Thailand, The Land of Smiles

IMG_0491IMG_0538Thailand is a beautiful place. Thai culture is so inextricably intertwined with beauty that one cannot mention the word Thai without thinking of lush exotic places and colors, ornate golden architecture, and richly satisfying cuisine. All of what means to be Thai is wrapped in a bejeweled package, where layers upon layers  delve into greater beauty and intricacy.

Walking around Bangkok’s, The Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha, -where foreigners go to awe at the beauty and natives go to make requests of the tiny golden Buddha- one can see the visual manifestation of the root of Thai culture. The palace, like the culture itself, is a smorgasbord of design, color, texture, and detail. Pairing both clean and curvilinear lines with myriad finials and finishes, there is so much to see that if you returned repeatedly for years you’d never see it all -a reality true of Thailand in general.

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Thai culture, like their rich food and ornate architecture, is indulgent, in a way. Yet it feels not like the bloated opulence of Western palaces, cuisines, and cultures. Thai culture is bejeweled and grandiose, yet has a grounded feeling that is one with the earth, a dirtiness, perhaps, that epitomizes its realness -as if it were built of mud rather than stone, or were a clean, beautiful girl walking through wet, dirty streets in a priceless gown that, with each step, colors and tatters the dress at its base, connecting the girl to the street and yet leaving the crown of her beauty unscathed, even providing tender contrast. Thai beauty is rooted in the culture of the earth and stands out against its surroundings, not as a starkly alien object, but as simply the earth’s manifested beauty.

IMG_0502Like a good Pad Thai -served garnished on top with a fresh cut lime, clean white bean sprouts, spritely green onions, red pepper, sugar, and vinegar, all the ingredients become mixed into what was the substance of the underneath noodled mass such that the lime is used up, the sprouts and onions darken and wilt, the red pepper stains all with its color, and the others simply dissolve with no visible trace. What you get from the amalgamation you taste in intricacy of flavor. Yes, the appearance changes and becomes something different, but the true gem is in the pleasure of the taste. Indeed, the recognition and appreciation of pleasure is what drives this creative indulgence, whether it be architecture or food. Thais, I believe at their core, truly appreciate sensory pleasure and happiness, whether it be visual, gustatory, or otherwise. Thailand is not called “the land of smiles” for nothing.

Girls I Met Randomly in a Bathroom

Girls I Met Randomly in a Bathroom

Furthermore, in contrast to more westernized places where you feel from people a real sense of singularity -an independence of going about rooted in one’s own mind and experience- it seems Thais are always with one another, moving and experiencing things as a group -or you could say as a family. Friends are, indeed, regarded more like family, a family that spends all their free time together. Extrapolating this, one could say it’s proof of love and happiness for one another. People here go about not alone in the world, but with a myriad of caring others. There is this friendly humanism about Thai people that is as if everyone is either friend or acquaintance.

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Guy Helping Explain Things at a Market

Now I’m not saying that everyone is friendly or treats me like a family. Often, if not always, I’m charged more for things simply because of the color of my skin. And though everywhere I go people tell my I’m beautiful, perhaps they could also be speaking badly of me behind my back; but still, for me, Thai people seem generally nice and good natured -like they would rather help me than hurt me, even though they’d like also something in return. I just don’t so much see here the pissed-off, spiteful, lonely individuals who feel affronted by any small encounter that I’m so used to seeing in Western places -and particularly in America. And from this vein of closeness, it seems Thais believe in no such thing as personal space. Like a family, food, money, housing, and transportation are shared, and it is common for playful and pragmatic touching of one another.

In a platonic yet caring way, the sanctity of my physical isolation has been breached more times in two weeks than in the previous two years. Western people don’t generally touch each other unless prescribed by appropriate situations, such as greeting, parting, or special occasions of grief or gratitude. Yet touching ones hand or arm to lead in a direction or as an emphatic gesture feels thoughtful, genuine, and connected, like you’d be with family and friends. And touching strangers on the back of a motorbike or on a subway, is absolutely normal here as well; and perhaps it should be, being simply people moving about in unison with one another.

