Grant Bradley catches a blues legend in Chicago
If you're lucky, for US$20 you can see a true blues Living Legend in Chicago.
The Legend description gets rolled out a bit recklessly but in the case of Buddy Guy there's no argument.
You just rock up to Buddy Guy's Legends bar not too far from the centre of the city, pay your money and you can see him if you get your timing right.
Late on a Saturday night, the 82-year-old took to the stage with his band for a set of just a few songs but he belted them out and they were very long. So long he had to pause and ask for "a double" half way through. It's likely it was his favourite tipple, a corn whiskey.
Buddy Guy is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee - a major influence on rock titans like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan - who took on the mantle from Muddy Waters to provide a living link to the city's famous days of electric blues.
The banter is effortlessly cool and although he may be getting on, there's a twinkle in his eye, burning bright.
Sitting in an upstairs room above the stage, his right-hand man, Johnny told us of how one of the greatest guitarists of all time had been invited to the White House by three presidents - Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama, who said there were ''only two perks to being the President: the first is Air Force One the plane the other is to have Buddy Guy over to my place to play the guitar.''
A photo of his visit to see Chicagoan Obama at the White House takes pride of place in the upstairs room where walls are covered in guitars from Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, among others.
Buddy doesn't play every night but he's usually there keeping an ear on the bands and the club where he and Johnny run with a firm hand.
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Although you can take photos, without approval (that was granted to the Herald) you're not allowed to video any of the acts or else you'll cop the wrath of Johnny (and it's Just Johnny, a former military man) and security staff who look for those with phones raised for a bit too long.
But among 150 people who were in the club, there was a warm, welcoming vibe, the music was not deafening, (Buddy Brew)beers were $7 each and there was reasonably priced Cajun-inspired food. Buddy was born in Louisiana before rolling into Chicago in 1957.
The after-dinner excursion to Legends came half way through a packed late November weekend in the Windy City when Air New Zealand launched its three times a week non-stop service to the city. It's worked, and while the airline is scaling back elsewhere, it will fly up to five times a week into Chicago from the end of the year.
A word about the weather. Chicago is famously cold in winter. We struck temperatures of around 3-9C and there was snow on the ground when we landed. But layer up and you're fine, the city's designed for it, with a subterranean maze of walkways known as the Pedway. It is open during daytime work hours and links key points in the central city.
Shops and public buildings are all warm refuges but beware when the ice starts melting -big chunks can fall from the high-rises.
Here's a few outings that work even if the weather's not working for you.
A quick trip to the top of what used to known as the Sears Tower, now the Willis Building, once the tallest in the US. On a clear day you can see four states - Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan, from the 103rd level observation deck. But we were caught in a white-out. We could see just cloud but photos told the story of what we would have seen had it been clear, and stepping into the glass-floor sky boxes that jut out held not fear for those afflicted with mild vertigo and provided far more creative photography than had it been crystal. Adult tickets are $24 - get there early on a clear day as queues can stretch beyond an hour.
Another of the great city landmarks is free. Cloud Gate or more commonly ;''The Bean'' is a piece of genius in Millenium Park and a gathering place for the city's millions of visitors. The 20m long by 10m high sculpture is made of 160 plates of highly polished reflective stainless steel that are joined seamlessly and reflect parts of the city's impressive skyline and crowds below. Its in a gorgeous setting surrounded by trees with late autumn colour and where the city's huge public Christmas tree is lit up in a place that enthusiastically embraces the festive season. An outdoor skating rink comes alive at night.
Culture for free
The Chicago Cultural Centre is across the road. It's in the former city public library and the Tiffany Dome on the top floor is in itself worth a look. The sweeping stairs up are a popular spot for wedding photos and there are ever-changing exhibitions - there was some powerful children's art - decrying gun deaths - and edgy politically themed social commentary when were there. Carrying guns is still legal in the Windy City but there's a sign saying they are not welcome in the Cultural Centre.
Diving deep in pizza
Food and drink is a huge part of the Chicago experience and the city proudly claims deep-pan pizza as one of its distinctive dishes. According to locals there are three places to have deep-pan pizza and one of those is Gino's, which happily brews its own beer. We went to Gino's East at 500 N LaSalle, which is home to a comedy club during the evening. The native dish was worth the visit - $US25 for the Supreme, laden with 3cm of tomato gravy, a moderate amount to cheese and Italian sausage. Easily enough to keep three people satisfied for lunch. On the second floor you can leave your mark in a graffiti zone.
Air New Zealand flies three times a week non-stop from Auckland now, stepping up to five times a week at the end of the year. The flight takes around 15 hours on a Dreamliner and is the longest in the airline's network.