Friday, October 31, 2014

From the Exquisite to the Exuberant

The entire evening was brought to me by the city's department of multicultural affairs. If we had one.

But it might as well have been because it began with the Scott Clark 4tet at VCU's Singelton Center performing the premiere of Scott's composition, "Bury My Heart."

And the drums relive what once was...

I'd first heard part of the piece back in January 2013 at a show at For Instance Gallery. Then Scott had said he'd been so moved, first by reading Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" and then when he was touring the country with Matthew White and seeing the places in the book, that he'd begun writing music about it all.

That germ of an idea had continued to grow until it was now a full blown composition with separate movements and before beginning, he specifically asked the audience to hold their applause until the end.

I knew I had the perfect seat when I sat down because I was right behind Doug Richards, the man who shaped VCU's Jazz Studies program. The 4tet came out nattily attired, Scott unbuttoned his suit jacket and the piece took off.

In a perfect world, I would have the vocabulary to describe what I heard as Scott and his group - Bob on trumpet, Jason on sax and Cameron on bass - played this dynamic piece of moving music, but I don't.

Through the emotional music you heard the spirit of Native American culture and the violence against them. Scott's drumming had a rhythmic urgency that played out in his handling of the brushes and mallets against every part of the drums possible.

It was both a celebration of and a lament for Scott's native American ancestry and I doubt anyone in the room will soon forget what they heard tonight.

Standing ovation well deserved.

Then for something completely different and just as multi-cultural, I went to see a nine-piece Japanese band, Osaka Monaurail, do their tribute to the music of James Brown.

And lest you think they're a flash in the pan, they've been doing this for 22 years, touring Asia and Europe. This is their first American tour.

Plenty of people had come out to see this oddity, so I had the chance to chat with a former neighbor, a DJ, a guitarist, the record store owner and the woman I'd met at Amuse who keeps showing up everywhere I go.

Even better, there were lots of people at Strange Matter for the first time, including my old neighbor who said she hadn't been in this building since the '70s.

The band strode through the crowd in matching shiny black suits, took the stage and proceeded to show us how Japan has been doing JB for two decades.

It was pretty impressive. Whether because they're Japanese (one friend's theory) or because of their long time playing together, they were all crack musicians and really, really tight.

As expected (and hoped for) there was a whole lot of synchronized dancing onstage, not to mention a lot of trumpet twirling between notes.

"We're Osaka Monaurail and there will be no Japanese music tonight!" the lead singer promised. "You wouldn't like it if we played it! Or would you?" The crowd wanted it, he obliged off key and they went back to what they do best.

The audience went back to dancing. I was up against the bar with all the tall people in front of me, but I managed anyway.

It wasn't all James Brown stuff, either, because they did "Get Ready" and probably other stuff I should have recognized and didn't. Mostly it was just great fun, high energy and dancable as it could be.

"Twenty two years, still working hard, still splitting my pants," the lead singer shouted before doing the classic "Funky Chicken" and whipping the crowd into a frenzy.

Somewhere the godfather of soul had to be smiling down on Richmond at that. And probably thinking, what in the hell?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Pink Roses and Moose Meatloaf

I didn't know it at the time, but the deer was a sign.

Since I had an interview to do on the Northern Neck mid-afternoon, I invited myself to my parents' temporary cottage for lunch beforehand.

Driving up the winding road toward the Moose Lodge in Litwalton where the three-legged dog used to live, I crested a hill and there, standing in the middle of the road, was a deer. And a deer with a lot of attitude; she was staring at me as if I were the one on her territory.

It wasn't like she was caught in headlights because it was broad daylight, sunny and blue skies.

I slowed, eventually stopping and we faced each other down for a few seconds before she deigned to slowly cross the road and scamper off into the woods.

After eating lunch, my Dad took me down to their real house, still in the throes of being reconstructed after a tree fell into it in May. Proudly, he showed off new ceilings, a column that's been added to the living room to support the library floor upstairs and the new windows and sills that replaced the ones damaged by the tree.

Moving from the kitchen to the family room, we were startled when the master carpenter who's acting as foreman appeared out of nowhere to greet us. As my Dad introduced me, I heard the hesitation when he said, "This is my...daughter," tactfully leaving out the "oldest" adjective.

Richard and I shook hands and he told me what a great guy my Dad was and what a great house it was, asking if it was where I'd been born. No, I explained, my parents had raised me and my six sisters in a house a third the size and only moved to bigger digs once we all left home. My Dad rolled his eyes.

But Richard chuckled and proceeded to one up me, saying that he'd been raised in Maine in a house that only had plumbing to the kitchen sink. In order to use the bathroom, you had to go outside - even in the snow - to his Dad's workshop boiler room. Okay, that topped my childhood woe by a mile.

Before I left, I picked a big pink rose blooming just off the screened porch to take back to Mom and Richard observed, "That's a New Dawn rose, an old heirloom variety before they bred all the scent out of them. It's beautiful."

I guess there's lots of time to read garden catalogs when you grow up in Maine.

After saying so long to the parentals, I headed on to my interview of a boisterous college professor who talked to me about baseball, come heres and come back heres.

Work over for the day, I decided a glass of wine was in order and only had to drive a mile and a half to Good Luck cellars. There was only one SUV in the parking lot, but walking up the wide front steps to the tasting room, I spotted a trio enjoying their wine at a table on the porch.

Nice day for a glass outside, I commented. "Go get a bottle and join us!" one of them called out.

Inside, I got a glass of Rip Rap Rose and as he poured it, the winery guy told me I should go join the gents outside. "They came here to hunt deer with bows but the owners aren't here to give permission, so they're having some wine. They'd probably enjoys some female company."

Ah, so that accounted for their attire. I'd given them such a quick glance, I'd assumed they were military but apparently they were in camouflage to hunt.

