Archive for the Adventures Category

The true purpose and culmination of our trip to Las Vegas last weekend was to see Guns and Roses perform live at the Hard Rock Cafe. Guns and Roses recently did a 14 show residency in Vegas, and our tickets were for the last night of the run (November 24, 2012). (It has been pointed out to me that I got a week’s worth of material out of less than 48 hours in Vegas. Viva la Blog!)

Ever single person I have mentioned the trip so far to has said, “which original members are still in the band?” so I will tell you: it’s Axl Rose. To me and everyone else who grew up listening to hard rock in the 80s, Guns and Roses was and always will be Axl, Slash, Izzy, Duff, and Adler — the original line up that appeared on the band’s debut album, Appetite for Destruction. Those were the guys that made up Guns and Roses in 1987. By the time 1991′s Use Your Illusions I and II were release, Adler had already been replaced by Matt Sorum and Dizzy Reed had been added to the lineup. Aside from a disc full of cover tunes released in 1993, the band’s next official release was Chinese Democracy in 2008, 21 years after Appetite first hit store shelves. By then, not only had Slash, Izzy, Duff and Sorum all quit the band, but several other musicians had come and gone, including Buckethead, Robin Finck, Paul Tobias, Bryan Mantia, and Josh Freese.

So, yes. The Guns and Roses I saw perform live in Vegas in 2012 was, other than Axl Rose, a completely different than the Guns of Roses from 1987, twenty-five years ago. You can take it or leave it. We took it.

The package deal we purchased included third row tickets to the show and VIP “Meet and Greet” passes that allowed us to meet the band* before the show began. (“The band” was defined as “various members of Guns and Roses”.)

We arrived at the venue right on time. In the entrance of the Hard Rock Casino was a display of Axl Rose’s personal items, including most of his iconic leather jackets he’s worn on stage and in music videos, and even one of his cars. That’s my friend Tim, standing in front of it.

After picking up our tickets at the will call booth, we picked up our VIP passes and proceeded to the VIP waiting room. The room had a cash bar and enough seating for 2/3 of the people. We stood. The people in room consisted of: rockin’ dudes, hot chicks, chicks that were hot in the 80s, and people who liked the band back in the 80s. Oh, and us. We saw a lot of spandex and a lot of skin and a lot of people who shouldn’t be dressing like that.

While waiting the four of us began discussing who we thought would be at the meet and greet. All the pictures from the meet and greet are posted online, and there are no pictures of Axl Rose there. That either meant that Axl doesn’t come to the meet and greet, or Axl doesn’t get his picture taken at the meet and greet. If we had to choose one, we were hoping for the latter. My friend Tim is a huge GN’R fan, and pretty much the reason his wife set up this entire weekend was so that Tim would have a chance of meeting Axl Rose.

Before we left, proper protocol was explained to us. No purses in the pictures. No drinks around the band (last week someone spilled one on a band member). No autographs. Walk up to the band, say hi, get your picture, and leave. Got it.

After a short wait we were ushered upstairs into a line. While waiting there, Susan and Dawn started making small talk with a security guard who, it turns out, had been stationed in Oklahoma for a period of time. Dawn put him through the wringer, asking him questions about Axl Rose. Was he down there in the meet and greet room? No. Does he come to the meet and greets? No. Where was he right now? “I have no idea.” Does he ever wander around the casino? “I have worked all 14 shows and the only time I have ever seen him is on stage.” Well, crap.

The line moved slowly. After fifteen or twenty minutes passed we were ushered into a room. At the far end of the room were three band members, none of whom were Axl Rose.

From left to right: Dizzy Reed (keyboards), my wife Susan, me, our friend Dawn, DJ Ashba (guitar), Bumblefoot (guitar), and our friend Tim.

During the few moments we had, I told Bumblefoot that I’d been listening to his solo album (“Abnormal”), and I told DJ Ashba that I loved the first Sixx:AM album and Motley Crue’s Saints of Los Angeles, both of which he co-wrote with the Crue’s Nikki Sixx. Both guys seemed very appreciative. Every one there was polite and friendly. I didn’t have much to say to Dizzy Reed, who seemed either shy or tired. Sorry, Dizzy.

(By the way, about Bumblefoot’s shirt. It didn’t say “UP”. It said “the F-word” “UP”. I photoshopped out the f-word so that we could share this picture with friends and family. Also, another trivia fact: I am the tallest person in this picture.)

