Saturday, October 10, 2015

Outskirts of Love

There we were, Richmond, perfectly at home at our annual Folk Fest.

It's barely been two weeks since some of us were a tad rattled by the UCI bike race, but the Folk Fest? Pros, I tell you; we're pros. We got this.

Especially on a scandalously gorgeous October evening still drawing us in with the embracing heat of summer but the low humidity of Fall. You can even smell it in the air. It's more mature, less eager to please.

Richmond would've been outside tonight even without the festival kicking off, but tonight's weather felt like payback for all those soggy festival days where we showed up anyway and went home partially sodden for the sake of music. I have a (formerly) cute pair of flats that never recovered.

Researched my roots (Irish band the Alt), marveled at how few people were dancing to Cajun music (Bruce Dalgrepont Cajun band) and heard Shemekia Copeland (in 4" pink heels, no less) live for the first time since a 1998 Jumpin' in July show at the old VMFA sculpture garden.

This girl is a woman now. She brought a new kind of wisdom to "Married to the Blues," a song she'd done 17 years ago.

Admired the Richmond Symphony's new portable theater, on display tonight as the Altria Stage where Shemekia sang. I was told by a knowledgeable source that they paid a half mil for it, plus it comes with its own tractor-trailer because where the hell would you store it?

Gelati Celesti's "Just Ask" flavor for the evening? White chocolate, peanut butter and Oreos. The combination sounds repulsive, more like a late night decision to combine the little bits of everything left in the freezer.

Just no. Chocolate decadence will do just fine after that Sherries' crabcake I just devoured.

What does it sound like when the daughter of a legendary blues guitarist goes to Nashville to make a record? She finds out that country music ain't nothin' but the blues with a twang. Having a crack band behind her doesn't hurt, either. Think Keith Richards trying emulate American blues and these guys were sourcing at the same place.

Passing trains are part of the Folk Festival's charm, evidenced by people applauding when one started across the nearest trestle.

Best millennial assessment of tonight's smorgasbord of music to his two buddies after 60 seconds of watching?

"A little higher quality than at Sticky Rice, hm?"

Damn straight, Skippy. Is this your first rodeo?

Friday, October 9, 2015

I Got a Blank Space

Only peer pressure could get me to be part of the "in" crowd.

Picking up my date involved more than driving to Church Hill, because there were beach supplies - a chair and two umbrellas - to be returned to their rightful owner before taking on a passenger. And while I'm happy to gets someone else's beach stuff out of my car, you can be certain my beach chair and umbrella are still firmly at the ready in the trunk.

You could say my optimism knows no bounds, but I've yet to rule out one last trip to the ocean this year.

With Pru riding shotgun, we drove straight to Castanea, ignoring available tables for seats at the more populated and generously-sized bar. Our bartender was affable and saucy - delighting in giving us a defiant "no" before granting every request - making for excellent patter as we selected what to sip and sup.

Wine arrived and we barely got through hearing a special  - cornmeal-dusted artichokes over heirloom tomatoes with Pecorino, pine nuts and mint - described before the two of us were nodding at each other, nudging each other, as in, yes, must have that.

At least we didn't resort to grunting at one another.

It must have been while we were moaning over the contrast of the rich fried artichoke and the bright end-of-summer freshness of the heirlooms, mint and was that a hint of basil (?) that the bartender set out to tempt us with more freshness, this time in the guise of today's cocktail.

Using local blood plums, they'd crafted a daiquiri garnished with a wedge of the gorgeous deep red fruit and while we surely didn't need one, our hesitation spurred commentary from the peanut gallery.

"We had them. Join the "in" crowd!" the guy next to us enthused. So while we didn't need blood plum daiquiris, we shared one anyway. I must not get offered blood plums enough, that's all I can say in my defense.

Meanwhile, the happy couple to our right get their dinner order and his was the cresto de gallo, a massive-sized portion ("We wouldn't have had, like, three things first if I'd known it was this big") of pan-fried chicken livers and rainbow Swiss chard in a Marsala wine sauce.

"I love a good Marsala sauce," Pru whispers, although significantly, without committing to chicken livers.

The guy who'd ordered it was large and muscular, but before long even he was lamenting the sheer size and richness of the plate of food in front of him. I told him he could probably sell bites to people at the bar, but he didn't take the bait. That said, it may be noted that he finished every bite.

Working on a theme after our first dish, we ordered skate wing in artichoke brown butter and ras al hanout with crispy roasted potatoes on the side. Despite occasional timidity with new foods and that it was Pru's first outing with skate, she embraced the dish as we talked about how its taste and texture falls somewhere between fish and seafood.

But mostly, we took our time savoring the buttery, spicy skate and then sopping the potatoes in artichoke butter. If you were trying to make a skate convert out of someone, this was the way to do it.

Another couple showed up and again decided on the bar for dinner, getting the bartender all excited. "It's a party at the bar tonight! This is what I'm talking about!" Maybe a memo had gone out to the "in" crowd without us knowing.

All of a sudden, we were just about out of time, necessitating decisions about gelato flavors and then choosing the exact same thing: double chocolate with coconut sorbet. Along the way, we tasted the melon as well as the fresh peach gelatos and felt like we were eating cream versions of fresh fruit.

"That's the idea," our server said.

Westward ho we went to Richmond Triangle Players to see a one-man tour de force: "Buyer and Cellar" starring Dan Cimo, a terribly talented actor whom I can attest from past roles is as able to play a woman as a man.

I know I'd gladly take his chiseled cheekbones.

