Ukraine: Part Deux

After a reasonably long, HARD sleep at Hotel Reikartz, we do our show in Dnipropetrovsk; the name is a contraction of Dnieper as in the river it’s situated on and Petrovsky, as in Grigory Petrovsky the Communist leader of Ukraine.  The Opera Theater with 1000 seats is the smallest we’re playing in on this tour, but everything works out splendidly, with all the same gear we had on the earlier gig and an almost sold out house. WP_20150310_046Afterwards we are taken to “Ykra”, spelled with a reverse N and a P for an R! This language is a trip….

It turns out Karaoke is really big in this country. As we walk in the singing is in full swing and luckily they have a private room set up for us! The menu is extensive, the beer selection excellent The Opera Theater in Dnipropetrovsk(Leffe, Hoegaarden!) and the food quite good. The whole place has a decidedly mafioso feel to it but it’s quite comfortable. We’re gonna spend an extra day here and will return for dinner tomorrow.

The next day, after a real night’s rest, it’s time for some sightseeing with the guys. The weather has turned quite nice and we walk to the river, through an indoor mall peddling everything from scarves to military style rifles. What blows my mind is how expensive mobile phones are here; your typical Samsung is actually more than in the US or Western Europe. In relation to the cheap food, I cannot for the life of me imagine why anyone would blow this much dough on such a status symbol, but it does prove how gullible folks are all over the world I guess. Remember, our 4 star hotel here costs $25 a night, so a Galaxy S5 is as much as 30 nights. WTF……. I’m looking for a sleeping bag, but there’s not a single place that sells anything like it.

On the way out of Dnipropetrovsk
On the way out of Dnipropetrovsk

Two more days without a gig, but on the first it’s driving time! To Odessa we go, the pearl on the Black Sea. It’s a 500KM trip, but ends up taking about 9 hours or so, again on some of the worst roads I’ve ever seen. The wild thing is, every couple of miles or so there’s a perfectly modern gas station! We still haven’t gotten any blankets or other sleeping materials but at least this is a daytime drive.

The luxury of mom's handmade socks on the one sleeping mat in the bus!
The luxury of mom’s handmade socks on the one sleeping mat in the bus!

As we pull into Odessa, the vibe is definitely different. The architecture is decidedly more Western European and the people more fashionable. You can tell this is quite the vacation spot in the summer and that there is more money here. All the big names in fashion are represented! I had already looked the Hotel Mozart we’re staying in ($23 a night BTW!) and it’s a stone’s throw away from one of the top 5 opera houses in the world, right in the heart of it all.

Dinner at the Mozart Restaurant
Dinner at the Mozart Restaurant

We’re spending a bit more time here, the next day we have off completely, then we leave after the show on the third day. We are told we can eat at the hotel restaurant three times a day for free…..boy we are spoiled! This is another high class joint, let me tell you. Stacked french fries and everything….. the service is excellent too.

The next day I decide it’s time to find a sleeping bag. Our tour manager has not done anything to alleviate the situation and we have some brutal, middle-of-the-night drives coming up with shows the same night, so I want to get some rest on these trips. I’m told about Sport Market, and it seems to be about a 30 minute walk away. Success! They don’t take my credit card, but a quick ATM visit later, I am the proud owner of a +15 degree Celsius modern, hollow fiber sleeping bag! Amazingly, no one else has followed my lead, they all prefer to bitch about not being able to sleep I guess. Tomorrow after the show we’re off to Moldova….crossing the border at 3AM should be fun!

To be continued…..

 

Cafe Cordiale

Bad news: after 30 years, Cafe Cordiale is closing! That leaves only the Baked Potato and perhaps The Federal as places for the higher level musicians to play in this God-forsaken valley I call home. There are some gigs in other places, but nowhere else will you find a properly curated selection of good music, great music really. It’s really quite incredible that this area, with no less than 1.8 MILLION residents, many of which are professional musicians, can not, or should I say, WILL not support more quality live music.