IMG_1843In this place, where people are more naturally human, it’s only normal the Thai fascination and regard for beauty and pleasure. What is further natural, Thais do not create order out of chaos. They leave the disorder, uncleanliness and realities of the environment to build something, at their timely discretion, on top of it. If one can relax into patiently abiding the lackadaisical flow of progress, then one can rise above things seeming haphazard and thwarted, to see beautiful patterns and infinite nuance of the system. Like the thousands of crowded little streets, alleyways, inlets and corners of Bangkok’s sprawling city, Thailand and Thai culture is permutation after permutation billowing and folding unto itself with a grandiosity ever grounded in the muck of real existence. Thais know and accept what it means to be a human with bare feet on the ground, ever sweating, smiling, and surrounding oneself good food and camaraderie. Just like the architecture, it creates something beautiful out of the earth.

Getting a Double-Entry 120day Thai Visa

Before leaving, I went by AAA to get an international driver’s license. All I had to do was bring a couple passport photos and I had it in about 10 minutes. Online I read some misleading blogs and posts on forums that said getting the 120 day Thai double-entry Visa was much the same, that I could just go in and get it. (If you can’t go to a consulate in person, you must send in your documents and wait for the visa to be sent back to you.)

However, you cannot just go in and get the visa in a day. You must go in with all your documents, leave and come back to get it the following day. This is something I should have known before going to the Thai Consulate’s office LA at 11:00am before my flight at 3:45pm that afternoon!

Anyway, I was very lucky to have the office manager happen to approach me and ask if I needed help filling out my form. I responded that I did and so he sat down and basically finished filling out my form for me. Then, when he said to come back the next day, I explained that I was flying out in less than 5 hours.

It took about 5-10 minutes of me explaining that I read online that I could get it upon arrival, that I’m sorry, and that he’s really nice to help me out. And so he did help me! They processed it immediately. If not for this act of kindness, I’d have missed my flight entirely and would have cost me at least $300+

In simple form, this is what you need for the 120 day Thai double-entry Visa:

  1. Visa form (which you can fill out there or bring with you)
  2. $80 Money Order (not a cashier’s check. you need cash to get the money order and can get it at post offices and most gas stations)
  3. Your passport (must contain a blank page inside) and a paper copy of the passport
  4. Two passport photos (can get them at post offices, fed-ex/usps, many other places. You should not smile in the photo)
  5. Copy of your flight details to Thailand (they might not always require this)

Also, just to explain, the Thai 120 day double-entry visa allows you to stay for 60 days before either leaving and reentering or going to the consulate and paying for a 30 day extension and then leaving and returning after the 30 day extension. Then you can reenter and start another round of 60 days, extend it another 30 days (or not) and then leave when either your second 60 or 60 plus another 30 day extension  is up. To note, you must either leave and reenter the country after the first 60 days or get an extension for 30 more days and then leave or you will lose your second round of 60 days because you never left in order to make the reentry visa valid.

Portland

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Something seems to be trying to keep me in Portland, or at least give me strong incentive to return. Everyone I speak to, the photographer at Mississippi Studios, the cab driver that sped me to the airport, the hotel clerk at Jupiter, and the girl at the ice cream shop, all said to me that I’ll be back. They said it matter-of-factly, as if they knew me and truly knew that I would. And honestly I think I will be.

IMG_1027The people here are really friendly, like southern hospitality with a young, indie, family vibe. In fact, it felt very oddly like I already knew all the people I met in my brief, one day, visit. Portland is already well known as a city for hip young people and hip people in general, not just in clothes but in demeanor and in mind. It is composed in large part of people who seem to buck authority, while maintaining a sense of polite respectfulness about it. They seemed to care more about one another than what you’d find in other cities. And, honestly, I thought it’d be kind of pretentious and make me feel self-conscious of my own coolness, and though I’m sure you could find this feeling somewhere in the city if you looked hard enough, but I didn’t feel that way at all, even as I spent all of my time in the Eastern areas of Hawthorne and Burnside, and the Northern area around Mississippi Avenue, which are trendy areas.