That was particularly convenient given that in this play, he portrays someone very like himself (an actor), his boyfriend Barry (an underemployed and bitter screenwriter), Barbra Streisand (in all her idiosyncratic and vainglorious magnificence) and her housekeeper, Sharon (whose voice reminded me of Marge Simpson's sisters).

The first few minutes of the show were devoted to ensuring that we knew that this was a work of fiction, in no way related to real life events. "The premise is preposterous! None of this ever happened." Oh, and P.S. Barbra is known to be rather litigious.

"Enough people do her. Not me," Dan as Alex says. "When I tell you conversations that didn't happen, I'll just become her and you can fill in the blanks."

Ooh, the cattiness was just oozing from his handsome face.

The story took place around the time Babs' book "My Passion for Design" (in which she was also principle photographer) came out and revolved around her building a shopping mall in the basement of her Malibu house, a place to store the accumulations of her wealth. Th hook was Alex being hired to "work" in the shops, not that anyone but Babs ever visited them.

Meanwhile cultural references - Chloris Leachman in "Phyllis," Bea Arthur, Marcus Welby, Shirley Booth in "Hazel" - abounded. Good luck with those, millennials.

Seamlessly throwing out references to Babs and her roles that any fan would recognize ("You know, wearing a mink hat for tugboat travel" and, you bet your life, I know exactly what scene he's talking about) and the outfits in her dresses shop ("Irene Sharaffs and Cecil Beatons"), he establishes his diva expertise.

Things got even more hilarious the first time La Streisand visits him in the doll shop. "What can you tell me about these dolls?" she challenges in her distinctive Brooklynese, throwing down the gauntlet to the new employee.

"Okay, so Mama wants to play," Alex says smugly, garnering a huge laugh from the crowd.

The script was full of clever lines like that ("I'm not bothered by the shameless manipulation, like in "The Prince of Tides"), even playing off stereotypes for laughs (Babs: "How can anyone not like the Jews?" Pause. Alex: "I'll have to ask my grandmother next time I see her").

Cimo was masterful at switching characters, each person's voice and mannerisms so distinct that there could be no doubt who was talking at any given moment.

After various tentative conversations with his employer, Alex is invited upstairs, first to see the recreated Connecticut barn and yard and then to the Big House. "This was 'Hoarders' on a higher plane," Alex marvels. "This was relentless acquisition with no financial restraints."

Can't say I've ever experienced such a thing. I mean never. Ever.

And I don't want to spoil the play for you, but if you've been wondering all these years why such a star stayed so long with a bully like Jon Peters, I now know the answer. Babs claims he could always figure out what to do on Sundays and she never could.

Which probably means that Jon Peters was part of the "in" crowd and Barbra was only nouveau cool.

You'd think a mink hat on a tugboat would have done it. Somebody should've told her all she needed was a blood plum daiquiri to qualify.

You can fill in the blanks from there.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

High on Her Heels

The King of Diamonds runs into the Queen of Hearts at the Tiny Bar series and from there it got weird.

Before long, during a robust discussion of beer - which she doesn't drink - the  King, using his most stentorian tones, begins weaving a tale about hops being grown in the "Land of Gooch" and each time the Queen is just about to insert herself into his saga, he comes forth with further embellishment.

Her guess is he's only trying to hold the spotlight, but, no, he informs her, he's never made her smile so wide and he's loath to give up such an appreciative audience.

Tickets for tonight's Tiny Bar show at Black Iris were being sold at Steady Sounds and when I went to buy mine this morning, I was presented with a fanned deck of playing cards and told to choose from these cards into which information about the show had been cut.

Brilliant doesn't begin to cover it. It's ticket as art, pure and simple.

I chose the Queen of Hearts and when I got to the show, challenged a friend to guess which card I'd taken. It took him no time to guess Queen but his guess for which suit was clubs. "Because you're out all the time," he explained. 

Incorrect answer, but I like a man who has a reason for what he thinks.

He directed me inside to check out the gallery's new installation by Leslie Rogers, "PLAY/THINGS," a piece conceived by Rogers after a 9,000-mile cross country trip with musician/artist Nelly Kate doing performance art.

The centerpiece of the show is a large puzzle of the US fitted together and painted different colors, set on the floor. Scattered around various areas of the map are bags of regionally-flavored in potato chips. Along the walls are pieces of chips encased in lighted crystals.

With a sly sense of humor and distinctive materials, it's an unexpectedly fresh way to see the country as bagged snack food. Forget red state versus blue, chips flavors show the more subtle variations in Americans.

At the tiny bar in the back, the mood was set with dim lighting and votive candles evenly spaced out on opposite shelves that spanned two walls. A small crowd (well, obviously, it can't be larger than 52) waited to be wowed.

The show kicked off after gallerist Benjamin informed everyone that this was meant to be a unique experience, and then asked people to turn off their cell phones and refrain from flash photography.

Flashback to the Listening Room, except standing.

With no further ado, the young Daniel Bachman got very busy with both hands playing guitar and casting a spell over the room. Each musical piece was comprised of contrasting sections that seemed to tell stories that flowed into each other as each hand took on a completely different role.

"I've been driving around with Michael the past few days," he said between pieces. "He's got plenty of questions to answer, if anybody has any." Don't we all?

More than a few people in the room had the devoted look of guitar geeks and they watched the skillful Bachman reverently as he played, their eyes almost never blinking.

One song got stopped because he needed to dry off his sweaty hands and then ended early because, as he claimed, "I'm not right." When an audience member called out, "why?" he said he'd been staying up too late the past few nights drinking too much wine."