Outside, the three men drinking Cabernet Sauvignon welcomed me to their table and told me what I already knew: that their hopes of afternoon hunting had been dashed. Assuring them that they looked very huntsmen like anyway, one informed me he was really a potter. The stoneware wine coolers inside were his, in fact.

Another of the guys was retired military, originally from Brooklyn. He prides himself on answering people who inquire if he's from NYC, "No, I'm from Brooklyn. That's different."

The third guy was a scientist eager to discuss Wallop's Island and how close to it they'd hunted.

As we sat there for the next hour chatting, I found out they've been hunting a lot of places together annually for decades. Like Jefferson Vineyards in Charlottesville, which they've hunted for 30 years. They've only hunted Good Luck a couple of years by comparison.

Then there's their annual trip to Maine to hunt moose which the scientist had missed this year because of a wedding in Italy, where, he said, they had a ten-course meal that included everything that swam, flew or crawled through Tuscany. My kind of meal.

The potter showed me a brochure about his studio and another about the upcoming "Made in Matthews" open studio tour next month, the other two razzing him for doing business.

I have to say, for strangers and hunters, they were smart and funny guys and at one point, one said, "At least now you'll know that not all hunters are rednecks."

When I asked what their first concerts were, the potter was hesitant to share and the others assumed it was because he'd be embarrassed. Brooklyn's first had been Murray the K and the Shirelles in Brooklyn back in the '50s.

The scientist's had been Bob Zimmerman in '63, the kind of show a music lover could keep bragging rights on for a lifetime. The potters's first had been the Kingston trio in '65.

As the sun continued to sink lower over the vineyards, the guys agreed that hunting wasn't going to happen today and finished their bottle of wine.

"Oh, well, I've got venison chili in the refrigerator," the scientist consoled himself. "I'm going home to have moose meatloaf from the freezer,"  Brooklyn said. I thanked them for the conversation and as they got up to leave, the potter said, "Just one more thing. Take off your sunglasses so I can see your eyes."

Boring brown, but I probably didn't need them anymore at that point in the day anyway.

After they left, I finished up my Rose alone watching the winery hounds chase each other around in the nearest vineyard. The guy inside told me about an upcoming oyster crawl and sent me on my way.

Then it was back across the river where the sun laid out a shimmering streak of gold connecting it to the water under the bridge with just a couple of smaller fishing boats moving through it.

What have we gleaned today? I can't seem to have a bad day on the northern neck. And not everyone who hunts is a redneck.

What are we wondering? What moose meatloaf tastes like.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Haunted 'Hood

'Tis the season for horror movies, none better than the one considered the first ever made.

Silent Music Revival was showing the 1920 classic, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," with improvised musical accompaniment by Bermuda Triangles, the only quartet I know of with three drummers and a sax player.

Interestingly enough, I'd already seen the film at a Silent Music Revival years ago as well as having seen Bermuda Triangles perform many times, including at a SMR when "Poor Mrs. Jones" was shown back in 2010.

Even so, the combo of the crazy doctor and the pulsing drums was just too tempting, perhaps all the more so since it was at Gallery 5 a few blocks from my house.

With a history of going to the SMR that dates back to 2007, I know the drill: it starts at 8:00 sharp so don't be late. Accordingly, I stopped by Gallery 5 about 7:20 to deposit my bag on a chair in the front row, knowing full well that the place was going to be filled to overflowing tonight.

Seat procured, I chatted with Jameson and Laney who put on the event, all of us asking how it was possible that we'd not seen each other in months. Our conclusion? There are so many things to do on any given night these days that friends can be scattered all over town at multiple places.

It's a great problem to have, we agreed.

Promising I'd be back, I wandered down the street to Tarrant's back door, planning to score a big slice of pizza for dinner. Approaching the back door, I saw a trio of kitchen employees on a smoke break, so bored that they chatted me up on my way in.

"How's your night going so far?" one inquired. Can't complain.

Looking at the chalkboard, I revised my pizza plan and ordered a couple of fish tacos instead. Waiting for them to be made, I overheard the counter girl tell one of the servers that she was letting her go because they were so slow tonight ("Already?" the cut staffer asked). Neither had any idea why the entire week has been deadly. Umm, summer-like weather perhaps?

Dinner in hand, I returned to G5 and my front row seat. Tucking into the tacos, I was pleasantly surprised to find each filled with a tortilla-length piece of grilled mahi mahi under a flurry of corn relish and guacamole. Tarrant's isn't my thing, but this was a better than expected, inexpensive back door meal.

The place kept filling up with more unfamiliar than familiar faces, but you want new people. Besides, I had plenty of people to talk to.

The friend I'd seen at Monday's show but hadn't spoken to, the world traveler thinking of finally making the leap and buying a house here, a guy from Bread and Puppets, in town from Brooklyn working on Halloween parade puppets (and wearing a fabulous black and gold sweater).

So many people came that the floor became the only seating option and I was gratified to see a guy who'd arrived as early as I had to secure a front row seat offer it up to an older woman on the hard, concrete floor in front of him. Somebody's mother raised him right.

When Jameson introduced the film, he talked about its lasting influence on movies and the horror genre, saying we'd see a lot that influenced Tim Burton. It was even obvious in the crazy, angular sets with shadows as much a part of the scenery as objects.

He also said he'd edited out some of the movie to bring it down to under an hour. Excised had been scenes where they think they've found the murderer but they haven't. "So, nothing that changes the story, but that took them like 16, 17 minutes," he said about an era when everything wasn't quick cuts.

As usual, he'd chosen the absolute perfect band for the movie, with Bermuda Triangles' relentless soundtrack only increasing the tension as the story unfolded and dead bodies began stacking up. Three drummers make for a whole lot of intensity.

When the movie ended, the screen was pulled up so we could finally see the band, who'd been hidden behind it, playing for another few minutes. One musician, Jason, appeared to be running a drumstick against the metal grate of a grill, a small mic held up against it to capture the sound. Crazy.

