"To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield"
- Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1833

"live deep and suck out all the marrow of life"
- Henry David Thoreau, 1845

"Some guys, they just give up living
And start dying little by little, piece by piece
Some guys come home from work and wash up,
And go racin' in the streets."
- Bruce Springsteen, 1977

"...to the heart, there's no time for you to waste.
You won't find your precious answers now
by staying in one place."
- Frank Turner, 2009

"The best things in life aren't things.
They're living and breathing."
- Michael Franti , 2011

"I owned every second that this world could give,
I saw so many places, the things that I did"
- Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic, 2014

All written content and photos by Rob Fulfer unless otherwise indicated.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Indy 500

Saturday, May 28, 2011:  
We took a road trip this weekend up to Indianapolis to check out the world-famous Indy 500 Car Race.  This is the 100-year anniversary of the race and we figured what better time to check it out in person.  Now, neither of us are particularly big race fans, but we do like large events and 300,000+ in attendance on average is a pretty darn big event.  The price was right (tickets were very reasonable).  The timing was right (it always falls on Memorial Day Weekend).  And, the distance was right (the easy 5 hour drive makes it very doable in a three-day weekend).
Our long-time friend, Wayne, joined us for the weekend as well.   Just like us, he's not a huge race fan, but loves being a part of big events and was curious about it like we were.  He met us at our house around 10 AM and we loaded up the rental car we picked up the night before at the airport for a cheap rate and headed north toward Kentucky.  We were in Louisville inside 3 hours and stopped for lunch just across the Ohio River at one of my favorite places, The New Albanian Brewing Company.  I have been here several times because of their great beer and close proximity to a casino that I frequent for poker tournaments.  Their food is also superb and we had a huge lunch of French fries with a variety of dipping sauces, pork tacos and burgers made with meat from local farms.

We made a couple of other stops at brewpubs (per my influence)  along the way to Indianapolis including Power House Brewing in Columbus, Indiana, which we have to admit wasn't too great, and then Oaken Barrel Brewing in Greenwood just south of Indianapolis.  The OB beer was much, much better.

Optical illusion?
We arrived at our Hilton hotel on the north side of Indy in time to unpack and rest a bit before dinner.  We went to dinner nearby at Zest! Exciting Food Creations Restaurant.  This unique little place has made it on Guy Fieri's show, "Drive-ins, Diner and Dives"  The food was very good.  We started with some baby tomato bon bons and then split the 5-hour braised short ribs entree.  Wayne was nice enough to share some of his huge carrot cake that he ordered for dessert.  After dinner we turned in rather early to rest up for tomorrow's big day at the racetrack.

Sunday, May 29, 2011:
So this is what 300,00+ people look like...we headed out to the track before 9 AM in hopes of getting plenty of time to mill around the track before the noon start.  So much for that.  Traffic was nuts and not as smooth as we thought it would be for an event that's been going on for 100 years.  Perhaps it was our fault for pre-buying a parking pass for a lot that was albeit close to the track itself, but excruciatingly slow to get to due to traffic.  We did enjoy ourselves along the way by people-watching.  There were some real characters including the gent above having his breakfst in the world's biggest outdoor chair.  Note the regular sized chair to the right for reference.
The view from our seats looking north toward the start finish line.
As the noon hour creeped closer and we were still not parked, Ashlee was gracious enough to allow Wayne and I to go in and find our seats to see the start of the race.  Ashlee got parked pretty quick and was able to hear and see the start of the race from the infield as well.  She found us at our seats about 12 laps in.  Our seats were very close to the track between the starting line and Turn 1.  However, they were a bit low and there were some obstructed views at times.  But we did have a good view of some of the pit areas, the race tower and all of Turn 1.  We stayed here for the first 60 laps or so which included the first crash of the race which we saw happen to our right in Turn 1. The speed and sound of these tiny cars busting 200 miles per hour on average are hard to describe in words and TV doesn't do it justice.  It's exhilarating and amazing to witness first-person. 

No Danica, but that's her ride.
We decided to check out the infield next for some of the race and made our way along right beside the track with bits of rubber hitting us as  the cars roared by only an arm's length away.  We walked through a tunnel going right under the speedway and cars racing above us, and emerged into the beautiful infield.  And when we saw beautiful, we mean it.  It's like a park inside the racing oval.  There are tall trees and tons of grassy areas including part of a manicured golf course.  Surprisingly to us, there were also great views of the racing action from the infield and we decided to spend the rest of the race slowing walking around the 2.5 mile oval checking out the spectacle both on and off the racetrack.  The 200- lap race seemed to pass very fast and before we knew it was over with a stunning ending as rookie, JR Hildebrand, had an easy lead to the checked flag when he smacked the wall in Turn 4 and allowed Dan Wheldon to slip by him and capture his second Indy title.
[Epilogue:  October 16, 2011.  In a shocking and very sad twist of fate, Dan Wheldon died in a fiery race crash in Las Vegas less than 5 months after winning the Indy 500.  RIP, good sir.]