The rock 'n roll lifestyle will make you sweat.

He moved on seamlessly to another song and by then I'd realized that this was a musician you watched, not just listened to. It was theater, a complete audio/visual package and it was mesmerizing. I couldn't fathom why a few people stood in the hall where they couldn't see him when there was room inside.

After a half hour or so, his gorgeous set ended and mingling began. The King of Diamonds aka the Man About Town found me in short order, soon questioning me on whether I'd be at the house show Friday night.

Negative. Folk Fest, I explained, would take precedence.

"When did the scene become such that there is too much great stuff to do in one night?" he wanted to know. Oddly enough, I'd had the identical conversation with a Brazilian woman last week and her guess had been 5 or 6 years ago.

He went on to suggest that my blog has been a chronicle of how that scene has grown, how it's no longer a point of pride that there's something compelling to do every night, but that there are multiple things so now we inevitably miss appealing events because of something even more amazing.

First world problem.

Chatting with strangers after I heard the word "Norwegians" thrown out, I heard delicious details about some of the visitors' shenanigans at Poe's Pub, a bacchanal that apparently involved the Norwegians removing their shits and pants in short order and then dancing against the walls.

I'm not ashamed to tell strangers that I think I'd have had a blast had I been there, but one of the guys sharing this story is clearly appalled. "They wouldn't have looked at you, they were looking at me!"

And your point is? He stammers something about what might happen to him if he did that in a European bar. Peg you for an American due to your bad dancing?

Homophobic much, sir? When the King of Diamonds heard his position, he assumed he was joking. Regrettably, no, this is merely a case of bad-weird, not nearly as satisfying as good-weird.

Fortunately, music was preparing to start up again so the Queen could escape this clueless sap.

I'd last seen English guitarist Michael Chapman, who's made 30 albums in the span since 1967, at Sprout back in 2011. He still looks like an older guy in a trucker's hat with a twinkle in his eye to me.

His playing immediately made clear not only the clarity of the sound in the tiny bar room, but reminded me what a major league talent this guy was, blending elements of jazz, blues and even folk with such obvious prowess as to make it seem effortless.

As he tuned between songs, he wasted no time in telling stories and cracking wise ("How can you lose something as big as Texas?' after someone tells him they don't know where Texas is) in his English accent. He talked about writing about three trains and then four trains and then losing interest. About how sometimes he starts upstairs and then can't recall what he went for.

"But sometimes I find something better!" he says, sounding completely sincere.

Saying he used to play with John Fahey ("He was an incredible guitar player and a weird human being"), he did a song about dining with Fahey in Los Angeles years ago. We heard about his trip to Uncertain, Texas because he couldn't not go once he found it on a map.

As you might guess, a Queen loves that kind of attitude.

Chapman introduced "Just Another Story," the first song with a vocal, as a song about "that American icon, the truck stop waitress." Best lyric: She's high on her heels, But down on her luck."

You gotta live some life to come up with that kind of sentiment.

More of his life came out with "Shuffle Boats Farewell," a song about the boats of his youth and a story about being sent to take a traffic census in the woods but instead sitting down against a tree and playing guitar for hours.

"I finally figured out they wanted me to tell them how many cars would go by if they built the road. Think about it!"

I didn't have time to because he was on to another song, this one plaintive.

A fly buzzes around
There's nothing I can do
It's like the memory of you
There's nothing I can do

His set came to an end all too soon and the small audience gave him a massive ovation, not to mention cheering, for his bravura performance and all-around good attitude.

"I always say this and I always mean it. It's really friggin' weird what happened." Weird in a good way, I'm sure.

A few more of these Tiny Bar shows and I'll have a royal flush. Wait'll you see how my smile widens then.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Go, Dog, Go

With Fall comes the chance to talk to strangers and discuss the city.

Tonight was the first of this season's Community Conversations at the Valentine and the broad appeal topic was transportation. Coming on the heels of the bike race and the recent attention to that form of getting around, I was expecting some lively discussion.

It took a while for everybody to settle down, despite director Bill Martin's attempts (similar to herding cats, I'd imagine) and when people finally acknowledged him by sitting, he responded with, "Gracious, people!"

Inevitably, one of the very best parts of these conversations involves no one talking but Bill and that's when he shares some of the fabulous photographs in the Valentine's collection (compiled by a savvy intern) that pertain to the topic.

The first one nailed it all: a shot of a horse and wagon followed by a carriage followed by a car. There it was.

There were so many pictures of places I walk by on a regular basis, places such as a vintage shot of Great Shiplock Park in use. He said that Broad Street and 6th, 7th and 8th streets are about the most photographed in the city and we saw plenty from those junctions, crowded with horses and wagons, trolleys, cars and buses.

During his presentation, he made several terribly interesting points: that mass transportation and public transportation are not the same thing.

That while people have a tendency to romanticize the trolleys (which I hadn't realized were constructed and run by real estate development companies, not the city), they forget how they segregated the city by economic class, race, religion and ethnicities, too. Nothing romantic about that.

Next came the usual polling phase of the evening where each of us used hand-held devices to answer questions to determine who was in the room. For instance, 73% of us were city residents and we were predominantly male tonight.

When polled on our two favorite things about the city - people, neighborhoods, outdoor activities, history, Short Pump Towne Center, those kinds of things. - I was amazed to see that culture was not one of the options.

Naturally, I chose "other" to represent the absent culture. No surprise, absolutely no one chose the faux village of Short Pump.