There really is nothing like seeing a band improvise music for a silent movie as they watch it along with the audience.

Or if there is, it's happening somewhere other than where I am. Now, that doesn't seem very likely.

One Fish, Two FIsh

It might be the best October 28th I ever get.

With a forecast of sunny and 81 (and it actually made it to 84!), I got up resolved to address the last thing on my Fall 2014 to-do list (after having made it to Chatham Vineyards last month): visit Sandbridge for the first time.

As a life-long annual visitor to the Outer Banks, I could never get into the Virginia Beach experience. It just wasn't my thing. But earlier this summer, a loved one had assured me that I'd be happy as a clam at Sandbridge because it had a lot in common with the N.C. shore.

Surely there wasn't going to be another day as ideal for beach-combing this year as today. At least I wasn't going to take a chance on it.

So I packed a bag of essentials for a day at the beach, setting out five minutes after eating breakfast with a handful of past beach vacation mix CDs for my soundtrack. My only stop on the drive down was as a directionally-challenged visitor at the Virginia Beach visitor center to make sure I knew how to get to Sandbridge.

Even so, I didn't hesitate to ask a guy in the car next to me at a traffic light if I was on the right track. You can't miss it, he assured me.

He was right, I couldn't. I found the municipal lot with no problem and joined the mere seven other cars parked in it. Near the back of the lot was a line of tall, white lifeguard stations in off-season storage. Yes, I climbed one.

Doing my best pack animal imitation, I loaded myself up with an umbrella, my beach chair, the bag of supplies and a small cooler and crossed the street to the beach.

A woman was walking toward me nodding approvingly of my day trip supplies. "Can you believe this day?" she asked incredulously. When I told her it was worth driving from Richmond for, she lit up. "Good for you! It'll be worth it!"

I was counting on it.

Since it was fairly breezy, I did my best getting the umbrella in the sand but before I even finished setting up the rest of my camp, a guy walked up and asked, "Can you use some help?" and handed me his stainless steel thermos (I didn't presume what might be in it). "I used to do this a lot as a kid."

As he was working it well into the sand, he shared that he'd seen where a beach umbrella had blown away and killed someone in California. That would ruin my day, I told him. "I think it ruined theirs, too," he said with a grin.

Once he was certain I wouldn't be killing anyone with my shade device, I returned his drink and he walked on down the beach.

I was halfway through my lunch and the latest Rolling Stone when he returned to take stock. Looking at my "Rebuild New Orleans" t-shirt, he asked if I was from NOLA. Nope, I explained that I'd been there the year after Katrina, hadn't bought it then when these t-shirts were everywhere but found it in a thrift store the next year. So it had all worked out.

He praised my foresight in bringing a lunch and asked if I'd be staying on to see the rocket launch tonight. Duh. Could there be a better viewing point than where I sat? "Smart woman," he said and walked on.

After lunch, I did what I usually do after breakfast: left for a good, long walk. I headed north on the beach walking along the water's edge, surprised to find that it wasn't colder. Hell, it's been colder than that in July some years.

I wound up walking a couple of miles north, looking at the houses that lined the shore to get a feel for the area. While it was a huge improvement over Virginia Beach because there were no hi-rises and hotels, just about every single home was a McMansion.

Worst part? I didn't see a single beach house with a screened porch. I guess rich people don't use such things. The most impressive thing I saw was one house that had its windows open. One. Meanwhile, it's so gorgeous I'm out in the ocean up to my waist.

As I was walking back to my campsite, I saw that someone had set up only a few feet from me. Really? There aren't two dozen people on this beach and you're going to put you chair, cooler and three fishing poles within spitting distance of my stuff? Interloper.

Of course I just sat down and took out my book, the one from the ex-cop that I hadn't yet started, while my new neighbor went back and forth between the three lines he had in the water, once pulling in something small and saying, "I thought it was a flounder at first. Dig it!"

It was hard to believe November is four days away as I wiled away the time reading, lounging on a beach towel doing nothing more than listening to the surf and overhearing snippets of people's conversations as they walked the beach.

Eventually I got up and headed south for another walk where I was rewarded with three (small, older) houses with screened porches. By then the tide was well on its way out, leaving a massive sandbar that allowed me to keep going further out without ever getting more than my calves wet.

When I got back, the fisherman offered me something to drink: Gatorade or a PBR, both of which I declined. Suddenly, he spotted something on one of his lines and took off to grab the fishing pole.

All of a sudden, he turned around and yelled to me, "Come quick! Come down here and reel this fish in!" Now why a stranger would presume that I could handle a fishing pole is beyond me, but I was out of my beach chair in a flash and the pole was transferred to my untrained hand.

Like a sensei, he stood nearby coaching me every step of the way. "Keep reeling him in...pull back on the line occasionally...step to your left a bit, he's going this way...that's it, you're doing great...your husband's going to be so proud when you tell him you caught a fish!"

Now don't get me wrong, my Dad was an enthusiastic surf fisherman long before I came along and cut into his leisure time and as my five sisters and I got older, he continued to fish. Some of my sisters joined him, learning the intricacies of bait cutting, throwing and reeling. I was not among them.

My first fishing lesson learned today was that I needed to anchor the pole against my body because this fish was seriously challenging me. I put the end of the rod on my hip bone and hoped that would keep it steady.

Second realization about fishing was how much strength it was taking to hold the pole in my right hand against the moving fish and constant surf. And, honestly, after the first ten minutes, even my left hand was getting fatigued with the constant reeling.

I'd have thought I had a bit more fishing skill in my DNA than was proving to be the case. Sorry, Dad.

After what seemed like eons, I pulled in a great big, wriggling stingray, its tail whipping side to side menacingly. Well, that was a lot of work for nothing.

But my teacher didn't see it that way and quickly pulled the hook out of the stingray's mouth and directed me to get my camera so he could take a picture of me. Although I'd looked for it, I hadn't brought my camera because I couldn't find it. "Well, get your phone," he said.