In the 20+ years I’ve lived in L.A., all but the first year in the San Fernando Valley, I’ve seen Live Music become less and less successful slowly but surely. We used to have Lavelee, Le Cafe…. the Sunset Strip was already mostly amateur bands playing for their friends and the musicians from the next 4 bands they would share they stage with that night. Endless ‘singer-songwriter’ nights of 7 or 8 folks whining about the same old stuff. It’s beyond anything I could have ever imagined. As rents have gone up and up, even at Cordiale you’d be happy to make $80 or $100, mind you, as the waitresses are pulling in at least double, a job that only exists because of the music that’s being performed, as the restaurant wasn’t particularly successful. I’m not complaining, just lamenting…… I’ve been extremely blessed and lucky to be able to do this for a living and continue to do so, but it’s getting scary. How will this play out in the long run? Will there be a revival of quality live music or will the people be completely sucked into their iPhones?

Even last night, at the weekly Jam night at Cordiale, this time hosted by none other than Andrew Gouche (look him up!), so many were fingerbanging their phones, it’s incomprehensible. And it’s not like they’re really doing anything: I watched quite a few musicians, mindlessly opening up Facebook, not even really doing anything, turning off their device, only to repeat the process 2 minutes later. Scrolling through the app list……….staring at the homescreen…… it’s just bizarre! What the hell is going on? Here’s Chris Coleman, one of the most amazing drummers in the whole world, playing his ass off; we should be taking in every note, but somehow half the people can’t be in the moment anymore…..

Well, we’ll see what happens next. One thing is for sure: the scene that Peter May has created here is a goldmine. Even in the crappy environment that Cafe Cordiale was for live music, with horrendous sound and not particularly warm reception for the musicians, more often than not there were a lot of listeners and Masta alone could support any location that would take him. If musicians here didn’t have their heads so far up their asses, I would try to organize everyone and try to find another place to move the whole scene to! Unfortunately, this will not happen and it would take Peter starting something somewhere else. Most likely, musicians will just bitch more about not getting paid anywhere, having no place to play, while spending all their money on whatever Apple puts out next instead of paying a cover once in a while at the Baked Potato. Funny how people usually get what they deserve….

Ukraine: Part Un

It’s been almost a week now since I got back from Ukraine and I still think about it all the time. Where do I begin? Well, why not in the beginning! When my original ticket was bought, I was to fly with Jackiem and Dave, from LAX to Moscow and then to Kiev. Unfortunately, the knucklehead who booked it, didn’t look at the copy of my passport he had in his possession and used Rico instead of my full name (Ricardo). These days that’s a real problem and luckily because we still hadn’t received our flight info two weeks before we were to leave I sent him an email inquiring about this matter. So……he had to rebook my flight! Even more unfortunately, he could not rebook the same itinerary, instead getting a 28 hour routing from hell with two layovers, the last leg of which was Amsterdam to Kiev. It was so painful, especially since I would be spending 3 hours in my homeland without being able to see anyone, I decided to check into getting myself a one way to Holland a few days earlier and telling the bonehead to just book me from there.

Amazingly, unlike I’d ever seen before, for a reasonable 62500 miles on Delta, I could get myself a business class seat on the one direct flight that KLM operates every day from L.A. to Amsterdam! Normally that’s a $9000 (round trip) ticket! Boy, I had never flown anything other than economy on an international flight, only first a couple of times domestically. Talk about making lemonade! It was still early enough to cancel the other itinerary so it all worked out splendidly, and I even got put back on the flight home with the other guys. I wish I could have known earlier and maybe have added a few more days in Holland, but I got there on a Wednesday and left again to Ukraine on Sunday morning, enough time to have a good time.

I have to say, it’s nice to be the king. KLM is not one of the fanciest airlines, but from the check-in at LAX it felt different. I didn’t have to bring my oversized bass case to the special baggage handling area! Going up the stairs in that 747, there was a feeling of peace I’d never felt on a plane before. They gave me a real blanket, nice real down pillow, wine list, noise cancelling headphones. It didn’t seem like the flight attendants knew I didn’t exactly pay for the ticket, and I caught myself wondering if anyone thought I didn’t really belong there! Everyone was pretty old of course, but the guy sitting right next to me was the youngest after me. He turned out to be a very interesting Argentinian guy who is in the business of jumping horses. He told me that KLM is one of the most experienced airlines for transporting them and that the Combo 747 that makes the LA-A’dam trip everyday most of the time has horses in the back! There can be more than ten at a time!