Next came small group time where we discussed the statements found on cards we'd each been given. Mine read, "Fact or fiction: Using public transit is slower than traveling in a car." My group agreed that that's not always so given the constraints of one-way streets and finding parking.

But it was, "Fact or fiction: it's safer to ride a bike on the sidewalk than the street." that really got everyone jabbering. One guy said he'd nearly mowed down two bicyclists on the sidewalk near Lee's Chicken because he'd been making the turn and never thought to scan the sidewalk for bikers.

Another older woman made the point that some people ride on the sidewalk because they don't feel safe in a bike lane. Personally, as a daily walker, I hate bikes on the sidewalk and when they whiz past me, I want to be that old man who raises his fist and reminds them it's a sidewalk not a sideride.

But I refrain.

In hearing what the other groups talked about, one guy was beaming with pleasure, saying his group had talked about all the transit options available. "I found like-minded people," he boasted.

"That's your tribe?" facilitator Matt asked him.Without a doubt, that is one of the benefits of these community conversations. Usually people who come are passionate about their feelings.

Our expert panel was made up of Carrie from GRTC who did a succinct summary of the proposed bus rapid transit, Jacob from the city's bike/pedestrian initiative and Charles from RVA Rapid Transit, a citizens' group.

One of the slides shown was a pie chart of different kinds of bike riders, such as "never" or "strong and fearless."

The largest section - 60%- was the segment of those who wanted to ride more but weren't sure how comfortable they were with the associated issues. They were labeled "interested but concerned."

The Man About Town, sitting in front of me, responded with, "That's me on most things" and let out a chuckle. Ba dum bum.

Charles talked about the difficulty of getting the nine local governments together to agree on anything, much less get anything built in this region. We're the 44th largest metro area in the US by population, but we rank 92nd in the top 100 areas for public transit. Let's face it, that's embarrassing.

Although I'd been to one of the bus rapid transit community meetings, I didn't know until tonight that they'd identified the BRT corridors that need to come after Broad Street is finished. If Hull Street, Midlothian Turnpike and Jeff Davis Highway BRT routes are built, Richmond would go from 27% of the population to 80% being connected by public transit.

Far less embarrassing.

The Q & A provided even more fascinating nuggets. Carrie told us, "Chesterfield County owns half of GRTC. Spoiler alert." I find this especially fascinating since Chesterfield is also the county that has historically wanted no buses because they'd just as soon keep people without cars out of their sprawling county.

So you can imagine the audience's surprise when Charles told us his group had met with the Woodlake Homeowners' Association, that bastion of suburban hell living. "Your eyes will bug out, but they want it." Eyes were bugged. Seems they think it'll improve that stretch of Hull Street from the city line to them (property values, you know).

People still had questions, but one thing Bill insists on is that all community conversations end on time, so we did (mostly), although plenty of lingering involved furthering some of those conversations.

I enjoy talking to strangers, but if you want to have a seven-hour conversation with me, I'm going to have to know you a whole lot better. Spoiler alert.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Girls on the Go

Here's to the ladies who lunch -
Everybody laugh
Lounging in their caftans
Planning a brunch -

Just two of us at Can Can, and definitely not wearing caftans. Can't say I've ever worn a caftan, although I have wondered if it's a distant cousin to the muu-muu.

We are laughing, too, because we find each other funny and it's been too long. But mostly we're gabbing non-stop with very little planning happening.

Off to the gym
Then to a fitting
Claiming they're fat 
And looking grim -

Neither of us goes to the gym, although she did mention recently taking her first exercise class on a bike while lifting weights, if that counts. And fittings? How very 1950s that sounds!

Lunch had more of a '70s feel to it. My lobster, leek and Pecorino quiche (because real women do eat it) loomed over lightly dressed mixed greens but we were both mainly into the cone of frites placed between us. Part of the privilege of age is that neither of us claims to be fat. That's a young woman's game.

And here's to the girls who play smart
Aren't they a gas?

Smart friends are the only kind of friends to have and this one definitely qualifies. Between us, we dissected the bike race, media blitzes for restaurants that never open and why some people insist on playing the popularity game Not for us.

A matinee, a Pinter play
Perhaps a piece of Mahler's -

Our entertainment was the brasserie theater of Can Can, chosen last week by my friend as our destination because, to her, it always seems sunny there, a quality that was highly desirable during that non-stop precipitation.

Older couples enjoying wine with lunch, young mothers with babies and their mother in tow, and what looked to be regulars at the bar buzzed around us. Walking in, I'd been greeted by a familiar face on his lunch break from his wine job. He was such a gentleman that he found me once he'd eaten to give me a kiss on the cheek goodbye.

And here's to the girls who play wife
Aren't they too much?

Sometimes, but not always. My friend is a wife but an interesting enough one not to need to clutch a copy of "Life" to stay in touch. She has Twitter and Facebook for that.

Another chance to disapprove
Another brilliant zinger
Another reason not to move
Another vodka stinger -

Disapprove? Not us. We decided jointly that we don't care enough to bother. We only need to approve of us and how we handle ourselves.

But disinterest, that's another story. We've got it to spare. A protracted discussion of Tinder leads to my friend announcing, "I only hope I never have to date again," effectively summing up the hopes of all single middle aged women.

And please let the record show, vodka was nowhere in evidence. Another cup of obscenely rich hot chocolate after my first? Even I couldn't manage that.

So here's to the girls on the go --
Everybody tries
Look into their eyes
And you'll see what they know
Everybody dies -

True enough, but there's so much to enjoy before getting to that. Three satisfying hours at Can Can dishing about everybody and everything, for one.

