Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Ocean Paradise

Postcards from Florida...my first time there doing anything besides changing planes.

Thursday: Full on Florida tourist
As befitting the daughter of a man who never takes the main road when she can meander a back road, we drove from the Orlando airport to Melbourne Beach via Route 1, providing a trailer park introduction to the state. Favorite business name: the Econo-Kill.

Favorite thing about Florida? 70+ degree weather in December. Not only that, but the ocean was warmer than it had been on the Outer Banks in July.

Dinner was at Bunky's, the kind of place that might as well have been in Ocean City, full of visiting families at large tables, food served in baskets and wine chilled in a Budweiser plastic bucket. We sat at a table right next to the aquarium and I did what any self-respecting first-time tourist would: ate a basket of gator tail bites (half fried, half grilled). There, that's done.

And is there anything more restfully wonderful than sleeping with the balcony door to the ocean wide open all night so that the sound and smell of the waves become part of your dreams? Not for me there isn't.

Friday: A day at the races
A good beach vacation day begins with a walk and on ours we saw two fisherman with a very active cooler. Walking up to see what was thrashing inside, we saw an 18" fish of indeterminate species. The guys had no more idea than we did and pulled out a handy-dandy chart/measuring device to determine what they'd snagged. Best guess? A spot, although my walking companion and I had never heard of spots that size.

From gator to greyhounds, we spent the afternoon at Sanford Orlando Kennel Club aka a dog racing track. At the front desk, an ancient and informative woman named Ramona, who'd worked there for 48 years, gave us the scoop and a tip sheet.

Despite a thick program that provided all kinds of information about each racing dog, I chose solely based on the dogs' names (She Ain't Right, Bonafide Gypsy), not the wisest move since out of the eleven races we saw, I won only two (Media Hype and DC Iridescent, both chosen for obvious personal reasons) for a grand total of $6.40. It worked out well, though, because the Patron I drank sitting in the clubhouse watching the lanky dogs run cost $6.84. Never mind all those $2 bets that never panned out.

We drove home with our non-existent winnings through Cocoa Beach (a place I remembered as the setting for "I Dream of Jeanie"), deciding to eat there and naturally when you're on vacation at the beach, where do you want to eat but at a German restaurant?

The Heidelberg was like a '70s time capsule of a restaurant and I mean that in a charming way. With upside-down patio umbrellas hanging over curved banquettes and brightly-colored, groovy paintings on the wall, it seemed like a place our parents could have gone, right down to the guy at the piano playing things like "Edelweiss" and "Climb Every Mountain" while we ate cheese fondue and goulash. I wouldn't be surprised if it had been there during Jeanie's days.

After a leisurely dinner where we outlasted everyone and got activity recommendations from our affable server, Joe (who became our devoted friend when we laughed at his "Homie don't play that" joke), we moved to the other side of the building, the Heidelberg's companion, Heidi's jazz club.

"The Way You Look Tonight" was playing when we walked in to a room of all couples, dark and romantic and, again, feeling very much like a throwback. Heidi greeted us, suggesting a ringside table for the Ron Teixeira trio, but we took a table further back so we could watch other couples woo in front of us. The band was made up of long-time musicians, comfortable and talented, and their repertoire ranged from Duke Ellington to Elton John and lots of slow songs for the couples who wanted to dance.

You know how old school Heidi's was? A photographer went table to table asking couples if he could take their picture (black and white, natch) for a souvenir of their Cocoa Beach evening. Is Florida fabulous or what?

Saturday: Insert culture
We had lunch plans all the way over in Lakeland, a two-plus hour drive that took us past a serpentarium, a place that would have repulsed me but whose name I found very clever. The unexpected treat of the afternoon was a visit to Florida Southern College, not because of its Methodist roots but because it has the largest concentration of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings anywhere in the world.

Now I took a lot of architecture history classes but I can't recall ever learning that bit of info. Wright apparently thought most college campuses were architectural failures and set out to correct that with a blank slate in the flatlands of Florida. Who knew? The afternoon was sunny and perfect for a stroll around the campus, admiring esplanades and covered breezeways so low even I could touch the ceilings with my fingertips.

The centerpiece of the campus was the Annie Pfeiffer chapel and we went inside it to admire its cantilevered balconies and colored glass-inset walls made of sandcast blocks shining jewel-like in the late afternoon sun. And here I'd expected Florida to be a cultural wasteland.

This time we meandered back toward Melbourne beach via Vero beach, stopping for dinner at Citrus Grill, a seaside restaurant in a tony little area of boutiques and eateries and wildly busy on a Saturday evening. It was about as far from Bunky's as possible and we took seats at the bar for dinner.

Beginning with a bottle of Piper Heidsieck allowed us to learn about one of the staff's little games. Apparently whenever a customer orders bubbles, the bartender takes the wire cage from the top of the bottle, shapes it into a turtle and leaves it somewhere around the bar for another server to discover.

He set our turtle on a container behind a screen and a server found it within a few minutes, but he showed us one he'd done and put next to a bottle of liquor and said it had been there for months.

More interested in food than games, we began with one of the evening's specials, an heirloom tomato slice topped with onion salad and a head-on U-5 prawn, which I followed with an entree of grilled sourdough with another gorgeous tomato slice topped by lightly pan-fried flounder, a stellar marriage of incredibly fresh flavors.

I have to say, the abundance of local and heirloom tomatoes was an unexpected surprise since we've long since lost that luxury here and I took advantage of it whenever I could. Tomatoes with flavor in the last days of December? Yes, more please.

As if Citrus Grill hadn't already won my heart with its creative and well-executed food, they sealed the deal with a dessert menu that included "dessert bites" at $3 each. You know, for those times you need just a couple of bites of sweet to balance out your savory. I only wish some Richmond restaurants would jump on that trend.

We sold out, though, choosing three bites for $8, still a great deal and offering us a variety of sweet endings - key lime pie, cheesecake topped with apple compote and a chocolate cake with chocolate cream- even though we were stuffed by then and didn't need another bite.

But on vacation, you ignore those little details.

Sunday: Dangerously local
The beach walk began by walking south for a change and it wasn't long before I spotted what looked like a piece of blue sea glass but turned out to be a small brilliantly blue jellyfish still moving on the sand, so not dead. Amazed at such a thing, I took a picture only to discover as we walked further along at least a dozen more just as blue.

A thunderstorm was rolling in and it began sprinkling just as we got back, so we took books to the balcony for a while and read while the storm moved from the causeway behind us to the ocean in front of us. I was reading Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar," so the tempestuous weather was a practically perfect accompaniment to her personal upheavals.

Our bodies exercised, our minds stimulated, we set out for sustenance and fun, deciding to head over to the Indian river side and look for a waterside place to spend the afternoon. We were sold as soon as we saw a sprawling place called Squid Lips and I about went into paroxysms of excitement when I saw that their sign said, "Johnny Danger 2-7 p.m." It was 2:45.

Holy cow, we couldn't have asked for a better, more Florida-like place to wile away the afternoon. Situated where a grand old hotel called the Oleander had once stood (I know because I read an old newspaper clipping and the historical sign), Squid Lips was a multi-room venue with something for everyone.

Our first choice would have been the sand bar on the beach, but the weather had closed it, so we got the next best room, the one open on two sides to the river and with variable-layered canvas awnings for a roof. Johnny Danger was on break when we arrived, allowing time for us to find a table near the river and order food and drink.

Over the next four hours, it would rain for a while then clear up, both of which made for stunning views of the river, coastline and bridge. During one brief shower, we even got a pod of dolphins frolicking right in front of us.

Squid Lips wasn't going to give the Citrus any competition, but my basket of fried shrimp and fries went quite well with my Patron and we had a great view of the stage, such as it was (actually a platform off the walkway connecting one of the upper bars to the outside one where we were).

Johnny knew his crowd and played to it ("Hey, I'm looking at you, bald guy at the bar!"), with nothing more than a guitar, his voice and a karaoke machine that provided all the sounds of a band and back-up singers anyone could hope for on a Sunday afternoon. Steve Miller Band, Temptations, Billy Idol, he had the crowd dancing in no time, even yours truly.

I'm not gonna lie; when someone as dreamy and talented as Johnny danger croons, girls just wanna have fun. True story, even if it is to an Eric Clapton song.

During a pit stop just before leaving, I met a local named Hillary with an almost-crew cut and red and blue feathers dangling from her ears and asked for tips on where to eat, drink and hear music. By the time she finished with me, I could have stayed another month and never had a night free. I found out where to go for tango lessons and about the classic rock band that goes to their van mid-set and puts on beards and brings out a spinner guitar to play ZZ Top tunes.

I felt like we were kindred souls in our passions for our respective neighborhoods.

Monday:
We did the Melbourne beach version of the pipeline walkway as we repeatedly walked over an enormous pipeline on the beach laid there to pump sand in to help make reparations after Hurricane Sandy. Beginning our walk at a state park, we saw a crude sign saying "Home break of the Melbourne surf club," a clever phrase that alerted us to the fact that even surfers form clubs.

Walking this new-to-us stretch of beach on a cloudy day, we were astounded to find fishermen with companion animals. One guy had a pelican who let us get within three feet of him, giving us the eye as if to decide whether we might have fish in hand. The fisherman said, "He's my friend. He turns up everyday while I fish, been doing that for five months now."

Another guy had a crane who did the same, sometimes walking right up to his cooler to see if any pieces of bait were left behind for him. It made for really easy picture-taking, but somehow seemed wrong in terms of survival of the species.

For lunch, we went to a joint called Bizarro's pizza, run by obvious Jersey transplants (lots of hair product, lots of gold chains, lots of attitude) who yelled to the kitchen staff in Spanish ("No chilis!") in between cracking jokes with customers. We ate outside where seagulls walked over people's feet to score dropped bits of pie.

Since it was our last day, we decided to take the ritual beach nap, awakening to find the clouds gone and the sun waiting for us downstairs at Rio's the oceanside bar we'd so far only frequented at the end of an evening. Refreshed from a nap after doing nothing more taxing than eating and walking, we watched the sun turn clouds to pink and reflect off the ocean for the last time this trip.

After the final vacation bottle of Piper Heidsieck, we took our last dinner at Cities Grill, notable mainly for fake torches, a lovely $6 glass of Pinot Noir and a good-sized $6 bowl of plump mussels that would have cost more almost anywhere I can think of. Prime rib and a burger rounded out our last evening in Florida before returning to the balcony for some late night Roxy Music-inspired Pandora.

Do I have what it takes to be a snowbird and spend winters in Florida, surrounded by cattle ranches and citrus groves, friendly pelicans and dessert bites?

Well, I suppose if the right oceanside no-tell motel owner wanted a social director to lead the limbo contest or organize a weekly late night dance, I'd consider it.

No photographer, no gator bites. But every room includes a bottle of Piper Heidsieck and is oceanfront. Most especially mine.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Second Chance at Happiness

Some things about Christmas don't change.

There's always a shared meal on Christmas eve starting with a pomegarante salad followed by multiple main courses to appease various tastes.

We began with a South African, always the way to get my attention, in this case the Star Tree Brut, a lovely wine, tasting of spicy pear and the promise of the holiday.

My favorite part of this year's meal (because I did not have to prepare it but got to enjoy anyway) was the hearty and savory dish of pork, sauerkraut, apples and potatoes, heightened by the honeysuckle notes of the rich Jean-Baptiste Adam Gewurztraminer we drank with it.

Others ate a chicken dish I did prepare from a chicken raised in Culpeper, a chicken whose throat had been cut by one of the guests, but at least a chicken who had lived a happy, farm life and not spent his numbered days in a tiny coop.

Dinner over, we gathered our forces to face the madding crowds at the Byrd theater for the annual viewing of "It's a Wonderful Life," a film guaranteed to bring tears to the eyes of strong men and sentimental women.

The line was already around the Daily when our posse arrived, but we made it inside before the line was cut off and people's Christmas eve dreams were dashed.

We ended up way in the back- fourth row from the back- but with buttered popcorn and Milk Duds procured, it wasn't so bad.

The evening unexpectedly began with manager Todd doing a black and white slide show of the Byrd's history, showing the original smaller 1928 proscenium and non-existent concession stand.

How did people sit through movies without snackage?

The 1970s slide he showed had corrected both those issues but still looked vastly different than today.

We saw a picture of the days when the lobby included a pond with fish, which turned out to be more trouble than it was worth, so the fish soon exited, stage right.

There were shots of the enormous Byrd chandelier, which he said weighed 2 1/2 tons and contained over 5.100 pieces of Czechoslovakian crystal.

When it came time to clean it, he said it took fifteen minutes to crank it down to a reachable level but an hour and fifteen to crank it back up to its rightful place on the ceiling.

"So we hired strapping, young gentlemen to do the job for us," he said, showing a slide of said gentlemen.

After the history lesson, Bob Gulledge and the mighty Wurlitzer arose from the bowels of the building for the annual Christmas singalong.

Say what you will about cheesy songs belted out by the tone-deaf, but on Christmas eve, it's actually pretty endearing.

Then it was time for the reason for the evening, that 1946 classic, "It's a  Wonderful Life," the movie that reminds us how much of an effect each of us has on the lives of so many others.

True, I've watched this holiday classic at the Byrd for close to twenty years but I've yet to tire of the sweet story or of watching Jimmy Stewart as the man who gets nothing he thinks he wants but everything he truly does.

I happen to think that sometimes life works out that way for many of us.

Christmas morning dawned sunny but far too cold for me, although I took my daily walk anyway, but only after a hearty breakfast that left the apartment reeking of bacon, always a good thing.

Walking through nearby Carver was like strolling a ghost town with only a few cars on the road and absolutely no one, not even dog walkers, on the streets.

The only sign of life was coming from a non-descript house near the garage where I take my car; from it emanated the extremely loud sound of drums and bass, a Christmas day band practice it sounded like.

Given the solitude of the neighborhood, I paused and listened for a while, enjoying the energy and volume piercing the holiday morning emptiness.

My guests began arriving mid-afternoon, some who were part of last years' celebration and others who weren't and a few still hungover from their eve celebrating.

Ignoring that, we began by popping a bottle of Tendil & Lombardi blanc de noir champagne, an absolutely gorgeous creamy sparkler that was a Christmas gift in and of itself.

I was also gifted with books, including a cultural history called "New York by Gaslight," written by a Richmonder in 1850 about the seamier side of the growing city, and two perfectly lovely pieces of small sculpture made by VCU sculpture students.

Our soundtrack ranged from 1958's "Johnny Mathis Merry Christmas" to 1965's "A Charlie Brown Christmas" to the Carpenters' 1978 "Christmas Portrait."

For a good decade now, my traditional Christmas dinner has been cheeseburgers and tonight was no different except that I got out of cooking  by ceding control of the kitchen to those who do it for a living, another Christmas gift.

Enjoying a bottle of beautifully balanced Bouchaine Carneras pinot noir with our bacon, cheese and fried onion-laden burgers, everyone seemed perfectly okay with my non-traditional Christmas supper.

It was during a dessert of Christmas cookies and an obscenely rich chocolate cake that I took advantage of a new-to-me Christmas gift CD, Nils Lofgren's "White Lies," a blast from the past I'd owned in college that got high marks from the guitarist at the table, who questioned what genre the album was considered.

Honestly, that's a tough call since music genres weren't nearly as specific in the '70s as they are now.

What I like most about the album is how side one is labeled "rocking" and side two "dreamy."

If you'd asked me in college, that's exactly how I'd have hoped my life would turn out - part rocking and part dreamy.

It has. Call it post-Christmas bliss, but I think I think I've got my wonderful life.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Like Liquid Poetry in Motion

What began as a fairly low key and casual birthday celebration ended up as a bartending tour de force.

A friend was celebrating her birthday at Balliceaux so her paramour sent out invitations to the select few, tempting all with, "Mr. Bobby Kruger will be manning the bar that night just in case you want a tasty cocktail."

I didn't but I did want to see my friends, so I RSVP'd yes.

The reply? "Please try and refrain from planning 3 events that night so you can actually spend some time. Worst case, arrive a bit late but don't leave at like 8:30 p.m. and give me some lame excuse."

This is one bossy host.

So I cleared the decks, not difficult on Christmas Eve eve, and showed up promptly at 7:10 to celebrate.

Bobby was prepared for our party, having devised several cocktails for the evening using the birthday girl's favorite flavors, but he'd also kept me in mind knowing that I'm not a cocktail drinker.

Thus tonight became my introduction to mezcal with Del Maguey Chichicapa mezcal, enjoyed neat and recommended by Bobby as vegetal and slightly sweet.

For a woman whose only spirit is tequila, mezcal is not much of a leap and yet I found it to be a spicier flavor profile than tequila and more complex.

My friend the host reminded me that we'd met at this very bar and, being a numbers guy, even know when - three years, six months and eleven days ago.

Yea, he's that guy.

At the party were several of the couple's friends whom I'd met at his birthday party a couple of years ago, along with a mutual bartender friend who very recently moved back from Colorado.

Early on in the evening, there was a lot of drink tasting as Bobby made new cocktails for someone in our group and they were passed around for consideration and comment.

It was a recipe for sharing germs, not that anyone cared.

Bobby admitted most were so new they hadn't been named, but a blueberry miso got a lot of thumbs up and a frothy cardamon cocktail with balsamic had the birthday girl licking the bottom of her coupe, always a good sign.

Me, I just stuck with more Chichicapa, sharing sips with those interested.

The birthday girl took some ribbing about her new haircut, a proud father talked about how different his small children were, another bartender friend showed up and a couple announced that they intended to finish three bottles of champagne by noon on Christmas day.

Before long, members of the RVA big band began showing up and setting up in the back while our party mowed through multiple plates of finger foods like charcuterie and cheese, tandoori fried cauliflower, truffle fries, garlic edamame hummus with pita and fried oysters.

Next thing we knew, Balliceaux was packed and while we were taking up the front bar and the area right around it, soon Bobby was inundated with people wanting to drink.

The funniest moment came when a duo asked for a cocktail and a certain beer. "You know that beer is smokey, right?" he asked. "Judging by the look on your face, that's not going to work for you."

It didn't and she got a National Bohemian instead.

From the back, the strains of "Santa Baby" could be heard over the roar of people talking and asking for drinks.

The beauty in having arrived so early was that we'd established a beach head and enjoyed our space at the bar even while all hell was breaking loose around us as people continued to stream in.

It was like the holiday floodgates had opened and everyone had made a beeline for Balliceaux.

Since I knew from previous holidays that things get crazy at Balliceaux, I wasn't the least shocked at the mob scene that was developing, but my friends were amazed by it.

Considering how many places are closed tonight, where do you expect the pretty people to go and be seen before the drudgery of forced family fun begins?

Things finally got so crazy that Bobby had to stop making craft cocktails, limiting his service to beer, wine and basics like highballs and shots.

Finally, my friend, a former bartender at Amuse, couldn't stand it any longer and asked Bobby if he needed help.

The grateful look on his face said it all.

With two people back there, they plowed through the crowd more quickly than before, although people kept arriving at an alarming rate.

