Tuesday, March 3, 2015

An Inventory of My Night

According to the artist, if there's not wine, he's not interested.

So I knew that I'd find an abundance of grape at the Anderson Gallery for Myron Helfgott's talk about his retrospective, "An Inventory of My Thoughts."

The audience was a who's who of Richmond's art scene of the past 40 years along with all of us Johnny-come-latelys who'd met Myron since the turn of the last century.

As if to prove the point, gallerist Ashley began by announcing that although it's not usually the Anderson's policy to allow wine in the downstairs galleries, "This is Myron Helfgott!"

'Nuff said.

Myron began the talk by saying that his daughter had called, not to check on what he'd be saying at the talk, but to question what he was wearing. When he told her, she asked if those were the pants that were too short and if so, to wear matching socks. He had.

Are there any straight men alive who can dress themselves properly?

"I rarely go to gallery talks," Myron went on, "Because they're so damn boring. So if you decide to leave in the middle of my talk, feel good about it. If there's nothing you can steal from my lecture, see you later!"

That's his charm. It may sound like humor but Myron really means it.

From there, he went on in his typical irascible way to say that people use the word "beauty" when they mean pretty and "form" only to refer to three dimensional objects. And don't get him started on "composition" in art.

"I don't care if it looks like crap. I want it to be powerful!" That led into an analogy about New Yorker theater critic John Lahr (son of Cowardly Lion Bert Lahr) and his book "Astonish Me" about going to the theater expecting to be dazzled.

Myron saw a parallel. "We ought to demand to be astonished at art shows," he insisted. "Unless there's free wine." He was kidding, of course. Sort of.

"You, the viewer, should have to work to make art whole. You should learn something from the piece."

His tangent about Cezanne was brilliant, explaining how the master's works were meant to reveal themselves  slowly over a lifetime, not immediately. He likened it to his own process. If he likes a piece the minute he finishes it, he destroys it. If he doesn't then but still likes it 3 weeks later, it may be a keeper.

Citing his influences as literature and music, he name-checked Nabokov' "The Gift" (I thought I'd read all of Nabokov's work, but apparently not) as his favorite because criticism of the book is woven into the body of the work.

Myron had tried to accomplish this once, providing his own criticism of his work for a friend's wife to read as part of the work. She refused because the wording was so unkind.

No one is harder on himself than Myron is on his work and that's the way he likes it.

Listening to his talk was really no different than having a conversation with him - something I've done many times - except that he was dressed better and had on a microphone.

His strong intellect, self-deprecating humor and crotchety personality were the perfect addition to a gallery full of his work, including three busts on a pedestal behind him silently keeping watch over him.

Because he's Myron, he finished with a Jessie Ventura quote ("Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat") and dismissed us all to go downstairs and drink wine with him.

Had he even noticed that no one had walked out on his talk despite his permission to do so? Probably not.

I've been in the Anderson plenty of times but always playing by the rules, so it was different to be sipping in the gallery as people mingled and admired the work.

There were lots of familiar faces - the glamorous artist who's about to celebrate her one year elope-aversary, the painter who recently friended me on Facebook 15 years after we met, the photographer who'd had a beer in the car on the way over, the dean who was smiling from the gallery's wall in a photograph of Myron's, the globe-trotting musician who'd been at my house yesterday - milling about and, yes, sipping wine in his honor.

The man himself sat at a table signing copies of the exhibition's catalog, his cup of red wine within easy reach. When I handed him my copy of the gorgeous book, he threatened to sign it, "From one old codger to another," but thought better of it.

I told him all I wanted was for him to astonish me. He did and I bade him and his short pants farewell.

Of all the unlikely places for me to head next, I was going to a dinner party in the condo directly underneath Myron's studio/condo in Carver. Complete coincidence.

While not as large as his unit, the condo was spectacular, with 11-foot carved wooden doors, a record collection display rack and the same impressively deep windows.

Hosted by a musician who used to run track, the party was small enough that I could remember the other guests' names from the first introduction.

The delicious smell emanating from the oven was courtesy of the host's Puerto Rican mother's recipe, a classic we were told Mom had always served for Thanksgiving.

Just as inviting was the music, starting with "Somethin' Else," a seminal Blue Note album of Cannonball Adderley's featuring Miles Davis as a sideman. In the high-ceilinged condo, the warm sound of jazz on vinyl set the party tone in a way that no digital recording could ever do.

Wine was poured as people got to know each other, eventually even talking about things they were working on. I admit to being fascinated to hear about one involving collecting oral histories, much the way the WPA did during FDR's tenure, in this case about school integration in Chesterfield County.

Two of us who try to do as little cooking as possible bonded over how we'd both unexpectedly made pots of stew and chili during last week's snow.

While we were all chatting and munching on guacamole scooped up with Red Hot Blues, our host slipped out to run across the street to Kroger for a forgotten herb, back before we'd even finished our first glasses of vino.

Shortly thereafter, a voice from the kitchen called out, polling us all, asking, "Internal temperature for chicken, 170, right?" which launched a discussion of meat thermometers, something only the host and I had ever bothered to use. Everyone else admitted to being afraid of them or at least too unsure to know what to do with them.

Half a dozen candles adorned the table when we sat down to dinner about 9:30, everyone pleasantly lubricated and far more comfortable with (and knowledgeable about) the others than when we'd arrived.

Only the host and I coveted the dark meat (fine with me, more for us), but everyone loved the herbed vegetables that had been cooked along with the yard bird: carrots, parsnips, onions, turnips, you know, all the usual Puerto Rican suspects to sauce up the fowl and rice.

The dark bread for tonight's meal had come from Sub Rosa and our host explained that it was the house custom to truly "break bread," that is, not to cut it into slices, but to tear off hunks and the bread lover in me appreciated the primal nature of this method.

While we devoured multiple plates of food, the high school teacher regaled us with stories of prom-planning ("There's an all-night after-party to keep them from drinking and fornicating") and student Halloween costumes (her favorite was the fuzzy bunny from "Donny Darko").

Everyone except me was a rabid podcast listener (Mr. Fine Wine is my sole podcast and that's just music), with raves for "Love and Radio" and thumbs down for a bro-centric edition of "StarTalk" with Seth Meyers.