A toast to the invincible bunch
The dinosaurs surviving the crunch
Let's hear it for the ladies who lunch -

Let's do. We're a dying breed and the replacements seem lacking. Too bad there's not a Pinter play addressing that.

Couldn't If I Tried

It's a lot like getting off one of those carnival rides, the shift from over-stimulation to just being always somehow jarring.

The three-hour "ride" was karaoke at Penny Lane, the ideal antidote after a staid meal in the service of my hired mouth. My last visit for karaoke there had ben in October 2009, meaning I was overdue to see what happens when you mix alcohol and hubris.

I found the place unexpectedly hopping, a sentiment echoed by the bartender who brought me my 1800, saying it had already been an unusually busy night because there were some things going on downtown tonight, whatever that meant.

Stray conventioneers? Post-event architects? Random Monday madness?

Not my concern because it was karaoke night upstairs and that's where I was headed. Things were just getting started with the DJ playing a three-decade range from Taylor Swift to Human League to New Radicals.

Inadvertently positioning myself near the counter where the karaoke songbooks awaited, I watched as would-be singers flipped through the book trying to decide what they could sing.

Two guys were at it diligently when the one in the plaid shirt said, "Okay, but if it's in the other book, I'm singing it!" Turning to me, he explains, "Judas Priest, "Breakin' the Law," best karaoke song ever!"

Well, considering I'd never heard of it, I'd have to take his word for it. Alas, it was not in the book, but that mattered not to him because he already knew songs that were in the book. He'd rehearsed at home. "It's not my first rodeo," he said with swagger.

But is it his, I asked, pointing at his befuddled companion, still unable to find a single song he knew the words to.

"Yes. He's my brother and I'm breaking his karaoke cherry tonight," he tells me. Surely that wasn't going to be pretty.

The only familiar face tonight was a bartender enjoying a night off, one who'd served me a few weeks ago and we fell easily into a service discussion when he said service weighs as heavily as food for him in determining where to eat.

Like me, he had no intention of singing unless, he qualified, he had enough whiskey after the beer to make it seem like a good idea. That, and he already knew a couple of songs with very limited talent demands. It remained to be seen if the planets would align.

Our host, Patrick, got the ball rolling, singing Barry White's "Can't Get Enough of Your Love," all the while adjusting the P.A., moving the small stage around and turning the speakers so they'd stop feeding back.

Barry would not have approved. You gotta focus when you're singing Barry's songs, man, like you're making love to a woman. No distractions.

Wouldn't you know it, the disappointed Judas Priest fan was first up, singing "You Got Another Thing Coming," and I counted myself among the few who knew his secret: that this wasn't his first song choice.

Meanwhile, remarks were made nearby that he should have rehearsed more, that he couldn't sing, but I'll tell you one thing. He did a full arm guitar solo during that song and he was much better at that than singing. Best part? His first-time brother filmed the whole thing, clearly delighting in the spectacle.

Who better to follow him than the newbie doing "Don't You Forget About Me," the tragedy being that he was constantly a note or two behind and when he got to the la-las part, put the emphasis on the wrong "la" every time. Eventually part of the audience began singing along so loudly his voice was drowned out.

It was somewhat of a painful baptism by fire to watch. But we like to watch or we wouldn't go to karaoke, now would we?

As a guy began singing "Dead or Alive," a woman walking by stopped in her tracks, addressing me. "Ooh, this is Bon Jovi. This is my jam."

Did that mean he shouldn't be singing it? Negative. Will you judge him as he sings your song, I asked. "No, I'll feeeel it," she said, clasping her hands to her chest and closing her eyes.

For the record, the faux Jovi did a decent job with it, although there was no air guitar solo.

One of the best renditions was of KC  and the Sunshine Band's "Boogie Man," the guy improvising and scatting during musical parts. He had loads of presence and vocal talent to spare. When he left the stage, he wound up near my post.

He was caught off guard when he found out I had no intention of singing, but I explained that I'm that person in the room who's not thinking about how I just mucked up onstage  and I'm not the one busily planning what to sing next, I'm just the one paying attention.

"So you're the one we're doing all this for really," he decided.  Right.I know my place and it's listening and clapping, 

"Sweet Child o' Mine" came out of the mouth of the Bon Jovi fangirl, who rewarded us with Axl Rose-like dancing during the musical breaks. It was magical.

Without a doubt, one of the most hilarious highlights was the two brothers dueting on "Don't Go Breakin' My Heart," with karaoke virgin taking the Kiki Dee part. Words are not enough.

The guy who'd done "Boogie Man," still stationed near me had an ear to ear grin, spurring me to tell him that the one guy had rehearsed and the other was singing for the first time and that they were brothers. "That's so hot!" he gushed.

Personally, I think somewhere, Sir Elton was feeling a twinge at this abomination. "Probably calling his lawyers right now," he jokes.

A large party celebrating a birthday produced several stars: the guy who used the birthday boy's two favorite things - the Barenaked Ladies and alcohol - to do "Alcohol" ("Those are some clever lyrics," new friend whispered. The BNL were certainly that).

The birthday boy - artfully ripped jeans, styled hair, a study in self-awareness - surprised us all by doing "American Girl" and sounding amazingly Petty-like doing it,  right down to his mannerisms. Another well polished performance, I think.

Mr. Not-My-First-Rodeo was back for the third time with "Godzilla," another unlikely choice for such a milquetoast type, Boogie Man was impressed with how into he got on the high notes, but his funniest line was, "How in the world did he even find this song?"

Since I'd never heard it before, I couldn't begin to hazard a guess. Too much Blue Oyster Cult in the cradle?

And just like Fall follows Summer, his neophyte brother was called next to attempt Smashmouth's "Rockstar," an impossible feat since he started late, lost entire phrases and remained a minimum of three syllables behind the entire song.

If it hadn't been for the crowd picking up the song and belting it out for the duration, his complete and utter failure at singing might have bruised his psyche. I won't even comment on the human tragedy of so many people knowing every word to Smashmouth while real talent is relegated to Ned's atomic dust bin.

Points for getting that.

By the time some guy did "Sweet Caroline," the crowd was primed, so his entreaties ("Come on, people, give it to me!") not only got them  singing along and doing call and response, but actively swing dancing around the pool table while players continued their game.

This made it what we called in elementary school a "multi-purpose room."

I loved it when New Friend got up and sang "Superstition," once again effortlessly evoking the original with soul and style. It was when he mentioned an upcoming event at Firehouse that I had my a-ha moment. A theater type, why, of course.

No wonder we'd gravitated toward each other's smart-assed commentary and total appreciation of the absurdity of it all. When he started to tell me about a performance he's working on, I told him the date, saying it was already on my calendar.

That's when you know you're soul mates.

He rejoined me to watch a skinny guy in a green-checked shirt take on the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" (Is this a good idea, we wondered?) and acquit himself magnificently. Nails it to the point that people are dancing everywhere, unable to contain themselves. I'm a tad surprised no one mounts the pool table, honestly.

It was during "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" that I quietly slipped out, leaving behind unknown songs, unseen performers and countless catty comments. for the next time

Not only did I have a blast, I was only mildly queasy after dismounting. To quote Neil Diamond, so good, so good.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Through Another's Eyes

And finally, we come out of the deluge.

It may be Monday, but at long last it's (mostly) sunny, making it feel possible that life can go on after the past week of near-constant gloom. Today's goal: get out and see some art.

Daylight is always better for me when navigating the labyrinthine byways of the University of Richmond, so I started at the Lora Robbins Gallery for "Robert Hodierne: Vietnam War Photographs," pulled from the photographer's extensive collection shot during two trips there, one as a 21-year old freelance photographer and the other serving in the military immediately afterwards.

The gallery is small, but the images feel big because the subject matter carries not just the weight of seeing bloodied men doing battle but because history has shown in the interim since these pictures were taken that it was all for naught, a colossal waste of lives and taxpayer dollars.

Most of the photographs are black and white, so the few shown in color are jarring for how bright red the blood stains appear,

One color series was taken on Hill 881, the bloodiest battle up until that point, claiming the lives and wounding over 700 men.

In one arresting image, a young black soldier stands shirtless, a bloody bandage on his left shoulder, his helmet battered and cocked at a crooked angle on his head, staring out of one eye off to the side. He looks physically and morally exhausted.

Another from that series is one of a soldier holding a cloth to the neck of another soldier, who lies with his face bandaged and bloody. It's tough to imagine he made it.

One of the most heartbreaking, "The Ambush," shows a squad leader pinned down in the open field, looking back at one of his men laying dead, while several wounded men lie just ahead of him. The anguish in his face is plain to see.

In "Comfort," we see two hands, those of a soldier and a dying man, clasped together, with the seated figure's cross hanging from his neck.

As I was going through the exhibit for a second time, a young black woman came in the gallery, blue disposable gloves on her hands, holding a bag. She looks around as if she's searching for something before noticing the photographs.

"Oh," she says very low and looks at me. "Who are they? Where?"

When I explain the photos were shot in the 1960s in Vietnam, her eyes get big. "Ah, so long ago," she says in her lilting accent. She looks to be in her 20s, so there's no way of knowing if she's even aware of the Vietnam miasma.

I ask where she's from and she responds, "Sou Suda," meaning South Sudan, explaining that it's a new country near Kenya. She's been in this country nine years and when I ask how she likes it, she looks down but says, "It's good," without truly sounding like she means it.

We go back to looking at the pictures together and I mention how painful it is to see how very young the men who fought this senseless conflict were. "Same thing in my country," she shares. "So young."

After taking one last look around, she leaves the gallery as quietly as she came in. Without even meaning to, she has tied these 50-year old images to the present and fragile countries like hers.

Leaving UR, the sun still trying to peek through, I decide to find something lighter for my next art adventure, stopping at the VMFA to see an important American work recently acquired. When I go to the desk to ask about its location, the face of the woman behind the counter lights up.

"It's just beautiful and enormous!" she enthuses, turning to the staffer sitting next to her to ask if he's yet seen it (he hasn't). Once upstairs in the American galleries, I ask a guard about the West and she gets just as excited, choosing to lead me there rather than simply provide directions and sharing as we go that West was born in Pennsylvania.

Along the way, she asks another guard if he's seen it and when he replies in the negative, invites him along. We've become a viewing party at this point.

"Portrait of Prince William and his Sister, Princess Sophia" is indeed large and beautiful, the latter no doubt due to the talent of West, who was known as the father of American painting. This is despite the fact that he visited England when he was 25 and never came back (probably why the museum signs label him as British-American) after securing patronage from the king.

He's depicted the two young children as having alabaster skin and, unlike so many American painters, the heads of children, not adults' heads on small bodies. Symbolism abounds in the robes, crown, purse and lion that fill out the rest of the canvas.

And while the purported goal of the painting is a reminder that a king protects his subjects (they are his niece and nephew) and they, in turn, owe obedience to the king, it was also hung in the court as a reminder to those upstart colonists that they owed their allegiance to him, too.