IMG_1029 Something I find funny, is that the cab driver (from New York), the New Zealander (housing the Jacco Gardner band), and the ice cream girl (from Florida originally, going to a private art school in NW Portland, a more upscale area to which I did not have the time to see), all mentioned the meekness of people here, as if it were their self-depreciating duty to mention it in passing. Like a city of people hesitant to intrude on the existence of others, like saying: “oh, did you want these, or, uh, were you just looking or, well, ok, well are you sure? I mean, I don’t want to force you or anything, just saying that like, ok, yeah, then you’re sure? ok, cool, well here you go, enjoy the apples! This years harvest was just great! I think you’ll really enjoy them. There’s a real strawberry, dragon fruit kind of note to the the sweetness. Yeah, I think the rain and the soil this year has just been great! Ok, cool, well I sure hope you enjoy them! See you later” -said with a smile. (and this person could be anyone, male or female, young or old, in a store or open air market. And it may well be accompanied by a conversation of where you’re from or what you’ll be doing on the weekend, or various other things that you’d talk about with a more personal acquaintance. (there are elaborations to this facet of the culture in the tv show Portlandia, which is actually quite a good representation of the city).

IMG_1015IMG_1563And though I do get that vibe here a bit, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. At least the people are nice! I mean, everyone with which I spoke was just super nice and interesting. They were, in most part, people with which I could have a conversation and perhaps be friends. And I don’t say this lightly because I’m constantly told that I have an unreasonably high bar for which to make a determination of interestingness or coolness.

But that’s the thing about the people in Portland, they seem to foster a culture where people build up the coolness inside themselves to display to others. For me, they seem like people who were alone or dispossessed in some way, and then all came here, open and hoping to make friends with other loners and outcasts. Perhaps it’s been said and cliche to characterize it this way, but it is true. And maybe that’s why I liked the place so much. The people seem rather sensitive at heart, and instead of closing off, they smile and bring you in, respecting your personhood -a reality that you don’t much see here in the states.

For me, Portlanders made me feel welcome and appreciated, like visiting extended family or old friends, saying a big, “Hey, I’m glad you’re finally here! Hope you’re staying a while, aren’t you?” It reminded me of a large bohemian family, were there’s adopted and natural kids, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends always around, coming and going, always bringing in new people in passing, bringing an eclectic mix of random ideas and acquaintances all held together, without pressure, by strings of openness.

IMG_1050IMG_1056I’m not sure if it’s been researched, but I feel that if Portlanders took the Big Five Personality Test (one of the more commonly used personality criteria tests used in the field of personality psychology research), that the people here would score well above average on ‘Openness to Experience,’ which is one of the 5 constructs. I score very highly on this construct as well, so perhaps that’s why like the people here so much.

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Their openness and appreciation of people, cultures, and things was evident all around in the many quirky shops, organic markets, holistic doctors and wellness centers, intercultural restaurants and cafes, antique and ‘junk’ shops, and small, specialty wares and services of all kinds. It could be called a smorgasbord of representational and expressionistic uniqueness. And not the kind that is exhibitionist, needy and fame-mongering, like I expect to see more of in LA, but simply spoken, to no one in particular, just made as if a statement of confirmation to their selves and to the universe. Perhaps this is the best way for truth and art to be spoken, and is why this city speaks to me.

However, I’m moving on today, on my way to LA, which should be a change -one that I’m not sure I’ll care for, really. But that’s why I changed my travel plans in order to spend two days in LA rather than one. I’ve seen enough of Portland to know that I’d like to come back again. LA, on the other hand, I suspect that two days will be sufficient for some time, but we will just have to see.

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Jacco Gardner @ Mississippi Studios, Portland

IMG_1079Before coming to Portland I had perused the music venues and artists playing here. Despite staying at the Jupiter Hotel, which has a music venue playing Ha Ha Tonka (an unforgivable name, in my book, that I simply cannot get past in their decision to choose it), I decided to go see Jacco Gardner, a band that plays what I’d like to call New-Age Psychedelic Indie Rock. I don’t know, it was something about his face, one of those faces I speak about that is just interesting to me and I like instinctually.

I always think of people’s faces in the manner in which I’d paint them, the color palate, angle, and scope. Well, I’d decided mentally that I’d paint him like a Rembrandt or Vermeer, realistic, with contesting darks and yellow reds. (maybe the fact that he’s from the Netherlands had something to do with this, but once I saw  him in his beige coat and hat after the show, I knew this was definitely a right choice.)