When it became clear that more help was needed, we lost another in our party, this time a former bartender from Acacia, who rolled up his sleeves and started washing and polishing glasses between pouring beers like the Sweet Baby Jesus chocolate peanut butter porter.

Granted, one of the earlier cocktails had been referred to as "banana nut bread in a glass," but isn't that a bit much for a beer?

By the time the three pros were all behind the bar together, things finally began to settle down as everyone got served quickly and efficiently and our party watched our two friends (and former party guests) pick up the slack when their rightful place was on our side of the bar.

Of course, none of the customers realized what had just happened, but I'm sure to Bobby it felt like a Christmas miracle.

My slightly loopy host probably thought the miracle was that I stayed all night.

That's my guess because for the first time in three years, six months and eleven days of friendship, he kissed my cheek when I went to leave.

I can't wait to remind him that now he's that guy.

Monday, December 23, 2013

What More Can I Do?

My evening took flight unexpectedly when the phone rang.

It was a dear friend who'd just moved back to Richmond yesterday from halfway across the country.

About to head to Saison, he'd called because I live so close and he figured I might be able to join him, despite the fact that we already knew we'll see each other at a party tomorrow night.

Why not? My work was finished for the day and I had time before the show tonight, so I took a spin through the shower and headed down Marshall Street to meet him.

I expect there will be a lot of us meeting up in my future because he's moving into Jackson Ward this week, a fact that delights me no end.

There he was waiting at the bar with his cousin, also a Ward resident, looking just as happy and handsome as ever, if a bit tired.

But there was good reason for that; he'd worked a 15-hour day training his replacement at work, gotten up the next day and packed up all his belongings and started driving across the country.

I told him it was a good thing he's young and strong, but he just laughed and said all he needed was to face-plant for while and he'd be fine.

In honor of seeing each other, we decided to have a tequila flight, made even better by the bartender regaling us with tales of his excursions to Mexico to taste tequila and mezcal and even visit some distilleries.

The flight was educational (I'd only had one of the tequilas before) and delicious: tequila Ocho blanco, Partida reposado and Chinaco anejo.

My friend had recommended the Ocho because it was the first tequila to bear a vintage signifying the year and location of the agave harvest, which led to a discussion of how after wine, agave is the spirit most reflective of terroir.

Factoids aside, it didn't hurt that it was an earthy blanco, the purest expression of agave.

I'd had the Partida before, recalling that it was aged in oak Jack Daniels' barrels, resulting in a nice sweetness and easy drinking quality to it.

The bartender raved about the Chinaco anejo for its tropical and pepper notes, but it was the chocolate on the nose that made it taste so decadent to me.

It's a treat to have a good tequila menu in the neighborhood.

We got off on the topic of Christmas shopping when the bartender said he still had his to do. I'd talked to a male friend this afternoon who was also planning to do all his shopping tomorrow.

I pointed out that it's a sure bet that it'll be mostly men in the stores for the next two days and the bartender agreed, saying in addition to shopping for eight nieces and nephews, he needed to get "some girlfriend things."

Don't screw that up, I warned him. "Huh, yea!" he responded, clearly aware of what was at stake.

Peace on earth, that's what. At least for him.

After my friend left to get some rest time in, I got myself to Live at Ipanema for some last minute pre-holiday music because heavens knows when the next time I'll get any will be.

I'm fine with decking the halls and all, right up until it starts cutting into my music and then, not so much.

Tonight's show was billed as the Milkstains' first-ever Christmas miracle party time and if you've seen the Milkstains play (and I have but only twice), you know that guarantees a good time.

The crowd was small when I got there but I spotted a few familiar faces - a drummer who'd moved to Austin and was back for Christmas, the cute husband of a girlfriend who was home in bed, the violinist I'd seen play the other night- and took a stool at the end of the bar.

Before long, a sous chef friend came in with his out-of-town posse and I met a few new people, one of whom sat down next to me and wound up providing company for the rest of the evening.

He was an interesting guy, like me a native Washingtonian but currently living in Manhattan, and before long we were talking music, quality of life and how being an outcast in high school prepares you for life.

Both bands scheduled to play tonight didn't show up till late, so there was plenty of time for socializing, especially since practically everyone seems to have the week off, meaning no curfews for a change.

My new friend suggested I join him in a drink, so an Espolon was ordered and we found ringside seats for the action.

He was curious about why everyone in Richmond seems so happy and likes it here so much and naturally, I have plenty to say on that subject, so we became fast friends.

At long last Diamond Hairbrush, a drums and bass duo, got set up, overdressed on this unseasonably warm night with the drummer in a shirt and tie and the bassist in a hoodie with a cap on.

On a 64-degree night in a low-slung room, they became hot and sweaty really quickly.

They played hard and fast, even with a song with a mild-mannered title like "Oreo," and at one point the drummer asked what song was next on the set list.

"The weird one," the bassist replied.

"They're all weird," the drummer responded, counting off anyway.

Their set was as short as their songs and during the break, a lot more people arrived - the DJ who'd given me a fabulous tape and promised me another this week, the art teacher come to see her boyfriend at work, the music critic claiming she was late because she's old (What does that make me? I asked. "F*cking amazing!" she claimed) and probably lots of Milkstains fans.

Once the band got set up, bass player Gabe disappeared meaning the set couldn't start, so I used the time to head to the bathroom.

Imagine my surprise as I walked toward the back and saw Gabe coming from the kitchen wearing a red glitter Santa hat over his long, dark hair and decked out in a green felt Christmas tree costume adorned with ornaments and working colored lights, sleeveless so that it showed off his multitude of tattoos.

Grabbing and kissing me en route, he said, "It's Christmas, baby!" and kept on for the front. It was showtime.

The Milkstains are high-energy surf rock, great fun to watch and with this being a holiday show, determined to make it festive.

The drummer wore a black Santa cap and the guitarist dropped his red one over his pedals, grinding it under his shoe.

Between garage rock and psychedelia gems, they threw out presents to the crowd - Milkstains cassette tapes and t-shirts- and even did a solid cover of "Blue Christmas."

A few songs in and my new friend from NYC turned and asked me why no one was dancing.

My guess was that the restaurant is small and the crowd had grown quite large, but the truth is, there's rarely dancing at Live at Ipanema. It's just not that kind of show or venue.

Naturally, that theory was soon upended when they decided to close with "All I Want for Christmas is You."

Gabe proclaimed it a singalong and three girls wasted no time in jumping on the mic, but basically, the room exploded as everyone began dancing madly to the boisterous Christmas staple.

The New Yorker was twerking against me, the music critic and I were bumping hips and all of a sudden, it was a very loud Christmas dance party.

And quite possibly, the most raucously enjoyable close to a Live at Ipanema I've been to and I've been to a lot of them.

Who knew "All I Want for Christmas" was such a crowd-pleaser?

But I shouldn't be surprised. It's Christmas, baby.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Back That Thing Up

I let the weather determine my destination.

Looking at options of Bollywood music, a punk documentary or comedy, I went with the latter solely because Richmond Comedy Coalition's theater is five blocks away and I just couldn't see driving anywhere on a 66 degree December night.

Walking over there, I passed a crowd of kids in front of the hookah bar and saw the beginnings of a line of scantily-clad girls starting to form at the club across the street, all signs of Saturday night in the city, albeit a scaled-back one given how many people have already left town.

I arrived at the comedy club just minutes before the 10:00 "Middle Management" improv show began, tonight with guest Barry Hite from Chicago and a Second City alum.

Asking for a song lyric to get the show started, the guy next to me called out, "Back that thing up" and they were off and running.

I've seen these guys before but I never cease to be amazed at how quickly and cleverly words flow out of their mouths as they create comedy on the spot.

The first sketch involved bags of onions, repressed traumas and using caboodles to compartmentalize your feelings, surprisingly funny elements.

And while Barry explained what a caboodle was in the context of the sketch, I'd like to point out that I already knew.

Next they riffed on an alleged murderer and his lawyer trying to get a long-time friend to vouch for his character, not easy when every memory seemed to involved the guy doing something truly awful.

And hysterical.

Another sketch involved a father losing his job at the onion factory and making it up to his kids by taking them to visit their long-lost mother in jail, a woman who begins a conversation with her children by saying, "I thought I tried to abort you."

And all that came out of "back that thing up."

For the second half of the show, additional RCC members came onstage and Barry would tell a story from his past that they would then spin into comedy gold.

He began with the story of his first post-high school job working at a Spaghetti Warehouse, which he called a budget Olive Garden, where he smoked eucalyptus cigarettes and dealt with a staff composed of drug addicts, burnt-out chefs and losers.

The ensuing sketch involved a creative team "spitballing" to come up with ideas of how to create a restaurant like Olive Garden, "but shittier."

Bouncing ideas around, they came up with limited bread sticks as the perfect way to do it, at least until two of the guys started fighting over whose idea it had been.

Barry told another story about his frustration when he can't find something - his wallet or keys, say- summarizing, "I'm a nice person when it comes to people, but I'm a terrible friend to objects."

From there, they took off with a rage-filled man who tosses all the furniture out of his house in frustration, leaving his cowering son to find his favorite chair on the sidewalk and beg to keep it.

He ends up going to a meeting of like-minded furniture haters, confesses he not only slept in a bed but used a cover at his wife's insistence, causing them to call her the devil.

The last sketch was about three guys who'd formed the Monday Funday Movie Club and were trying to choose their next film to watch.

One guy made a stellar defense of drama, but things got complicated because another guy didn't want drama because it's too much like real life and his sucked.

Along the way, they acted out scenes from "Three Men and a Baby" and a bad Japanese martial arts film while the audience cracked up.

That's the best part of all. I walk a few blocks, talented people entertain me and, after a day spent entirely in my own company, I am laughing out loud for an hour and a half with strangers.

For the record, this is why I can watch drama.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Hold On

Start with a fairy and end with a spider.

Before meeting a friend at Amuse for our traditional Christmas drink, I stopped at the ticket desk to get one for tonight's showing of "The Blues Brothers."

Sure, I've had 35 years to see that movie, but I never seemed to make time to see it until tonight. 

No matter how little I got into the story, I was quite sure of two things: that the musical guests would be worth it and that the 1980 period details would be, too.

So you can imagine my surprise when I told the ticket girl I'd never seen it, presuming she would be surprised.

"I fell asleep trying to watch it," she said sounding half-guilty about it. "Maybe cause it was on TV with all the commercials, but I didn't get through the whole thing."

Then the girl next to her chimed in, saying she'd tried to watch it on Netflix and still found it hard to sit through.

Something about different editing back then and how she kept thinking the story was ending but there was always more.

It was not an auspicious start to a movie-going evening.

Leaving the naysayers behind, I walked upstairs to Amuse in time to see the very orange sun slide behind the trees, somehow a reminder of today's unexpectedly balmy weather.

We celebrated the impending holidays with red (her Ruby Slipper cocktail) and green (my absinthe drip) and some very groovy '60s songs like "Just Walk Away, Renee," one of those songs you don't hear every day.

The amuse bouche was creamed butternut squash with bacon jam and we followed that with pork belly poutine, because what could go better with what we were drinking and celebrating than over-indulgence?

Friend gave me a lovely pair of gloves, the kind that go far beyond my wrists and have polished-looking pleats and detailing, the kind that will make me look far more sophisticated than I am.

We gabbed about our holiday plans while finishing off round two and laughing a lot.

After saying goodnight, I made it down to the theater just in time for the movie to begin.

I'd wondered if there would be others who'd never seen it before and from the first condom joke, there was major tittering from one particular row in the back, providing my answer.

One of the first things that caught my eye was that the Blues Brothers' black and white police car, a 1974 Dodge, is so very like the design of the new Richmond cop cars.

The second was how young Dan Akyroid's face and body looked, striking because I'd recently seen him in 1984's "Ghostbusters" and he looked even younger here.

Of course, the music was terrific - John Lee Hooker, Cab Calloway, Aretha, Ray Charles and we'd been told to look for James Brown's song because he'd refused to lip-synch it so it'd been done live- and songs like "Crazy About That Hard-Headed Woman of Mine,"  didn't hurt.

Then there were the 1980 details like when someone puts a Decca record on or says a bottle of Dom Perignon '77 is $100 or record stores have three sections: gospel tapes, blues tapes, soul tapes.

Or when amplifiers upholstered in red shag are mentioned. Reel to reel tape players, working phone booths (occasionally being blown up), $2 show tickets.

Favorite line: I took the liberty of bullshitting you.

Now I've seen it, now I know.

From there I went to Zeus to meet a friend starting his celebration of the winter solstice tonight, arriving only in time for a piping hot Manchego and bacon croquette made even better with pickled peppadews before being invited to his place to listen to music. Again. Loudly.

As if that deal needed to be sweetened, he ordered the Belgian chocolate cake (it's practically an institution it's been on that menu for so long) to go with the bottle of Graham Beck Brut Rose chilling at his house to accompany the chocolate and musical volume.

Some would say that the fact that you can almost always get my attention with a South African is common knowledge.

With some clear insight and musical savvy, he led with the Finn Brothers "Everyone is Here," then slid into some mid 90s jangly indie pop only to then scored majorly with Captain Sensible.

I hate to give him too much credit because he was really trying to make a case for his idea that the good captain's song "I Am the Spider" be used by UR at basketball games.

Forget that, what I heard was a new wave version of well-crafted pop songs full of layers of sound a la Todd Rundgren.

He played me songs off of three different Captain Sensible albums covering twenty years, all of which made me want to dance in some fashion or other.

Best line of the night: It's not too loud, is it?

To this hard-headed woman, it certainly was not. And I am not taking the liberty of bullshitting you.

Friday, December 20, 2013

I Love Lucy's

Twas the Friday before Christmas
And all through the Ward
Glad tidings were abounding
Lucy's has come on board!

On my walk this morning, I headed up 2 Street to mail some last minute Christmas postcards and there on the sidewalk sat the long-awaited sign.

Lucy's, Jackson Ward's newest eatery, was open at last. Cue heavenly chorus of angels.

Immediately, my plans were altered. I had a 12:30 phone interview with a rabbi and a 2:00 curator interview at a Broad Street gallery, conveniently leaving just over an hour in between for a mid-day meal.

When I got there, I took a minute to admire the hand-crafted metal door proclaiming the restaurant's name and address with an assemblage of farm implements welded to the bottom half of the framework.

It is truly a sculptural thing of beauty.

Inside, I found a well thought-out space with brick walls, booths named after people who'd been of service in creating the space and a handsome, long bar of wood.

Joining two male customers at the bar, I wasted no time in saying how happy I was that my neighborhood has a new restaurant. Both men agreed, although neither live here.

The lunch menu had a nice range of creative sandwiches and salads, several of which featured Monrovia Farms beef from co-owner Amanda's sister's farm in Westmoreland County.

Having been to Monrovia Farms to interview the owners last summer, I can attest to the cows being raised there as some happy bovine, which means tasty meat.

Wine had arrived, but not beer yet, but since I still had another interview to do, I stuck with non-alcoholic beverage and ordered the HRT of house roasted turkey breast with avocado, house-pickled red onion and slaw on toasted wheat, a hearty sandwich and picked a side salad rather than housemade mesa chips to go with it.

Musically, the starting point had been Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers ("I figured that wouldn't offend anyone," my server said), making for a solid blend of old and new roots rock, perfectly pleasant with the sun shining in the big front window.

The sandwich was a solid winner, thick with turkey and getting a satisfying kick from the pickled onion and good crunch from the slaw. The side salad was far better than it needed to be with slices of celery and cucumber, carrot matchsticks, grape tomatoes and a wide-ranging array of greens.

Surely I'm not the only person who appreciates when a side salad is not a throwaway.

During lunch, the guy near me eating the O'Brien (roast beef, turkey breast, cured pork loin, salami and swiss with spicy relish mayo on a baguette) said the sandwich was named after him and I had no reason not to believe him.

He went on to bemoan his family's current home renovation which has necessitated them eating out for months.

"There's no good restaurants on the southside," he concluded. "The best is Chicken Fiesta because it's real food and simple."

Our server agreed and I abstained since I've not eaten there.

The walls of the restaurant were notable for their unique adornments. On one were paintings done by Amanda and on another were three framed "living walls."

I'd seen living walls only once at a Richmond Symphony designer house a few years ago and apparently that's where she'd seen them too, the difference being she'd been ambitious enough to create her own while I just admired them.

They were a thing of beauty, full of tiny plants in varying shades of green and leaf size and apparently thriving on the south wall near the sunny window.

It's the kind of considered touch that I'd already noticed at Lucy's.

While we'd been eating, a guy I knew from my RTD days walked in from a nearby office, asking if it was their first day open and taking a menu back to the office with him.

I'm willing to bet he'll be back for food before long, although perhaps not before I get back over there for another crack at that menu, maybe the mixed bean party salad or the downtown cheddar.

My devotion to Jackson Ward is a seven plus-year affair at this point and Lucy's is just one more reason why.

But don't take my word for it. The "open" sign is out there on 2 Street, inviting everyone in.

Even those not fortunate enough to live in the Ward.

Ending Properly

To paraphrase Tiny Tim, god bless us, every one in Richmond.

I say that because after a day that included driving to southside (thrifting and I got the cutest $1 dress), walking to Broad (interviewing a curator), hearing my name called in the middle of Broad Street (and being unexpectedly handed a gift) and taking my hired mouth out to eat, I wanted something more.

And, god bless this town, I didn't have to look far to find it. The catch was the finality of it.

The Well, the reincarnation of the restaurant Cous Cous smack in the middle of VCU's campus, will soon be no more.

But tonight they were holding their last/one of their last music shows and the lineup looked good enough to get me over there.

That, and I wanted to add to my list of doomed restaurants holding final shows I attend (see: Sprout, Cellar Door). As added incentive, the Well is where I fainted last Valentine's Day, so it holds a unique place in my heart.

The night got off to a fine start when I had to claim to be having an affair with a girlfriend in order to placate a male friend who hadn't seen either of us in a while.

Don't ask.

Before things got overly revealing, the music began with Spacemonster, a lo-fi, bedroom pop one-man project with plenty of looping and catchy songs, most of which had abrupt endings.

While he was playing, I noticed the strangest smell in the room and the only thing I could think of was that it smelled like skunk, which seemed like an unlikely possibility.

That said, toward the end of Spacemonster's set, I heard a guy ask a girl why it smelled like skunk in there.

Good question.

The show had been set up so that as bands were breaking down/setting up, you could go up into the lounge area where Lobo Marino would be playing their world music.

I did just that, joining a few other people to watch their percussion and harmonium-accompanied music being played tucked away in a corner as people joined us one by one.

Percussionist Jameson got so into it in the small space that he was soon shedding his sweater and hat to cool down.

What was interesting was that because of the talking in the other room and the fact that they were up a few stairs and tucked away, you'd never know they were playing unless you came all the way up and could hear their un-amplified sound.

Hidden music, an unexpected treat.

Then just as one of their songs ended, music began in the main room.

Quartet Antiphons played a sort of experimental folk, notable for singer Brian's high warble.

Midway through their set, he said, "Uh-oh, I dropped a semi-translucent pick on the floor," a problem given the white tile floor.

A fan soon found it, allowing them to do a Built to Spill cover that had the drummer wailing but his white cardigan never came off.

Cool is as cool does.

After playing the original "Billowing/Bellowing," Brian dismissed the band. "Give a hand to these guys," he instructed, "Cause they make me sound way better than I do by myself and now I'm gonna play by myself."

When he finished, I went back up to catch another Lobo Marino set and found a couple of friends there, one with gossip to share.

This was their Christmas set, with "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "O Holy Night," both rolled into non-holiday songs for some clever mash-ups.

This time, there were more people listening since it had been announced from the stage that they'd be playing in the lounge.

The secret was out.

By the time Spandrel began playing, some of the earlier crowd had been replaced by newcomers. Given how close we are to the holiday week, I had no doubt that the people who are left in town would continue to arrive, looking for something to do.

What Spandrel had going for them was male/female vocalists, nice harmonies and a lush sound that should have been mic'd better.

A friend came over to stand next to me, complaining that she was trying to find a place in the room where she could best hear the vocals. I told her I thought the vocals were way too low in the mix and that was the problem, not her position.

It's not like I know anything, just that I couldn't hear them well enough, either.

On their last song, another melodic gem perfect for driving music, the ending was abrupt and a bit rough before singer Kylie said goodnight.

Guitarist Timmy was having none of it.

"I can fix this," he said, starting a do-over. "We're gonna end this song properly."

And did they ever. With lots of pedals and effects, they delivered a glorious music-from-a-cave (my favorite, you know) sound that ended with knob turning and feedback.

Now that's what I'm talking about.

After a busy day focused on all the things I had to get done, how perfect to end my evening with friends to talk to and new music to listen to.

It's a shame the Well is almost gone. Tonight was a reminder of how much good music I've seen there.

Hopefully something new will arise from its ashes...with any luck, sans the skunk smell.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Follow Me

Every year, the holidays get in the way of my cultural life. Ho, ho, ho.

See, the problem is, I don't like to shop any time of year, much less when the whole world is out there doing it.

But I went out and played consumer today, even buying a gift so large it fit in neither my backseat nor my trunk.

Just as the employee who'd carried it to my car was suggesting he take it back inside so I could get my money back, I had a holiday brainstorm.

What were the chances a stranger would do me a Christmas favor?

Curious to find out, I walked up to a man getting into a shiny truck and asked if I led, would he mind schlepping my humongous gift back to J-Ward for me.

Only after I asked a favor of someone I didn't know did it occur to me to introduce myself.

Long story short, John agreed and dutifully followed me home, wished me a merry Christmas and disappeared, probably never to be heard from again.

Kind of warms your heart, doesn't it?

But it's not just shopping that dominates these days. I don't mind the occasional party, but they're not terribly occasional this month.

So with friends and family on tap for the foreseeable future, tonight was all about me.

I started at one of my long-time favorite places where I knew I'd be guaranteed two things: black bean nachos and thrash.

821 was pretty slow when I got there and claimed a seat at the bar, but the thrash was blasting and I refused the menu when it was offered.

I don't need no stinkin' menu.

Before long, I was joined on both sides by pairs of beer-drinking women, one telling me how bad the food had been at 525 at the Berry Burk and the other talking about how hard it is to Christmas shop and not buy stuff for yourself.

I really don't have that problem. Meanwhile, I plugged away at the mound of beans, cheese and chips, thinking how even the anemic-looking tomato chunks and bright green shreds of lettuce had a holiday look.

Fortunately, the music was very un-holiday-like.

When I left 821, it was for Black Iris, who get my vote for the most compelling new cultural space and gallery.

Tonight they were doing a talk by photographer Tod Seelie, whose new book, "Bright Nights: Photographs of Another New York" had recently shown up in Time magazine as one of the best photo books of the year.

Before we got down to the talk, there was mingling, food and beer with Marty from Steady Sounds playing (non-holiday) music (but not thrash).

It was during that time I got a chance to talk to some of the Black Iris people about the "Low Frequency Travel Agency" show they've currently got going on that had rocked my world, here.

I was thrilled to hear one of the Black Iris guys refer to my travel log observations as "poetic." And here I thought I was just another woman with a musical suitcase.

But then I was sad to hear musician Nelly Kate, who'd written and sung the music in the suitcases, talk about how she lets so many people know about her artistic endeavors, but can only count on about ten of them to make the effort to participate.

Out of hundreds. That's pretty tragic.

The talk began with Tod saying how hard it was to summarize a book's worth of photographs shot in New York representing fifteen years of work, a valid point, while photos from the book showed on the wall behind him.

Explaining that he didn't work like a traditional photojournalist, scheduling shoots and asking permission, he went on to tell stories about the scenes and subculture he shot, always seeking to convey a sense of narrative in his photos.

There were parties in Harlem basements, scenes from the annual Bike Kill (which looked a lot like Richmond's annual Slaughterama), lots of punk shows and other DIY-style happenings.

"My goal is to make the photograph as much like being there as possible," he explained, having been inspired by his first punk show which, he said, demonstrated to him that there was a world of options out there that were much bigger than he had imagined.

His stories of becoming part of the subculture were fascinating for how they illuminated Nelly Kate's earlier point.

It's all there for the taking, but you have to make the effort to put yourself into it.

Tod talked about how he and a group of people had decided to set up a speakeasy in an abandoned water tower.

Unlike some of the stuff he did that lasted only one night, the speakeasy was a six-week undertaking that began with a "starter cell" of people and a need for secrecy, so no online posting, surely a challenge for many.

The starter cell people were each given a watch with instructions for the speakeasy for them to give to one person as an invitation, so the group grew but without the originators knowing who might be invited.

We heard about a four-year project where "junk rafts," impressive-looking creations made of anything and everything, were built and sailed down four different waterways.

During the Q & A, someone asked Tod if he ever had trouble getting people to let him shoot.

Saying that he took the "invisible fly on the wall approach," he thought his success had to do with not getting up in people's faces to shoot.

The subcultures in NYC he was talking about were all ones that exist here, albeit probably not as multi-cultural or in numbers as large, but we've definitely got a strong bike culture, there's plenty of dumpster-diving that goes on, I've been to pop-up alley bars and DIY house and yard shows are regular events.

Tod's book showed the multiple layers of a city's culture as seen through the lens of one guy who went to the city to go to school and became so entranced and entrenched with the place that he didn't leave.

Huh. Sounds an awful lot like all those people I know who came to VCU and somehow never left.

I just hope they appreciate that we have many elements of NYC's vibrant counter-culture without the madding crowds and mile-high rents. And the best way to keep the scene vibrant is for people to be part of it.

In fact, the best thing Tod said tonight could be my motto.

"Being a participant and a supporter of the scene is just as important as being a documentarian."

I like to think of myself as all three...buoyed by the kind of nerve that has me asking strangers for holiday favors.

Come to think of it, our little caravan with the unruly gift sticking up out of stranger John's truck would have made a great photograph.

'Cause you know, the lights are bright in Richmond, too.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Digging the Droplets

If a rainy night is made for curling up with a good book, shouldn't it also be ideal for going to a movie about people who wrote books?

At least, that's how I justified my interest in going to the Criterion to see "Kill Your Darlings," a biopic about poet Allen Ginsberg and the friends he met at Columbia University who became the nucleus of the Beat Generation.

There weren't more than a half dozen people in the theater and I couldn't decide if that was a factor of the weather, the impending holidays or just a lack of interest in the Beats.

While some people might have found it jarring to see the actor who played Harry Potter playing Allen Ginsberg, I've never seen any of the HP films, so it wasn't a big deal to me.

The film covered a very specific time in Ginsberg's life and one with which I was familiar from having read Ellis Amburn's book, "Subterranean Kerouac."

One thing the film did well was evoke 1940s New York City with jazz clubs, students in vests and shirtsleeves and everyone listening to the radio.

Given the time period, it wasn't surprising that the soundtrack boasted all kinds of classics - "On the Sunny Side of the Street, "G.I. Swing," "Maxwell's Boogie" - but that it also used recent music.

And by recent, I mean bands I've seen in the past five years.

We're talking TV on the Radio's "Wolf Like Me" during the scene where they break into Columbia's library and put banned books in display cases.

And Bloc Party's "The Pioneers" during the murder scene.

Despite liking the songs, I found it a bit jarring and even a tad on the pandering side, especially amongst so much '40s period music, but perhaps that's just me.

I did like hearing some of Ginsberg's poetry as he began to trust his muse and write.

Another lover hits the universe.
The circle is broken
But with death comes rebirth
And like all lovers and sad people
I am a poet

The movie was barely over an hour and a half and as it was winding down, the man in the row with me pulled out his phone and soon left the theater.

Considering one of the characters was trying to hang himself, I figured it must have been an important call.

He came back at the very end where the aftermath of all the characters was explained over grainy, old black and white photographs of the real Beats.

Leaning in to me, he eagerly asked, "What happened to the guy who was hanging? Did he die?" The least I could do was clear that up for him.

"I really liked the movie!" he confided as if I'd been waiting for his opinion. I snapped my fingers in applause and told him I had, too.

What's not to like? An intimate portrayal of Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs and Carr as they came together in college to carve out a "new vision" (as Carr dubbed their movement) was just the ticket on a rainy night.

It also deposited me back out into the world in time to make it to Balliceaux for the Marcus Tenney quintet and a chance to say happy birthday to a favorite musician and all-around great guy.

The surprise was that the back room was mobbed with people who looked nothing like the usual jazz crowd and the birthday boy was nowhere to be found.