As if. You can lead a colonist to an allegory, but you can't make 'em give up on the notion of independence.

You can also go to see a collection of compelling photographs from a dark period in our country's past and come away moved by what someone born on the other side of the world has lived through.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Burning Bush

All movies, all the time, that was today.

After this morning's flick, I had a late afternoon meeting about the new Bijou Film Center project. As a devoted fan of movies shown in public settings, I'd been asked to join the group that's steering the effort to create a small repertory arthouse theater in Richmond.

At Anchor Studios, a handsome, high-ceilinged space with massive gold-trimmed columns in the arts district, I admired the artsy clutter - the piles of old 45s (Curtis Mayfield, Little Stevie Wonder, the Delphonics), the 7-Up rack intended to house green-bottled soda but instead a storage place for art supplies, a sewing machine and dress mannequin, before the brainstorming session began.

I'm new to this group, although I'd been asked to join some time back. It's just that meetings usually fall on Sundays, a day I almost always have plans. Over PBR and snacks, we discussed the next screening, how to get people excited about it and, by the end, whether Neil Young was the most important member of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young or not.

From that cultural debate I went on to Strange Matter for more film, albeit of a slightly trashier vein. With John Waters coming to town in a few weeks, the screening of his oeuvre was beginning tonight, and truly, where better than at a gritty venue like SM?

Truth be told, I was a little bummed when I walked in because usually when Movie Club Richmond shows a film there, the front row is lined with old recliners. Not so tonight, it was nothing but the usual sturdy tables and chairs, so I made do with a front row table.

The bartender tried to regale me with the pasta special with vegan meatballs (vegballs?) but all I wanted was a cheeseburger with carrot/radish/apple slaw to accompany 1981's "Polyester," which I wasn't entirely sure I'd seen before.

"Pink Flamingos"? Living in Maryland, so naturally I saw it when it opened. "Female Trouble"? I think so. "Hairspray" and "Serial Mom"? Definitely.

So I definitely knew Divine, the cross-dressing male actor who pretty much defined Waters' early films. Just wasn't certain about "Polyester."

Part of the movie's place in cinematic history is that it used "Odorama" cards to enhance the experience. Wouldn't you just know that the Movie Club contingent had brought a sole Odorama card for us to experience the smells of the movie?

To my great regret, it was sniffed by one person, passed on to another and the rest of us never saw it. Not that I don't know what a rose or passing gas smell like, but it's been too long since I scratched and sniffed.

The movie even began with a fake scientist explaining smell and how the nose works - "You may experience some odors that are repulsive" - in case we weren't sure. Numbers flashed onscreen throughout, alerting the cardholder which number to sniff.

1980 was stamped all over this classic with relics such as Gaines burgers dog food (the ones that looked like hamburgers), aerosol deodorants and blue refrigerators with crocheted happy face ornaments on them, proof this wasn't long after the smiley face "have a nice day" era.

Slutty daughter (who aspires to be a go-go girl at the Flaming Cave Lounge when she's not reading "Farrah's World") wears skintight satin Lycra pants and Dad (whose secretary and mistress sports Bo Derek-like braids) yells at punk-looking son, "Why don't you let that hair grow? You look like a fruit!"

That's right, 1980, when we scolded teenaged boys for not growing their hair long and shows like "Family Ties" portrayed ex-hippie parents having to put up with Republican spawn. The times, they were a-changin'.

Of course, that's all besides the typical John Waters' staples: alcoholism, divorce, abortion, masturbation, fetishes, you know, the usual occupations of suburban Baltimore.

When son Dexter returns rehabilitated after a stint in jail, he's upset at his mother's alcoholism since Dad's departure. "Are you still drinking? Mom, you could stop it. I got off the angel dust."

And when she does dry out and finds love with a handsome, Corvette driving stranger, he's the kind who romantically tells her, "Let me kiss away your DTs, honey." A girl (or even a girdle and bra-wearing man like Divine) couldn't ask for a much better boyfriend.

You see, children? It's not hard to be normal.

That lasts for about a hot minute in "Polyester." In a John Waters movie, you always know that normalcy is illusory. See one of his films young enough and you stop seeking it altogether.

Not sure, but I think that may have also been the overarching theme of "Farrah's World."

No Tigers in London

Turns out Doris Day wasn't always perky.

Despite not waking up till 10:15, I made it to the Bowtie in time for today's Movie and Mimosas feature, "Midnight Lace." I'd never even heard of it, much less of Doris as the terrified heroine of a thriller.

As is getting to be the new norm for the M & M screenings, the film started late and there were multiple glitches ("This operation is currently prohibited for this disc" messages on the big screen), music playing once the movie did start playing, that kind of unprofessional nonsense.

I've seen my share of Doris' romantic comedies, so I knew to expect a fabulous wardrobe, with scads of hats and gloves and fur. What I didn't anticipate was that it took all the way until the second scene before we saw Doris with a muff, a record I'll bet for her.

No joke, no one wore muffs as often in the movies as Doris did, and not those fake fur muffs you see occasionally now (Pru had one with a zipped pocket for her lipstick), but honest-to-god hand warmers made out of former live animals.

Maybe that's what set Doris off on her life's work advocating for animals: guilt.

I'm not sure Doris' forte was drama (she gasps pretty much constantly and cries almost as much) but part of the problem may have been the cheesy script with practically everyone being shown as a possible suspected stalker.