Ashlee and Helio...Go # 3!

After the race we headed over toward Gasoline Alley where the cars travel from the garages to the pit area and vice versa after the race, and got in line to tour the garages thanks to some passes we were able to buy.  We had to wait a while as all the teams and cars made their way back to the garages before we were allowed in to have a look.  We were able to get a glimpse of last year's winner, Dario Franchitti, and his famous wife, Ashley Judd, as they came by to cheers from the crowd.  By the time we did get access to the garages, most of the drivers were gone, but 3-time Indy winner and "Dancing With the Stars" champ, Helio Castroneves, was still there signing autographs and shaking hands.  Ashlee was fortunate enough to get one of her patented self-portraits with him as well.

A great time was had by all.
We never saw the most famous (or infamous) driver on the track, the popular and beautiful, Danica Patrick, but her Go Daddy team was hard at work on her car as we came by for a look.  We hung out in the garage area for quite a while and observed the goings-on as we waited for the traffic to start clearing out.  When we got back to our car we were able to tailgate a bit as well, but we were drained from the long, hot, but exciting day.  The traffic had cleared out nicely by the time we hit the road and we got back to our hotel around dark and crashed for the evening.

A view from the infield between Turns 2 and 3.

Monday, May 30, 2011:  We celebrated most of Memorial Day in the car driving home, but we did make a few interesting detours along the way.  We did a nice little tour of downtown Indianapolis before we left and checked out the sites including the beautiful capitol building, the lovely Depew Fountain and the impressive new Lucas Oil Stadium where the Colts play.  Our lunch plans were at yet another brewpub...of course, and this one was in Nashville...Nashville, Indiana, that is.  It's called Big Woods Brewing Company and not only was the beer good and the food amazing (yummy chili and pizza), but it was located in one of the coolest little towns we have visited in a long time.   The town of Nashville, Indiana, is the heart of the regionally famous Brown County - an artistic and cultural center set amongst the lovely Hoosier National Forest. The town has a number of interesting shops and restaurants and it looks like a perfect weekend getaway kind of area.  We will definitely try and make it up back up here sometime when we can spend more time.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Has It Really Been a Decade?

Of all the exotic places we kicked around over the last year or so as ideas as to where we would spend our 10th wedding anniversary, we can't say that Gulf Shores, Alabama, was on the short list. But as the fates would have it, the first place we ever traveled to together as a couple (albeit not married...shhhh, don't tell anyone) wound up being a great place to see a decade of marriage come to fruition. It all started as a plan to attend The Hangout Music Festival, a Bonnaroo-style, 3-day festival held on the beaches of Gulf Shores which was taking place the same weekend as our May 19th wedding anniversary. Instead of camping like at Bonnaroo, festival-goers must obtain nearby lodging instead. We found a great-sounding beach house nearby and after offering the 2 extra bedrooms it has to some friends of ours who quickly accepted the opportunity, we suddenly had a plan.

Wednesday, May 18: We rented a car from our local Enterprise office for a week at a wonderfully low rate. We got an early start and the drive down in the Nissan Altima was comfortable and without incident. We caught up with our first housemates for the trip, our friends Gary and Cary, just inside the Alabama state line at the welcome center on I-65. After a quick stop for lunch, we made it to the rental house around 4 PM.

The house was as great as advertised (photo above). It was spacious and clean with all the modern conveniences including fast WIFI, satellite TV and a sweet in-ground pool (photo below). We got unpacked, stocked up big-time on groceries (photo above) and hit the pool for a relaxing dip before dinner. Gary prepared a wonderful meal for us four that included sauteed shrimp with a spicy pineapple salsa. Our last two housemates, our friends Chris and Tarryn, got a later-than-anticipated start from home and didn't arrive until just after midnight.

Thursday, May 19: HAPPY ANNIVERSARY TO US! We all slept in a bit this morning after our long travel day and decided to head out as a group later that morning to the beach which was just a block away. The house had a golf cart that we packed all our beach stuff on for an easy commute. We also had 3 nice bikes for our use. The beach was quiet and clean. Most of the houses on the beach were empty and we only saw a few other people a good distance away. The weather was beautiful. With an almost constant breeze, the temps and humidity were very tolerable. The tide was strong with impressive breaking waves for the Gulf.