After the meet and greet was over we made our way to our seats, which as I mentioned was on the third row. While we were waiting for the show to begin, Darryl from Pawn Stars Storage Wars made his way down and sat directly in front of us. Because we were bored, I took half a dozen pictures of the back of his head.

Soon the show began. I have grabbed a few videos off of Youtube that I didn’t film, but were filmed at the same series of concerts, to give you an idea of what it was like.

On stage we had Axl, three guitarists, a bass player, a drummer, two keyboard players, four exotic dancers, and two pole dancers. The stage was wide, with ramps and platforms on both sides that allowed band members to come stand out and over the crowd.

Just when we thought things couldn’t get any better, Axl introduced original guitarist Izzy Stradlin, who joined the band for half a dozen or more songs throughout the night. Izzy seemed under utilized throughout the show — then again, that that point he was the fourth guitarist on stage. Dude’s still classy.

I really didn’t want to be one of *those* people who recorded the entire show on my phone, but I couldn’t help myself during the finale of the show, Paradise City. It’s not as good as some of the other footage out there on Youtube, but it’s one I recorded with my phone. It’s funny that the iPhone makes things look so much further away. We were much closer than this video makes it appear.

I saw Guns and Roses live in Oklahoma City back in 1992 literally during their heyday, and I saw the latest incarnation of the band last weekend in Vegas. Of course I enjoyed seeing the original lineup back in the early 90s, but sonically, I wonder if Axl doesn’t sound better now than he did then. Either way, for a fifty-year-old dude who sang for 3 1/2 hours, the guy’s still got it. People can say what they will about the current lineup, or how it’s not the *real* Guns and Roses (“Hired Guns and Poseurs”), but if you’re waiting for the original members to reconcile, you’re going to be waiting a long, long time. In the meanwhile, this is what we’ve got and I have to say, it was a pretty great experience.

Setlist:

01. Chinese Democracy
02. Welcome To The Jungle
03. It’s So Easy
04. Mr. Brownstone
05. Estranged
06. Rocket Queen
07. Richard Fortus Guitar Solo (Blacklight Jesus of Transylvania)
08. Live and Let Die (Wings cover)
09. This I Love
10. Better
11. Motivation (Tommy Stinson song)
12. Dizzy Reed Piano Solo (No Quarter by Led Zeppelin)
13. Catcher in the Rye
14. Street of Dreams
15. You Could Be Mine
16. 14 Years (with Izzy Stradlin)
17. DJ Ashba Guitar Solo (Ballad of Death)
18. Sweet Child O’ Mine
19. Another Brick in the Wall Part 2 (Pink Floyd cover) (with Axl on piano)
20. November Rain
21. Objectify (Bumblefoot on lead vocals)
22. Don’t Cry
23. Whole Lotta Rosie (AC/DC cover) (Happy Birthday to Axl’s sister Amy)
24. Civil War
25. Used to Love Her (with Izzy Stradlin)
26. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (Bob Dylan cover) (with Izzy Stradlin)
27. Jam
28. Nightrain (with Izzy Stradlin)
29. Don’t Let It Bring You Down (Neil Young cover)
30. The Seeker (The Who cover)
31. Jam (Waiting on a Friend by The Rolling Stones)
32. Patience
33. Jam (with Beta Lebeis on bass guitar)
34. Paradise City (with Izzy Stradlin)

We were a bit disappointed that our visit to the Neon Boneyard didn’t work out, but our spirits were quickly lifted once we arrived at the Ethel M Chocolate Factory.

According to Wikipedia, “Ethel M is owned by Mars Incorporated and was named after the mother of Forrest Mars, Sr. Forrest E. Mars, Sr. created Ethel M Chocolates in 1978, which opened in 1980, as a project to cure the boredom he experienced after retiring. According to researcher J.G. Brenner, “Forrest established the venture in Nevada because it is one of the few states that allowed the sale of liqueur-filled cordials.” So that explains why there’s a chocolate factory in the middle of the Nevada desert.

Upon entering the facility, visitors begin a self-guided tour. There are two or three rooms that all look a lot like this. Seriously, all I know about making chocolate came from watching Willy Wonka 800 times. The original, not that crappy Johnny Depp remake. Anyway, Ethel M does not employ Oompa Loompas and the first five minutes of the tour looked like this:

Not only were there no Oompa Loompas, but there weren’t any people or chocolate either. Then you enter the next room and WHOA MOMMA IT LOOKS LIKE CHOCOLATE HEAVEN.

