Wednesday, September 30, 2015

It Is Unusual

Nothing makes you feel quite as young as seeing a play at a matinee.

Seated amongst a sea of white hairs and no hairs, it's hard not to feel a tad smug about bringing down the average age in the room. Even so, when you're seeing a musical about barber shop quartets, you might still wonder what you're doing there.

In an hour and 45 minutes, Virginia Rep at Hanover Tavern ably proved why you can't always judge a play by its crowd. Luckily, I had a friend willing to gamble on it with me, picking me up and taking my preferred route up 301 to get there.

In between admiring the majestic cloud cover and bucolic scenery, he asked what the play was about and I kept it brief: a quartet loses a member and replaces him with an unlikely candidate.

"The Fabulous Lipitones" told the story of four guys who'd been singing barbershop together since high school. The stage was set at a funeral and my friend looks at the framed portrait next to a flower arrangement, observing, "That must be the deceased Lipitone"

Bingo.

Andy Lipinsky, long-time leader of the Lipitones - hence the name -dropped dead at the regional barbershop singing competition, losing out to the Sons of Pitches.

One of the remaining members wants to replace him and go on to the nationals. One wants to end it because he feels the group has run its course ("Admit it, who here has ever gotten any action because of singing barbershop?") and the third is ambivalent.

The set was classic rec room, well executed: wood-paneled walls, a ship's wheel on the bar, Old Milwaukee sign, cigar store Indian, Bee Gees sheet music on the upright piano.

Into this bastion of Americana comes Bob, an Indian posing as a nomad, with a voice that's just what the trio needs, at least once they rid him of his vibrato (there's no vibrato in barbershop singing, we learn).

So the mild-mannered musical about an old-fashioned singing style ("Doo-wop is dead, barbershop is extinct") becomes a witty play about stereotyping and racism ("You weren't giving me a hard time when you met me. That was simple racism.").

Even without qualifying for Medicare, I came away with a new appreciation for a style of singing that aims for four voices to sound like one.

Some very funny scenes revolved around pharmacist Wally, still a virgin and living with Mom, signing up for a dating site, whitecoatlove.com, where women are referred to as "pharmacettes."

The undisputed star of the show was Levin Valayll, who played the newcomer with sunny optimism and an openness to seeing each man for who they really were and not how their long-time friends saw them.

And by the time they get to the nationals, they're doing a global medley of Indian songs (dead rabbits and princesses), sea shanties and Tom Jones (incidentally my Richmond grandmother's favorite singer).

The play ended there, so we'll never know if they beat out the High Colonics ("we don't want to go after the High Colonics") or the Chumps from Short Pump.

What I do know is that matinee crowds don't leave their seats at intermission (I was one of two who did), barbershop singing can be beautiful and I'm a big fan of Indian techno music.

It's enough for now, anyway. My matinee will come.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Why I Was Here

Pouring rain separates the geeks and the eaters from the weather wimps.

Tonight's installment of VCU's speaker series, "Race, Citizenship and Memory in the South" brought Dr. James Loewen, author of "Lies My Teacher Told Me," to the student commons to discuss "What Does the Civil War Mean in Richmond Today?"

Come on, wouldn't you be curious?

When I left Jackson Ward, the rain was so faint I barely needed an umbrella, By the time I got half a mile away, the skies had opened up and zealots were probably building an ark. Even a good espadrille can't save your feet from puddles as deep as the curb.

Despite the gushing sky, easily 80% of the students had no umbrellas and it couldn't have been that they'd been caught unaware. It's been raining off and on the entire day with a forecast of rain all week. Heck, even during the brief moments when rain and thunderstorms weren't predicted today, it was still supposed to be 100% humidity.

The crowd had plenty of drenched students but also a fair number of adults show up, so many, in fact, that the powers that be eventually realized they needed to put out more chairs for the standing masses.

But the crowd definitely skewed young and when he used the phrase "Perry Mason moment," and asked how many people knew who Perry Mason was, fewer than 20 people raised their hands.

Most were like the girl who came in and spotted the Asian guy with the perfectly-manicured Mohawk and blurted out, "What are you doing here?" and when he told her he came because it sounded interesting, she turned to her vapid-looking girlfriend and asked, "Are we at the right thing?"

No, honey, unfortunately you are, although you will get nothing out of the time spent listening to this man.

Loewen began by justifiably bragging that his book was the best-selling book (1.5 million copies) by a living sociologist. And, yes, it's a book about history.

He was a good speaker, engaging the audience, moving around and not reading some pre-packaged lecture. A real character, too, not shy about sharing his opinions or suggesting what we, the audience, could do to bring about change.

Part of his cred came from having taught at the blackest university (Tupelo) and the whitest (Vermont). At Tupelo, he'd been appalled at the history knowledge of incoming freshman, only to find that it was based on the BS history (bad sociology) that was being taught at Mississippi's black high schools.

People like Loewen don't accept crap like that, so he set out to write a Mississippi history book for use in K-12 classrooms. The school board rejected it, he took them to court, won and it was accepted.

Seems the white members of the school board objected to the state's real history being taught. As the quite humorous (and white)  Loewen put it, "You don't have to be white to get history wrong, but it helps."

You don't have to be engaging or amusing to give a humanities lecture, but it helps, too.

Richmond - or at least tonight's audience - acquitted itself beautifully when he quizzed us on why South Carolina seceded from the Union. Slavery? States' rights? Lincoln? Tariffs and taxes?

The largest contingent voted for slavery, which was the correct answer, although in the scores of other cities he's posed this question to, an average of 65% of people think it was about states' rights.

That, my friends, is because of how the history books have been written for far too long (basically since 1890). Nationally, only 20% of people queried know that slavery was the real reason, providing the motivation for him to try to change that.

He made a case for how since 2000, Richmond has revised its thinking on Civil War and slavery history, citing examples - Ralph White's "stealth" markers on the Slave Trail, the Reconciliation statue - and suggesting we do more, like re-contextualizing Monument Avenue with accurate and complete historical markers.

And, hey, if markers that don't toe the white supremacy historical line cause the monuments to be defaced or vandalized, so be it. Loewen means business. He also suggested a sesquicentennial event to mark Reconstruction, a period he says needs to be better taught, more widely acknowledged and remembered for the widespread misinformation disseminated since this crucial period.

So while Loewen didn't have the hellfire and brimstone delivery of a Cornel West, his was a completely fascinating look at how whites whitewashed history for generations of neo-Confederates, a term I'd never fully understood until tonight.

Kids, this is why sometimes we have to go out in the pouring rain

Which it was still doing when the lecture ended, but now I had the luxury of time to find somewhere to eat, winding up at the Roosevelt since it had been ages since I'd dined there.

You'd think a dark and stormy Tuesday night would make for easy seating, but the place was packed with a wait for bar stools and my stomach was having none of it, so I moved on to Dutch & Co., where things were far more civilized and a stool awaited me.

From it I had a picture-perfect view of the downpour silhouetted against the street light. Given how warm it was outside, a server and I discussed how much better it would be if we were ensconced on the porch of a beach (or river) house watching the rain instead.

And although my water view was nothing more than the stream of storm runoff rushing down 27th Street, the food was fabulous.

Worth going out in the pouring rain for.

I started with slices of frankfurter sausage over turnip green puree with a killer hash of sweet potato, onion and turnip seasoned with fermented lemon drop pepper, while talking about the bike race with all the Church Hill residents around me. Everyone had been wowed by the spectacle of the bikers and the sheer magnitude of the crowds.

A fashionista type spotted my waterlogged espadrilles and mentioned that this is the time of year she scouts the DSW website for cute shoes on sale and buys them for next year. I'm not sure I've ever been that forward thinking about shoes.

Some would say this makes me a failure as a female.

After the amazingly good housemade root beer I'd had last night, I asked what their current soda was, only to learn that the soda-maker is off on his honeymoon this week. And while I'll gladly forgo a soda for the sake of a cause as romantic as a honeymoon, I heard the happy couple is currently on an island off the coast of South Carolina, no doubt as soggy as we are here.

Not that honeymooners should require sunshine to have a good time.

My next course was scallop ceviche with garlic lime chutney, cilantro, tostones and crispy shallots on Bibb lettuce with -surprise! - whipped bone marrow. The point, I soon learned, was for the fat of the marrow to mitigate the heat of the chilis. Brilliant.

I got a ringing endorsement of the Peter Chang's at the beach, both about the quality of the food and the surprise of a dim sum menu. Surely, two of us decided, it's not too late for one more day getaway to the beach, especially with a superb dinner at the end of it?

By the time I finished eating and chatting, the dining room was down to two tables and the bar crowd and since it was pouring again, it didn't seem likely that there'd be another rush. You know how some people hole up once it starts to rain cats and dogs.

Which is great if you're on your honeymoon.

For the rest of us, there are southern lessons to be learned and fine foods to be eaten. At my age, I don't have to ask a friend. I was at the right things.

Not a Hiking People, Either

I ♥ oceans, but I accept that some people ♥ mountains.

For them, there was Secretly Y'All, Tell Me a Story at Balliceaux tonight. Or, excuse me, Kampot at Balliceaux, as the re-formulated kitchen is now called.

That's right, stories about mountains at what amounts to an entirely new restaurant concept inside a mostly familiar setting.

Decor or art installation? Three small vintage TV (2 black and white, 1 color) sets mounted over the bar showing an endless loop of retro bike footage, interspersed with a fake snake (head rearing back) between TVs and a nearby pastel statue of Mary (with picaresque garland). You make the call.

But what to eat, what to drink at this new spot with the likes of Miguel playing overhead?

When I heard they had housemade root beer, I was thrilled, doubly so when a tall glass of creamy, foam-covered root beer showed up. I've had housemade root beer before - I'm quite fond of Weeping Radish's - but never with a head like this on it.

It was such terrific root beer I'd go back just for that.

But they didn't only score in the libations department because everything we ordered was pretty tasty. Our server began by explaining the tapas concept to us (hopefully that bit of unnecessary speech-giving will cease and desist soon) and we wasted no time making check marks next to ones that sounded promising on the menu.

Fried chicken skins because yes (the drier texture beginning uninterestingly but becoming more appealing after several bites). Caramelized boneless chicken thigh (because we wondered about a connection between those skins and thighs and inquiring minds wanted to know) with a piquant boost from pickled cabbage.

Grilled, marinated pork shoulder (because some judge a kitchen by its pig) with a sassy jaew sauce that, if it got too hot on the tongue, could be cooled down with iced yu choy leaves brought at the same time.

I didn't need it, but some people did.

One of the brightest tastes was the lobster and local greens Siam-wich (clever, sort of) with Kampot lemon vinaigrette. My unintended brilliance was in ordering cabbage 3 ways - Thai basil, chili, and Virginia peanuts - which provided a perfectly balanced plate of crunch and flavor to complement all the protein courses.

As the dance party king commented later when I told him about the meal, "We used to have no great Asian and now it's exploding everywhere." They say it's all about timing and I suppose that applies as much to restaurant trends as to romance.

The crowds began arriving for storytelling, so we moved to the back (on the way a woman stopped me and said, "I love your metal straw." Cue Jackson Browne story), where chairs had been set up in rows all the way to the back wall, the first time I'd seen that. Even so, plenty of people wound up standing or sitting on the floor.

With larger, younger crowds come more younger storytellers and tonight's group proved that in spades. With a theme of "mountains," we heard from more than a few hikers and mountain-huggers.

Taylor had gone to Alaska to find herself, as told in her story "Fire Weed," in which she para- glided (or, as she put it, jumped off mountains with strangers) in the rain. Metaphors followed.

Richard, a semi-regular legend at Secretly Y'All (also, co-organizer Colin's father, but that's not why we enjoy his stories so much), turned out to be a native of West Virginia (hence his story's title, "The Mountain State"), with the funniest bit being about how being a newsboy delivering in the hills gave him strong, muscular calves.

"Still the strongest part of my body," he bragged, lifting his legs. "Wanna feel them?" Awkward on purpose is always funny.

Joe's story, "I Guess I Like Hiking" concerned him being shorter and fatter as a teen. "But what I lacked in height and cool, I made up for in succumbing to peer pressure." He scored points by pooping in the woods on a hike because this is what impresses 15-year old boys. Succumbing naturally led to his first pot-smoking experience, which involved Dads who hiked slowly, a Bic pen and tin foil.

I don't pretend to understand.

Another story involved taking a selfie on Mount Everest after being able to only (only!) climb 18,198 feet. What was dire wasn't that she was oxygen and sleep-deprived - though she was and apparently a girl doesn't look her best when she is - but that her phone was at 4% power when she began her selfie attempts.

For the curious, she was willing to show the photo afterwards. Extra points for show and tell.

Charlie's "Slow Step Saji and the Sermon of the Switchbacks" began on a balcony on Monument Avenue waiting for the sun, moved on to a two-month backpacking trip through Utah and eventually to the end-of-hiking day pleasure of a Snickers bar and stripping off his clothes on top of a mountain.

Can I have the same kind of Snickers bar he's having?

We got a Hiking 101 lecture from Kylie who impressed us with her knowledge of hiking hunger, as in the sheer amount of calories she consumed on the trail (9,000 per day) and the heightened senses that come with being in that state.

Woman claims she smelled detergent in the middle of the wild, only to run into a pack of day hikers in (ah ha!) freshly-laundered clothes 20 minutes away. That's some nose.

Alicia said she was a writer but before we could romanticize that notion, she informed us she works for Capital One, about the least romantic job imaginable.

Her saga involved escaping Giles County and the lifestyle that has sucked her mother and sister back in to its mountainous clutches.

Ain't nothin' romantic abut that.

There was a story about a six month road trip that involved three weeks without a shower, seeing an eagle flying overhead after outdoor sex and a 12-year old being obnoxious on a Sea-Doo (or maybe that's redundant).

They decided to end the trip the day after the high school musical theater group stayed up all night practicing next to their campsite.

Remind me again why people think hiking and camping are fun?

Margaret was very nervous, but not so nervous she couldn't tell us her trail name ("Murder Worm") and that she found family in other hikers.

I liked John's style - he carried his PBR in his shirt's breast pocket for easy access - and gumption. Speaking of his relationship, he said he'd reached the point where it was time to shit or get off the pot.

"This was a shit I wanted to take," he said to explain his decision to propose to his girlfriend. The mystery was why he decided to do it near a mountain (as his GF put it, "We're not a hiking people" Indeed. They moved here from Brooklyn).

Among the highlights of his story: he planned the proposal with his parents (no comment), he did it on Black Friday (a high holy day in his cheapskate family) and after proposing, she grabbed the ring from him, effectively stealing his thunder.

You had to feel for John and his Mickey Rourke sausage fingers.

I didn't have the ♥ to tell him that real romance is David proposing to his girlfriend Maggie on the dance floor after a cheesy '80s cover band plays Journey's "Faithfully" in Urbanna Saturday night.

Oh, yes, that did, too, happen. I saw it on Facebook. But there are no mountains in the northern neck, so they couldn't share that story tonight. Pity.

With three beers in her already, Kathleen attempted to interweave two stories of why she and her girlfriends now qualify as mountain women.

A year after their first camping experience, they decided to re-wild. You heard right, re-wild.

Despite using Air BnB to score a sketchy RV and relying on a case of Coors Light and a bottle of Jack Daniels to sustain them, she believed that the one-time camping trip in Colorado during a hail storm was preparation for anything.

Two things came out of re-wilding: coffee brewed using a sports bra and an empty Coors can and the satisfaction that all the mountain women involved had "worked some shit out," probably about relationships, she guessed.

Unlike past Secretly Y'Alls, I really didn't have a theme-appropriate story to share tonight, even if I were brave enough to try, which I'm not.

My lone pseudo-mountain story involved a date suggesting we hike Humpback Rock. I remember two things from that day: we listened to the new John Mayer record "Heavier Things" on the drive there and that my Witty Fuchsia lipstick melted in the car while we were hiking.

Needless to say, after that kind of trauma, I knew it was time for me to get off the mountain pot. Mercifully, I've never felt the need to re-wild.

Oh, and did I mention I ♥ oceans?

Monday, September 28, 2015

Racing the Moon

Sometimes you just need to move forward.

With today being the last day of the UCI world biking championships, I wanted to join the throngs in Church Hill. Although I'd already been bike race-watching two days this week, both times - Tuesday and Friday - had been in Jackson Ward and the crowds were light, to say the least.

Today I wanted hordes, masses even and I wanted to see them on that cobblestone stretch of hill in Libby Hill Park.

So after procuring sandwiches at Union Market, a mob scene of spandex-clad amateurs and parents with mega-strollers, but not as bad as Proper Pie's line looked or as far as I heard Sub Rosa's line stretched, we ate them on the steps of Patrick Henry's Pub while taking in the turn at 23rd Street before heading to the hill for which Richmond was named.

The only problem with getting what I'd wished for - humanity -was that the crowds of people stretched over every available space on the hill, meaning that if you're short (say 5'5" in your flats), all you saw were heads and shoulders and not of the peloton (new-to-me word alert) but of the spectators, far too many of them watching the race on their phones rather than on the street in front of them.

This kind of dedication to devices in the face of real life is just plain tragic.

It was up there that I found plenty of familiar faces: the mayor (unsmiling), the governor (smiling), the beer rep, the pizza queen, the wine geek, the former cupcake pro and, best of all, a guy I didn't know, but who was all but beaming.

"I spent two hours drinking with the Norwegian team!" he enthused, clearly bragging. "That's all I'm going to say!"

So it was back to J-Ward for more leisurely viewing, only occasionally of the peloton and more often of the lone Latvian pumping away in his solitary quest so far behind the rest of the pack as to make empathetic viewers wince a tad.

Hey, I always got picked last in gym class, so I can relate.

As it happened, we were strolling Broad Street talking to drummers and looking at bikes for sale when cheers went up and - ta da! - a Slovokian won it all.

I refused to watch it on the Juumbotron and endanger my Luddite status.

Not everyone understood that just because we had a winner, that didn't mean everyone had finished the race and in no time, regular Joes were pedaling down Broad Street like they owned it.

It took only one blond policewoman to threaten that they'd be arrested at the next intersection (after having warned them to get off Broad Street because there was still one rider finishing his final lap) to get them off the course.

I'm guessing it was Mr. Latvia, but I don't know that for sure.

After post-race napping (all that viewing is exhausting), we decided to give Richmond stalwart Buddy's a chance, not because we're fans of its customer base of aging UR graduates (we're not, but there are exceptions), but because we hadn't been since the big move off of Robinson to Sheppard.

Every place deserves one shot before you write it off, right? Biggest compliment I can think of after eating dinner: there aren't many bars where you can hear Alice Cooper's "I'm Eighteen" on the sound system.

We tried for some harvest moon/blood moon/super moon/lunar eclipse action, choosing a parking spot with a good view of the night sky, but the clouds that had been threatening and even spitting rain all day ensured that we got no more than a  few teasing glances at the massive white orb before it disappeared for good.

The best thing to come out of that experience was an invitation to meet in the same place in 18 years for the next blood moon/super moon/lunar eclipse.

Since you can never go wrong with Patricia Clarkson or Ben Kingsley, we finished out the evening at the Criterion to see "Learning to Drive," a beautifully-acted, smart comedy about a Manhattan book editor whose husband ditches her for a younger woman, spurring her to learn to drive.

For men with no intention of seeing the movie but hoping to glean some romantic advice from the story, allow me to summarize:

1) Buy her a book of poetry and then read her a poem from it with your head laying in her lap.

2) Hold her face in your hands, whether talking to her or kissing her.

3) Tantric sex is not always what a woman is looking for.

It was the kind of movie that leaves you feeling quietly satisfied in that same way you do after a not particularly eventful sort of day spent with someone whose company you enjoy regardless of the activity. It's all moving forward, albeit in glacier-like increments.

It should be noted there was no drinking with Norwegians. That's all I'm going to say.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

At the Nut House

Damn you, Roy's.

I've been craving Roy's Big Burger since I got back from the beach last week without having made a stop at Dune Burger. Only problem was that once I found a friend willing to take me there, Roy's was closed.

Good god, Roy's, what self-respecting burger joint closes at 4:00 on the weekends?

With his taste buds all set for a burger, Friend insisted we make the best of our bad luck, so we ended up at Five Guys, which is nothing like the same but at least scratched the itch for greasy. You really can't compare a foil-wrapped burger to one wrapped in parchment paper with grease spots galore.

And don't get me started on the loss of one of Roy's mammoth chocolate shakes.

Once fed (if not fully satisfied), we walked over to Coalition Theater for tonight's Riot! show, featuring the Pigeon, da Vinci and Ambassador teams doing their best to improv us into Saturday night laughter.

Because of our burger delay, we walked in just as the show was starting, hearing the dire warning that the bar was down to just two Diet Cokes. While I wouldn't drink a Diet Coke if you paid me, my companion sucks them down regularly along with those cancer-causing packs of artificial sweetener I continue to insist will eventually kill him.

But I digress.

The Pigeon team took (lame) inspiration from an audience member calling out "Hunger Games" (and sounding more than a little embarrassed at having suggested it) and next thing we knew, we were at a gaming convention with a chubby guy ("He's not chubby!") taking names at the door and Princess Willow Whisper wowing him.

While I have absolutely no frame of reference for gamers or dating apps, funny is funny.

We heard about "Bumble," which was "like Tinder but girls have to swipe you first" ("Sounds like a horrible idea" - from a guy, of course) and how the judges eliminated a guy because his BMI was too high ("What? I'm 5'11" and 312 pounds!"). Only guys make so many fat jokes.

At the convention bar, mead (of course) was served with power crystals on request and wizard cops made random arrests ("That cave was a known hangout for crack dragons").

Pity the Ambassador team who had to get started with nothing more than "mirror" for inspiration ("What's something you find in an antique shop?") and somehow devolved into a story of real-life mannequins, missing children and pot smoking in the thrift store stock room.

Don't ask me how their minds work; it's just our job to laugh.

Acronyms flew (tt = turntable, IB = incense burner, pp = peace pipe) and before long, '70s clich├ęs abounded while "Dark Side of the Moon" played. "Did you feel that? That was you killing the vibe and harshing my mellow."

Before it was all over, live mannequins were cutting off their genitalia (per Dad's instructions), killing cats (ditto) and being posed with obscene and Nazi-like gestures. Clearly, mirror was a challenging starting point.

The da Vinci team began brilliantly with a nerdy science couple discussing how they'd met over a geological dig. Her apple ass had been seductively clad in J Lo Glow jeans (I have no clue if this was really a thing or the joke was on me) as she leaned over a hole in the dirt and he'd had an article published in "Mineral Monthly," meaning they were a match made in heaven.

Later, a pregnant woman is distraught because she wants a celebrity at the birth of her child but none are available. They settle for an extra on JAG (yes, I had to ask my friend what "JAG" was) until she proves herself unworthy, but fortunately George Clooney's butt double on "ER" shows up.

That's not really a thing, right? Or does George really have a butter butt?

Along the way, we saw a scene from Black Friday at Wild Birds Unlimited - who buys a blue parakeet with a wonky eye?- and meet a woman who did squirrel voiceovers - "What you talkin' about, there ain't no nuts!"

But the cleverest bit involved a woman who'd fallen in love with a pre-Venetian chair and was trying to deal with her addiction through a 12-step program. Stop stroking the chair's cushion.

Yes, she was a recovering chairaholic. