Thursday, September 29, 2011

Megafaun at the Beachland Tavern

This past Tuesday night, North Carolina three-piece-turned-four-piece Megafaun made their third visit to the Beachland Tavern. With the much-hyped tUnE-yArDs show going on in the Ballroom at the same time, turnout for Megafaun was perhaps somewhat smaller than it might have been on another night, but the audience that did show up was very appreciative. Cara and I have been to all three of the band's Cleveland shows, so I guess it's safe to say that we consider Megafaun concerts to be don't-miss events.

For this visit, Toronto-based singer-songwriter Doug Paisley opened with a solo acoustic set. It was a very enjoyable collection of country-folk music; Paisley's vocals and guitar playing were both impressive. I was reminded of Damien Jurado's solo performances. I picked up Paisley's self-titled album after the show and am enjoying it a lot. If you'd like an introduction to his music, look up the song "Wide Open Plain." It's a great track.

After Paisley finished his set, Cara and I wandered downstairs to the Beachland's great vintage shop, This Way Out. I bemoaned the fact that all the clothes I tried on were too short for me before buying a used Haley Bonar CD. We saw her open for Andrew Bird a few months ago, and I've been really into her music recently.

We headed back up to the Tavern about 25 minutes after Doug Paisley finished playing, and I realized as we walked up the stairs that Megafaun had already started their set! This was a surprisingly short break, but fortunately, we hardly missed anything, a minute at most.

Megafaun kicked off the set with the sprawling, My Morning Jacket-esque roots rock of "Real Slow," the opening track from their just-released self-titled album. With lyrics like "People come from miles just to take a seat and watch the show," it's certainly an appropriate choice for a concert opener, and it sounded great. The band proceeded to play the next two tracks from the new album in order, before playing a nice mix of songs from all of their releases for the rest of the set.

There's a lot of variety in sound in a Megfaun concert - or album - as the guys are adept at a cappella or at wailing on their guitars, and pretty much anything in between. As a whole, I'd describe their sound as backwoodsy folk-rock with some experimental/prog elements and killer vocal harmonies. As you might guess, this translates into an excellent live experience.

A highlight of the show came when the band announced they were going to play a song from Gather, Form & Fly, and that we probably hadn't heard it like this before. As they started up with acoustic guitar, the song did indeed sound different from anything I knew, yet still familiar - was it "The Longest Day"? Yep, it was, and hey, guess what, that's my favorite Megafaun song! It's a gorgeous, bluegrassy number about losing a loved one, and it's a song I hadn't expected to hear live, largely because the album version contains some beautiful guest female vocals, and there are no women in Megafaun's touring band. Yet the reworked version was just as effective as the original, and I was thrilled to experience it. Interestingly, the next song in the set, "Everything," was another one which has guest female vocals in the album version. It was also quite different - and also great - live.

The intimate setting in the Beachland Tavern added a lot to the experience. As had happened last time, Megafaun played one song out on the floor, sans microphones. It's always really cool when a band does this (I'm also reminded of The Rural Alberta Advantage). Additionally, there was some nice band-audience interaction. At one point, the band confessed to us that they felt weird about saying "Hello Cleveland," because they feared we would think it too cliched. We assured them that it was cool and we liked it, which they seemed relieved to have cleared up. Better yet was what happened before the band's last song. Earlier during the show, before they played the gospelly "His Robe," drummer Joe Westerlund had made a comment about how tomorrow (Wednesday) was church night, and asked whether we knew this. So then, before their last song, Westerlund came off the stage and was going on some sort of crazy, slightly racy monologue. He was standing directly in front of Cara, and she chimed in "Church isn't 'til tomorrow." Westerlund followed her lead, singing "Church isn't 'til tomorrow" back at us, followed by some other improvised lines (at this point he also put an upside down plastic crate over his head; the whole thing was pretty hilarious) before he returned to the stage and the band played "Eagle" to round out their set.

I've been to a lot of great concerts in my life, but it's rare to experience something like that. It takes a special combination of band, audience, and venue. We'll definitely go see Megafaun again, any chance we get. They and Doug Paisley both come highly recommended, on album or (especially) in person.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Costa Rica Part 6: Vamos a la Playa

It's been quite a while since my previous entry in this series. In the time since, we've gone on another great vacation, to the Adirondack Mountains, and there has also been a lot going on back here at home. But better late than never - here's the final part of my honeymoon journal.