Right up front there’s a girl with a tray of chocolates, offering you free samples. Well, I don’t mind if I dooooooooooo. So after a few of those it was off to the glass counter, where you can mix and match tasty chocolate morsels. I ended up with half a dozen mini chocolate “kegs” with different liqueurs inside — Irish creme, whiskey, bourbon, and a few others. Susan picked out a few others to round the batch up to an even dozen. Then we picked up a few chocolate bars for the kids.

The Ethel M factory is also known for its large cactus garden. I can’t even pretend that it was interesting. A sign notes that there are 300 different kinds of cacti in their collection — all of which belong to the “green and prickly” family, I noted. The entire garden was adorned with “over half a million” Christmas lights, which I’m sure is much more impressive to see at night.

There’s an episode of Storage Wars where Barry, one of the show’s regulars, buys a sign and takes it to the Neon Boneyard in Vegas to get it appraised. The sign turned out to be worthless, but the Boneyard itself looked amazing. It showed up on our radar, so we decided to stop by and check out this awesome collection of vintage and historic Las Vegas signs.

Upon entering the Neon Boneyard, we learned two things — one, the tour is $18 per person, and two, the tour sells out weeks in advance. (Every link on the entire Internet says that the tour costs $15. I swear on all that is holy that we were told $18. Maybe it’s $15 if you make reservations?) Then when Susan asked if she could use the bathroom they told us no. They also told us that there was a possibility of getting us in on a tour in three hours.

Based on what I have seen online, the Neon Boneyard is a really cool place to visit. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out for us. Instead, I snapped this picture by sticking my phone through the shielded gate and snapping random pictures.

The tour is highly rated and if we had known there would be such a wait, we would have made reservations. But we didn’t, so instead we saved $80 and ended up going on the Rick’s Restoration tour (which was free) and the Ethel M Chocolate tour (which was free). Maybe next time, Neon Boneyard!

If you’ve seen the reality show Pawn Stars more than once or twice, you’ve seen the handiwork of Rick Dale. Rick, the owner of Rick’s Restorations, is the guy that turns the Pawn Stars’ junk into beautiful pieces of work. In fact, Rick and his crew are so good at what they do that his restoration business was spun off into its own television show, American Restoration.

Rick’s Restorations is open to the public. Inside the building is a lobby full of restored items on display (and for sale) and a gift shop. There’s also a free behind the scenes tour that takes about 10 minutes to walk through. No photography is allowed during the tour.

Here’s a picture of the lobby. Those gas pump globes on the wall were $375 each. The blue Pepsi machine on the left hand side was $7,500. In the middle of the room stood several restored gas pumps and Coke machines, most of which have been featured on the show as well.

The Rick’s Restorations Tour takes you into the working area of Rick and his crew. Unfortunately we went on Saturday, so Rick and his crew were elsewhere, off enjoying their weekend. The tour takes you essentially into a single hallway with five or six large windows, each of which looks into a different room. There’s a machine shop, there’s a work room, there’s a disassembly room, there’s a … I don’t know man, there were four or five rooms and they all had workbenches and tools in them.

As with Pawn Stars, there are entire message areas and websites dedicate to how fake reality shows such as American Restoration are. Reality shows most definitely contain set ups, scripts and actors, there’s no denying that — there’s also no denying that Rick and his crew are a bunch of talented guys who do some really, really nice restorations. If you’re a fan of Pawn Stars, American Restoration, or simply appreciate restored classics, definitely check out Rick’s Restorations while in Vegas.

Last year when the fam and I were Vegas, Mason and I visited the Gold and Silver Pawn Shop, aka the home of the his television show “Pawn Stars,” while Susan and Morgan stayed out in the car. This was my second time to visit the pawn shop, and the first time for Susan, Tim, and Dawn.

The Gold and Silver Pawn Shop is much smaller than it appears on television. After entering the store you will be funneled into the store’s current, which feeds down the right hand side to the back of the store and then back up the other side until you reach the exit. Depending on the amount of people inside the store it can actually be difficult to stop and look at things.

