Monday was a day off for the band and, therefore, for yours truly as well. Woke up very late—around 11:30am—feeling upbeat and recharged—and proceeded to the Birmingham New Street station to take the train to Manchester, where I decided to spend the day off (if at all possible, I prefer to take no train travel at all on concert days).
Prior to that, I stopped for breakfast at Cafe Rouge at the city centre, a short walk from the train station. I really just planned on a quick breakfast, one of those 15‐minutes‐and‐out sessions; unfortunately, the cafe’s staff didn’t do much to cooperate with my plans and it took a full hour before I was done. I guess that, nowadays, preparing a mushroom omelette is not the easy task it used to be. I figured they ran out of mushrooms and sent a SWAT team to the fields of “England’s green, pleasant land” to get some.
I always claim, though, that time is never wasted as long as it is used to do something useful: my useful action was to simply relax, absorb the atmosphere, watch the busybody walking around. It was a beautiful sunny morning, yet people were walking about quickly, as if running from something. I savoured every minute of rest.
Until I became really hungry and said screw the tranquility, I want my food (to myself, of course). That seemed to have done the trick. 20 minutes later, I was at the train station and boarded the train to Manchester.
Nothing much to say about the ride except that the car I was at, which was designated as a “quiet coach” (no cellular phone usage allowed; people should speak quietly and overall just be considerate), ended up being the loudest box of metal ever produced by mankind. One thing that noise‐cancelling headphones can not do is filter out people’s voices (oh Lord, if only would that be possible, you’d probably see me walking around with those things 24 hours a day) and altogether mid‐ to high‐frequency noises: so yeah, I couldn’t hear the ride itself… but still got mildly annoyed by the inconsiderate humans around me.
After about three hours, the train arrived at the Manchester Piccadilly train station, which is the main train station in Manchester. First thing I did, even before leaving the station, was to pull out my BlackBerry, go to the ticketing & reservations desk and reserve seats on all of the remaining UK train travel. That made me feel smart.
Not knowing anything about Manchester (other than the fact that they have a somewhat successful soccer team), I exited the train station onto Piccadilly Street.
OK, so this city doesn’t have the beauty and character of, say, Newcastle; but man, is that a big, busy, bustling city or what? Piccadilly Street, crossing the city centre area south‐east to north‐west, is literally loaded with stores, people, a few monuments, more people, restaurants and—finally—more people. Driving in that area seems to me like an exercise in self‐torture; walking, however, is quite pleasant.
It was sunny and warm outside. I find it pretty peculiar that, so far, I haven’t seen rain in the UK (it rained once, overnight, a few days ago wherever it is that I was staying, who the hell remembers). Clouds—yes, but no rain.
My hotel, Rainessance, is located a short 15 minutes walk from the Piccadilly station—basically exit the train station and walk towards where all the action is. It’s a 4‐star hotel, very well located right at the centre of everything (and short 7 minutes walk to the M.E.N Arena). Great place to stay two nights in. Rooms go for well over £100 a night, but I somehow Priceline’d it for $75 US a night—a bargain.
Another affirmation to the fact that this is a great place to stay in was the fact that, as soon as I stepped into the lobby, there stood my American friends waiting in line for the check‐in. These guys never skimp out on lodging and you can definitely trust them that if they picked a hotel to stay in, it’s going to be a pleasant one.
What I ended up getting is a huge room, two queen‐size beds, sofa, couch, TV, desk, and LOTS of walking space; as if whoever’s running the show up above decided to compensate me for the night I spent in Birmingham’s “Nitenite City Hotel” (6.8 square meters, however great for the price and well designed).
Perfect place to park for a couple of days.
Unloaded all my stuff (well… one backpack, really). No rush… no concert to go to (day off)… shower. 20 minutes. Felt reborn and ready to step out for a quick bite.
Wagamama (website: http://www.wagamama.com) is a UK‐based chain restaurant that offers healthy, fresh, delicious Asian‐style foods. I got the lead to this place from James, who seems to know a great deal of details about a great deal of subjects—how much information can one brain hold, I don’t know. If you look at the second‐to‐last picture above, you’ll see a building with a sign saying “Odeon”—“Odeon” is actually a cinema network, and “Wagamama” is located in that building.
The dining area is rectangular, long & wide, containing long tables going left to right so you usually end up sitting next to complete strangers. The menu is short and simple—just as it ought to be, which usually implies good quality food. Freshly squeezed fruit—delicious (but rather expensive at £4), as well as some random rice & chicken dish I ordered (entrees go for anywhere between £5 and £12–13). I am much better nowadays in recognizing fresh food than I was before… and that food was fresh. Delicious. When you’re at the UK, look for Wagamama (there are a few of those in London) and give it a try.
As I was under absolutely no rush, I decided to give another try to obtaining a European SIM card to cut some roaming costs.
I haven’t yet mentioned what my problem really was (and still is) with regards to cell phone usage in Europe. So I’ll describe it now; whoever has absolutely no interest in my cellular phone saga, feel free to skip the next few paragraphs (look for the next horizontal paragraph divider), although it may provide you with some insights regarding travelling with your non‐European phone into Europe, especially if you’re travelling with a BlackBerry.
Travelling with your phone to foreign countries while using your home‐country’s provider’s SIM card usually entails significant roaming costs. Whoever ever travelled with his / her phone should already know that; no big news here. So what the industry came up with is all sorts of options for such travellers who were responsible enough to “unlock” their phone before departure. For example, you can select “pre‐paid” plans (when you “charge” your account prior to using your new SIM card), and for longer visits—even “30‐days rolling plans” (which are, basically month‐to‐month contracts).
Altogether, mobile phone industry in Europe is far, far ahead of North America’s. Lots of carriers, lots of options. However, as I realized (the hard way), there are a few gotcha’s.
First of all, as a visitor to the UK (and I believe that’s the case in most, if not all, of Europe), you can forget about “month‐to‐month” contracts. In order to have any sort of contract with a mobile provider, you are required to have:
- A bank account at the UK (which is easy to create, even for visitors. Banks do offer “visitors”’ accounts).
- A permanent UK address.
- Positive credit history in the UK, proving UK residency during the last 3 years.
Now, you may ask yourself a clever question: why, on earth, should this matter if you commit to using a valid credit card? credit cards were not created just for the purpose of allowing people to spend beyond their means; one of its prominent benefits for the merchant is that the merchant receives his payment no matter what—from the credit card company rather than from the actual customer. Theoretically, then, once you offer your credit‐card for payment, the merchant need know nothing about your bank account, address or credit history.
Well, apparently, the world doesn’t appear to be that smart (or, at least, not geared towards the frequent, flexible traveller).
So now that all contract options are irrelevant (by the way, I checked this with at least five mobile carriers in the UK; rules are the same for all of them), you are left with “pay as you go” plans.
And now comes the fun part… the BlackBerry part.
The BlackBerry device was invented, and is manufactured, in Canada (by a company called Research In Motion, which is headquartered about 4 minutes drive from my house in Waterloo, Ontario). It is the mobile‐device for business people in North America; very popular (Research In Motion, shortly named as simply RIM, is a tech giant. Very successful company).
Alas, it happens to be less popular in Europe. Perhaps because of that, pre‐paid plans in the UK (and in other western European countries) aren’t quite geared towards BlackBerry users. This has to do with highly‐technical subjects concerning the way that BlackBerry devices are connected to the Internet so I won’t bore you with the details: suffice to say that pre‐paid plans in Europe—while working well for i‐Phones and other Internet‐enabled mobile devices—are generally not working with BlackBerry devices (for BlackBerry users, here’s a short explanation: mobile carriers simply refuse to give pre‐paid customers access to their BIS servers. Why? FUCK ME I don’t know).
The end result is that I couldn’t find any carrier that would allow a pre‐paid customer to use his / her BlackBerry device, resulting in me having to pay a great deal of money to my Canadian mobile provider for a “roaming package” (offering roaming rates at 60% discount—still twice as expensive as local rates).
HOWEVER, apparently there’s a light at the end of the dark cellular tunnel. Turns out that Orange (Website: http://www.orange.co.uk), a major mobile carrier in Europe, is actually offering pre‐paid customers the ability to use Orange’s BIS servers for a nominal fee of £5 per month. No other carrier allows that. That is absolutely good news for the BlackBerry‐addicted visitor; the only problem is that many useful “add‐ons” aren’t applicable for pre‐paid customers (such as SMS text‐messaging packages, hence my Facebook rants about SMS technology in general), but, hey, after weighing all options, that is the way for foreigners to go mobile in the UK.
One more thing—currently, Orange is offering 2G SIM cards to pre‐paid customers; you can get a 3G card shipped to your hotel the next day, for free, by calling customer service. Why don’t they provide 3G SIM cards at the store in the first place? Again, FUCK ME I don’t know.
Purchased my UK SIM card and continued walking around for a bit, then back at the hotel for some rest. My American friends suggested that we all go for a drink somewhere, which sounded like a good plan. Hanging out with these guys is always a pleasure. After going for drinks in some small, yet cute and authentic English pub, we went to a restaurant called Bem Brasil—a Brazilian‐style meat restaurant, where you get all‐you‐can‐eat meat and goodies for about £20 per person. Contrary to the usual breakfast‐style buffet you may be accustomed to, Brazilian meat restaurants such as Bem Brasil offer fresh, quality foods in their buffets (the price, of course, is to match). Delightful dinner—oh, that bacon‐wrapped chicken… Mike, we should require some more of those—good times. Back at the hotel late; caught up with the world and went to sleep on a superbly comfortable bed in that huge room. That was going to be a great, great night sleep!
… Or so I thought. Again, having been eating way too much at night, and ignoring my body’s “go to sleep” signals, I had a terrible night sleep, waking up every half hour or so. At around 8:30am, when I realized that good sleep is not going to come out of this, I decided to get my tired arse outta bed and start the day.
Another stroll down the main street leading to Piccadilly station, the usual breakfast / coffee routine, people‐watching. Weather was the complete opposite of that of yesterday’s—cloudy, grey, cold; no rain, thank God.
There’s something about a concert day that comes after a day off, when you’re following a tour. Miraculously, one gets all excited again after a 46 hours period of no live Knopfler music. I was looking forward for the show.
Short nap at the hotel (of course) afterwards, then went to hunt for food at a nearby pub where I ran into Jordan, Mike and Steve already having some beers. Conversations never dry out with these guys, time passed so quickly as concert time was approaching. Back at the hotel to rest, then off to a quick pre‐concert bite and off I went to the venue.
The Manchester Evening News (M.E.N) Arena is located at the edge of Manchester’s city centre, adjacent to the Victoria station, right by the river. To my knowledge, that is a sports arena; nowhere near as spacious and functional as Birmingham’s LG Arena or Dublin’s O₂, but still rather spacious and offers a few dining options (mostly junk food).
Ticket pickup went smooth again. Another front‐row centre ticket, and I went to explore the interior.
Shortly after taking the pictures above, I noticed Mark and his girlfriend standing right next to me. It was time to get seated, however Mark wanted to go get some pictures of the stage. Turns out that, according to this place’s rules, you cannot even enter the huge floor area unless you’re holding a ticket bearing the appropriate block. Not even before the show. Talking to the usher, I asked what if I lent my ticket to Mark so he can go get some pictures and then return; the usher looked at me in an awfully‐Jobsworthy look, telling me that in that case he would not let me in later. I looked at him with amazement. Forget about the arrogant look on his face: these rules are outright ridiculous. I couldn’t help looking at Mark and calling, in quite a loud voice I’m afraid, “What the *fuck* is going on with these rules?!”.
Oh well, I tried. Went to my seat, which was conveniently located next to Val & the rest of the American gang… as usual. We made it a habit to party together during (and after) these concerts.
The concert started at 8:00pm sharp as the band took the stage.
Upon entering the stage, Mark laid his hand on the shoulder of someone (now I’m not sure if it was Mr. Saggers; I think not. It was someone else, almost positive), told him something and pointed at the back rows. I’m not sure what exactly he was pointed at, however something that was going on there does require some attention: the missing audience.
The floor seats were all occupied, as well as almost all seats at the left‐ and right‐hand sides. However, the seats in the two or three blocks at the end—facing the stage—were left almost completely empty.
Why? well, I’m almost positive it had nothing to do with the quality of the seats: they were facing the stage; a bit far, but I would prefer a seat there over a side‐seat, and as I said, all side‐seats were taken. Some people were actually seated in blocks that were geometrically further from the stage. I am suspecting that the reason has to do with the way and timing that these seating blocks were released to the public; I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that those blocks of seats weren’t released for sale on time, or weren’t adequately promoted. Just strikes me odd.
Anyway, back to the concert. I guess the biggest news in this concert have to do with Mark’s injury which seems to be fading away now. His walking towards the seat seemed to be better and less painful for him, and his mood was altogether rather joyful. After the first few songs, when the time came to speak with the crowd and mention why he cannot do his usual somersaults and high kicks, Mark mentioned that he’s getting much better. “I can walk now; see”—then gets up and embarks on a tremendous voyage of two steps away from his seat and then back, while receiving a lot of cheers from the audience.
Smiling a lot, occasionally dancing in his chair—perhaps due to the injury getting better, perhaps due to lots of pain medication, who knows—Mark provided a sweet performance and the band followed. No setlist surprises, yet those with attention to details could notice that there exists some variance in the way that these songs are played, night after night. That’s why, when people ask me how come I don’t get bored seeing the “same show” almost on a daily basis, I reply by saying that it is not the same show as I am detail‐oriented enough to notice the small changes. Even when you think that you already heard all possible “paths” in which a song can develop, this band keeps surprising you with yet another little twist or turn, often for the better and rarely for the worse.
The best part of this concert, though, was after Telegraph Road when the people seated at the front rows simply charged the stage (and, thanks to the ushers, were not forced to get back to their seats) and we all stayed attached to the stage until the show’s end.
There’s something inexplicably good in listening to this band playing while you’re standing very close; listening to the guitar’s sound through the amp rather than through the speaker; listen to the screeching sound of the hand’s movement over the guitar’s neck; and being able to hear Mark’s voice not through the microphone. That is the way concerts should be enjoyed, in my opinion.
The show ended at around 10:20pm and we left the venue for a drink before going back to the hotel.
A long drinking session (beer for them; water for me. Told you I generally dislike alcohol, especially when I’m hungry), fascinating conversations with the guys. Time was literally flying as we were all having fun at the pub next to the spinning wheel, a short walk from our hotel.
(Last picture, left to right: Val, Mike, Steve and Jordan)
Back at the hotel, I was starving so ordered some room service. Moderately‐acceptable beef sandwich. I was planning on completing this very blog post last night after eating, but at some point I just got too tired to care about anything; sorry for the delay. I am now signing‐off this post while on the train to Cardiff; no cellular reception so I will upload as soon as there’s some.
P.S. Last night’s show was the 34th concert in the “Get Lucky” tour featuring neither “Before Gas & TV” nor “So Far from the Clyde”. This is my blog… and this is my own tiny, meaningless, private protest. :-)