Friday, November 20, 2015

What a Little Moonlight Can Do

The working for the weekend crowd was in full force tonight. In costume, no less.

Walking toward Vagabond to eat, Pru and I pass three women already in line (and in '80s attire) two hours before the sold out Legwarmers show.

Who stands in line for hours to see a cover band?

Inside Vagabond, it gets worse. The dozens of people inside and obviously going to the show are dressed like a parody of the '80s. One guy looks like Doc from "Back to the Future," a movie that just happens to be playing at the Byrd tonight.

Don't these people remember the reality of the Reagan years?

Never have I seen so many lace fingerless gloves or, yeesh, legwarmers. Yes, Madonna wore a net skirt to sing "Like a Virgin" on the MTV music awards, but tonight women are walking around with net skirts like it was a thing back then. It wasn't.

Seated at the edge of the bar, we have a bird's eye view of people coming in to pre-game before the show. The bartender tells us people have already sat down and ordered a drink and a dessert to satisfy the $15 minimum that qualifies them for early entry to the National next door.

"They leave the dessert," he says, shaking his head. "What possible difference does it make to get in a little early for a show like this?"

Beats the hell out of me.

That said, in spite of himself, he says he's been singing along to every song that's come on the '80s station they're playing tonight in the restaurant. "I grew up listening to this music," he says half-reverently. May Bow Wow Wow forgive you.

Another staff member comes over to share an anecdote with us, a look of astonishment written all over his face.

"These people called to ask about our corkage fee and I told them it was $15 as long as we don't carry the bottle," he said, still shaking his head. "Pretty standard for the industry, right? They just showed up...with a box of wine. That's like three bottles! I've never seen anything like it in all my years working in restaurants."

So not only are they costumed poorly, but they're crass as well. Or maybe they still think it's hip to be square.

As the bar fills up with more concert-goers, I tuck into spicy goat tacos with Thurston Wolfe Pinot Gris, followed by an exquisite Italian take on rockfish collar prepared with basil cooked in olive oil and a little Thai salad that eats even better than it smells, an amazing feat considering the aroma that announces the dish's arrival.

As if that weren't delightful enough, Pru casually mentions, "You're not gonna believe it but I'm on YouTube," explaining that she was roped into playing bells onstage at a recent performance of "Forever Plaid" and naturally, Beau filmed it. She's right, I don't believe it.

The world's gone mad tonight. Or should I say Madge?

Fleeing the former kids in America crowd, we make for the Basement and Theatre LAB's production of "Lady Day at Emerson's  Bar & Grill," where, mercifully, the crowd is less hungry like the wolf.

Yet again I am impressed with how the malleable Basement has been transformed, this time into a small Philly jazz club with a postage stamp-sized stage, a piano off to one side and low tables for drinks for those with a front row view of Katrinah Carol Lewis as Billie Holiday.

Just as impressive is how much more diverse the crowd is than typically. I especially enjoy the couple sitting nearest me because they don't hesitate to react to what's said onstage.

When Lady Day is talking about how much she likes cooking, she says, "I cook pigs' feet real good. I boil 'em, then I bake 'em till they're crispy like potato chips," I hear him mutter appreciatively, "Mmmm, mmm!" almost licking his chops.

Clearly he appreciates a woman who can cook a mean mess o' pig's feet.

Set in 1959, the year she dies, the play portrays her after her prime, as a drug user (thanks to a man, natch) and post-jail time, but as a singer who can still move people with her voice and poignancy, albeit while moving through a bottle of booze onstage.

Between songs, she talks to the audience about her life and tries to get her pianist to interact with her.

For me, it was fascinating seeing local musician Larry Branch play the part of pianist Jimmy after years of seeing him play keys around town in various ensembles. Besides being seriously talented, his taciturn demeanor and valiant attempts to keep her on track added a note of pathos to the show.

Of course, with a one-woman show, you need a hell of a woman to pull it off and Katrinah is that woman, alternately (deservedly) disparaging white people and then breaking your heart with her back story.

Except when she's hilariously telling the story of a white restaurant hostess who refuses to let her use the whites only bathroom. Holiday solves the problem by pulling up her dress and taking care of business on the woman's sequined shoes and then Lewis goes into her breathtakingly beautiful rendition of Holiday's classic "Strange Fruit."

Past performances have proven what a gorgeous and robust singing voice Lewis has, so it was all to her credit that she managed to sound so much like the life-weary Lady Day as she moved through her repertoire, needle tracks on her arms evident.

No question, Billie Holiday's story was a tough one and by the time it finished, my interest had been piqued to find a good biography of the woman to further flesh out my understanding of her now that I knew bits and pieces.

When the lights came up, I heard the guys behind me tell friends that they'd "snuck out to the bar halfway though to get another bottle of wine."

Why not? I feel sure Lady Day would have approved.

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