. The WOAOH (spelling might not be 100% correct) parts would fill an arena, and in that small venue, standing front row, had the hair standing up on the back of neck as much as the harmonies. While on the subject of those harmonies, I have always said and I stand by it, that Catherine and Lizzy sing together with telepathic perfection which is categorically unrivaled in any genre of music the world over. That might sound like hyperbole but I challenge you to see them live and deny that – go on.

In the past two years or so I’ve played Ward Thomas’ music an awful lot, both their debut masterpiece From Where We Stand and last month’s number 1 album Cartwheels, which the more I listen to the more it feels like an album of equal quality. That in itself is pretty much as big a compliment as I can dish out, when you consider how much I adore their debut offering. Live they are an absolute treat, combining superb vocals and musicianship with a vulnerable yet assured stage presence which feels almost like being invited into the home and lives of Ward Thomas.

I got to chat to them a little after the gig, in spite of the saving our voices t-shirts, and as always were so very charming and down to earth. Having a signed copy of the CD already I bought Cartweheels on vinyl, but as it was pre-signed I asked them to sign it again, and date it. Anyone who likes signed bits like I do will understand the need for the record sleeve to be signed live and in my presence.

Gig Review: Ward Thomas at The Portland Arms, Cambridge - 13th October 2016

If they quit tomorrow I’d be thankful for having seen them as many times as I have, but I’m hoping they won’t, and on the strength of their gig in Cambridge they remain one of the very best live acts around and one that I will make every effort to keep seeing perform for years to come.