On the right hand side, the front half of the store consists of three or four large display shelves. Everything is either under glass or out of reach. Some things have labels marked “AS SEEN ON TV.” There are swords and watches and a few other things that you’re not very likely to buy while on vacation in Vegas.

Once you get past those display shelves you hit the gift shop area, which is filled top to bottom, front to back, floor to ceiling of Pawn Stars t-shirts, Pawn Stars shot glasses, Pawn Stars Bobble Heads, Pawn Star Posters … you name it. Just past that area is a small room with some of the store’s larger items. Last time I was there, I saw a cannon. This time, there was a jukebox. Once you hit that area it’s time to turn around and work your way back toward the front. You’ll hit more merchandise again — more t-shirts, more bobble heads, more everything. There’s a cashier in the back in case you want to pay right there, but even if you did, you would still have to follow the flow of the crowd to get out.

Near the front of the store is a small alcove which is where people actually pawn things. There’s a big sign above the desk that says “no photographs in this direction.” The people we saw over there didn’t look like the people you see on television. They looked broken and hungry.

Like my last visit, nobody from the television show was actually at the store.

If you are in Las Vegas and are dying to get a Chumlee bobble head, the Gold and Silver Pawn Shop is your place. I suppose it’s worth stopping at if for no other reason than to see what the miracle of television cameras can do for a location. I doubt I’ll ever go back.

Saturday before the show, Susan, myself, Tim and Dawn met for a pre-show dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe. If you’ve not been to one, the Hard Rock Cafe is a chain of restaurants that combines lots of rock and roll memorabilia with good (but slightly overpriced) food. I’ve been to Hard Rock Cafes in Miami, Chicago and Las Vegas, and spent a few days in the Hard Rock Hotel in Chicago as well. They’re all kind of different, and they’re all kind of the same.

Here’s me in front of KISS (well, their outfits). The Las Vegas location features lots of playbills, posters and guitars belonging to bands of varying degrees of fame. The guitars hung up high belonged to Eric Clapton and Van Halen. The lower ones at table level belonged to Smashing Pumpkins, Slaughter, and Jakob Dylan.

I didn’t visit the gift shop this time around because they don’t carry t-shirts in my size. They do carry hats. I have three Hard Rock Cafe hats, one from each restaurant I’ve visited, and none of them fit quite right. I didn’t buy a fourth one.

Right before we left for the concert, Susan pulled out the “rockin’ bandannas” she brought with her and made me put one on for this picture. I wore it for 30 seconds, just long enough to take this picture. Fortunately I haven’t seen it since.

We are old.

Located in the Imperial Palace just off the Las Vegas strip is the Hash House A Go Go. According to the website there are seven locations nationwide, five of which are in Las Vegas. (The other two are in San Diego and Chicago.) The four of us (myself and Susan and our friends Tim and Dawn) showed up for breakfast/brunch (breakfast according to Las Vegas local time, brunch according to our internal clocks).

For breakfast Susan ordered a coffee with cream and sugar. I ordered a 20oz Watermelon Margarita. It was 8am. Welcome to Vegas.

You know you’re at the right place when the menu mentions “Man vs. Food,” “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” and “Unique Eats.” Susan ordered a $12 plate of pancakes. I won’t lie, I thought $12 sounded high for pancakes. Then the pancakes arrived.

I believe that’s whipped cream, along with the eggs, bacon, butter and syrup on her pancakes. I ordered off the smaller menu and ordered the breakfast quesadillas, which were also about twelve bucks. I wish this picture showed the scale better, because it was gigantic.

The bill was higher than you would guess thanks to a couple of mixed drinks — yes, for breakfast — but everything we tasted there was fantastic. I’ve read complaints online that the service can be slow, and I can see that during high traffic periods as each dish is cooked to order. We personally had a great experience, and to anyone who enjoys big breakfasts that will keep you full until dinner, I would highly recommend a visit.

The Friday after Thanksgiving, Susan and I hopped on a plane and flew to Las Vegas and met our friends Tim and Dawn there. The purpose of our trip was to celebrate Tim’s 40th birthday by seeing Guns and Roses perform live at the Hard Rock Cafe. We arrived in Vegas Friday afternoon and flew home early Sunday morning.