At Mississippi Studios, Portland

Jacco Gardner, at Mississippi Studios, Portland

The throw-back psychedelic tunes reminded me of the music of my father’s years, the ’60’s music I listened to in my late teens and early twenties. Later , Jacco told me that he was influenced by Pink Floyd. Yes, there was that as well as a bit of The Doors, Led Zeppelin, The Velvet Underground, and many other ’60’s greats. And I’m sure that is why there were so many older, ex-hippies at the show. Not dirty or degenerate hippies, but the kind that developed into something more streamlined, or else, still had a hippie flair, just clean and worn more as occasional attire.

Jacco and band are from the Netherlands. And perhaps some of their cultural leanings and laxities influence the manifestation of their trippy sound. The idiosyncrasy I like most  about them is their insistence on incorporating a projector screen playing black and white movies and various other random visuals to accompany the music. It lends a touch of art to what they are doing. And after spending several hours after the show hanging out with the band, I do believe that Jacco is an artist at heart and is doing this out of genuine need for self expression, not for girls, money, or even fame.

The band is Dutch. And thought they all spoke proper English, to each other they spoke mostly Dutch, and somehow it lent a brother camaraderie to their union. They are clearly a band just starting in the industry, especially in the states; and so, you can feel the tense energy, self-consciousness, and awareness of the audience that they possess. On stage, even, you could feel their apprehension, their eyes searching through the crowd to gauge how well they performed. And they seemed genuinely gratified when the crowd cheered or whistled. They are a band waiting for recognition and a big break.

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The audience of older hippies, along with ample young to middle age hipsters, either stood staunchly or swayed gently with the music. There was not much movement or excitement going on in general. The venue, Mississippi Studios, is a rather bohemian palce, which set the ambiance for them nicely. Large Persian rugs haphazardly adorned the floor. Chandeliers and curtains hung to further the bohemian ambiance.

After the show was over, we all clapped and then the band came off the stage, pensively, awkwardly bowing backwards, and moved through the crowd  and settled at the back corner of the room. After a slight hesitation the crowd simply dispersed, meekly eyeing the band as they passed by and out. Though some stood around talking before leaving, most of the crowd simply left; and the lights were risen.

After coming back in from outside, calling a cab to no avail, I decided to look at the wares they were selling at the front, now, near the now-empty ticket stand. Jacco was now standing there behind the table of things, greeting people who came up to buy something, or simply to say that they enjoyed the show.

He is a rather shy, awkward person, which makes him both genuine and interesting. He does not appear to have fun on stage or seem to laugh too easily. I suppose he performs more for his own self-validation than for anything else, to hear his own voice, and see his self, tangibly, in existence. He seemed to have a mind capable of understanding and engaging others around him. In brief, he had a depth if consciousness that was not blatantly apparent, but sensed in his quiet thoughtfulness.

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I came to hang out with the band by way of a girl petting a cat there in the building, who I started talking to about my own cats. She, with her quirky afghan, full-length peasant skirt, and little black hat, had another face I particularly liked, something like Winona Rider, but nicer and more genuine. She was honestly one of the nicest, most gentle people I’ve met.

I thought she just randomly takes her cat around and holds it like some do their toy dogs. I thought that’s just what some Portlanders do (which would be awesome). But the cat lives in the bar/music venue and just travels around, being held and petted by random people.

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So while I was taking to her, a freelance photographer of the band was talking to her boyfriend, a quirky fellow dressed preppily in all black, who also had a gentle, introspective, and appealing face and genuine,self-aware demeanor. So we eventually all started talking, as the photographer was very friendly and talkative, and convinced me to stay around for a bit to hang out because she said after I explained my travel plans: “You’re leaving tomorrow! You have to stay and hang out! It’s your only night here in Portland.”  And that was true. Meeting people is meeting a city. So I stayed, which I’m happy I did because I met some genuinely nice and cool people.

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As she and Jacco skateboarded through empty streets as we were leaving, it felt as if the city were ours, or else we had some secret knowledge about the place or about people in general. Yet, it was late on a Monday night, when normal people are sleeping and prepared to go to work in the morning, so perhaps simply that societal abnormality, along with openness to experience, led an unlikely mix of people to share a random Monday night in Portland.