The original plan of attending The Hangout Festival kind of fell through for a few different reasons. One, they didn't sell individual day tickets as we were expecting like the did last year. It was never our intention to go all three days since we had such a great house to share with good friends near the beach. By the time they announced that no one-day tickets would be sold, the event was sold out....good reason not to sell one-day tickets I guess. We did discover a "pre-party" event going on this evening with tickets being only $15 each. They had a half dozen bands of which we had never heard of but at least it was held at The Hangout Festival grounds and would give us a chance to check the area out. Gary and Cary opted out of this little side trip, so the remaining four of us headed out to catch the shows which started at 7 PM. We had a hard time finding a place to park (more on that later) and by the time we found a place and located will call (nice job of Ashlee coolly cutting the long line to get the tix), the first band, Romany Rye, was already on the stage. They sounded pretty good and we got a seat on the outer deck of the actual bar/restaurant, The Hangout, to check them out while we grabbed some dinner. Unfortunately the beer selection, the food and the service at The Hangout were not very good which was a huge disappointment and definitely a strike against the idea of attending the festival itself in the future. Restoring our faith, however, was the performance by the next band, Big Sam's Funky Nation, out of New Orleans. This blues, rock and funk quintet with trombone and trumpet taking center stage and flanked by a sizzling lead guitar and thumping bass and percussion were a great band to see live. We enjoyed their entire hour-long set as did the swelling crowd around us. Ashlee and I finished the show in the front row yelling for more.
After waiting an extremely long time for the next band to take the stage and encountering yet more bad service from The Hangout , we agreed in unison to call it a night. Unfortunately, our night was far from over....when we got back to the side street we had parked on, our car (Chris and Tarryn's to be exact) was gone. It had been towed despite being parked legally we thought on the road right-of-way without any warning signs posted. The next two hours plus were spent expensively taking a cab to the out-of-town towing company, paying an exorbitant fee to get the car back, listening to the tow company's BS as well as the local cops, and finally getting back to the house. As I have said before, we will not dwell on the negative in this blog and it won't be used as a place to air our gripes about the few bad things, people, etc. we encounter in our adventures. Instead we will chalk it up to experience and again remember it when we decide NOT to attend The Hangout Festival in the future. There are way too many good outdoor festivals nowadays to choose from all over the country. We are already looking back at the whole experience and laughing about it despite the insulting, disgusting manner that it all went down. But, hey, screw it and screw them!! We're at the beach!!

Friday, May 20: We spent a gloriously lazy day at the pool and the beach. The highlight to us was playing in the surf which was even stronger than yesterday, letting huge waves pound us into gleeful submission. It wasn't a nude beach, but it might as well have been as Chris temporarily lost his shorts in one strong wave break, and Ashlee her top in another. It was Chef Gary again that evening whipping up another amazing meal. This time glazed chicken breasts with a mango salsa were the stars of the show. The nights were cool and the little portable fireplace provided at the house was a welcome addition to the pool area. We gathered around it after dinner burning driftwood and other dead-fall we had found nearby. Smores were made available and under the clear, bright sky with a million stars shining down, we couldn't have asked for much more.

Saturday, May 21: We all slept in again this morning and lazed around the pool for the most part (except for a rousing 4-hand game of poolside Scrabble) as we awaited the time to leave for a scheduled 2 PM kayak eco-tour that I had found nearby thanks to Groupon. com. We drove about a half-hour north to the town of Foley and met Captain Chris Nelson, owner of Alabama Kayak Adventures at the Graham Creek Preserve. We hopped in our individual sea kayaks and paddled south on winding Graham Creek which feeds into Wolf Bay, an estuary of the Gulf. It was a fairly tough paddle as we went out two miles non-stop into the bay and stopped briefly at a long, thin strip of land jutting out in the bay. Here we were shown osprey (photo left)and blue heron nests high up in the trees. We were hoping for more wildlife viewing including perhaps one of the many pods of dolphins that call this area home, but we were not so fortunate. Overall, it was a nice time and a good accomplishment for us all. After getting back to our cars and changing clothes, we opted to head to the tiny hamlet of Bon Secur, Alabama, and have dinner at a place called The Tin Top Restaurant, a recommendation by Capt. Nelson. He was right on the money with this tip. It's a great little, mostly-locals place with a vast menu including a lot of fresh seafood (we had blackened trigger fish and spicy Gulf shrimp as our entrees).