Dessert was twofold: flourless dark chocolate bourbon brownies were homemade and the other treat came in a white bag from Williamsburg's Black Bird Bakery. Dubbed "toffee cinder blocks," two bricks of honeycomb-like toffee were covered in a thick coat of the darkest chocolate, stuck one on top of the other at an angle.

It came close to astonishing me.

We immediately discerned that there was no good way to cut into this without shattering the toffee, so the Williamsburger began breaking off pieces with her bare hands, Sub Rosa-style. It was completely unique, sort of a giant piece of candy being shared as dessert.

One of the guests who'd learned enough about me to know a little, said, "At least you got to taste something new to you tonight."

Lingering over bits of chocolate and wine, we realized that hours had passed and for some people, it was a school night.

Even the lure of more wine didn't win them over. All I can say is, they're no Myron. But then, who is?

Monday, March 2, 2015

Warming with Wolfie

Listen to the meteorologists and you miss too much.

Braving the ice and cold despite online warnings to stay in, I got exactly one block from home on my walk before taking  a tumble on an ice-glazed brick sidewalk, landing on my hip and knee. Thankfully, there were no churchgoers nearby to overhear the string of expletives that came out of my mouth.

Refusing to be beaten by frozen water, I continued on, avoiding brick walkways as much as possible and covering nearly five miles as freezing rain continued to fall. While the terrain was dangerous, the city was silvery and nearly empty so I had it to myself for the most part.

Back at my house I discovered that my umbrella was completely iced over, hard and solid enough that I couldn't fold it up. Can't say that's ever happened before.

Upstairs, warm and making tea for a guest, Africa trumped Austria as I spent a couple of hours with a musician who's about to present the Richmond premiere of a documentary about the time he spent playing in Kenya.

We got so caught up in conversation about music and travel that by the time I looked up, I realized I'd missed the Mozart lecture.

The 2015 Mozart Festival was today in Carytown and I'd hoped to start with a Mozart primer courtesy of VCU Music's Daniel Myssyk, but we'd chatted right through that. But with more Mozart to come, I bade him farewell, layered up and headed to Babe's of Carytown, a place I'd never been.

Arriving 15 minutes before the program "Requiem and Symphonies" was due to start, I found the place crowded with other music lovers. Sitting at the bar in the front room was a guy in a white wig and red waistcoat that read "Mozart" on the back, letter jacket-style.

Inching forward into the back room where an orchestra was set up, I spotted a cello player also in a white curly wig. Periodically, I'd hear, "Musician coming through!" behind me and it would be a guy leading with his trombone or a woman with her instrument case in front of her trying to part the sea of humanity and reach the orchestra area.

Since I'd never been in Babe's before, I'd had no clue that they had that big back room, which was already mostly full. Passing by the bar behind rows of folding chairs, one guy told me he'd arrived an hour ago to score the stool on which he sat.

I finally made my way to the end of the bar directly in front of the violin section. I might not have been seated, but I had a damn fine view considering my arrival time.

Ellen of Classical Revolution, the non-profit devoted to bringing classical music to bars all over Richmond, began by announcing that this orchestra had never played together before. "This is how many rehearsals we've had," she said, holding up her hand and shaping a zero.

But because they're classical musicians, they were excited to be sight-reading Mozart for our listening pleasure. She mentioned that given the weather (humid, rainy), there would necessarily be a lot of tuning throughout the performance.

She also mentioned that the Richmond Symphony, sponsors of this show, were starting a new series of $15 one-hour symphony performances at Hardywood next season. It sounds exactly like the former Kicked Back Classics series that the symphony did for years at places like Tredegar.

Everything old is new again, at least to the young.

I was a huge fan of that series, in part because of the succinct playing time but also because they served free pizza at the end of each show. I vote to bring back that part of the series, too.

The same Daniel Myssyk whose lecture I'd missed came out to conduct the first piece, telling us that Mozart had composed it in four days while traveling from Salzburg to Vienna. He'd stopped in Linz for a break and, according to Myssyk, "Said to himself, what do I do here and wrote a quick symphony."

Next they did a movement from Symphony #41, known as the Jupiter symphony, but Myssyk said, "That's a 19th century name and Mozart wouldn't recognize it." Then we should never utter it again if you ask me.

This was working out better than I'd hope for. Myssyk was spilling all kinds of fun facts to make up for my missing his talk. If only the idiots in the back would stop blathering so I could hear his every word.

We got a real treat when the bassoon player arrived with her impressive instrument and took a chair right next to the conductor for the "Bassoon Concerto," a rare opportunity to hear so much solo bassoon, not to mention that I had a terrific vantage point for watching her play.

After each selection, the audience clapped mightily and the dapper man behind me yelled, "Bravo! Bravo! Yo, yo, yo!" You know, just like Mozart's 18th century audiences would have done.

Richmond Symphony assistant conductor Erin Freeman came out and with no introduction started up the next piece, which also included a chorus singing on the platform behind the orchestra.

Barely into it, she stopped them and turned to us, saying, "So, that," which resulted in the entire audience cracking up. "I always wanted to do that. That was Mozart's last eight bars or as one of the musicians said earlier, that's where he stopped composing and started decomposing."

Long hair humor. And speaking of long hairs, there was a young flute player in a knit cap, his long blond hair sticking out from under it and with a bushy, hipster-approved beard who gave me hope for the future of symphonic music.

Marketing tip: hire him and make him the new face of the symphony.

"Although I do hope you enjoy everything today, this is the most important piece," Erin said introducing "Requiem," the reason die-hard fans were there. When the chorus sang the final "amen," the room rose in an ovation, cheering.

But we couldn't end on something so somber, so next she introduced "the most perfect piece Mozart ever wrote, "Ave Verum Corpus," because it best embodied his spirit." It was truly beautiful.

Almost exactly an hour after the music had begun, it ended, breaking the spell of a roomful of people gathered together because they were willing to go out on a day when weathermen told us to stay in simply to hear Mozart played live.

As I began the slow procession past the bar to get out of the room, a handsome guy next to me made a comment about the people in the back who'd chatted throughout the performance. "I know it's a bar, but why come here and talk the whole time?"

Since this is one of my favorite soapboxes, we commiserated about the cretins as we made our way to the front. He looked like he wanted to punch them while all I wanted to do was escape them.

Where we also found common ground was in how lucky we'd been to have these musicians play for us on this miserable afternoon.

I made one final stop at Joe's Inn, meeting fellow music-lovers and comparing our upcoming road trip shows: Hooray for the Riffraff, Babymetal and T Swift, as assorted a range of acts as three people could come up with and still want to associate.

Where we could all agree was on chocolate mousse pie after dinner while "Papa, Don't Preach" played to a packed restaurant, all the more enjoyable for what came before it.

Bravo, yo, yo, yo.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Playing Festively

If someone asked me to plan my kind of date, it might go something like this.

Begin by choosing a restaurant where the ambiance is as seductive as the food (L'Opossum) and then suggest that you meet there (always have your own car, just in case) shortly after they open and before the masses arrive.

If you're smart, you'll choose a place at the bar because you know the bartender is a great conversationalist (Anton LaVey, materialism, societal accountability) and always willing to talk music with you.

Once your date arrives (a couple tonight), choose a bottle of the beautiful Domaine Bellevue 2013 Touraine Rose to toast each other. Theirs is a unique relationship ("We started drinking together 15 years ago, but we've only been together for five") and there's a lot of laughter between us.

Good dates should abound with laughter.

Like me, they are enchanted with the eclectic soundtrack on this date - Glen Campbell's "Gentle On My Mind," Helen Reddy's "No Way to Treat a Lady" and Liberace's version of "Theme from a Summer Place," during which a discussion of Liberace ensues and the bartender sagely observes, "I never knew much about him but now that I've done some listening, I think he plays so festively."

My favorite dates are feasts of food, so tonight I start with something new on the menu: juniper-encrusted venison carpaccio with lingonberries, pickled walnut seeds over rocket. It's Scandanavia on a plate.

From there, my dates and I share oysters in an absinthe mist (be still my heart, absinthe twice in three days), the decadence of buerre blanc-drenched escargots in and around a ham biscuit and Faberge eggs with caviar and Champagne Rose jigglers (I don't hesitate to devour these with my fingers), finishing our first round with the lobster taco with seared foie gras, an obscenely seductive note on which to end.

Since part of the appeal of a date is sharing stories, we do. The bartender joins us to discuss the Phil Ochs songbook one of us discovered today at an estate sale and music conversation develops (folky Ochs versus orchestral Ochs? early Leonard Cohen versus late? is there such a thing as too much Bowie?).

Possibly my favorite song heard all evening is Mercury Rev's "Laurel Canyon" but talk is most spirited about Suzy Creamcheese.

We are regaled with tales of dating a VCU art history professor who used to take photographs of dog poop everywhere he traveled and then insert them into his lectures between slides of Notre Dame and Chartres.

Appropriately, a second bottle of Rose accompanies our next course of Caesar salad, rack of lamb and black grouper while "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden" plays. It's been so long since any of us heard it that we debate whether or not it's the original (it is, as it turns out).

A smart date defers the choice of dessert (and another bottle of Rose) to me and I graciously accept, opting for the sexual innuendo of hot black bottom a la mode topped by a dominant rich ganache and whipped cream and just to prove I can, le petite mort au chocolate (because who doesn't want an orgasm on a date?) set aflame with 151 rum.

By now, we are four plus hours into this date, a very good sign that food, drink and conversation are all hitting on the most pleasurable levels. No one wants to stop, so we order after dinner drinks and when one of us gets the Blackout 77, we begin by inhaling its impressive aromas.

One verdict is that it smells like Cary Grant in New York City back during the TWA era. The bartender admits to choosing the NYC power outage of 1977, an event he remembers from childhood, as a point of reference for the potent libation.

There will be two of these beauties before the night is over.

The Laura Palmer is served wrapped in plastic around the glass, its gin and muddled cherries a blood red reminder of poor Laura's fate. Balvenie tastes of, well, Balvenie, because sometimes for some dates, only brown liquor will do. I find myself drawn to Zaya 12-year old rum, a far cry from the Meyer's Rum of my youth.

By the time the date winds down, only a couple of tables are left, but they hadn't arrived when it was still daylight as we had done. Favorite parting compliment: "You are the coolest chick in Richmond."

Note to those seeking to plan the best kind of date: compliments should be part of the game plan.

But dates shouldn't end with a fabulous meal, at least not one on a Saturday night. Better to find yourself at a place like Balliceaux for Body Talk, with DJs playing records of boogie/funk/modern soul for a dance party that's in full swing as I shed my coat and join the throngs on the floor.

The dance floor itself extends to the walls of the room because the place is so packed, but it also means that even if you arrive technically date-less, you will have plenty of people to dance with. And what better use for all those calories and drinks consumed over the past six hours than a few more of non-stop motion?

I guarantee that by the time you get home, nearly nine hours after your date began, you'll fall into bed full, happily and almost talked out.

It will be because that kind of date is the most fun you could have without being kissed.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Morning Wood

I fear for the cultural literacy of the future.

All week long, I'd been looking forward to seeing "Annie Hall" at the Bowtie. Incredibly, I hadn't seen it since it came out in 1977. Given all the Oscars it had won, I expected a full house. Instead, I found one middle-aged guy with a bag of popcorn and a willingness to chat.

Like me, he often comes to the Movies and Mimosas feature to see classic films on the big screen. We got a good laugh when he told me that the ticket taker had looked at his stub and said, "Oh, I didn't know "Annie Hall" was coming out this week."

When he explained to the 20-something that it was a 38-year old movie, the kid was surprised.

Joining us shortly was a woman who, without being asked, announced to us that she was excited to see the movie but appalled to learn that her 44-year old daughter had never seen it. Wait, it gets worse: her daughter's degree is in theater.

She asked if I was a Woody Allen fan and I admitted to it. My first boyfriend had introduced me to his peculiar brand of humor when I was in high school and I'd read an Allen biography as long ago as college. So, yes, I was a fan.

Yet I remembered very little of the film beyond Allen breaking the fourth wall. Lost to the decades were Diane Keaton's singing, that the Alvy Singer character had had two ex-wives or all the references to Jewish persecution in WWII ("My Grammy didn't give gifts. She was too busy being raped by Cossacks").

Not remembered but not surprising were the 1977-isms. The doctor smokes in the examining room with a patient. Most women went bra-less. Waiting in line for a movie, people smoke, read newspapers and talk to each other instead of staring at their devices.

Annie Hall can't have sex without smoking a joint first and friends are aghast to learn the couple hasn't tried cocaine. "Come on, do your body a favor!" they insist, proffering the white stuff. Wow, 1977.

I also learned things. "You want to move to Los Angeles where the only cultural advantage is being able to turn right on red?" Alvy asks incredulously of Annie. So California was ahead of the curve on this? No memory of that.

Of course Woody Allen's dialog was spot on and laugh out loud-worthy. "I'm a bigot but for the left," he says. Speaking at an Adlai Stevenson rally, he says, "So I'm in the Catskills and I've been trying to do to this girl what the Eisenhower administration has been doing to us."

Very telling was a comment Allen makes about the state of photography in 1977. "A set of aesthetic guidelines hasn't been developed yet." Since few museums and galleries were even beginning to collect photography in the '70s, this rings especially true to an art geek.

Just as dated but a little skeevy was a scene where Alvy's best friend Rob is clearly peeved to get a phone call from jail from Alvy. Not because his friend has been jailed, but because it interrupted him having sex with twins.

"Sixteen year old twins, imagine the possibilities!" Considering he was, like Allen, close to 40 at the time, that's pretty distasteful, although apparently not so much in '77.

One of the most hysterical scene involved no dialog from Alvy, just a look. He and Annie are ordering sandwiches in a deli and she says, "I'll have pastrami on white bread with mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato." Jewish suffering is written all over his face.

I certainly didn't recall Paul Simon (with a bad comb-over), Christopher Walken (his weirdness already set in stone) or Jeff Goldblum on the phone ("I forgot my mantra") being in the movie.

Most surprising of all was that I remembered the last bit in the movie. Alvy tells an old joke about how he can't turn in his brother just because he thinks he's a chicken. When the doctor asks him why not, he says he needs the eggs.

"Well, I guess that's pretty much how I feel about relationships. You know, they're totally irrational and crazy and absurd, but I guess we keep going through it because most of us need the eggs."

Apparently that's the kind of sentiment that spoke to my young self when I first saw "Annie Hall" because I never forgot it.

There's a lesson there. Never see what's billed as a "nervous romance" when you're at an impressionable age. It may not do your heart any favors.

Left to My Own Devices

It's been a day for the unexpected.

Driving out to the northern neck to visit my parents, I had no idea it would begin snowing, swirling all around the cars and on the road, much like sand does on a beach road after a storm.

Driving over the Rappahannock, I saw a frozen river below me, great chunks of snow and ice dotting the surface.

But as I always do when crossing a bridge, I had the window down to smell the wet air (or what a watery death smells like, I can'rt decide) while inside the car the Pet Shop Boys' "Being Boring" was blasting.With not a single boat on the river, no one but me heard.

I left Mom and Dad's in enough time to get home and ready for my girl date tonight, only to find a phone message awaiting me (I know, how old school, right?) from my friend canceling our plans because she'd been down with that stomach bug everyone's getting all day (no doubt picked up at the bar where she works).

Hadn't seen that coming.

So instead of our intended restaurant and bar crawl until the wee hours, I decided on the documentary screening at Black Iris Gallery of "Records Collecting Dust" about the origins and holy grails of vinyl collecting.

Arriving at Black Iris just as three guys did, we found the door locked. What the...? From inside, Steady Sounds's owner gestured for us to come back in 15 minutes.

Good thing I only live three blocks away.

On my return, I found the doors open and plenty of familiar faces in the chairs. Chatting with a WRIR DJ, we lamented how you can never believe a starting time on a Facebook event invitation. This one had said the showing began at 8 p.m., so we'd both rushed over only to find it really began at 8:30.

Can we have some truth in inviting standards, please?

The film's producer had planned to attend but yesterday's snow had thwarted that, so we got right down to the film which began with a host of record collectors recalling the first album they owned, typically bought when they were in elementary school.

Creedence Clearwater Revivals' "Pendulum." The Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour." Grand Funk Railroad's "An American Band." Kiss' "Alive."

Several of the interviewees said that while their parents had been music lovers, their taste had run more to "hippie" music, so once these guys began bringing home hard rock and metal, a musical line in the sand had been drawn between generations.

Apparently no Mom was supportive of her son listening to Iron Maiden.

I could relate when one guy said he'd play a favorite 45 for fifty times in a row. No one who had 45s hasn't been guilty of that.

Another recalled his awe when he first heard Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. "You can do that and put it on a record? That blew me away," was his takeaway.

Several mentioned the thrill and uncertainty of taking a chance buying an album without knowing the band or anything about the record. That's a distinct thrill few millennials could even imagine in a music world so saturated by hype.

Everyone of a certain age related to the guy who said that he still had all his really good record finds, "Except all the really good stuff my ex-girlfriends stole." I know I lost more than a few great albums to breakups and poorly separated record collections.

One guy had a fascinating collection of civil rights-related records, stuff by Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, Bobby Seale and even Aretha's preacher father, Reverend C.L. Franklin. Who knew activists made albums?

It was too bad the producer hadn't made it because there could have been some terrific post-screening discussion had he been there.

The documentary had been unexpectedly compelling. When a friend called not long before I left to see it, I'd shared what I was going to see.

He was amazed. "You mean record collecting has already gone out of style and come back in enough that it's worthy of a documentary?" I could just imagine him shaking his head through the telephone line and he's got one of the biggest and best record collections I know (all original, of course).

Walking out of Black Iris, the filmmaker I'd had dinner with last week asked where I was off to, assuming correctly that my night wasn't over. My second stop was Savory Grain to see Shinola Brown play.

I had no idea about this band beyond that I knew the sax player and the invitation had indicated new and old soul music was their metier. It sounded plenty good to me.

Inside, I snagged a bar stool only to hear my name called and spot a friend at my side. He'd just come from seeing "5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche" at Richmond Triangle Players and was having a post-play drink with a friend.

According to him, I had to join them.

This was a surprise. I certainly hadn't expected company, just music. But his friend was delightful, they had stools right in front of the band and why the hell not?

The funny part is, I'd just invoked his name last night when talking to a friend about renting out her house during the bike race. I knew he'd done it and told her to talk to him. It was as if I'd conjured him up.

He and his friend told me about the play, about how he'd been called up on stage to eat quiche and how much fun he'd had. I heard about his recent engagement and how he worries people will think they're moving too quickly. I learned that Savory Grain is his neighborhood bar, his go-to place because he can walk home.

At one point, I ran my hand through my hair and both he and his friend reached over and did the same to me repeatedly. "I love your hair. It's so '80s," she raved. Exactly what I'm shooting for - Pet Shop Boys-era hair.

Shinola Brown turned out to be a scaled down version of the Hi Steps, a favorite local R & B cover band I've seen numerous times. With just five members, they took on songs as diverse as "You Really Got a Hold On Me" and "Something," all well-executed due to the guitarist and drummer both having great voices.

My friend pointed out that he'd made the draperies framing the alcove where the band was playing. His friend pointed out that she was the one who'd taught him to sew. I volunteered that I sew and we marveled at being three people who sew in a 21st century world where so few do.

There wound up being other friends at the bar. The bartender I know from storytelling and the trumpet player and his wife I'd just seen at the VCU game and Mardi Gras show. For someone who'd expected to listen to soul music alone, it had turned into a surprisingly social evening.

Late in, one of the bartender shrugged on a blazer and paused in front of us. "Where do you think you're going?" my friend's friend asked between seat dancing to Otis Redding.

"Home to f*ck my wife and go to sleep," he replied matter-of-factly.

"In that velveteen jacket?" she asked, invoking her fabric knowledge. The hysterical part of that is I'd just been thinking how much his blazer reminded me of one I'd sewn for my boyfriend back in college, which had been burgundy velveteen.

"Velveteen?" he yelled, laughing loudly, clapping his hands in delight and clearly having no idea that velveteen blazers were a thing.

Sure were. Just like record collections made up of bands you took a chance on. Endlessly picking up the needle and dropping it back on the same song.

And we were never holding back or worried that 
time would come to an end
We were always hoping that, looking back
You could always rely on a friend
Cause we were never being boring
We were never being bored

And I'm not saying he stole it, but when my relationship ended with that velveteen blazer-wearing boyfriend, my copy of Badfinger's "No Dice" disappeared right along with him.

Talk about unexpected, you could do that? That blew me away.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Devil in Me

The green fairy was calling my name but I didn't want to seem easy.

As it was, I'd already been easy enough, dancing with a stranger on Broad Street today. Navigating the snowy sidewalk near Ghostprint Gallery and Lift Coffee Shop, I spied a man approaching me.

Just as we got in front of Lift, we both caught the soundtrack from inside: Martha Reeves and the Vandellas belting out (Love is Like a) Heat Wave.

But that doesn't mean it has me amazed
I don't know what to do, my head's in a haze

Fluidly, he began to dance right in front of me, daring me to dance with him on the sidewalk.To "Heat Wave"? You know I did.

So even though the green fairy had been on my mind since yesterday's talk with a curator about French painting, I elected to delay gratification. Temporarily anyway.

Arriving at the VMFA, I spotted a guy making the first ball for a snowman with his bare hands on the wide front lawn. Nearby, another snowman stood fully formed, a testament to someone with gloves and more sense. When I mentioned it to the guard inside, she just shook her head and observed, "Young and stupid."

Inside, I found a nearly empty museum, a desolate landscape. Surely the snow hadn't scared off the museum's usual Thursday night masses? Oh, but it had.

Upstairs in the print gallery to see "Felix Bracquemond: Impressionist Innovator," I joked with the security guard about the absence of humans.

"Maybe they're waiting to take their cue from each other," he guessed. "Maybe they're coming later." Maybe.

All I knew was I couldn't complain having the galleries to myself to linger over Bracquemond's exquisite engravings.

For an artist whose name was unknown to me, Bracquemond turned out to be a major player in the Impressionist scene. He'd been invited by Degas to exhibit in the Impressionist salon of 1874.

I found myself totally captivated by his "Gallery of Handsome Men," a series of engravings depicting well-known poets, singers and photographers (all with beards, all very hipster-like) of the era.

Highly surprising was his foray into the decorative arts with the Rousseau dinner service, a collection of dishes (plates, bowls, tureens) he'd designed. They'd been so popular, they'd been continuously reissued until the middle of the 20th century.

But perhaps the most unlikely link to the Impressionists came with his wife, Marie, a painter (and pupil of classicist Ingres) in the style of Morrisot and Cassatt, who also submitted work to the Impressionists' exhibitions.

A woman I'd never even heard of. Art history education fail.

There was a series of etchings after major painters - Delacroix, Rousseau, Courbet - and an obvious reverence for Rembrandt with a series of prints done in various states with changes in lighting and detail.

An altogether fabulous show of Impressionist prints not to be missed.

Coming back down the staircase, I was met with a smiling man who didn't begin dancing, but instead asked me, "How was your event?"

I returned his smile and said I hadn't been at an event, I'd been to see the Bracquemond show.

"I work here and I was upstairs having a drink to celebrate the Bracquemond show," he said. Worth raising a glass to, I know.

When he asked where I was off to next, I said Hotel X, the band playing in Best Cafe. Conveniently, he was headed there, too, so we walked on together.

Once there, I borrowed a chair from a table whose occupants weren't using it and settled back for Hotel X's unique blend of Afro-beat, jazz, rock, pop and world music.

Glancing outside, I saw that the Chiluhly "Red Reeds" had been brought in for the winter, a  good thing considering that the reflecting pool was completely under snow. Meanwhile, the sculpture garden was surprisingly busy with couples walking through the snowy landscape.

Having experienced them before, I knew I enjoyed  Hotel X for their musicianship (always lots of musicians in the audience), the genre-crossing sound (is that rock?...they're pretty jazzy, aren't they?...what's that groove?), the way they inspire women in shawls to do that crazy butterfly-catching dancing and men to do that sideline air-guitar playing thing that they do.

By then, the place was filling up enough that my presence was no longer necessary, so I got myself upstairs to Amuse where a lone couple was holding down the bar. I took the opposite end.

Wasting no time, I informed the sunny bartender that in my opinion, they needed to bring back the absinthe drip for the upcoming French "Art of the Flower" exhibit. As it happens, she was already working on a cocktail list featuring absinthe.

More importantly, she got busy making me an absinthe drip while I considered the menu. With a bit of prodding from her, I opted for the mussels and Sausagecraft sausage in white wine, garlic and lemon broth, a reliable bowl of savory warmth, a worthy pairing with the distinctive buzz of absinthe.

Delivering it, she commented on my very French (or, as she put it, "mucho Francais") food and drink combo, something that had already occurred to me. It was an evening for all things French.

Speaking of, I was interested to hear about the "green hour" Amuse is planning to coincide with the new exhibit, a charming way to introduce the green fairy to the uninitiated before they tour the show.

Before long, a familiar face appeared to join me with a glass of wine in hand with which to toast my second absinthe and initiate a discussion of luck, feminism and California living. On everyone's mind is whether or not they can rent out their places during the bike races this September, something I know many friends are doing.

The bartender said she'd considered renting her house and going to the beach for that week, but thought it might be more prudent to stay in town and wait on all the tourists here for the race. Not to mention all those cute, fit biker guys.

I can assure you I'll be staying in town for not only the view but the attendant fun and that includes the absinthe drip.

Rumor has it that it's not just for the easy anymore.

Out on This Town

He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking. ~ Leo Tolstoy "Anna Karenina"

Because that's what girlfriends do, they discuss the language (or absence) of romance when they meet for dinner. She got to the Roosevelt first and I joined her at the bar, bemoaning the fact that it had been far too long since we last met up.

She took one look at my skirt and said, "You are wearing two pairs of tights, right?" Fleece leggings under tights, yes, ma'am. A good friend checks to be sure.

Scanning the wine list, we sought something that neither of us had ever had before, deciding on the 2011 Stinson Vineyards Tannat. Although I'd visited the winery in January two years ago, the Tannat had not yet been available, although what had stuck with me was that winemaker extraordinaire Gabriele Rausse had planted the first vines there 40 years earlier.

It was a big wine, with a nose of blueberry and a peppery finish, a fine choice to sip as we got caught up amid the clamor and bustle of a busy dining room on a cold night.

While it had been a while since I've eaten at the Roosevelt, it didn't take many bites of my arugula salad to remind me what I'd been missing. Topped with fennel, beets, country ham, bleu cheese and buttermilk dressing, the abundant salad kept me busy while my friend shared gossip, cold weather woes and fashion secrets.

She had on a fabulous fashion statement of a necklace, something I wouldn't even attempt, and I envied her ability to pull it off so well.

While she went with the bone-in Berkshire pork chop (sharing a few heavenly bites with me), I chose local lamb neck ragout over fregola with pickled onion and mint. On a chilly night, the earthy lamb over nutty pasta made for a hearty, comforting dish, just what the Roosevelt does best.

When I inquired of the bartender where he'd eaten well lately, his response was, "I had a religious experience at Metzger last week." While I'd fallen hard for the liverwurst, his downfall had been the lamb three ways (because who can resist lamb belly?) which was still haunting his dreams.

At the end of the bar, a couple seemed to be struggling with conversation. Only after they left did we learn that they'd been on a Tinder date, one hindered by him arriving totally drunk and then having four rounds. This had so unhinged the girl that she'd gotten testy, accusing a server who was staring into space of ogling her.

Whoever thought that swiping right was a good way to begin a relationship should have seen the look on the faces of these two as they struggled through a pseudo-date. Such a waste of time.

Not so our get-together, where we chatted about our devotion to John Currence, our indifference to Elvis and our latest cooking accomplishments (my ragout, her paprikash). There aren't many women I discuss cooking with, but she's one.

Three hours in, she began to fade, no doubt attributable to an early morning wake-up call, causing her to push the last of the bottle of Tannat in my direction before heading home.

So what am I going to do with the end of a bottle and no friend? Oh, please. It took about five minutes for a guy to come in and sit down at the bar near me before I had fresh conversation.

After asking about spirits, he said, "Nobody has Chivas in this town," but was seduced anyway into trying Virginia Highland malt whiskey by the savvy bartender. But I had all the information I needed to start talking.

His reference to "this town" meant he wasn't from around here, so where did he live, I wanted to know. Shanghai, it turns out, but he's here on vacation (and escaping Chinese New Year) visiting his parents. Within moments, his father showed up after parking the car.

Dad wasted no time in extending his hand and introducing himself, unlike his son, and he turned out to be a delightful fellow.They'd just come from Dutch & Co, so we discussed food for a bit - Edo's, Lehja, Nora Lebanese - during which he let slip that he was in the music business.

Opening #2. How so? Turns out his career had consisted of making the percussion devices that strike things such as drums and xylophones. He grabbed a long cocktail mixer to demonstrate the kind of sticks and mallets he makes.

Coincidentally, at the table behind us was big band leader Samson Trinh from whom my new friend had taken ukulele lessons. It's a small world in Richmond.

Along about then, the bartender looks at the visitors, raises an eyebrow and asks, "Is she bothering you gentlemen?"

"Yes, she's bothering me and no, don't make her stop," he responded, extending our conversation to my work, my neighborhood and my history. His son sat there, apparently bored by us, saying little, although he admitted to liking the Virginia Highland.

By the time I finished my wine, they'd finished their whiskeys and another satisfying night begun with a friend had ended in the hands of a stranger. As I left, the kitchen guys smoking on the porch outside gave me one last laugh before heading into the Church Hill night.

Language wins every time. Romantic language, even better.

She wasn't doing a thing that I could see, except standing there leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together.~
J.D. Salinger "A Girl I Knew"

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

You Read That Right

You miss something the first time around, you go back and catch it later.

Meaning I finally got to see Scorsese's "Mean Streets" not just at the theater, but on 35 mm thanks to VCU Cinematheque.

I arrived in time to get a great seat and spent the time waiting reading an article in the Washington Post (physical copy) entitled, "Why Digital Natives Prefer Reading in Print. Yes, You Read That Right," while all around me, I saw not a single millennial reading on anything other than a device.

But apparently it's been researched and the resulting evidence compiled in a book proving what anyone over the age of 40 already knew: people who read online skim, are easily distracted (ooh, a Facebook message!) and don't comprehend what they read as well as they do when reading print.

Tell me something I didn't already know.

The theater was especially crowded tonight and I had to think that was because Scorsese's first major film was on the bill. That said, I saw at least 8 or 10 people walk out mid-film.

Naturally, I knew next to nothing about the story, although even I was savvy enough to recognize dozens of things directors have stolen from this movie and used repeatedly over the years. It was even clearer how many of Scorsese's bag of tricks had their seeds in this film about the neighborhood where he grew up.

And of course there were all those fabulous 1973 details: mailboxes that were still red and blue, bars that didn't serve tequila, cops smoking on the street, chefs smoking in the kitchen.

Italian restaurants with pictures of JFK, RFK and the Pope on the walls. Every man wore a watch and carried a handkerchief (handy when they wanted to sit down on a tombstone in a graveyard). Slurs were thrown at blacks, Jews and women with the casual nature of a different time.

As for the cinematography, elements of red ran throughout the entire film, punctuating the bars, restaurants and streets of the city, an echo perhaps of all the blood.

After having seen "Taxi Driver" for the first time a few years ago, I knew to expect an even younger DeNiro and he was, all angles and youthful coiled energy, but I was totally unprepared for how freaking young Harvey Keitel looked. He would have been 34 at the time and his face and abs were as chiseled as a model's. I don't remember that Harvey at all.

Another big surprise was all that '50s and '60s girl group music that underpinned such a gritty story. I suppose I'd been expecting '70s music which wouldn't have offered nearly the contrast that oldies did.

Now that I've seen it, I'd guess that the reason I didn't see it back when it came out was because of a perception that it was violent (which it was) and dominated by men's stories (ditto), but I can finally overlook all that to place it in the context of the time.

Once again, the film professor who usually steers these screenings was absent, meaning no thoughtful discussion afterwards, something I would have enjoyed except I didn't have time for it tonight. I didn't want to have to choose between film dissection and music legend and fortunately, I didn't have to.

I made it to Black Iris a few minutes before the Ar-Kaics got started. When I first saw them nearly two years ago at Steady Sounds, they'd been a young trio who made a lot of noise with three chords. Since, they've become a quartet who make a lot of noise with three chords and short song titles (either about the pleasure of love or the pain), but are noticeably tighter these days.

They sometimes lacked in between-song banter, as in, "This is a little song about getting my way. It's called "Getting My Way."  Or, the more humorous, "This song is called "I Don't Need Your Love" and it was on our first 45 so many years ago. It still holds up well."

"So" is a relative term here.

After their scream-filled rambunctious set, I ran into a friend who was more than happy to dive into discussion of "Mean Streets," a film he'd seen in a film class and been strongly impressed by.

Since I could have run into any number of friends who barely recalled it or hadn't formed such well-considered opinions about its place in the Scorsese canon, I felt fortunate that he was the one there.

And of course he was there. Like me, he knew enough to want to see Chain and the Gang, the latest project of D.C.'s Ian Svenonius, he of Nation of Ulysses and The Make-Up.

A while back, I'd seen Ian do a wide-ranging talk at Candela Gallery about his latest book about breaking into the music world, followed by a seance. He'd bemoaned the absence of candles.

Naturally I was curious to hear such a man's music, described by some as "crime rock." Hilarious.

Appropriately, he  was dressed in a shiny suit and skinny tie with female guitarist (who'd come down on Amtrak today) and bassist and a talented drummer anchoring it all. Like any good rock star, he shook his dark curly hair a lot, jumped off the low stage into the crowd to sing and dropped to his knees as appropriate.

And, you gotta love it, they began with the band's theme song.

He instructed us to keep tonight a secret, "Don't text anyone, don't call anyone about what's happening here. It's our little secret."

That said, he sang a sarcastic rant about our freedoms- press, speech - and another crowd-pleaser called "Mum's the Word" that had people singing and dancing along.

Lyrics aside, the basic garage music itself wasn't difficult, with steady drumming and solid bass lines meant to keep everyone grooving in place against each other. Like a whirling dervish, he never stopped moving either, punctuating some songs with howls that had him bent over backward and screeching them to the ceiling.

Favorite song lyric: "The logic of night," a subject about which I might know something.

The banged bassist joined him on certain songs, adding her distinctive voice to lyrics meant to be mindful but also move your behind. There's no complacency when Ian Svenonius is at the helm.

By the end of their set, he looked mighty sweaty under all that hair and encased in a totally synthetic suit, but the band obligingly came back for a one-song encore to finish off the night.

Since I didn't catch any live '50s and '60s garage rock (although some guitar riffs sounded positively Monkees-like), tonight's show had given me a glimpse of what I'd missed.

Unlike the film, no discussion was called for afterwards. Removing our hot bodies to the cold sidewalk was more than enough to wind down.

Friend and I hugged in the middle of Broad Street and when we lived through that, went our separate ways.

That's the logic of the night.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Away We Go

Sometimes it's good to put Richmond in the rear view mirror for a couple of days.

The trip began in the center of the universe at the new Jake's Place in Ashland. Located in what was built in the 1920s as an auto garage and a decade ago was a gas station, the little restaurant was plenty busy and already out of pulled pork when we got there, the owner recommending brisket instead. They're already planning to buy a bigger smoker to keep up.

Listening to the Sly and the Family Stone Pandora station driving up toward Culpeper, Lake Anna and its tributaries were frozen in every direction. Boat slips where I've seen colorful kayaks in past years were noticeably empty next to the iced-over water. It was a landscape of silver and white.

At Old House Vineyards, the tasting room was in an 1890 house, making it not even as old as the house I live in (1876), but with places to sit and enjoy wine in many of the Victorian-looking rooms.

Our pourer, an affable former mid-westerner, told us he used to commute to D.C. two and a half hours each way to live there. It would take more wine than they could make to get me to agree to that horrific commute.

A drive to the Marriott Ranch followed, where we met some guests from Maryland and enjoyed welcoming wine and cheese (although not Virginia wine to my surprise, given the ranch's location in wine country) - after changing the music from Mahler to vintage R & B - in the piano room of the manor house before setting out for dinner.

A helpful valet at the Inn at Little Washington in the blink-and-you-miss-it town of Washington helped us locate Tula's off Main, a quaint restaurant nearby with a window table waiting for us.

I don't know how the meal could have kicked off more beautifully than with Scharffenberger Brut Rose and butter-poached lobster and avocado in Dijon dill cream sauce.  My second course was Tasso ham and Brie crepes with creole mustard aioli and more of those lovely pink bubbles, with chocolate coconut cake for dessert.

Some of my favorite tastes in the world were contained in that one meal.

We somehow managed to be the last diners of the evening and walking out, saw that the staff had gathered to watch the Oscars at the bar.

I was a little curious myself this year since for a change I'd seen almost all of the nominees and even the animated shorts, so once back at the ranch, we opened a bottle of Old House Vidal Blanc and joined another couple in the big living room to watch.

It's probably the first time in decades I've seen the awards, but never let it be said I'm predictable.

After a night sleeping with a fire in the bedroom's fireplace (possibly a first for me since I can't recall doing it before), we began the day with a three-course breakfast in the sunny yellow dining room downstairs. Highlights: blueberry scones, asparagus and goat cheese omelets and perfectly cooked grits. A view of snow-covered horse trails didn't hurt, either.

Fully fortified, it was on to Fox Meadow Winery located at the top of a mountain in Linden and boasting a view of (count 'em) seven mountain lines.

There was still some haze, so I only counted five, but the owner assured me on a clear day I'd  see more.

He turned out to be a hoot. A fortunate man who'd gotten into the right industry at the right moment (the '70s on, working for a company that built the machines that make microchips), he seemed to be enjoying the winery life.

Discussing the recent legal mess with our last governor, he said that there used to be a photo of the governor hanging in the tasting room and, "Then one day it was gone." Funny how disgrace will do that.

The takeaway bottle was the 2010 Le Renard Rouge, a Meritage-style blend described as "rich, elegant, savvy and suave" (or is that just the ideal man?) and a fine example of a Virginia wine that could impress skeptics.

And because this was a weekend devoted to the grape, then it was onto a big wine tasting in Winchester. There I ran into friends and restaurant types from Acacia, Secco and Metzger and sipped through sparklers, Chablis, Sancerre and Roses and that's just what I recall.

The food  is reliably good at this shindig and I didn't hesitate to partake of oysters from New Brunswick, Alaska, Washington, Maine and Massachusetts before moving on to larger prey. Wild boar taco bites were among the tastiest thing I've put in my mouth in recent memory.

All that sipping required a nap at the historic George Washington Hotel in Winchester, where we arrived behind a busload of men from Pennsylvania who'd come down to tour a factory. But of course, plenty of the wine extravaganza people were also staying at the hotel, making for an interesting mix of wine geeks and plant workers.

Walking through the downtown mall looking for a restaurant for dinner, we decided on the Village Square, attracted to its dim interior on a night hovering at 12 degrees (they'd also gotten snow two days before).

Once inside, it was a different story with a large party (complete with a squawking baby) celebrating a birthday off the main dining room and a woman named Bambi with a voice that could cut glass holding forth non-stop from the lounge area nearby. The kind of person who, unasked, talks loudly to strangers about herself and her love of apple crisp.

It got better, though, as people kept arriving, many of whom I recognized from the wine tasting. It's funny how strangers can seem so familiar simply because you've spent the afternoon tasting ridiculous amounts of wine next to each other.

Add in bone-warming spicy chicken and wild rice soup and killer pot roast with exactly the right fat-to-meat ratio (and once Bambi left) and it turned out to be a satisfying and pleasurable meal.

Once back at the hotel, we joined the buzzing crowd at the bar and here were even more familiar faces from earlier. No doubt we'd not been the only ones who'd done a disco nap after the event and were now ready to have a nightcap or two.

But wine-weary at this point, many were drinking beer and cocktails and since I do neither, I inquired what tequilas they had.

"Patron, Cuervo and Suaza 901," she informed me, as I sat in a cushy armchair with a view of the theater of the bar crowd laid out in front of me. Raising an eyebrow, she said, "The 901 is Justin Timberlake's favorite."

How could I possibly consider not drinking JT's fave, even if my server had pointed out that just the smell of tequila made her want to throw up?

For the record, I've never had a problem with Sauza, although there are often better priced tequilas like Cazadores or Espolon, but what the hell? How often am I going to be in Winchester, home to the Shenandoah Apple Blossom festival, being offered Justin Timberlake's favorite tequila?

Maybe this was my chance to bring sexy back to Winchester.

Smoother than it had any right to be (but also triple distilled), I had more than one as we watched the goings-on at the bar. A woman who looked like Donatella Versace put the moves on a local man, who escorted her out of the bar and returned later alone.

The wine guys on the facing couches debated whether they'd be getting up today at 8 or 11, but kept on drinking as if 11:00 had been decided upon. It hadn't and that could hurt come morning.

An older gentleman came in with a date and then proceeded to regale the bar with stories about his former girlfriend from Guam and the annual Guam picnic they attended in D.C. every year. His present company looked uninterested in all this.

Since the wine contingent was staying at the hotel, people were doing some industrial strength drinking and more than a few people looked unsteady when they finally left for upstairs. Because I was sitting at the front of the room nearest the doors, many tipsy guests waved or said something to me on the way out.

When one guy mumbled something, I told him to have a good night. "I already did," he slurred.

Me, too. Credit goes to Justin Timberlake and being out of Richmond.