Fifty Licks Ice Cream

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This is an awesome little ice cream shop that was suggested to me around the corner from the Cambodian restaurant at which I ate. With specialty ice creams and hand made, gluten free cones (I was told it took a long time to perfect this recipe and the result is really good).

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I spoke for quite a while with the girl working there, who allowed me to taste many of the flavors. She was a really nice and cool person who reminded me of someone I used to know.

She started by giving me the jasmine rice with sweet cream. It was delicious. You can really taste the sweet rice flavor. I actually ended up getting this with the passion fruit sorbet, to make kind of a mango and sticky rice concoction. (It was her idea and it was awesome!) I also tried the Tahitian vanilla, with a more mellow, fruity vanilla than many other strains of vanilla, like Madagascar or Chilean.

I tried also the browned milk cream. They take milk powder and cook it so that it’s slightly carmelized in the pan and then fold it into the ice cream. It was delicious. If not for the rice and sorbet mixture, I would have gotten this and the bourbon cherry. You have to be over 21 to get the bourbon cherry. There is a local brewery that makes cherry bourbon; and Fifty Licks takes the cherries left from the batches, grinds them down, and uses them in the ice cream. You could really taste both the distinct flavors of tart cherry (like mellow and sweet like rainier cherries, and sweet bourbon -more mellow, with a nonintrusive bite -kind of like the nonintrusive bite I accidentally took out of the ice cream in the photo about before I remembered to take the picture).

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This place started as one food truck, then several; and one can see why because this is probably the best ice cream I’ve tasted any where in the world thus far. Sweet, creamy and flavorful, yet not heavy or saccharine, all tasted like fresh from a cow milk and garden fresh ingredients. It’s a must to go to in Portland.

Unicorn Bar – Capitol Hill – Seattle

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The Unicorn is a cool bar in the Capitol Hill area of Seattle. I would suggest going simply for the ambience, if not for food and drinks. I randomly sat beside the owner, Paul. We spoke about the place, as I complimented the unique decor. He said they wanted a circus type theme. I’d say it’s like Betsy Johnson as much as circus, but I see where they were going. And I happen to really love it. Along with the EMP, it is a place of my own heart and a redeeming feature of Seattle for me.

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I was aimlessly walking around, with the vague intention of going to a Russian restaurant for dumplings (I couldn’t find that place, as it was quite inconspicuous; and I didn’t see it until I was walking back home), when I passed Unicorn and it spoke to me. So I ended up there. And I’m really glad that I did because I met Paul and the former chef, Josh, who made the menu.

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Paul was able to acquire for me a half order each of the Unicorn balls (fried ginger and jalapeño pork balls with bento ginger aioli) and Narwhal Balls (potato, swiss cheese and caraway, with harissa mayonnaise). In the Unicorn Balls, the taste of the spicy and ginger, with the pork, reminded me of something like a lamb pakora. The texture was meaty, yet not too chunky or flaky. The Narwhal Balls were delicious as well. The swiss melted beautifully with the potatoes; and the caraway was a nice touch. Both were fried in a rather light, crispy batter. All-in-all their tastiness made me contemplate the prospect of a love for fried bar foods. (I am from the south, after all, and southerners do love things fried!) And I regret that I didn’t take better photos to do them more justice.

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I also tried the original corn-dog -the house specialty, in tune with their carnival theme. It was rather good for a corn-dog, a good size, though I couldn’t eat it all after the balls. The batter was great. It tasted like sweet, moist cornbread. And the hotdog, which they make, along with the batter, in-house, was not so bad itself.

I actually had a long conversation about making sausages with Josh and Paul. Josh, with an exhaustive sausage making book in hand at the bar, now works for a specialty sausage store in Pike Place Market. And Paul, an interesting and worldly Brit who also maintains a day job, says that this place is more like a hobby for him.

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We share a fondness for occasional indulgence and excess when it comes to food, and apparently decor as well, we spoke about that and of travel in different countries of the world. He said he stops by the place typically every afternoon, but leaves when the bands start -something I came to later understand, as this evening the band on roster was a death metal group. As the noise level increased to a roar, and many goth, grunge, and hipsters filed in, I, feeling to old to be hip, decided to go home and get some rest.

Passing this interesting painting on my long walk home, I was left only to ponder how things kindred to my own heart seem to find me, or either I simply seek them out, things I would not otherwise encounter if not for my wandering.

Tom Odell @ The Crocodile Seattle

The Crocodile is a cool little venue in the Belltown area of Seattle, an area with a slight yuppie vibe and much less bums than the rest of the city. The venue was a nice alternative environment, with a good mix of people. You’d see older preppy looking folks, hipsters, and younger looking kids just there for the show. I entered behind an interesting group of young people from some city I’d never heard of in Russia. The vibe was not pretentious as it so often is in trendy or hipster joints, making one feel that if you’re not 22 or on the cutting edge of the hipster scene, replete with biting, sardonic condescension that you have no business being there. No, this place is not one of those places and so it is alright in my book. However, as it nears the concert time, more young folks and staunch hipsters flooded in, encroaching on what was a chill, varied bar scene.

On an eventful note, I had brief encounters with Tom Odell’s drummer, Matt, and then later with their manager, Stuart. Matt, a proper punk British fellow, was quite nice. Tall and lanky, with aquiline nose and eyes slightly squinted, he was unique looking. For me, he did not scream Brit, but was something like Jack White, clothed in a typical throw-back look of punk rock 90s. Like me, dressed in all black, he wore a cool black leather jacket, an overcompensation that I’m not sure made him look older or younger. With ear length curly brown hair, he was a bit older than 22 year old Tom. Yet had one of those faces that I immediately like, and a nervous demeanor that was both honest and revealing of from where he comes. He was not a insensitive musician with overblown ego because of tasting fame. Both he and Stuart seemed surprisingly genuine. We talked mostly about travel and acquiring a global perspective about life. They’d just circumnavigated on tour from Europe to Asia to here. They’ll continue abroad in Australia next year.

Like the music itself, the whole band seemed rather honest and perhaps sensitive, like young people grasping at poetry and art, yet wanting to have fun and see the world while doing so. Tom’s lyrics and compositions lend an emotional indie vibe, while maintaining touches of upbeat pop in the melodies. It was all-in-all a solid show. They looked as if they were truly having fun, which I do not often see of musicians in concert while touring. Despite that they just arrived from Portland and were leaving directly after the show to drive to San Francisco, they did not appear lackluster, world-weary, or burnt out -except perhaps Stuart, who seemed a bit tired of the road, though, after-all, he is the one doing the running of the business.

“Another Love,” their most popular track, was a good live showing. The piano on stage shook as Tom got into the music, stood up at points, and bleated into the microphone as his shaggy blonde hair shrugged forward over his face. His lithe body gesticulated through his faded maroon plaid shirt, of a thin fabric that stuck to his body as the set progressed and the room heated. Online someone likened his stage presence to David Bowie. Now I’ve never seen David Bowie live, but I don’t think I’d make that reference. Maintaining the Britishness of his voice amidst interesting high, flat tones, he really sings as if he were laying out his self to the the listener and merely hoping we’d care, though it’s all really performed for himself. What I think is most appealing about both Tom and his music, is it’s simple honesty – of look, lyric, and sound. It seems to flow effortlessly and is what I think resonates with people.

I’m not exactly sure into what the band, and Tom Odell individually, will evolve with added fame. He/they could become many different things -think David Gray, Coldplay, or Nirvana, perhaps even Arcade Fire. I think they’re at the cusp of being truly big in the industry. It seems like they already have a devoted following and some critical praise. I was even chastised jokingly by some girls at the bar for explaining his music as indie pop, rather than singer-songwriter!  I’m redeemed, though, because wikipedia lists their genre as indie pop! So I was spot on.

As Matt left to take his to-go vegetarian pizza back to the tour bus, he said “it was a pleasure to meet you, Gina, I’ll see you later, perhaps.”  And perhaps I will. Stuart did put me on the guest list for their Los Angeles show on Wednesday at the El Rey Theatre. And since a friend I’d not seen in years was talking to me the whole show, I might like to see them with more attention. But even if I don’t see them there, it was interesting to have met Matt and Stuart, and I enjoyed the show.

Tom Odell and band will be on Jay Leno and Perez Hilton this week, if anyone wants to check them out.

Tom Odell – Another Love – Video