We got back to the house around sundown and were relaxing around the pool when Cary made quite the discovery at the back of the property:

Yep, we had paddled four miles in kayaks without seeing much more than a few birds and some jumping fish and we come back to find an alligator in our back yard. Now, granted, he was a pretty small, young fella - 2 or 3 feet at most - and we were safely observing him from a dock high above the small wetlands pond he was in (another sweet perk to this house is that it backs up to a nice, natural wetland that not only provides wildlife for viewing and hearing - great frog songs at night - but also makes the back of the house and pool area very private). There is a cutesy little sign at the dock saying "Don't Feed the Alligator." We thought it was a joke until now and as the gator floated patiently watching us gawk at him from above. It was obvious he was waiting on a snack and the sign was actually a real command. We heeded the warning reluctantly and resisted the strong urge to toss him a piece of turkey just to see him gobble it up, but he can't always depend on the kindness (and dumbness) of strange humans. We ended the night with an impromptu poker tournament at the dining room table. Teaching the game to the willing ladies was slow, but enjoyable, as well had a good time savoring our last night in this great house.

Sunday, May 22: It was with heavy hearts that we packed up this morning and left our wonderful little house near the beach. Gary and Cary headed out first, and then Chris and Tarryn. We did the final close-up on the house and discovered that our little gator was back again. We named him "George", told him goodbye and headed west back toward Foley. We stopped for an early lunch at Lambert's Cafe, a Cracker-Barrel-On-Steroids kind of place that is famous for its "throwed rolls." Basically, if you want one of their piping hot rolls for your meal you just raise your hand when the cart comes by and they sling you one through the air (check out the short video below). It's a gimmick, but they know what they are doing. Not only are the rolls delicious, but everything else we ordered was top-notch as well. We walked off our lunch with a little outlet mall shopping before heading on north for an easy ride home.
Despite what happened at The Hangout, we really did love this area, the house we rented and most of all, our companions. Thanks so much to Gary, Cary, Chris and Tarryn for spending this special time with us. We hope to travel more with these great folks. We are definitely bookmarking the house for another stay sometime. (http://www.beachhouse.com/32440.htm).

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Comings & Goings

We have had a few small events occur over the last few days that are clumped together in this one blog entry for the sake of brevity:

Thursday, May 12 - We met our friends, Brenda and Danny, out at Zanies Comedy Club for dinner before comedian/actor, Kevin Pollak, took the stage. Kevin had a couple of openers for him who were pretty good, but paled in comparison to his wry, intelligent and hilarious set. It's no wonder that Pollak has transitioned into the movies so easily (loved him The Usual Suspects, A Few Good Men, and Grumpy (and Grumpier) Old Men). His story-telling style of comedy is impeccable and his voice manipulation and control (including great impressions of such Hollywood icons as Jack Nicholson, Christoper Walken, etc.) are incredibly skillful. He was nice enough to meet us briefly after the show and snap a picture with Brenda and Ashlee (photo above).

Friday, May 13 - We finally got to see "Water for Elephants" at the movie theater and loved it. We are both big fans of the book and were hoping the film would do it justice. It did in several ways including a great cast, beautiful cinematography and a splendid rendition of the book.

Saturday, May 14 - We had tickets to see one of our favorite performers, Brett Dennen, again at The Cannery in downtown Nashville. It was an early stop on his Loverboy tour in support of his new album of the same name. Opening for Brett was a folk-rock band by the name of Dawes. They were pretty good and their signature song, "When My Time Comes" is a great tune to hear live. Brett and his band followed with a great hour and half set of several new songs off the new album as well as some of his past hits (video below). Thanks to our friends, Beth and Michael, for meeting up and hanging out with us at the show.

Sunday, May 15 - The unseasonably cool weather and rain this weekend lent itself well for another trip to the movies this afternoon as we caught a showing of "Bridesmaids" which opened this weekend. Touted as the female version of "The Hangover" it definitely had it's share of over-the-top raunchy humor and it keep us entertained for a full two hours which is a bit long for a comedy these days. We were surprised when the movie ended that we were actually going to be a little late meeting our friends, Danny and Brenda, at Taste of Williamson (County), a food-sampling event from local restaurants held after hours at the Cool Springs Mall benefitting United Way. The food was great and there was plenty of it. We got full bellies and our money's worth for the entry fee very quickly.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Historic Hockey in May in Music City

We were proud to be a part of history tonight in Nashville as the professional hockey team, the Predators, hosted their very first 2nd-round playoff game in franchise history vs. the #1 seeded Vancouver Canucks. The Preds came home to the Bridgestone Arena tonight after splitting the first two games of the best of seven series in Vancouver. The downtown area around the arena was absolutely electric as Predators fans got to experience their very first taste of "hockey in the month of May" since they've never gotten out of the first round of playoffs before, but that all changed this season as the took care of the higher-seeded Anaheim Ducks in the first round in just six games.