Waiting to go in the back, I saw a friend who works at the National who gave me the lowdown on last night's mega-sold out Queens of the Stone Age" show (crowd singalongs! Josh Homme signs autographs! smallest venue of entire tour!), of no real interest to me except as a time-filler.

A trombonist, curious to know who all the people in the backwere, came over presuming I knew the story just as a scenester walked by, overheard the question and solved the mystery.

Turns out it was the Ellwood Thompson employee Christmas party, which explained a lot.

Even for Richmond, the percentage of beards was strikingly high. On the food tables were such unusual cocktail foods as quinoa and nachos made with naan.

Healthy food choices aside, they all seemed to be okay with poisoning their young bodies with alcohol.

But clearly a lot of them weren't ready for their party to end even when the band took the stage, so they lingered, drinks in hand, chatting loudly.

Another trombonist arrived, took in the scene and turned to me asking what was up and referencing "Mo' Better Blues," a movie I haven't seen, to explain the roomful of people.

The smart ones stayed to hear the music and the rest dipped out or moved to the front room to chatter.

The birthday boy soon arrived and not long after, a favorite couple came to fete him, too.

Behind the bar was the dream team of mixology, Sean and Bobby, a pairing Sean said hadn't happened in close to four years.

Of course, they're wasted on me, a single spirit drinker with no need for mixing savvy, but I guess Ellwood Thompson was worthy of the best.

They certainly got that with the Marcus Tenney quintet, a seriously talented group of musicians and tonight led by Marcus, dressed up in a jacket and tie.

"Gotta look good for the people," he'd explained when teased about looking so much nicer than when he plays with the RVA big band.

As good as he looked, he couldn't top the way the band sounded and it wasn't long before jazz lovers started replacing the ET crowd, bobbing heads, applauding solos and seriously enjoying the grooves.

During the break, a friend asked what else I'd done tonight, certain that Balliceaux wasn't my first stop, and when I mentioned the movie, he told me about his own particular way of seeing a film.

He'd adjust his attitude, show up at the Byrd, buy a ticket without looking to see what was playing and watch with no expectations, often leaving with no real understanding of the plot if it was a sequel.

And completely enjoying the spontaneity and surprise of the experience.

Let's see, altered reality, abandonment of standard behavior, rejection of materialism (come on, a $2 ticket?). Sounds like a very Beat way to experience a film.

Do it on a rainy night, follow with some superbly-executed jazz and it's practically a Beat's wet dream.

Cue finger snapping.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

At the Top of My List

As dates go, this one ran the gamut from Cream to Bon Iver, a range not all can swing.

And while the music has changed, this whole dating thing takes me back to high school, although at least now it's legal for me to drink on dates.

Dinamo was quiet when we arrived, with only a single at the bar and a two-top busily eating and talking.

Exactly what we'd come to do.

We started with a bottle of Masciarelli Montepulciano and crostini with chopped liver and red onions, which, as far as I'm concerned, almost guarantees that a date is going to go well.

Whether or not liver leads to love is a whole different issue, but it did lead to a story about a place he knew that does tableside preparation of chopped liver, right down to asking how much schmaltz to add.

My kind of place.

The music was full-on old school to start, with Led Zeppelin the soundtrack to our next course of caponata, one of my favorite ways to eat eggplant for its sweet and sour contrast, and frisee with duck confit, because a little bitter greens are the ideal accompaniment to fat-cooked anything.

My date scored big with humor and had me choking with laughter after a crack about him being  a late and unexpected addition to his family.

As opposed to me, an early and unexpected addition to my family.

If chicken liver starts a date on the right foot, convulsive laughter ensures that it is progressing well.

We finished up with a meaty rockfish filet, not because it was my first choice (they were out of branzino), but because fish sounded good at that point...and it was.

By that time, we'd outlasted everyone but the staff (and inexplicably, now the music had jumped 40 years to the Shins) but weren't quite done talking to each other, so we went to Secco for flight night.

The featured flight was from northwest Spain and the music far more current despite discussion of it being hip hop Monday.

The Terra Do Castelo Godello, a new grape to me, tasted like the perfect white to sip on a sunny balcony in Spain, the fragrant Guimaro Ribeiro Mencia would have been lovely with the caponata we'd just had, but it was the big Carthago Lui Tempranillo Toro, with its hints of black fruit and smokiness, that we both ordered full glasses of.

And here's where I give my date credit.

It would have been so easy to end things there, after a satisfying meal and a lovely Spanish dessert.

Instead, I was invited up to see his etchings hear his new stereo and what music-loving woman is going to say no to that?

From Modern Lovers to XTC to Luther Vandross to Bon Iver, it was a decade-spanning musical journey on a newer system and through far better speakers than I have.

Just two people on a date, sitting on a couch, listening to music very loud and talking about it. Honestly, it was just like how I spent many dates with guys in high school.

For some of us, listening to music together is one of the fastest ways to weed out the chaff. Ditto eating together.

When it comes to schmaltz, I can onlyhope he agrees with me and Luther. Never too much.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Big Love Comes Home

There's a lot to be said for delayed gratification.

When I bought my ticket back on October 10th for the Matt White show tonight at Strange Matter, I knew I'd be in for an impressive night of music.

Even expecting a knock-out, I wasn't prepared for what a memorable night it was.

I arrived promptly at 9  because the word was "Sounds at 9." Okay, not 9 per se, but not long after, either.

Making my way to the bar, I found myself next to a guy who said hello and introduced himself.

He'd come in to pay his tab from last night and now was curious about what was going on tonight.

I explained who the magnificently-maned Matt White was, about his Spacebomb studio and house band, then he explained that he was just back from Yogaville and had his dog in his car and was now really sorry he couldn't stay.

Not long after, with no introduction, Matt and his band -all very familiar faces since I've been seeing them play in myriad configurations for years now- plus the Rosebuds' Howard Ivans walked out of the kitchen and through the crowd to reach the stage.

Explaining that he'd been doing some songs with the Spacebomb guys, he began singing the new material over some of the funkiest R & B grooves being made by white boys today.

He even thanked the crowd for coming out early, although the pleasure was all ours and a guy I knew who didn't show up until just after 10 missed a simply superb set by coming late, a fact I may have pointed out.

It was all so retro-soul with Ivans' terrific voice and it was irresistibly danceable.

After several kick-ass original songs, Ivans said, "I'm going to do a Robert Palmer song, if that's okay."

Okay? I can't think of a more appropriate white boy to cover and "You Are in My System" benefited from the air tight rhythm and horn sections.

"You're listening to the best band in America," Ivans said, stating what Richmond music-lovers already know.

His set wound down far too quickly and suddenly we were at the last two songs.

One was a slow burner, the kind of song you want someone to slow- dance with to it and the last one, "Red Face Boy," was a barn-burner.

My dance party-loving friend looked at me, grinning ear to ear, "I feel like I should be doing the hustle," he enthused after the first few beats.

He was spot on; the silken groove was made to boogie to and there weren't many people resisting it, whether full-on dancing or grooving in place.

After the set ended, trumpeter Bob Miller walked by and said hello. Telling him how much I'd loved what they'd played, he expressed regret that they'd only had a half dozen chances to play with Ivans on tour.

"I'd love to play these songs more," he admitted, showing his true-blue soul side.

Strange Matter got more crowded during the break and by the time Matt, Cameron, Scott, Pinson, Gabe, Bob, Trey and Bryan returned, the feel-good energy in the room was palpable.

Hometown boy puts out record with local band, makes year-end best of lists, tours US and Europe (100-plus shows this year, Matt said) and finally comes back to play for long-time fans.

"It's good to be home," Matt said sounding quite sincere.

It was good to be hearing the band Paste, Pitchfork and practically every other musical tastemaker had raved as emerging fully formed.

Of note was that guitarist Trey Pollard was sometimes playing pedal steel, notable mainly because I'd seen him play it at the Listening Room back in April 2010 when he'd first been learning it.

Then, he'd told me it took every ounce of concentration he had to play it and tonight it appeared to be an extension of him, much the way his guitar is.

During one song, dapperly-hatted bassist Cameron and leader Matt showed off their best Motown-like dance moves, playing and turning in unison to face stage right and left, mirroring each other.

Title track "Big Love" got its rhythmic hand claps courtesy of the horn section, with Bryan and Bob using the instruments they were born with. Likewise, Cameron and Gabe did double duty singing back-up.

It's hard to convey just how tight these guys are and how full their soul-meets-Muscle-Shoals sound is, but their obvious pleasure in playing together was readily apparent.

"This show tonight is important," Matt said between songs. "This is a special music community and a great artistic community. You might miss it if you don't stop and appreciate it. This is a special place. We've done 122 shows this year and I talk up Richmond in every city we play, send love back here. That's because it's real. Special things happen here."

He said that since it was the end of the mini-tour with Howard, and they were at home, there was no reason not to play every song they had, including new material off the recent EP.

With percussionist Scott Clark double-fisting tambourines while grinning like he was having the time of his life, they did just that.

Matt explained that the next song was very quiet. "I'm just telling you that in other cities, I stare at people to make them shut up for this song. You can't do that in your home town, it's rude. But if you want to wrap up your conversations so you can hear it..."

I'm embarrassed to say that some people went right on blathering and shouting drunkenly while the rest of us shut up so we could hear the beautifully quiet song.

We got the two-song warning because, Matt said, it would be awkward to do an encore since there was no place to go or wait.

Not that this crowd wouldn't have willingly waited for more deep grooves and blaring horns.

But as he pointed out, when a seven-song record unexpectedly takes off and you start touring, it's a limited repertoire you have to pull from.