The food was quite excellent. It’s nice to have real glasses, actual silverware, full size napkin. You know, like a proper dinner! Delicious wines, dessert with a little port…… and then of course the completely flat bed! Unfortunately the flight leaves at 2PM these days and takes about 9 hours, so it’s way before I’d normally go to sleep. Still, when I showed up in Holland at 9AM local time, I felt SO much better than normally after a trek like that. It was a great beginning to this adventure. I had a great time in the motherland, saw my brother and many friends, and even went to see Doug Webb perform at Het Bimhuis, perhaps the best Jazz Club in Holland, but that’s for another time.

Sunday morning came to quickly, but I was ready to do this. Even though the ticket said Ukrainian Air, the airplane was actually KLM’s. The other passengers were decidedly less Dutch though! Dean, our sound guy, was on the same flight so we met each other at the gate. He’d been traveling for 20 hours already so was in a different state of mind, but I love the guy and trust him so much. The knucklehead had not gotten us work visas so we were instructed to tell customs on arrival we were there for “pleasure”. It’s amazing that this kind of shit happens and I was not happy about it, but what’s a girl to do? Luckily we got in without any problem and my officer believed I was there on “vacation”. We were met by the lovely Olga who would be our assistant tour manager.

The rest of the crew was to arrive 8 hours later so Dean and I were taken to our hotel: The Premier Palace Hotel in the heart of downtown Kiev. Man, this place was incredible! Five stars all the way, with 15 feet ceilings in the room! We were told we could eat in the restaurant for lunch and dinner that day, breakfast, lunch and dinner the next day. The food was great….excellent salads, seared tuna, lamb chops…..prepared beautifully and delivered in style. Our first show was the next night after which we’d get in the bus in the middle of the night to go to Dnipropetrovsk, so I went for a walk around the city the next morning.

October Palace in Kiev The ceiling of October Palace in Kiev

 

 

 

 

 

Kiev is a pretty awesome place actually. There was some military police presence, but overall it struck me as quite safe. On Freedom Square there were tons of people hanging, listening to street performers, trying to get money out of people by setting doves on their shoulders (huh?!?!). There are coffee places everywhere, McDonalds, people on their smartphones…… it seemed so western really. But at the same time, you can tell they’re hurting. For every two amazing buildings, there’s another that visibly deteriorating. The people keep their heads high, but they’re not exactly smiling. Poopoo man don't take no shit.... he leaves it!The October Palace, a glorious 1800 seat theater were we played, was spectacular inside, but backstage, in the dressing rooms, it was a different story. It was ice cold when we got there, with only a little electric heater trying to warm up about 10 times as much as it could handle. The toilets were of the ‘squatting’, ‘hole-in-the-ground’ kind, if you know what I mean.

Freedom Square in Kiev
Freedom Square in Kiev. That White House looking building behind the monument is October Palace where we played!

But then there was Natalia who prepared a delicious dinner for us, right there on the premises! It really was excellent and when went back to thank her she was so happy and thankful, it really touched me; it’s something you don’t see a lot around here in the land of plenty. It would turn out to be like that everywhere… after living in Vally Village in a very Russian neighborhood for years, I expected Ukrainians to be similar: grumpy, kinda rude and ungrateful, but the opposite was true. Everyone was beyond gracious and wonderful, even when some of us less internationally savvy westerners would act unknowingly rudely ;-)

The first show went great, the gear was on point and the crew was great. Amazingly we were informed we’d have the stuff travel with us to every gig! That saves a LOT of time with sound check every night and that turned out to be a double blessing with the amount of traveling we were about to do. You see, at midnight we were to be in the lobby to depart to the next city, to board the bus, described as a double decker with bunks on top. You’ve probably already guessed it……no beds, just seats on the top floor, like a regular touring bus! Why mr. K Head waited until right when we were about to leave to see the vehicle for the first time, after being in town for 36 hours already, is beyond me, and all the bitching that this was ‘not the bus we were promised’ was of course completely pointless at such an hour. We had to get on the road! The next city was 450KM away, or not quite 300 miles.WP_20150310_013 Doesn’t seem like all that far, but we were told the roads were really bad, and the itinerary called for 6 hours. That was changed to an estimated 8 hours before we took off, only to have turned into 12 by the time we got there.

After driving in Holland for 4 days, on streets like perfect race tracks, the contrast could not have been any bigger. In Ukraine the potholes have potholes! There were places where the freeway was so fucked that I guess the locals made a little bypass, much like what doctors do with clogged arteries. Entire stretches where one side of a divided highway gets put out of commission and the other side split into a two way road. Keiko got the back seat of the bus, the only place to sort of lay flat and there was 1 camping mat. I waited for a while, asked if someone else wanted but nobody bit so I took it. I always bring my own pillow on the road so I actually slept a little, as much as possible with all the insane bumping around!

WP_20150310_007WP_20150310_010

We got to Dnipropetrovsk the next day at about noon and this place was decidedly less nice than where we just came from. Wikipedia explained that this used to be where the Russians used to build rockets and other weapons and thus a closed city.

Suburbs of Dnipropetrovsk
Suburbs of Dnipropetrovsk

It’s quite big, but there were a lot of really poor suburbs we passed through on our way into town, and right across from our hotel where some really dilapidated buildings. The hotel was cool and again the food in its restaurant quite good and available to us for free three times a day. Luckily we had time to sleep a few hours before sound check so everybody went right to bed. The shit was getting real!

WP_20150312_001
The view from our hotel in Dnipropetrovsk…..

 

To be continued….

Protecting God’s Children

Every Sunday except the first of the month, if I am in town, I play piano at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in Westwood. I started subbing on bass for my friend Chris Haller, but when the regular pianist moved away six months ago, they asked me to take over that chair and it’s been wonderful. Peter Torsiello, the very musical director, handed me a couple of pages yesterday that were not music; “Dear Liturgical Minister,” the letter starts….hmm, I’ve been called a lot of things but never that!

I’ll attach a pic of the first page, but the gist of it is this: “In the wake of the priestly misconduct………..American Bishops issued the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People (2005), mandating nationwide procedures that would prevent this scandal from ever taking place again.” & “…..as required by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, we are notifying you that all Liturgical Minsters (mistake is theirs!) are required to attend a Protecting God’s Children training session and be fingerprinted.”

That’s right! They want me to give them my fingerprints! The only time I’m at the church is from 4PM to 6PM on Sunday, one hour of rehearsal and an hour of mass! Because of being an ‘legal alien’ in the US, my prints and other biometrics are on file with the US government, multiple times. This is really blowing my mind and it will be VERY interesting to see how it plays out. There’s simply no way I would give the Catholic Church this kind of personal data, especially since I’m not even a member and they are the ones who committed these crimes! Unfortunately, in these desperate times for musicians they will probably find guys who will go along….. strange times……

ProtectingGodsChildren_edited

Perspective

There’s no better way to realize how blessed you are than visiting a less fortunate land. In no way do I want to put down Ukraine or Moldova; as a matter of fact, with all their struggles they are actually wonderful in their own ways, but it’s undeniable that there are severe challenges being faced by their citizens. The grace and dignity with which they carry on is just inspiring. It couldn’t have been any clearer than when we had a four hour layover in Moscow and flew Aeroflot to get there, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

As I sit here at Starbucks, counting my blessings, my heart fills with emotion. Last night at the Baked Potato was beyond incredible and I still can’t believe I was a part of that. Jamie Kime put together a wonderful CD called “Alleys” and we played almost the entire disc with none other than Mike Keneally who helped produce the album on keys/guitar and Joe Travers on drums. It’s hard to describe how great these guys are and it’s beyond humbling to be in this kind of company on a stage. I get to play with all kinds of amazing artists more regularly than I had ever imagined, but this is musician’s music, in the best way possible! There’s a lot of Zappa DNA in all these guys, but they are so much more and Jamie’s music has grown and grown on me. It was amazing to see a completely packed house too and we actually made some real money last night! Normally at this, my most favorite place to play, $80 is a really good night, but mr. Kime handed me $265……

That brings me to Ukraine again. Sometimes we lose sight of how amazing we have it here and more importantly, how much less so many live on. You see, the average yearly income in Ukraine is $3000, or if we calculate it in Purchasing Power Parity about $8000 per capita GDP, compared to $50,000 in the US. Of course there are lots of really poor people living in the countryside, but these folks are struggling, that’s for sure. I want to write about the amazing cities we visited some other time, but there’s still so much glory for days past left over there: from the classic European architecture of Odessa on the Black Sea with one of the best opera house’s in the world, to imposing Soviet grandeur. There’s not much money for maintenance and the roads in the east of Ukraine are truly worse than one could imagine, but the place is solid and the people hold their heads up high.

When Keiko handed us our checks at the end of the tour, I couldn’t help but feel guilty about taking all this money out of the place. We were spoiled beyond belief, fed beautiful amazing food everywhere, welcomed with open arms and big smiles, and now I’m going to remove an average year’s salary for working 90 minutes five times in 11 days. Puts things in perspective, doesn’t it? Of course here in L.A. that’s about enough for basic survival for a month…..

Ukraine

The day is here! In about 3 hours, I’m leaving for the airport to do this, to start my first journey behind the Iron Curtain! Thankfully I’ll have a couple of days to spend with my friends and brother in Holland before heading out to the Ukraine on Sunday. I’ve filled a 2TB hard drive with backups of all the masters from my studio, pictures, documents etc. It contains an encrypted, protected archive of important stuff, including a master Word file with all my accounts and passwords. I’m gonna leave it with my brother, so in case I don’t come back (!#%@%$!) he can look after my estate…….. Anyone that knows me, knows I’m not easily scared and I’m not all that worried, but better safe than sorry, right? Fact is, the situation over there is simply not stable and anything can happen. Honestly, I wouldn’t have taken the tour with an American artist at this point, even though the conflict doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the US directly.

All of that aside, I’m very excited about this trip! I love seeing new places and I’m sure Ukraine and Moldova will be quite different from any I’ve been before. We’re going to be doing big shows, in 1500+ seat theaters and I can’t wait to taste some authentic new flavors. We have an awesome team with this band, a incredibly diverse group of people, with four nationalities between the 7 of us!

It’s going to be amazing to fly intercontinental business class for the first time as well, on my own people’s airline to boot. I’ve been reading reviews online, and even though it’s not considered up to par with the best airlines, it should be quite comfortable, with ‘lie flat’ seats and delectable food and drink. With all the traveling I’ve been doing, I’ve been able to sleep even in economy, so it can only be better, right? I picked a seat on the top deck of the 747! At least I got to mingle with the Rich & Shameless one more time before Putin sends me back to my Maker!

Airline shenanigans

It’s almost time….to go to Ukraine that is……..a little scary, but if Keiko goes, we go! Unfortunately, my ticket there was booked under Rico Belled, and not my legal name Ricardo, so it had to be rebooked believe it or not. Strangely enough, the same itinerary was no longer available, so I got put on a horrible, double layover one! I’d been eyeing extending my trip in the front by visiting Holland so this was my chance. Amazingly, for 62,500 frequent flyer miles plus $5 I was able to book a seat in business class on the one daily direct flight from LA to Amsterdam, and told Keiko’s people to fly me from Schiphol to Kiev, and then back to L.A. after the tour. This worked out splendidly as I now have only a direct 2 1/2 hour flight, the day before our first gig!

There’s been a lot of talk about Delta’s adjustments to its frequent flyer program, almost all negative of course. It’s becoming harder to achieve status etc. etc. But you know what? I’d never seen anything but Economy seats available for miles on this particular itinerary, with higher tiers only on layovers, and for a lot more miles too! Maybe I’m lucky….

At the same time, poking around Orbitz and the Delta site, I was reminded of how weird pricing sometimes. I’ll give you an example. Because of the precarious situation in Ukraine, there’s still a possibility that our tour could get cancelled, which might leave me in Holland without a return ticket, so I wanted to see what one-way AMS-LAX would costs. On March 11th, the direct flight, economy: $2848! Wow! The cheapest option, on Aeroflot which means an 8 hour layover in Moscow, is $700, any other airline is at least $1600 with 2(!!!!) stops! How the hell can this be? But wait, it gets way stranger….. How about March 11th AMS-LAX, and then March 18th LAX-AMS: $975 with NO LAYOVERS! That’s right, the direct flight both ways on KLM for a third of the cost of a one way! They can’t force you to take the flight back, so. I realize that most people want to go back to where they came from, but this is quite astonishing, isn’t ?

Here’s another crazy trick ‘they’ play on unsuspecting consumers: when I was looking into a rental car, the top result Hertz showed me at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam was the ‘compact’ that’s the preferred size in my account (because the economy I would prefer is not an option of course!); it would cost $95 per day! That seemed outrageous and sure enough, when scrolling down there were midsize cars for $20! I ended up booking an economy car for $14 a day, including all taxes and stuff about $150 for 4 days. Those sneaky bastards!

One final funny one: for a minute I though perhaps driving to Ukraine from Holland would be fun. I’d rent a car in Amsterdam and drop it off in Kiev. There’s always a fee for one-way rentals, but guess how much this one is…….. for a four day rental, for the cheapest car they have the cost would be north of $11,000! That’s right, probably as much as the car is worth! I wonder if it is because of the war and that they’re basically writing the vehicle off, expecting never to see it again…. that’s a pretty bad sign, isn’t it?

Armando Garbanzo

Well, Facebook is changing things up again! My www.facebook.com/ricobelled page is on a so-called “artist account” and now FB is forcing me to connect it to a personal page! I’ve quite deliberately kept this world separate from my personal one, because I don’t want to be in high school again, so I’ll be forced to create a new page not under my real name. I’m thinking it’ll have to be my alter ego Armando Garbanzo’s time to get with the times….

 

Armando Garbanzo yo soy

Have you bean with Armando Garbanzo

Game changer: part deux

Well, it seemed to be too good to be true………… now it almost certainly was: the Asus Zenfone 2 that’ll cost $199 will not be the one with a 5.5″ screen and the newest Intel Atom cpu! Damn marketing BS! Now that we’re getting closer to the actual release date, it turns out there’s another model that was not announced with that initial under $200 price tag: a 5″ 720P device with an older, dual-core Atom, although still with 2GB of RAM and LTE support. Not a bad deal, but certainly not a game changer……..

The Pabst diet

In other beer news: just like me, my two buddies from Holland love Pabst Blue Ribbon, one of the cheapest brand name beers one can buy around here! Without the preconceived notions that come with growing up stateside, they were free to appreciate its smooth flavor and easy drinkability. Most of the numbskulls in this town of posers frown upon me for drinking it, instead preferring such incredible brews as Michelob Ultra or Miller Genuine Draft (pfwwwww). When Jo and Jaap went to Merced, CA for a party of about 100 local farmers, they had two choices: Bud Light and Coors Light! WTF? And even more amazingly, the supporters of each camp would talk shit about the taste of the others’ beer! What is the world coming to if even the creators of food have forgotten what real food tastes like? At least there weren’t any vegetarians or gluten free folks…..

The amazing thing about the 17 day visit of my friends, who left yesterday, is that after a couple of weeks of bacon&eggs for breakfast almost daily, serious drinking most nights and enjoying many, many of the delicious eats around my neck of the woods, I got on my scale this morning and realized I’d lost 5 pounds! In trying to analyze how I’d lived differently, probably the most important thing was that we only ate when we were hungry, instead of snacking throughout the day. And what a great feeling to truly be so hungry you feel like you could eat a horse (delicious BTW)! On Tuesday we did something I never do: have a giant burger for the first meal of the day. Guess what? I wasn’t hungry for the rest of the day! Had a bowl of cereal before my gig that night and that was that!

It was very helpful for me to see my buddies, who are almost the same age as I am, live the way they do, even if on vacation. They don’t live what would be considered particularly healthily, but both are slim, make me look like a fatso! Johan is more physically active, has no car for instance and does everything on a bike or walking, but Jaap is an IT guy. What’s so liberating is that both live life to the fullest, eat anything and everything, and are as healthy as one could possibly be! Good genes perhaps play a role, but really it’s just about moderation and regular physical activity, just like we already knew a hundred years ago!