Despite the fact that we were in Vegas for less than 48 hours, we did a ton of things. Over the next few days I’ll be posting stories, pictures and reviews of the following places: The Hash House, the Hard Rock Cafe, Rick’s Restoration (from Pawn Stars and American Restoration), Pawn Stars, the Neon Boneyard, the Ethel M chocolate factory, Freemont Street, the Freemont Street arcade Insert Coin(s), and of course, the Guns and Roses concert. Did I mention we got to go backstage? We got to go backstage.

Posts should be going live live twice a day (6am and 6pm) through Friday.

Here’s Susan, Tim and Dawn in the rental car, ready for a fun weekend in Vegas!

Mason was only a year-and-a-half old in 2003 when Susan and I made the decision to sell our ’96 Dodge Neon and upgrade to a more family friendly vehicle. After doing some market research, we settled on the Honda Odyssey minivan. I don’t know that deciding it’s time to own a minivan is a particularly proud moment in any man’s life, but Honda lessened the blow by offering leather seats with seat warmers, automatic sliding doors, a six-disc changer, a DVD player with a flip down screen, and eleven cup holders. For some reason, our salesman really pushed the fact that the van had eleven cup holders.

We paid $32k for the van brand new off the lot. I’ll never forget, as we were standing in the showroom waiting for the paperwork to be finalized, we spotted a Honda S2000 — one of those sporty, two-seater convertibles — also with a price tag of $32k. There was a brief moment where we questioned our decision. Surely you can squeeze a kid’s car seat into the trunk of one of those things, right?

Ultimately we made the right decision. That Honda Odyssey has hauled myself, Susan, two kids and those eleven cup holders across the country more times than I can count. This past summer, with 200,000 miles already on the van, we drove to Seattle, Washington and back for our Alaskan cruise. During that trip the van took us through Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska. The summer before that it took the four of us to Las Vegas, Nevada, through Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The van’s been through Missouri, Illinois and the edge of Indiana more times than I can count. It’s been to Washington DC and back more than once, a route that takes us through (at least) Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland. The van’s been to Mississippi at least twice. Two months ago, Susan drove the van through Alabama and Georgia and back.

Last month, with 215,000 miles on it, we drove to Chicago and back.

At around 100,000 miles, Susan put AAA on the van. We used it once. After being in Alaska for a week, we returned to the van and it wouldn’t start. AAA came and gave us a jump start. One of the kids had left on one of the rear dome lights and ran down the battery.

The van is not without its quirks. The automatic sliding doors occasionally have a mind of their own — possibly a by product of years worth of french fries, crayons, and loose change falling down into the sliding door tracks. The rear windows no longer open. The DVD player is a lot pickier than the day we bought it, randomly rejecting discs. Some of the leather has peeled away from the arm rests. Probably the most annoying quirk is that the radio controls located on the steering wheel occasionally “shift”, which almost always manifests itself whenever the driver attempts to crank up volume when a good song comes on the radio, causing the radio to change stations instead.

All first world problems, really.

As for the drive train, it’s as strong as the day we bought it. Like I said, last month we hopped in the van and put around 1,800 miles on it while driving to, around, and back from Chicago. The month before, we put on another 2,000, driving to Atlanta and back. Over the summer we put on around 4,000, driving to Seattle and back. I’d drive it anywhere tomorrow.

Well, not tomorrow — because we sold it. A few months ago Susan bought a Honda Crosstour, which has replaced the van as her daily driver. (After having such a good streak with the van, we stuck with Honda.) We’re hoping the Crosstour (essentially a 4wd Accord with a slightly larger body) holds up as well as the van did. We’re on our way to finding out; in three months we’ve 12,000 miles on it. (That’s high even for us.)

The Odyssey has set off on a new odyssey with a new owner. I’m not “sad” to see it go like I have been with some of our cars, but it’s been a damn reliable vehicle that has lots of years and miles left in it. Lots of life left in it for someone else’s adventures.

Due to high (read: none) demand, I have created a new area of the website in which I track every states I’ve ever visited! There’s a link to it over on the left hand side now — or, you can simply click here).

To date, I’ve been to 41 of the 50 states (not including DC or the few times I’ve been out of the country). I spent a few hours Sunday creating a short entry for each state I’ve visited. For each one I noted the first and last time I had visited the state, and included pictures where possible. A few of them (about five, I think) I have only driven through and I debated whether or not to include them at all. In the end I did.

As future travels take me to new states (or back to old ones), I’ll post about them on the blog and update that repository at the same time. One thing I will do now is try to find interesting things to stop and see or do in every state I visit from now on.