The beauty was that it's also a very satisfyingly danceable one and by the end of the show, the room-filling chorus made for the feeling of a tent revival.

Richmond-style, of course.

Best of all, these guys are representing us all over the globe, making this town look as good as some of us already know it is.

No delay in gratification there.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Girls are Back in Town

Shall I compare a weekend with my sisters and parents to contained chaos?

Instead of the annual debauched weekend away with my five sisters, this year we conspired to spend the time at my parents' house on the river with them.

We figured the last time it was just the eight of us overnight was in a galaxy far, far away.

So in between eating meals what felt like round the clock (something the family seems to excel at), everyone threw out childhood memories to see who shared them.

As Sister #5 pointed out repeatedly, the three oldest sisters had a vastly different childhood than the three younger ones - and not all that much younger since the span from the oldest to youngest is only eight years, making for six stair steps.

Which means that, yes, all six of us lined up on the staircase in birth order so pictures could be taken. Repeatedly, since we're far less photogenic now.

The only saving grace was that we weren't in matching pajamas like we'd been in childhood for the same kind of picture.

Of a vacation we took on an island in Maine for a month, some remembered specifics - sleepovers with new friends, a first trip to a flea market, eating lobster endlessly because it was so cheap- and others just how cold the ocean had been.

Throughout the visit, there was barely a moment when several people weren't talking over each other, breaking into stories with their own references and laughing to the point of sore faces.

When Mom asked us if we'd change anything about our childhood, the only thing anyone could come up with was that it might have been handy to have an older brother.

Sister #5 disagreed (as she is inclined to do) because, as she pointed out, he would have gotten his own room so things would have been even tighter.

Other than that, we all agreed that it had been pretty idyllic, albeit in a far simpler time. The most difficult part had always been getting along with so many same sex siblings.

And only two bathrooms, mind you.

Once everyone was pleasantly mellow after a huge, late dinner, Mom brought up the topic.

The topic.

A couple of sisters were reluctant to do it, but my parents wanted to make sure we all understood their living will preferences and how their estate would be distributed.

They'd intended to make only two of us executors until their lawyer had wisely advised them to make all six executors unless they wanted to guarantee family squabbles once they were gone.

I'd have thought that after all these years with six daughters, my parents would have already known that it never works to single out any specific daughters for anything; it's always got to be about the group. The brood. The half dozen.

When we asked Mom where she wanted her ashes scattered, she said Tipperary, Ireland, her grandparents' birthplace.

Dad was quick with his preference. "I want to be scattered wherever the love of my life is being scattered."

Makes that easy and now I know I will definitely see Ireland.

Sister #2 and I recalled listening to (and believing) a "live" radio broadcast of Santa getting ready to leave the north pole and start delivering gifts.

Talking about such things brought up the topic of all my parents' accumulation of a lifetime together: a big, old house with all three floors stuffed to the gills.

Whenever I visit them, I try to bring a load of unwanted stuff back and leave it at a thrift store.

This time, since all the sisters were there, I went up to the third floor and brought down all the ancient board games up there.

Tripoly. The Game of Go. Monopoly. Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary. Scattergories. Checkers. Parcheesi. Only thing we didn't find was Twister.

Some great memories came out of going through them and lots of stories about playing them together, both as children and adults.

I also brought down my Dad's old army boots, figuring that the nephew who's about to start teaching high school history might want them.

That led to a discussion of the shoes' size and Sister #2 saying they were too big for her husband's feet.

"He's got kind of small hands,too," sister #3 commented, leading to some off-color talk of size correlation.

Mom walked through the room then, asking what was so funny.

"Nothing," Sister #2 said with a tone of dismissal. "They're just discussing my husband's penis size."

And that, ladies and germs, is the first time in a lifetime that any of her daughters said the word "penis" to Mom.

Did she get upset about the salacious topic or the over-sharing of information?

Not my mom. No, indeed, she said to us exactly what she's been saying to use since we could misbehave.

"Don't talk about people who aren't here."

Not the easiest of rules in a room full of women who've known each other this long.

Someone asked Mom if she still refers to us as "the girls," despite that we're middle-aged now and far from girlhood.

Yep, she sure does we learned. Old habits die hard.

And while yesterday had been a steadily rainy one at the river, today dawned much warmer and brighter.

And, surprisingly, with some contained burning.

I had chosen to sleep alone in the bedroom on the third floor, the least finished bedroom (read: unheated, but loads of thick bedding) but also the highest and the one with the most sweeping view of the Rapphannock.

By the time Sister #3 and I had wound down last night, the rest of the house was asleep, making for a juicy opportunity to talk about the others.

So sleeping in a bit this morning, I was disturbed from a dream by what sounded like the endless backing-up beep of a truck.

It went on so long, I briefly considered getting up to see what it was, but the bed was warm and I instead went back to sleep.

Until Sister #4 came in to wake me and tell me to come to the window to see the church burning.

That got me out of bed in a hurry.

The local fire fighters had arrived early on a damp Sunday to take down the rotting old church near the general store.

Some of the sisters had been up early enough to walk down and watch them light it, seeing the glass in the windows pop out once it heated up and seeing the earth next to it get scorched when the wind picked up.

Hell, Sister #3 had already made five videos of the conflagration by the time I was putting my first bacon in my mouth.

By the time I'd been roused, it was merely burning the last quarter of the building, although most of the chimney was still standing.

So I got dressed, went down and inhaled some breakfast so I could join Sister #6 and Sister #3 for a walk down to see the fire up close.

What was impressive was the bottom-most beams, the ones that sat on bricks for a foundation, were still relatively recognizable, nails sticking out of them.

We walked all around the low-level flames, marveling at how efficiently the old building had come down on a damp morning.

Every now and then, a bigger flame would dart out from under the collapsed metal roof, but then retreat to mostly smoldering embers.

It was a good metaphor for the weekend, with only occasional flare-ups from a sister or two, always followed by smoothing over and apologies if necessary.

Contained contact, especially post- happy hour when tongues got looser.

All in all, a thoroughly pleasant weekend full of conversations I can only have with these seven other people because they are the only ones who know all the references.

After breakfast, the sisters began packing up to leave, but I was in no hurry and Sister #3 was expecting her husband to drive down and stay over, so the two of us took a walk down to sit on the dock and enjoy the unseasonably warm and sunny day.

When I got ready to leave, it was with my car packed to the roof with those old board games.

I stopped by Diversity Thrift to drop them off and as I was unloading them, a woman with a young child came over and peered in to my car, saying, "You sure must play a lot of games."

Explaining that they represented 30 years worth of family game-playing, she responded by asking if the Monopoly game had all its pieces. "I think my kids would like it," she said.

There were actually two Monopoly games, so I pulled out both from the stack and handed them to her.

Hope your family has as much fun with them as we did, I told her.

Just when they grow up, don't expect too much of them.

They're still going to insult each other, they'll always discuss inappropriate stuff given half a chance and yes, they're going to talk about the ones who aren't there.

Aren't families the best sometimes?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Making Each Precious Day One You'll Rue

So now I know what the 6th century looks like when re-imagined through the swinging '60s.

The VMFA was showing "Camelot" as part of their 60 films in 60 days, so I joined the boomer crowd to see the knights of the round table get groovy.

Don't get me wrong, the movie has some great songs and "If Ever I Would Leave You" has to be one of the most romantic songs ever written.

But let's face it, while Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave are fine actors, singing not so much. But at least they were singing, as opposed to Franco Nero who played Lancelot and had his voice dubbed.

Like all good old-school musicals, it began with the overture (and the word "overture" on the screen), teasing us to the Lerner and Lowe songs that were ahead.

In short, there's simply not
A more congenial spot
For happily-ever-aftering
Than here in Camelot

Jumping into the story, it quickly became apparent that this film had been made in 1967. King Arthur wore a furry vest and giant belt buckle that would have looked right at home on Sonny Bono and Guenevere's hairdo was straight out of a '60s Glamour magazine.

Later on, Arthur wears what can only be described as a multi-color Nehru jacket.

Fashion aside, there was humor, too.

When Lancelot sets out from France to join the round table, he brings along a manservant who cooks dinner for him along the way.

And by cooking dinner, I mean he has meat on a stick over an open fire, pulls leaves off a nearby bush to sprinkle on and is, get this, wearing a chef's toque blanche while doing it.

Besides the fact that I seriously doubt that there were toques in the 6th century, there's the whole matter of woodland cooking wearing one. Hysterical.

But there wasn't a lot of humor in the movie and we were told why by a VMFA educator before the film started.

Although the play "Camelot" had come out in 1960 and been a favorite of JFK, by the time they made the film in 1967, he was dead and the country's mood was different, so a lot of the frivolity of the play was excised.

Luckily, they left in the frolicking from "The Lusty Month of May," where the court gathers flowers, eats berries and chases girls, because, according to Arthur, "Civilizations should have a few gentle hobbies."

During intermission, I spoke to the man nearest me, cracking wise about how very '60s everything looked. I'm pretty sure women weren't teasing their hair in the middle ages.

He appeared dumbfounded. "You ruined it for me!" he laughed. "That hadn't occurred to me but you're exactly right! Hell, I had facial hair just like Arthur when I was 17! Everything is so '60s looking."

How could you have lived through it and not recognize it when you see it, sir?

The woman on the other side of me chimed in, asking if I knew about the grand romance that had come out of this film.

Sure didn't.

Seems in 1967, Redgrave had been recently dumped by her husband and then fell in love with Nero on this film. She said they were together for years, had a son, separated and had other relationships but got back together and married in 2006.

Whoa. So unlike in the movie, Lancelot did get Guenevere in the end.