The guided tour portion of the trip ended after Monteverde. There was an optional two-day extension to the tour, a stay at the Tamarindo Diria Beach Resort on the Pacific Ocean. Cara and I had decided that, considering this was our honeymoon, we could use some time to relax at the beach. So we were among those in the tour group who were continuing on to Tamarindo.

On the drive out from Monteverde, we passed over the same bridge that had given us such an adventure two days before. Fortunately, there were no such troubles this time. After descending from the mountains, we headed west, toward the Pacific. Before going to Tamarindo, we made a stop at the Liberia airport, departure point for the tour, to drop off those who weren't doing the beach extension. We said our goodbyes, and then continued on.

When we reached Tamarindo, it was time to say goodbye to our tour guides. Cara and I got a picture taken with Daniel. We'll definitely never forget him!

The weather was gorgeous when we arrived in Tamarindo, a small town on Costa Rica's Pacific coast. It was definitely a different atmosphere there from the rest of the tour - very touristy, and lots of people trying to sell you things. Yet we found that we loved it there just like everywhere else we had visited. And even if there was a certain tackiness to some of the shops and the multitude of street vendors, there was no lack of beauty to be found there by the ocean. After we departed the bus and entered the hotel's open-air lobby, I heard young Sean declare, "I see heaven." This was (roughly) the view that inspired his words:

As you can see, the resort provided us with two options for swimming - the pool, and the ocean. Cara and I spent a lot of time in the water during our two-day stay; none of it was in the pool, inviting as it looked.

When we arrived at the hotel, we were told that a few of the group's rooms were not ready yet. Cara and I were among the unlucky (relatively speaking, of course!) few. We had about an hour of time to fill, so we joined a few others from the tour group at a cafe attached to the hotel. This resulted in one of the few unpleasant experiences of the trip. The food was fine (I quite liked my fish sandwich), but the service was very uneven. The drinks Cara and I ordered didn't seem to be showing up, so after waiting perhaps twenty minutes, we repeated the order (a Sprite and a Coke) to another server. When it came time to pay the bill, I saw that we were being charged for two Sprites and two Cokes (each at three dollars a pop, to boot!), despite only having received one of each. It was clear that our waiter did not realize the first drink order had never been filled, and in fact thought that I was trying to rip him off. I tried to explain his mistake, but the language barrier made the whole situation very awkward. The extra drinks were eventually taken off the bill. I don't think the waiter was convinced of my truthfulness, so I left still feeling kind of bad about the whole thing - it was undoubtedly an honest mistake on his part. I hope he eventually understood what had actually happened, and I hope he didn't get in trouble. In any case, for me, I didn't feel bad for very long, because there was lots of great fun awaiting us in Tamarindo.

We enjoy going to the Mentor Headlands Beach on Lake Erie here during the Cleveland summers. Going in the water is a great way to beat the heat, and lying out in the sun is very relaxing. It had been years since I had been to an ocean beach, though, and the same was true for Cara. Nothing against Lake Erie, but the ocean is much better. The main reason? Waves!

It's tremendous fun to wade out into the warm ocean water and then just play amongst the waves. You don't need any special equipment, although we both thought that surfing looked fun and that we might have taken lessons if we had had one more day. Still, just throwing your body against the breaking waves, or diving toward the shore as the waves pass and letting them carry you, is awesome. It took me back to my childhood, doing the same thing in North Carolina on a vacation to my aunt's. Cara and I spent large portions of both of our days in Tamarindo just frolicking in the water. We absolutely loved it.

Besides the waves, the other big differences between the ocean and the beach back home included the salt water, and the tides. Salt water is obvious, I guess, but it still took me by surprise the first time some splashed in my face. And the tides - they were very dramatic at Tamarindo, because the beach had an extremely gradual slope. It was an eerie sensation when Cara and I walked out on to the beach at night, near low tide, and we were standing in the sand where we had been in the water that afternoon, peering out into a vast darkness, unable to even see the ocean.