This bad man threatens her in London's dense fog and then begins a series of phone calls spewing what Doris calls filth (it's apparently too filthy for the audience to hear or Doris to share with her husband), promising that she'll be killed by the end of the month.

Good old Aunt Bea, played by the effervescent Myrna Loy, refers to him as "one of those telephone talkers with a kink" before recounting a story about getting a call while she was in Ireland from a man who wanted to personally dress her in black underwear.

"It was the most stimulating minute and a half I spent in Ireland," she joked. You can always count on Myrna Loy to bring the saucy humor. God knows Doris can't.

Her most risqué move is buying a pair of black evening pajamas called "midnight lace." Poor thing, she's only been married three months and her workaholic husband, Rex Harrison, has yet to take her on a honeymoon. When he finally makes plans for them to visit Venice, she goes right out and buys herself that midnight lace ensemble, which gets worn, not in Venice, but in the final scene where gunshots are fired and the stalker revealed.

Aunt Bea, by the way, had shown up with ten (yes, ten) pieces of red luggage (including a leather hat box) an indulgence unimaginable in this era of limited baggage and over-weight fees.

Alcohol ran through every minute of the film, whether it was Doris needing a brandy at the corner pub after being trapped in an elevator, or husband Rex saying, "I'm going to make one for the road."

Because the movie took place in London, scenes were full of men in perfectly-belted trench coats and there were several references to WWII and the bombing of the city. I guess it had only been 15 years before when this movie was made in 1960.

I immediately recognized the actor who played the inspector at Scotland Yard because he was the same one who'd played the inspector in another, better-crafted thriller set in London, "Dial "M" for Murder," made six years earlier and with a much cleverer script plus the luminous Grace Kelly.

And unfortunately, you, Miss Day, are no Grace Kelly. And all the muffs at Universal Studios weren't going to make you one.

Some people just need to stick to perky.

And a Past in Front of Me

I knew all the people would be in place tonight.

The Diamond Center was back after two years in Austin, playing a show at Black Iris. I'd have bet the farm I'd see certain people: the ferocious front woman, the best guitarist/grammarian I know, the red-lipped bass player, the bride-to-be, the hairdresser to the stars and I wasn't disappointed.

Big No were already playing when I got in, so I found a decent place to stand and watch their last couple songs. The show must have started on time and my tardiness had deprived me of their full set. Sounded like it was my loss.

A DJ friend and I got to talking about this weather and he labeled it as not good for much besides napping and cats. So what had he and his lovely curly-haired wife (her hair looking particularly fetching in this humidity tonight) done besides that today, I asked.

"We went grocery shopping, really grocery shopping," he told me, imbuing the words with genuine enthusiasm. Seems they'd taken their sweet time at the store, looking for new items, comparing prices, just taking every little detail in. Because they could and it was as enjoyable a way as any to spend the end of the wet afternoon.

"Then our friends came over for drinks and now we're here!" he said. "That's the whole day."

Well done, sir. His pleasure was still evident.

He got a pained look on his face when he realized he'd forgotten earplugs, so I was a hit when I reached in my bag and pulled out a fresh pair still in the wrapper. His eyes got big and he reached out and gave me a bear hug, I think before he even realized what he was doing.

Saving friends' hearing, two plugs at a time.

Another DJ replaced him for fresh conversation, this time about a person we had in common. He'd worked with this colorful character 20 years ago and I'd interviewed him last spring. My friend said he still remembered some of that guy's malapropisms, such as, "You got a helluva future behind you."

Come on, that's Yogi Berra-worthy, bless his heart.

Then the Diamond Center got started and things got groovy fast. They're touring behind their new album, "Crystals for the Brass Empire," and it was fantastic to hear them playing again.

Guitarist Kyle got the masses in the zone by saying, "Okay, everybody, at the same time, take a big breath," and you could hear a collective inhale, "and exhale saying "om."

When our room-sized "om" wasn't sufficient, he called out, "Louder!" and damned if we didn't get louder.

"Don't you feel better?' he grinned from stage. I don't know about the others, but I felt nothing but good vibes.

To my side, I spotted a friend paying more attention to social media than the show and suggested he live in the moment. He said, "I can't!" but it wasn't long before he finished trying to convince people to come out and just enjoyed the show himself.

Quaint, right?

I always heard the Diamond Center's music as psychedelic but listening to them tonight felt even trippier than it used to and several of the new songs were knockouts, Kyle's guitar chiming through the shifting soundscapes, Brandi's ethereal vocals nd Tim's distinctive drumming created an effect like every past Diamond Center show I recall on steroids.

During one section of a new song, the music was so winningly, optimistically '60s-sounding, you couldn't help but feel like all was right with the world and everything was possible. I let it wash over me.

Interestingly, later, chatting with the library worker,  he described an early Diamond Center show as having had a moment when, "I've never felt so hippie-like in my life." I knew precisely what he meant.

"Come see us at the merch table," Kyle said near the end of their set. "We have lots of stuff. We have records. We have jewelry." There was a moment's pause.

"That's about all we have," he concluded, as if that wasn't plenty.

My favorite shorty regaled me with tales of her upcoming trip to London and Barcelona, with a side trip to the desert, even showing off photos of the low-slung, modern digs they'll be staying in there, complete with outdoor bath tubs.

Because why not in the desert?

In spite of loads of familiar faces (and conversations with all kinds of favorite, interesting people I don't see enough of), there were some new ones, too, and I wondered how many of them might be experiencing the Diamond Center for the first time. If so, Black Iris was a fine place to do it.

Long-time blissed-out fans wouldn't have missed being in place tonight.