We met our friends Chris and Tarryn outside the arena before the game and had a few drinks to celebrate the occasion. Our friend, Ryan, also met us before the game as we toasted the Preds' success. Our seats were obtained off Stubhub.com once we knew the date, and we got a couple of club level spots for a very reasonable price. The atmosphere inside the arena was even more pumped up as a "Gold Out" ensued with almost everyone wearing gold-colored Preds t-shirts that were given out before the game as well as gold rally towels being whipped around in a mad frenzy. It was quite a thrilling site as the players were being introduced at the start and on throughout the game especially during the now Predator-fans-patented standing ovation during a TV time-out in the 3rd period (video

The game itself was as thrilling as the build-up to it, if not more so. It went into overtime tied 2-2 with the hard-working Predators battling every second against the built-for-success top-seeded Canucks. Vancouver's shots-on-goal were twice that of the Preds and were nearing 50, but Nashville goalie, Pekka Rinne, turned in an amazing performance as he blocked shot after shot from the relentless Canucks' attack. Overtime was brief and gut-wrenching as the Canucks went on a power play after a very questionable call going against the Predators. The sudden-death rules of hockey overtime allow for no errors and a crummy ending in OT of a 3-2 loss was the result.

Despite the heartbreaking loss, it was a thrilling night to be in Nashville for sure with the sold-out crowd of over 17,000 people, and we are so happy we were able to be a small part of it.
(Update - 5/10/11) - The Preds went on to lose all three of their home games against the Canucks and lost the series in 6 hard-fought games last night. Despite being knocked out of the playoffs this year, it is obvious that this team is improving greatly and we hope to see a lot of success from them in the future.

Monday, May 2, 2011

VH1 Best Cruise Ever

Thursday, April 28, 2011 - We flew down to Tampa, Florida, this morning in preparation to board the Carnival Inspiration cruise ship which was hosting the VH1 Best Cruise Ever, a 3-day, four night music-laden voyage to Cozumel, Mexico, and back. What really attracted us to this cruise was not the cruise line (Carnival cruises are describable as "OK" at best) or the destination (Cozumel is fine, but we've been there before), but the fact that several of our favorite bands and performers were going to be on board playing multiple shows during the trip. Some acts we have seen before like Train (over ten times now and obviously one of our favorite bands to see live) and Mat Kearney (who we've seen a couple of different times). But also some we haven't seen before, but have really been wanting to check out like Lifehouse, The Script, Alpha Rev, One Eskimo and Ryan Star.

The cruise was quite more expensive than usual with a Carnival cruise thanks to all the talent on board, but we were hoping for the best and to feel like we got our money's worth as we usually have done by paying for the expensive Bonnaroo tickets the last three consecutive years. In fact, this cruise is to serve as a substitute for our Bonnaroo experience this year as we have decided not to attend for the reasons of cost, timeliness and a rather uninspiring line-up. The one thing we did hope for was perhaps a more intimate interaction with the performers since we would all be basically stuck on a ship for several days together. This was the second annual cruise of this type and year one got rave reviews, so we felt good about it, but hoped our expectations weren't too high. The check-in process was easy and by lunch time we were let on board the ship to wander around, grab a drink and some lunch in the buffet area. Our wondering about actual performer interaction abated very fast as we wound up eating lunch at a table right beside the band, Lifehouse. We played it cool and giggled at our situation. This cruise just might be a lot of fun. The guys seemed relaxed and down to Earth. Just after lunch a cover band called The Trailer Park Ninjas played a welcoming set in the huge Atrium area of the ship as other guests arrived before the 4 PM departure.

We were let in our room around 2 PM and another of our questions was happily answered. This was the first time we had ever gotten a completely interior room with no window at all. Did we mention this was an expensive cruise?? In fact, all or our cruises together have been in balcony rooms which we really enjoy, and Ashlee went on a girls-trip cruise once with just a port-hole window, but this room was basically a closet. However, it was roomy and well-lit and gave neither of us any claustrophobic tendencies. It was quiet also, and when the lights were off you were definitely in the dark for some restful sleep. The muster drill was next before we departed and when we arrived at our assigned emergency area we got a kick out of seeing those same Trailer Park Ninjas hanging out as there as well. As least we weren't the only ones slumming it down on "E Deck." The boat pulled out of Tampa Bay right on time and our lunch-mates, Lifehouse, took to the large Lido Deck Stage which faces the pool area to kick off the Embarkation Party (video below). This elevated stage allowed for easy viewing of the performers from just about anywhere on the deck. You could also view the stage from the two levels above the Lido Deck as well, making for a very cool general admission outdoor show vibe. The sound was decent although not pitch perfect, but what could you expect on the deck of ship moving at sea. The weather was perfect. Sunny, but not too hot, with a nice sea breeze blowing. This was definitely feeling better than a humid cow pasture in June out in Manchester, Tennessee where Bonnaroo takes place.

After the Lifehouse show we moved inside to the Candlelight Lounge to check out Alpha Rev. This is a very cozy little cocktail lounge with lots of seating and a small standing area in front of the stage which is where we wound up. We weren't very familiar with Alpha Rev but liked their song, "New Morning" which is played on our local indie radio station back home. Our opinions quickly changed as this seven-piece band from Austin, Texas, just blew us away from the start of their hour-long set. All of their original songs sounded great. Their musical compositions were very complex and orchestral in sound with fiddle and cello as surprise additions. The one song we did know, "New Morning" sounded even better and richer being played live (the short video below does them absolutely no justice). Lead singer, Casey McPherson, has an amazing voice and range. Needless to say, Alpha Rev just earned two more huge fans.

On our way out of the lounge as we headed to our next chosen performance, we ran into Alpha Rev's fiddle player, Brian Batch, who we talked to briefly congratulating him and the band on a great set, and Ashlee got a great self-portrait with him. He was very humble and honored by our praise for his work and seemed like just a really nice guy. (Update: Ashlee has now become Facebook friends with Brian and her obvious crush on him for his talent and looks rages on!) We moved on to the Promenade Stage to catch a few songs from Ryan Star. He is a product of the "American Idol" TV phenomenon which we can't say we are fans of at all. In fact, we did not know who he was when the performers list came out for the cruise. But after a little Internet research we found we were impressed with his vocal talent and energy. The stage was tiny and makeshift and stuck in the corner of basically a hallway on the ship which did not give off great acoustics or sight lines. Ryan was energetic and his vocals were a little less smooth and bombastic as we had heard previously (obviously through good sound engineering and mixing in the studio), but he wasn't bad at all and we enjoyed checking out this budding performer.

We doubled back to the Candlelight Lounge to check out SAFETYSUIT next. We weren't very familiar with this band either although we had heard of them and knew they hailed from Nashville. The took to the stage with the subtly of a hand grenade and roared out a loud, rocking set of original songs that was pretty impressive. The sound mixing wasn't as good as Alpha Rev's but their energy and crowd awareness made for an enjoyable show. Next, we slipped up to the main indoor music venue called the Paris Lounge to catch a few songs from Train. The place was packed and since The Script were about to start a show as well, we had made the tough decision to miss most of this show so we could catch the other. We knew we had other chances to catch all of two other Train sets during the cruise. A show by The Script out on the Lido Deck after dark (photo above) finished our evening for us in grand style. These young rockers from Dublin, Ireland, put out a great debut album a few years ago with several radio hits and have just released their second effort. Similar to Ryan Star, their live show wasn't as polished as some of the other veteran performers on board like Train, Lifehouse and Alpha Rev, but the energy, crowd awareness and enthusiasm was abundant. We think these guys will only get better with time. We got back to the room well after midnight, exhausted from a great day of shows. We couldn't wait to get up tomorrow and do it all over again.

Friday, April 29, 2011 We slept in soundly since the music wasn't scheduled to start until 1 P.M. First up was Crowfield, an Ameircana-style band that we had not heard of before the cruise line-up was announced but liked once we did a little research on them. They played out on the Lido Deck and the coolest thing (literally) about this show is that we watched most of it from in the swimming pool. That was definitely a first in live music for us. We headed back to the room after the show and showered and got dressed up a bit to attend a wine tasting that we had bought tickets for that was being hosted by Jimmy Stafford, the lead guitarist of Train, and self-professed lover of wine. Seats were limited and we were lead to believe that we would be trying some of Jimmy's favorite wines, however, it turned out to be a tasting of six ho-hum, not-real-good regular wines that Carnival offers in their dining rooms. Sigh.