When I explained that I didn't have a cell phone, his jaw dropped. "Really? You don't have a phone? I mean, that's cool. Really, no phone?"

His solution was to grab his own phone and instruct me to stand, pole in hand, next to my catch. He was pleased as punch that he'd gotten to see someone make their first ever catch, saying over and over again, "That was so great seeing you reel that in!"

But everyone has their talent and when it came time to e-mail the picture to me, he had no clue how to do that. Oh, sure, he knew how to text it to a cell phone, but I had to walk him through the steps to get it sent to me. "There, now you've got proof!" he said, as proudly as if I'd caught something worthwhile.

Hardly surprisingly, he was a local who'd played hooky (ha!) today to fish. He was impressed that I'd driven down from Richmond and understood my distaste to Virginia Beach, saying despite living nearby, he hadn't been in Virginia Beach for 25 years.

"Now this, this place, is a different story," he said, spreading his arms to encompass the wide beach and bright blue ocean and sky. His ten-year old dog, a white-muzzled sweetie who got worried every time her master ventured too far out on the sandbar to cast, looked like she enjoyed it just as much.

When I mentioned I'd be staying for the rocket launch, his face lit up and he thanked me. He'd forgotten about it and immediately began calling friends to tell them to come down and join him for the spectacle.

I tried to go back to reading but apparently reeling in a fish for the first time gets your adrenaline going so I gave up and went down to the ocean, trying to stay out of the way of the several fishermen around me.

It was already after 5 but people were still arriving at the beach despite the sun heading lower in the sky. As I stood in the water on the edge of the sandbar, my shadow was distinct on the relatively placid ocean surface, stretching all the way to the breakers.

As I was marveling at its length, the fisherman came down the beach toward me and when I looked over, he told me to stand still, shooting a picture of me against the blue of the ocean with the golden light of sunset illuminating me from behind.

When I came back up to my chair, he hurried over to assure me that he wasn't a creep who collected pictures of strangers. "The sunlight looked so beautiful and I thought it might be a nice reminder of your day here." Assuming that he wasn't a weirdo, I also sent this one to myself.

I've never known the pleasure of a late October afternoon with ocean water drying on my legs as the sun sets, but I gotta tell you, it's pretty magical. Clearly the salt air and sound of the waves had been just the thing.

As it got close to 6:00, friends of his began arriving (including a guy who used to live in Richmond), many with beers in hand and everyone faced northeast for the rocket launch. When we'd seen nothing by 6:24, someone started hollering that there'd been an explosion and the mellow group on the beach thought it was a joke. Sadly, it wasn't.

I started packing up my stuff, saying good-bye to the people I'd met, giving a chaste hug to the man who'd given me my first fishing experience and making a stop in the PortaPotty to change out of my damp bathing suit.

On the way into Sandbridge earlier, I'd noticed a little place called Margie and Ray's Seafood and my new friend had mentioned it unsolicited as a terrific place to eat. A day on the beach had given me an appetite.

I'd been told that the restaurant had begun its life as a general store and tackle shop on a dirt road in 1964 and become a restaurant in 1997 (with a paved road and everything).

It was bright, it was loud and it was full of locals. Plenty good enough for me.

I took a seat at the bar next to a couple eating fat, steamed shrimp. After ordering fish and chips, I asked the bartender what the fish was (telling him it didn't matter, I was just curious) and he said it was pangasius, a warm water fish from the Gulf. Very tasty, he assured me.

"Pangasius?" the man next to me said quizzically, looking at me and the bartender. "That sounds like a Greek god not a fish!" I suggested that it was the god of fish. Soon the three of us were chatting up a storm about political correctness and Halloween.

The problem was that they always chose "couple costumes" for Halloween parties. Last year they'd gone as Sonny and Cher, but since he's taller, he'd been Cher. Yes, I already liked these people. This year, they'd planned to be a priest and an altar boy but friends were saying that wasn't PC.

We talked about how half the comedians that came out of the '50s, '60s and '70s wouldn't be acceptable today. And how you could make yourself crazy worrying about offending people now.

Oh, and the bartender was right, pangasius was perfectly delicious as was the obscene mound of fries that accompanied it, all of which got dipped into housemade cocktail sauce.

When I finished and asked for my check, the couple offered to buy me a drink and continue our conversation. Much as I hate to turn down perfectly good tequila, I knew it was time for me to hit the road.

There were so many ways a day by myself at the beach could have turned out. Mine couldn't have been better. Sometimes the best thing you can do is take direction from a stranger.

Dig it!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Rocket Replacement

Sometimes the best dates are couple dates, especially music-loving couples.

Once we'd established that we were all going to the same show, and a particularly good one on a Monday night, the only thing left to decide was where to eat beforehand. My suggestion -agreed to immediately -was 821 Cafe.

They were already same side-sitting in a front booth when I walked in, but they'd left me the side with a view of Cary Street, meaning a non-stop parade of students and assorted Oregon Hill regulars. Crazy Nate rode by on his bike twice, either grimacing or smiling, I wasn't sure which.

When it came time to order, my girlfriend got her standard PB & B while I asked for my usual half order of black bean nachos, which apparently sounded so appetizing that her husband ordered the same. Our server made it clear that the kitchen would be much happier if we just split a full order. Easy enough.

While we ate, conversation centered around how the kind of parties you go to in your 20s lose their appeal with time and meeting the right mate. Case in point, their Halloween plans involve other couples and board games, very different from the costumed debauchery they once practiced on All Hallows Eve.

Noticing how dark it was getting and how early it was, we lamented the shortening days. I said that at this point, all I want is to get to winter solstice so the days can start lengthening again. "That's exactly how I feel!" my friend agreed. This country is too far removed from an agrarian society to bother with the nonsense of changing the clocks anymore.

By then it was time for a change of venue.