Oh, no, not in springtime
Summer, winter or fall
No, never could I leave you at all

I guess he couldn't. It's so romantic to hear that happily-ever-aftering doesn't just happen in the movies.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Pin-Up Wisdom

You get to a certain age and you can only hope that you accept the choices made during your lifetime.

It certainly sounded like Bettie did in "Bettie Page Reveals All," part of documentary week at the Criterion, and tonight's destination with Pru.

I know some people are all but obsessed with Bettie - I have a friend who for years sent me Bettie photos practically every week - but my interest was far more casual.

What fascinated me most was how she'd disappeared at the height of her pin-up career as the elusive perfect woman, part pretty girl-next-door and part sultry temptress.

The documentary wasn't as good as it could have been because there were far too many unimportant people talking about what Bettie meant to them or the culture and who really cares how many two-bit burlesque performers or tattooed millennials worship at her altar?

But it scored big time by having a voice-over by Bettie herself, done before she died in 2008.

In a voice that sounded like it had endured a lot of whiskey and cigarettes (which wasn't the case since she neither drank nor smoked), she laid out her life story in a voice that was direct, honest and at this point, worldly.

She matter of factly explained that her mother hadn't wanted a daughter and that her father had sex with anything he could, including chickens, cows and her sisters.

He paid her a dime to touch her "outside my clothes" and she used it to go to the movies.

That lemons to lemonade attitude colored her entire life.

Talking about leaving Tennessee to go to New York, she said her first apartment rented for $46.29 in 1947 and how much she loved to go dancing. Sounds like me at 23.

What I was surprised to learn was that she was terribly intelligent, graduating second in her class and that she made all her own lingerie and bikinis, the ones she posed in for posterity.

Not that she didn't have a perfect body (36-24-37) despite the Ford modeling agency telling her she was too hippy, but making her own modeling costumes explains why everything seemed to fit her so perfectly.

Maybe it was also her habits, for she espoused the value of daily "air baths" with the windows open which certainly seemed to work for her.

All the people who photographed her raved about how natural she was as a model, never uncomfortable with being nude or done up for fetish photos (a popular and lucrative way for her to earn money during the repressed post-war years).

The film showed endless photos of her because so many were taken and in all of them, she looks like she was genuinely having a good time in front of the camera, a fact she corroborates in her voice-over.

Interestingly, Hugh Hefner, sounding older than Moses, ended up being the one who put her in touch with lawyers and managers to handle the sale of her imagery after she'd fallen on hard times (during which her photographs had been used unlicensed to sell all kinds of things for decades).

She was humorous and honest when talking about her multiple marriages, my favorite quote on the subject being, "The only things we had in common were movies, sex and hamburgers."

As a fan of all three, I can see where a young woman could be fooled into thinking they were enough. Bettie and I both know they're not. At least now we do.

Like Bettie, I have no problem acknowledging my mistakes or questionable life choices.

Unlike Bettie, I won't be the subject of mass adoration for a half century.

On the other hand, there's a lot to be said for singular adoration and I'd happily take 50 years of that if I can find it.

Probably should have started taking air baths sooner.

Pack a Musical Bag and Go

Set aside an hour and a half and I can guarantee you an utterly unique and completely brilliant adventure that'll be part urban scavenger hunt, part site-specific musical experience and in all likelihood, move you in the process.

Black Iris on Broad Street is the host for "Low Frequency Travel Agency," the source for this splendid undertaking, whereby you schedule an appointment to pick up a suitcase and map.

The map directs you on a journey through the city and the suitcase holds the speaker and a map; you push a button for the location and hear an original composition by the incomparable Nelly Kate specifically written for that place.

Included in the suitcase is a journal for you to record your impressions- musical, nature, urbanscape or whatever you want- of each experience if you so choose.

I was amazed that a woman with an old, green suitcase with music pouring out of it didn't merit more attention, but that's the beauty of this undertaking: it's really about you, the music created for these places and how it all moves you, passersby be damned.

Instructed to tuck into the entrance of a hanger, I was presented with a view of Richmond I'd never seen before, yet barely a mile from my house.

Taking a listen at a place on the river I'd never been to, I was greeted by a stray cat and a sign informing me it's illegal to keep herring because of an unexplained drop in their numbers in the mid-Atlantic.

Sitting on a bench smack in the middle of three streets, I saw not another soul and felt worlds away from humanity.

When instructed to pick a tunnel, I ignored the ones with water rushing through and the dry ones for the only one that had a bit of both.

And every piece of music Nelly had written for the locations made for a transcendent moment when experienced in situ, sometimes mirroring the feel of the place and other times reminding you of its history or future.

I came back from my urban trek feeling like I had seen the city in a whole new way.

The nearest thing I've ever experienced was Doug Aitken's "Song 1" projected on the Hirshorn, with images of people singing, driving, working and playing cards set to the classic song "I Only Have Eyes for You" and sung by everyone from Beck and Devendra Banhart to James Murphy and John Legend.

And as magnificent as that had been, this tops that because it's all about Richmond. A local space, a local musician and six choice Richmond spots with their own musical soundtrack.

You only have until December 20th to check out a suitcase and it's as easy as e-mailing Black Iris (benjamin@blackiris.tv) and telling them the day and time you want yours. Free, of course.

I promise it'll be the best thing you'll do all week and probably all month. Bravo, Black Iris and Nelly Kate.

During my urban escapade, I happened to park beside a car with a bumper sticker that said it all.

Music in the soul can be heard by the universe.

Music in a suitcase can be heard in Richmond and it's there, waiting for you to experience.

Do it. It'll be an unforgettable trip, I promise.

No History of Heartbreaking

Musical appetizer followed by musical entree.

Daniel Bachman was playing an in-store at Steady Sounds so I joined a room full of mostly guys to see the guy NPR described as an American primitive-style acoustic guitarist.

What I liked about him was how he got so into his songs, whether about his new home, Orange County, N.C. or his sister, that he seemed to forget about all the people in the store.

I had just read something about how Carlos Santana calls reaching that zone a "state of grace" and it sure looked to me like that's where Daniel was while surrounded by adoring guitar geeks.

Sure, I admired, but I was not worthy of admiring his talent.

Then, tonight's main event was the Listening Room, holiday edition.

That meant candy canes, hot chocolate and the usual array of baked goods, my contribution being brownies with nuts and caramel.

Given the holiday season, it was no surprise that most of the usual crew was missing in action but the second string took up the slack admirably.

The poet played door person/bouncer, stamping hands and handing out programs while updating me on her love life.

Sounds like she and the man of her dreams will be looking for some country living when he moves here come January.

The scientist who teaches at VCU came in wearing a dapper sweater vest and telling us about the cleaver tie pin (his Dad was a butcher) he intends to wear for finals next week.

I scurried back to my usual seat amongst strangers instead of familiar faces. Sadly.

Molly Parden from Nashville played first, gracing the room with her lovely voice and the beautiful tones of her guitar.

Singing songs about a friend with a messy kitchen, another from Kentucky and her Dad ("The Story of a Man") who lives in the Atlanta suburbs, she even did a Christmas one, "Through the Snow" by Nashville songwriter Nathan Phillips.

"I was a heartbreaker at nineteen," she explained introducing 'Please, Baby, Please,' "and this is the first song I wrote after breaking someone's heart."

I'm ashamed to say that I wrote nothing beyond a journal entry after breaking my first heart, although my defense is my lack of musical ability.

She entreated us to come say hello after her set, saying, "I'd love to meet you and shake your hand and meet your children if they're here."

During the break I ran into a friend who hadn't brought her child and we discoursed on the subject of getting the right ratio of hot chocolate to marshmallow, a goal as worthy as making your last bite of sandwich synch up with the final potato chip.

The second act was Classical Revolution RVA, the group devoted to taking classical music out of the concert hall and putting it in restaurants and bars where people talk over it.

Except not at the Listening Room, of course.

Ellen on violin and Andrew on classical guitar played a tango piece to great silence before telling us about an upcoming Mozart festival in Carytown.

Then there was a dark Shostakovitch piece done by a string quartet that got a partial standing ovation, no doubt partly because it was the first time classical music has ever been played at the Listening Room.

And isn't that the beauty of the Listening Room that you can hear the totally unexpected?

Last up was Timbre, also from Nashville and on a Christmas tour with Molly.

Earlier, Molly had warned us that Molly played the harp and that harps were heavenly. "You're going to hear a slice of heaven," she'd forewarned us.

Right she was as Timbre and her sister, Tetra, who'd just come back from Mozambique, proceeded to wow the crowd.

Beginning with "Silent Night," the audience was mesmerized by her voice and the sound of her harp.

Her set included a 16th century carol, "Coventry Carol," played with Tetra.

When violinist Treesa of Classical Revolutions (and the Richmond Symphony) came onstage to join Timbre, she said the plans were changed because the cellist had to leave so she didn't need any strings now.

"That was an ice-cold way to get her off stage," my seatmate, guitar god Prabir said, commenting on Treesa's abrupt dismissal.

Timbre said she was from a musical family, did annual Christmas shows and went on to sing a song she'd written based on a story about red-breasted birds her parents had read her as a child.

It was perfectly lovely if geographically inaccurate.

"The story is set in Israel and has woods and snow, " she commented, allowing for how an Israeli setting negated both those things.

But she also did "O, Holy Night" and a Sufjan Stevens Christmas song because, as she said, "he writes awesome Christmas songs."

He does, but that's no surprise.  On the other hand, the last thing I expected at the Listening Room was Christmas songs and hot chocolate.

How perfectly festive that both offered themselves up.

Molly was right. It was, indeed, a slice of heaven.