Jimmy couldn't have been nicer at least. He talked a little before the tasting about how he honestly doesn't know that much about wine other than he likes the taste of it and that the "Train Wine Club" wasn't really his idea, but the band's publicist. He said he was trying to learn as much as he could and traveling with the band did allow him to try a lot of different wines from all over the road (some good and some not so good). The band will be soon lending it's name to a wine being produced by a California vineyard. It will be called "Drops of Jupiter" (one of their biggest hits) and Jimmy did have a hand in selecting the blend for it. He was gracious enough to come around to each table and talk with everyone, sign autographs and have his picture made with the guests (photo above). When he got to our table, we told him we were from Nashville knowing that he had moved to the area in the last few years as well. He was very conversational, even asking how the Predators hockey team had done the night before in the playoffs and saying that he planned to go to Game 6 back in Nashville if there was one since the band schedule would allow it. (UPDATE: The Preds did hang on to force a Game 6 against Vancouver back in Nashville - Enjoy the game, Jimmy!)

Afterwards we moved back out to the Lido Deck and got right in front of the stage in anticipation of the Mat Kearney performance coming up. Mat, another Nashville resident, is one of our favorite artists to see live. He put on an amazing show at The Cannery in Nashville a few years ago that we still talk about (see previous blog) and he opened recently for Michael Franti & Spearhead at The Ryman as well. Mat's set started about 15 minutes late due to sound check problems. We have to say that the sound engineering seems to be a bit of a problem with most performances on this cruise which is surprising since it's associated with VH1 and it's not their first rodeo as a music cruise. It's definitely one of the few criticisms we have about this cruise. But, we are also spoiled due to the world-class sound engineering that Bonnaroo always has.

When Mat did get started he was great as usual (video above). His melodic voice and sharp musicianship blended with a great dry sense of humor between songs made for a memorable experience. One of the coolest things he did in this show was a seemingly ad-libbed "rap" about the cruise experience he was having and we, as the audience, were sharing with him. It's was just another reminder of how extremely creative and talented this guy really is. We went back down below and inside for the next show at the Candlelight Lounge. It was One eskimO (that's how they spell it), a four-piece band out of London, England,.....well, make that a three-piece band...it seems their lead singer was not on the trip with them due to "visa problems" with U.S.?? Wow, what a nightmare for them and especially the poor bass player, Jamie Sefton, who had to take over lead vocals. He did a decent job, but the show was really saved when some "friends" of the band helped them out on stage. Alpha Rev fiddler (and our pal), Brian Batch, joined them on stage for three songs. Their biggest hit, "Kandi (All Night Long)" was sung by fellow performer, Matt Wertz, who did a pretty good job. The bass player from The Script (photo above) also helped out on a few songs (photo above) so Sefton could play the horn. And finally Casey McPherson, lead singer of Alpha Rev, lent his vocals to a few songs. So what started out as a bit of bust due to the formalities of international travel turned into an all-star set that was truly unique and we feel blessed to have witnessed it in person. We were heading back out to the Lido Deck when what we will refer to as TRAINCIDENT # 1 occurred. I was headed to the public bathroom as I saw a crowd gathered around a skinny gentlemen and realized it was Pat Monahan, the lead singer of Train. I clapped him on the back and said hello as I headed into the john. Then Pat followed me in there! Yep, it was just me and Pat in the crapper. I played it cool and made sure to zip up and wash my hands before I left. Ashlee was waiting on me outside (or so I thought). She was waiting on Pat. He was nice enough to take a quick self-portrait before heading to the stage. What a nice guy. Of course, we had met him, Jimmy (our wine and Predators pal) and drummer, Scott Underwood, once before after a show at The Ryman last year (see previous blog), but that was an organized meet-and-greet and this was after Pat went to the can....pretty cool. We made it out to the Lido Deck and got fairly close to the stage as the boys took the stage. It was a typical Train concert with great sing-a-longs and hit after hit. It was toward the end of the show when what we will call TRAINCIDENT # 2 occurred. During the song "Marry Me" Pat likes to wander out in the crowd and make self-portraits with people's cameras. I can't prove this, but he seemed to make a bee-line for Ashlee and sure enough got a picture made with her again!! Okay, I handed her my camera to have it done, but that's beside the point! Something's going on here!! Don't you think? Another great day on the boat wrapped up with this show and we collapsed again in our dark, dark room well after midnight. Saturday, April 30, 2011 We arrived in the Cozumel port early that morning (or so we assume since we were asleep). We had once again made arrangements to spend the day at the Nachi Cocom Beach Club which we had visited last time we were here (see previous blog). After a leisurely breakfast on board we headed off the ship to grab a cab to the beach club. As we were walking back through the Cozumel port who should we happen to spy again....yep, that pretty-boy rock star, Pat Monahan....and guess what happened?? you guessed it....TRAINCIDNET # 3. He and Ashlee took their picture together again!!! Ok, this is getting ridiculous. We had a great day at the beach club with good food, lots and lots of beer, great weather and good times. We met a couple of gals from St. Louis on the beach who were on a different Carnival ship. They were a lot of laughs and a shared, giggle-filled ride back to the port with them. HERE'S WHERE THINGS GET FOGGY....we made the mistake of buying some Jim Beam Bourbon to sneak back on board the ship (don't judge us unless you've had seen a cruise ship bar bill before). We wanted Jack Daniels but didn't have enough money. We poured half of it in a hydrogen peroxide bottle (works like a charm, by the way) and SHOULD HAVE thrown the rest of it out...but we didn't...mostly me as I tried to stupidly finish the other half before we got on the ship. We offered it to other people but I don't know why they wouldn't except a half-drank open bottle of whiskey in a Mexican port???? Anywho.......here's what I remember from the rest of the night....... !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! That's "blog-speak" for a blackout. I remember nothing after that half bottle of Jim Beam on top of ump-teen beers. Not getting on the boat, not going to our room, not falling on the carpet and rug-burning my knee, not Ashlee trying to get me to eat something, nothing. She finally left me in the room to sleep through the night. She saw a few shows that night and got her picture made with Mat Kearney in the buffet at least. I am not proud of this night and didn't intend for it to happen. I apologize to my wife for my actions, but it is what happened and I don't intend to act like it didn't. I regret missing the music that night and feel that it is my punishment for such stupid behavior. Here endeth the lesson.... Sunday, May 1, 2011 -- Today was another day at sea as we headed back toward Tampa. I actually felt pretty good despite what happened the night before and was glad of that because we had another full day of music ahead of us. First up back out on the Lido Deck was Colbie Caillet, a cute little songbird with a couple of recent radio hits who didn't do much for us other than sounding a lot like Jewel. We had seen her on Friday up on the jogging track and didn't really know who she was. The Script were up next performing a cool acoustic set (video below). At 3 PM we headed down to the main dining room for a beer tasting hosted by One Eskimo. Much like the the fairly bogus wine tasting on Friday, this event as well was a Carnival Cruise set-up with only beers that they already had available on the ship and which were fairly common. Despite that fact, we still had a good time with a lively table of Continental Airlines stewardesses who attend a lot of music events together. The beer was plentiful and flowing (hair of the dog, I guess) and the One Eskimo guys were happy to snap pictures with us and socialize. Lifehouse had their own acoustic set next back out on the Lido Deck which was excellent. Train closed out the acoustic sets out on the Lido Deck as the sun set to our left. We missed the end of the Train set to catch a new-to-us band called Thriving Ivory back down in the Candlelight Lounge. They were pretty good with a lot of energy but the lead singer's Rascall Flats-like high nasaly voice was a bit much to take over a long period of time. We caught some of Ryan Star again back out in the Atrium next. On our way back to the Candlelight Lounge to finish the evening with Alpha Rev, Mat Kearney and SAFETYSUIT, we met The Script lead singer, Danny O'Donoghue. Between the Mat Kearney and SAFETYSUIT sets we learned (along with the rest of the boat) about the death of Osama Bin Laden, marking an important date in U.S. history. It certainly was nice to be enjoying our freedom as a nation at this great event on such an eventful night. Monday, May 2, 2011 All good things have to come to an end I guess as did the VH1 Best Cruise Ever as well pulled into the Port of Tampa early this morning. We got some leisurely breakfast in the buffet while we waited for our turn to debark the ship. Everything went smooth until amazingly TRAINCIDENT # 4 occurred! As we were schleppng our bags off the boat there he was again, Pat Monahan of Train. We couldn't believe he was just getting off the boat just like we were along wtih drummer, Scott Underwood, and the band's manager. I shook hands with Pat and again expressed how much we enjoyed the trip as did he and the band he replied. They were boarding a bus and then a plane headed for Ft. Myers to play another show that night. Ah, the "glamourous" life of a rock star. We had a bit of a wait at the airport before our 2 PM flight, but it was all good thanks to free wifi in the Tampa airport and a nice lunch at a sports bar there. We got home before 5 PM exhausted but extremely happy with our trip, easily ranking it in the Top 5 vacations we have ever had...and that's saying something when you look at all the places we've been and the things we've done. Addendum: 5/14/11 - Link to a very cool blog entry by Pat Monahan himself about this cruise and the interaction with fans.... http://patblogahan.com/post/5473459366/fans