We met up again at the Camel for a four band bill with Laura Stevenson and the Cans headlining. My girlfriend had put Laura's album as one of her favorites on her end of 2013 list and from what I'd listened to, with good cause.

The show kicked off with Tracy of Positive No thanking us for coming out on a Monday night. "Since the rocket didn't happen due to a stray sailboat, you get bands to listen to instead!" Honestly, I'd take music over rockets most nights.

As many times as I've seen Positive No play, tonight was significant because it was drummer Willis' last show with the band. And while the crowd was still fairly small when they played (it was an unusually early show for the Camel), most of the faces were familiar to the band.

That's probably why practically every song was dedicated to someone in the crowd like Tess, Sadie, Melissa and Ryan.

Tracy also took a moment to warn the other musicians in the room about the soft spot on the stage, likening it to the soft spot on a baby's head and recalling that she once went through a stage floor. "Okay, it was a pallet in the basement, but still..."

Really, it's not hard to imagine her going through a flimsy pallet given the energetic pogoing she does while singing lead. It's all part of a vibrant stage presence.

"I can't believe it's our last song," she said, high-fiving Willis and looking a little sad. For my part, I know his energetic drumming will be sorely missed.

Next came Eli Whitney and the Sound Machine, touring behind their new album "Reasons to Leave," which they characterized as "full of happy songs."

The trio was young, high energy and brief with songs clocking in at about three minutes tops. They even took the glammy Killers' song "Mr. Brightside" and made it hard, fast and fun.

They also looked like they were having a ball up there, the guitarists and bassist trading off lead vocals, both of them hopping around and playing off each other. "Really, we're from Long Island but we moved to Brooklyn. But not to be cool," they claimed.

When their set ended, my girlfriend summed it up perfectly. "It makes me so happy that there are still bands like that so full of energy." She was right, of course. It was young man music of the highest order.

During the break, I heard about my couple date's Aunt Nancy, a colorful-sounding woman who's had four husbands (seems she was big on Christian Mingles for a while), is a terrible but prolific painter and excels at making jello salads.

Fortunately for me, they not only had pictures of her bad art but pictures of Aunt Nancy and pictures of Aunt Nancy's self-portraits, making for a lot of laughter during the break.

Then came Helen Chambers in a green plaid shirt and black skirt, who began by telling us she'd come quite a long way to play guitar and sing "Little Demons." Only after the first song did she explain that she was English, as if we hadn't noticed the accent and lilting warble characteristic of British songbirds.

Written when she was exceedingly hungover, "Kiss the Floorboards" was about a resolution to give up alcohol, one she'd clearly abandoned given the drink at her feet. "But I really meant it when I wrote it!" she said. I thought British singers were required by law to drink.

We noticed that a cluster of guys had formed right in front of the stage, no doubt drawn by her incredible voice, friendly demeanor and short skirt.

She sounded very happy to be touring the U.S., mentioning that she'd had her first root beer today ("It tasted a little medicinal") before singing "Little Blackbirds" with Laura Stevenson coming up to add sublime harmonies on the song.

Sharing that she'd played for her uncle "Veronica Pearl," a song about her grandparents' house being bombed during WW II, she said he'd cried so hard when he heard it that his false teeth had come out. If she were a country singer, I'd say there's a song in that, too.

The crowd grew noticeably larger just before Laura Stevenson and the Cans began playing, as well it should have given the talent on stage. Along with Laura's voice and guitar were a guitarist, bassist, accordionist/keyboard player and even a female drummer, always a treat to see.

From the first notes, their sound was an interesting amalgamation of genres, part folky, a little pop and definitely rock and roll with a crack band to execute. And a whole lot of sad songs, such as the compelling "Runner," a song that thrilled my girlfriend.

Hearing a story on the radio in the band's van today about a woman being tested for Hodgkin's disease after two relatives had it, Laura said she cried at the woman's dilemma of waiting for a diagnosis. "It's kind of like this song, "The Healthy One," except mine's about AIDS." It was sad and beautiful.

It didn't take long to see why my girlfriend had fallen in love with Laura's voice, which while sweet and clear was also powerful and melancholy, particularly on love songs and sad songs, of which there were plenty.

Glancing at the drummer, she observed, "I just realized we're wearing the same outfit," she said of their brown t-shirts and jeans. "You look good!" I found it intriguing to hear so much humor from her between songs since the music leaned toward emotions laid bare.

Songs like the heartbreaking "The Move," for which the band left the stage so it was just her and her guitar. Or "Nervous Wrecks," which she sang with Helen doing harmonizing payback.

The band returned for one last happy song, rocking out as Laura's vocals soared over the heads of the adoring crowd.

What do you do when your couple date finishes with such a stellar band? You thank and hug your girlfriend for all she's worth and tell her to pass it on to her husband.

But you don't get kissed. Some things just aren't meant to happen on couple dates.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

All Along

With my limited budget and insatiable appetite for culture, I'm an unabashed fan of Richmond's free film series.

For the most part, both show foreign and arthouse films that never made it to Richmond, providing a chance to see award-winning and festival quality works on the big screen as they were meant to be seen. The only downside? No buttered popcorn because they're on school property.

The difference is in the audiences and the process. The VCU Cinematheque series at the Grace Street theater is full of film students with a smattering of film-loving adults taking advantage of a well-curated program with an introductory analysis before the film and usually a Q & A afterwards.

University of Richmond's international film series attracts a predominantly gray and white-haired crowd of mostly couples -alums, for all I know, or maybe just near West Enders - providing handouts about the film and a limited bit of information conveyed beforehand orally.

At tonight's screening of "Watchtower" at UR's Ukrop Auditorium in the Robins School of Business (can't you just smell the money?), we were forewarned that the cinematography would be exquisite, the acting as naturalistic as a documentary and that in all likelihood, the child in the film probably belonged to the actress playing the mother.

"I'm not going to give it away, but you'll see," our host said cryptically. "Also, you will write the last scene yourself."