There are two places that, to me, sum up our stay in Tamarindo. The first is the beach. The second? Nibbana restaurant. If you're reading this, I suppose it's more likely than not that you'll never be in Tamarindo, Costa Rica, but in case you do ever have the chance - go to this restaurant!

The first night in Tamarindo, we got almost everyone from our tour group who was doing the beach extension, about twenty people in all, to go to the restaurant together for dinner. I found myself instantly taken by Nibbana's atmosphere. The dining room is open on three sides to the outdoors, and the tropical night air felt great. (I should mention that we were somewhat taken aback by the fact that smoking is permitted in restaurants, as used to be common here in the States, but we fortunately didn't have to put up with significant amounts of smoke during any of our meals.) It was great fun to hang out there in our big group, chilling out and talking about all our experiences of the past week.

Another thing to recommend Nibbana is the happy hour drink specials. Two-for-one drinks during lunch hours and from 5-7, with great cocktails that normally only cost $4.50 or $5.50 each? Hard to beat that deal!

Pictured is a Hawai, a drink with rum, curacao, pineapple, and coconut. They were fantastic.

But how about the food? Oh, it was excellent as well. Cara and I liked it so much that we ended up going there for dinner on the first night, then for both lunch and dinner the next day. My favorite dish was a pasta with vodka cream sauce, lobster and shrimp. Everything we got there was delicious, including tropical ceviche, chicken curry with coconut rice, and more mundane fare like pizza. Not to mention dessert!

Taking all that into account, Nibbana would probably be one of my favorite restaurants ever. But there's more. I mentioned that Tamarindo has lots of people trying to sell you stuff. This includes street vendors walking up to your tables in restaurants. To an American, this seemed very strange, and was kind of annoying. But in addition to the street vendors, there were also roving musicians who came into the restaurant from off the streets and played for the patrons. Amusingly, on the second night a guy played '90s rock hits on an acoustic guitar. It was rather charming. Later that night a band of young men from Argentina entertained us. The first night's music was the best, though. That was when a mariachi band performed for us - a very, very good mariachi band. Cara and I were both in awe of the trumpeter, in particular. They played some stereotypical mariachi band songs, like "La Cucaracha" and "La Bamba." Then one of our tour mates suggested we ask if they knew a traditional Costa Rican drinking song that our tour guide Fabian had performed at the lunch in Arenal. That performance had been an English translation of the song, which was clearly lacking something. Could we get the mariachi band to play the song in all its original glory? They did not speak English, but Cara came to the rescue when she asked them, in Spanish, whether they knew the "Costa Rican drunk song" - and they knew what she meant, and played it for us! Sitting in that restaurant, smiling and laughing and sharing in the moment with the friends we'd made over the course of an amazing week, I just felt really fortunate to be there and to have had such a wonderful experience. Oh, and that mariachi band got some generous tips from our table!

One more unexpected bonus capped off the Nibbana experience. With the bill, we received free shots of guaro (sugar cane liquor) mixed with coconut cream. They were great. We tried to recreate them back home with some guaro we purchased in Tamarindo, but didn't come close.

So, Nibbana was one of the highlights of the whole trip. On our second day at the beach, in between lunch at Nibbana and dinner at Nibbana, we basically spent the afternoon at the beach. This included lots of time in the water. It also included couples massages in the hotel's garden next to the beach. I'd never had a professional massage before, and it was very nice. With the ocean breeze and the sound of the waves, in fact, it's hard to imagine any future massage experience matching up.

The last morning in Tamarindo, Cara and I ate breakfast, and then walked out to the beach. I know we both had mixed emotions. We were looking forward to going home, but at the same time, we didn't want to leave. This latter feeling was augmented by the fact that that morning had the nicest weather we experienced on the entire trip. I don't have any complaints about the weather overall, but that morning was just stunning.

We definitely made a great decision by picking Costa Rica for our honeymoon. Cara and I both agreed that the trip was the most amazing experience of our lives. We hope to go again some time in the future, but until then, we will have with us a few neat souvenirs, a whole bunch of pictures, some good friends, and lots of amazing memories. ¡Pura vida!