In a scene where a bus driver tells her he used to write poetry in his youth, he goes on to say sagely, "High school, that's the time to write poems...before life gets in the way." Take heed, young poets.

During a scene where the female lead began going into labor, squatting and screaming, the older man in front of me leaned over to his wife and stage-whispered, "Do you think she's going to have a baby?" One man got up and walked out at that point. Obviously, he didn't want to see any babies being birthed realistically.

But I think it was the scene where the woman puts the crying newborn to her breast and it begins to eat that had convinced him that they were related. Perhaps he'd never heard of a wet-nurse.

Much of the film's appeal was how unlike American films it was. No love story or even suggestion of one. A mother who not only shows no interest in her baby but consciously rejects caring for it. Characters who don't smile. No musical soundtrack.

The movie was basically a character study of two people who end up together (in the watchtower of the title where the man is a fire spotter in a ruggedly beautiful area of Turkey) and learn each other's dark secrets, at least until the last scene when all we see is him leaning against the doorway looking pensive and we have no idea if she and the baby have left or if they're downstairs.

On another campus with a very different audience, we'd have chewed over that ending for a good, long while, discussing every possibility, every cinematic clue.

Like a good read, I'll be thinking about this one for a while.

You Know You Need It

It's like when you start craving salads and veggies and you know your body is telling you something.

As I sat in my sunny front room working this afternoon, it was easy to ignore the sounds of people outside enjoying a gorgeous fall day, but it was impossible to ignore something pushing me to go to the VMFA.

Admittedly, it had been far too long since my last visit, so I did what my mind (heart? soul?) directed and changed clothes to go to the museum.

Walking out of my apartment and across the street to my car, a stranger called out, "I like your dress! It looks great on you." Another $3 thrift store find validated.

I found the VMFA fairly crowded with visitors mostly buzzing around the "Forbidden City" outposts, but rather than join them, I headed upstairs to the photography gallery for "Artists as Art: Photographic Portraits."

I was especially impressed with how the show had been curated given that nine female-taken photographs shared the walls with fifteen taken by men. That's an unusually high average for a show, any kind of show.

The exhibit began with soft focus, romantic Pictorialist photographs and moved through to images such as Warhol's Polaroids.

But it was the subjects themselves that drew me in. Alvin Landon Coburn's 1908 photo of William Butler Yeats showed an intense and intelligent man in glasses. He looked like a poet.

Most of the Pictorialist works were so delicately focused in gradations of black, white and gray that they resembled drawings.

With Bernice Abbott's 1928 photograph of James Joyce, the first and last thing that captured my attention was the delicacy of his hands.

Arnold Neuman's image of Edward Hopper was taken on a bench in front of his studio on Cape Cod with his wife Jo a small figure in the background. Neuman had captured the same sort of isolation that Hopper was known for.

You had to smile looking at Robert Frank's photograph of Allen Ginsburg hugging a tree in 1959 or Annie Leibovitz's iconic image of David Byrne in the infamous leaf suit from 1986.

Moving through the gallery, practically every face was an important contributor to the 20th century art world, as were some of the names of the men and women who'd captured them.

Mind, heart and soul fed, I wandered around the corner into the nearly empty Amuse, joining its only three occupants at the bar.

Usually there's a boisterous contingent over in the lounge area's green chairs, but they were conspicuously absent today (Lady Di, where are you?) which meant that I could actually hear the music being played, a rarity at Amuse.

The bartender said brunch had been busy and then apparently everyone except me had left the building for the great outdoors on this magnificent day. Conformity was never my strong suit.

My glass of Montand sparkling brut Rose ("I love it, too! Drink it while you can. It'll be gone soon!" the bartender advises) arrived with a brilliant red flower in it, although when I inquired what it was, she had no idea. It had come from Manakintowne Growers and was sitting in a glass with brilliant fuzzy purple basil flowers, but it was a mystery. In any case, it made a colorful addition to my glass of pink.

Checking out the menu, a necessity since I hadn't been to Amuse in far too long, I spotted something with my name on it: biscuit du jour. Inquiring about today's iteration, I swooned a little.

Housemade biscuits with the last of the season heirloom tomatoes, herb aioli and white Cheddar cheese. The bartender, who'd tasted one this morning, rhapsodized about the combination, saying it even beat last week's five spice variety.  Faster than you can say "I have a biscuit addiction," I ordered some.

I've no idea where the chef is getting heirloom tomatoes when it's almost November, but that's not my concern. Biting into these biscuits was transcendent.

Sweet, juicy tomato slices buried under the freshest tasting herb aioli and melted cheese between a biscuit worthy of my Richmond grandmother and washed down with sparkling Rose. If it could get any better on this Sunday afternoon without being illegal, I don't know how. I was just grateful I was alone so I could eat both.

Looking at my reaction, she gave me a well-deserved "I told you so" and shared that the combination for teh biscuit had come to the pastry chef in a dream.

Now here's my moral dilemma.Was my inner self jolting me to go to the museum to see a finely-executed photography show or had my inner biscuit hound sensed that its needs could be addressed there?

Don't know, don't care. Both were flat out wonderful.

When I went to leave, the bartender reminded me not to make it so long until I come back again.

Not a chance. "Forbidden City" plus dreamy biscuits, you're up next...and soon.

Suck Out All the Marrow of Life

The morning was a roller coaster of emotions ending with tears. How had I forgotten how sad it would be?

Waking up to another gorgeous, warm day, I walked the two miles to Movieland to see "Dead Poets Society," the last in their month-long tribute to Robin Williams and the first one I'd made it to.

As is typical with me, the last time I'd seen the film was when it came out, so 1989.

Not a lot of people showed up at 11 a.m. on Sunday besides three couples and another woman who kept getting up during the movie and leaving.

Other than "carpe diem," I honestly remembered very little of the story beyond Robin Williams being the teacher and inspiring a love of poetry in high school boys.

So I admit I got carried right along with those boys as he expounded on the virtues of non-conformity, taking opportunities as they arise and making the most of every single day. While I like to think that I live my life that way already, it never hurts to be reminded.

And as a poetry lover, it was perfectly lovely to hear snippets of Keats, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Frost, Shelley and Thoreau.  As a fan of Williams' lightening fast humor, it was hilarious to hear lines such as, "I was the intellectual equivalent of a 98-pound weakling. I would go to the beach and people would kick copies of Byron in my face!"

And as far as essential truths go, none are closer to my heart than, "Language was developed for one endeavor and that is...to woo women!" Any man who doesn't know that is already a 98-pound intellectual weakling.

What my memory had blocked out of the 25-year old movie was the suicide of the student and the teacher's subsequent dismissal on trumped up charges.

That last scene where Williams comes back into the classroom to collect his "personals" and the students most feeling his loss stand on their desktops and call out, "O, captain, my captain" to acknowledge how he's changed their lives, how they think, act and feel had tears just rolling down my face.

Wiping them off and putting my sunglasses on for the walk home, I focused my thoughts on the movie's primary message.

We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.

Amen.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Haven't a Clue

I'm not above soliciting strangers, especially when it comes to warmth.

Today was one of those days that got away from me and when I looked up at the clock when the writing portion of the afternoon was accomplished, it was already well past 6.

Just enough time to powder my nose, grab a chair and head on over to Quirk Gallery for a movie in the courtyard, joining a dozen people already lined up in front of the brick wall to see the 1985 screwball comedy/farce/whodunit "Clue."

Admittedly, I'd been a fan of the game, always opting for Miss Scarlet as my character, but had I even seen the movie when it came out? I have no idea.

But if I hadn't, I was clearly in the minority. I ran into the friend who had suggested they show "Clue" and he confided they he could say every word along with the actors. Two of the women in the row in front of me shared that they quote lines from it all the time. A friend I saw afterwards told me that she and her husband shared a love of this movie. One trio popped a bottle of champagne to begin the celebration of "Clue."

It was obviously far bigger than I knew, at least to a certain generation.

While the guy from Backstage got the audio/visual set up outdoors, we listened to a terrific playlist that began with Irma Thomas and moved on to Fontella Bass and Chad & Jeremy. When the A/V guy cut off "A Summer Song," a guy near me complained loudly, "Hey! I love that song!"

By the time the movie began, the crowd had tripled with some brave souls sitting on blankets on the parking lot, a place far too cold for me. As it was, I was the idiot (who gets cold if it's below 70 degrees) who hadn't brought a blanket, unlike almost every female there.

I caught a break when the woman in front of me went to go get food and I offered to "watch" her blanket, wrapping its residual warmth around my legs and praying her food took a long time to prepare. When she returned, I tried to give it back (really I did) but she insisted she had a spare so I should feel free to continue using it.

Don't mind if I do. Without it, my teeth would have been chattering.

The film wasn't long and clearly I don't have the youthful fond memories of it that most of tonight's attendees did, but all I kept thinking about was how it seemed to replace comedy with corny and intrigue with plot holes.

And that doesn't even begin to address that it was an '80s version of a story supposedly set in the '50s, making for murky waters when this audience member tried to sort through incongruous elements and costumes.

But I didn't go for fine filmmaking, I went for camp and got it, sometimes via dialog - "Husbands should be like Kleenex: soft, strong and disposable" - and other times with cliches such as when Miss Scarlet's car breaks down and she leans fetchingly over the hood, raising a shapely leg just as a car rounds the bend.

Voila, roadside assistance! And while I've never been so blatant as all that, I have been known to stand beside my disabled car on the roadside in hopes of availing myself of the kindness of strangers. Fact is, I've had many a tire changed using this method.

Considering the comedic talent in the film -Martin Mull, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean - the funniest bit in the whole movie was Madeleine Kahn's improvised reaction when her character Mrs. White is accused of killing the maid (because her husband had been schtupping her).

"Flames, flames on the side of my face!" was so odd, so unexpected that it could only have come out of her lips without the benefit of a script. Hilarious.

The movie had three endings, all of which began to wear thin, at least to me, as the cast raced around from room to room recreating all the murders. Even they looked a little bored with it all.

So while I didn't see a particularly noteworthy film, what's not to enjoy about watching a movie screened on a brick wall while cozily nestled under a blanket with the sounds of the city coming in and out of earshot?

Whether it's the voices of a nearby Saturday night party on Grace Street, an ambulance siren racing up Broad Street or an airplane in the night sky, it's all part of the experience.

Like the girls in front of me reciting the occasional line along with the characters. "Frankly, Scarlet, I don't give a damn."

Me, neither. Some evenings it's enough just to sit back and enjoy something different.

Somebody's Baby

Oh, Friday, Friday, I try my best not to do Restaurant Week but sometimes it just turns out that way.

Because I moved into the city in 1993 - a block and a half from Zeus Gallery Cafe - I never knew a time when the quirky little restaurant wasn't in the neighborhood (like the library and the VMFA) that I wound up staying in for 13 years.

Ending up there tonight wasn't the plan but turned out to be the reality, set to local music on the sound system (big ups for that) and La Vieille Ferme Rose the color of pink diamonds.

Lemon vinaigrette kicked up a peppery arugula and Grana padano salad a notch. Red-wine braised veal short ribs got hearty with tomato jam, butternut squash puree and asparagus. I adjusted the flourless chocolate pate by salting it to perfection.

It's my chocolate and I'll salt if I want to.

Altogether a fine meal made even more impressive by the load on the kitchen as a steady stream of diners arrived all night long. "Each night this week gets crazier," the barkeep claimed. Good news for the Foodbank.

She wasn't too worried about it because the minute restaurant week ends, she and her main squeeze are headed to a cabin the mountains with a spectacular view and a hot tub. Oh, and lots of drinking material, she assured us. "I did used to work at Buddy's," she said by way of explanation.

Once back at my host's house, the musical portion of the evening went through Jackson Brown's best of, why David Crosby matters (with a story tangent about how Roger McGuinn still claims that Stephen Stills stole David Crosby from the Byrds), and bluesy Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac.

Seventies California music, in other words. Great guitar stuff. I even heard an Eagles song I'd never heard and didn't hate. That's how deep the cuts went.

A cache of comic books yielded conversation about the one who'd given up drawing years ago, spirited dancing to Jackson Brown, and from the one with scads of siblings, endless intricate family relation stories.

If I could have, I'd have shot the breeze all night as good as the jawing and soundrack were.

Can't be late for the (morning) sky tomorrow, though.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Here's Looking at You

So today I did what no self-respecting native Washingtonian would do: went to the top of the Washington Monument.

It all started on October first when I read about Cuban-American artist Jorge Rodriguez- Gerada's monumental portrait "Out of Many, One" being constructed just west of the reflecting pool.

The catch? It's intended to be seen from a bird's eye view, namely from the top of the Washington Monument. And while tickets to the memorial to George are free, they're limited and go fast. Let's just say I wasted little time between reading about the piece and ordering the first available tickets.

Then all I needed was another art lover to join me on a day trip to see it. That was the easy part.

Lunch at the 2400 Diner in Fredericksburg (where the neon says "Air conditioned" and "Good food" in the window) and traffic put us on the mall five minutes after our 3:30 tour time, but we only had to wait a few more minutes at the windy base of the monument before being included in the next group to go up.

The Park Service ranger who accompanied us up in the elevator had clearly been on the job for too long. An automaton who made no eye contact and spoke in a monotone, he was nonetheless full of information about the construction and accomplishment of building the world's tallest building at the time (still the tallest stone structure in the world).

At the top, we went window to window, beginning with the view of the portrait next to the Reflecting Pool. The man's face is a composite of photographs the artist took of people in Washington, so it resembles no particular ethnicity and every ethnicity. And it kind of looks at you, even from 555 feet below.

Yesterday's rain had left a few puddles on and near the portrait and three-plus weeks of weather had begun the gradual erosion of it, all part of the design. It's expected to be gone entirely in another week.

One thing this native Washingtonian hadn't realized was that you are no longer allowed to take the steps up and down the monument. Oh, they let you take a few steps down to the museum located at 490 feet, but then you have to take the elevator the rest of the way. Disappointing.

When I asked a ranger why this was, he explained that too many people had touched and vandalized the stone plaques (donated by states, countries, organizations and individuals) that line the interior of the monument.

Apparently the collective we can't have nice things because we don't treat them right. The consolation was that on the elevator ride down, Mr. Monotone stopped the elevator and turned off the lights at certain points to show us some of the plaques including one with its griffins broken off by badly behaving visitors. Sigh.

Back on terra firma, we decide to make the most of our prime parking space and take in some other sites, namely the Martin Luther King memorial, which I'd read plenty about but never seen. As impressive as the huge stone image of MLK is, I was moved most by the series of quotes etched on the walls around it.

From there it only made sense to go look at Rodriguez-Gerarda's work from the ground, cutting through the D.C. War Memorial's stone edifice on the way to the portrait. Truly, it was unrecognizable from street level.

Oh, we could see the dark lines and the white spots, but as intended, the eye couldn't read it as a whole from down there. I felt very fortunate to have scored the tickets to access the view and see it as the artist intended before all that sand and soil becomes part of the earth again.

Mission accomplished.

To celebrate, we walked a little over a mile to the subterranean Bottom Line (hearing such '80s gems as 38 Special's "Caught Up In You"...little girl?) for a celebratory drink before walking back to reclaim the car, face the traffic and head to Alexandria for dinner.

Our destination was the casual little brother of Restaurant Eve, Eamonns, which billed itself as a Dublin chipper with the slogan "Thanks be to cod." Our handsome server asked if we wanted table service and we took him up on his offer.

Wine choices were limited to one red and one white and arrived swimming in the bottom of beer glasses, but the cod was fresh, the chips were hand cut, the slaw not overly sweet and the wings nicely crisped, a fine meal on a rustic wooden table with a view of the hustle and bustle of King Street.

Just as satisfying was the music which came from an iPod on high, so high that when a great song came on and both our server and I wanted to know what it was, he had to stand on a bench, craning to try and read the device stationed up near the ceiling, no doubt to keep lesser beings from skipping songs or changing the playlist.

We were rewarded to learn it was Phoenix band Caterwaul's "The Sheep's a Wolf" from 1989, surprising those of us who would have liked just such a  female-fronted band in 1989 but had never heard of them.

Sign on the door of the women's room: "Street girls bringing in sailors must pay in advance for rooms." Duly noted, as were the superb black and white photographs of a Dublin bar and bridge hanging inside.

When our server came over to check on us, asking if we needed anything, I couldn't think of anything except a table dance, but he gestured to the people sitting at the table as the only reason he couldn't. I like a server with  good attitude.

By the time we were finished, the small restaurant had filled up with people waiting for food and to-go orders (or perhaps one of the various fried candy bars on the menu), so we set out in search of dessert elsewhere.

After a stroll past endless antique shops, high end clothing stores and home furnishing meccas, we settled on Union Street Public House, noisy with a boisterous crowd and far too many screens showing Thursday night football.

When the bartender delivered Junior's famous tuxedo cake ("with a chocolate ice cream chaser," he joked), he said it had been very popular tonight; he'd already served four of the devil's food cake layered with cheesecake and ganache behemoths.

Nobody needs all this, I told him. He looked affronted. "I do! And you do!" he corrected me. So maybe he was right, even if I couldn't half finish it all.

That's the thing about need. Some would make a case that I really didn't need a trip to Washington to see "Out of Many, One."

Oh, but I did. Even natives need to see their city from on high sometimes.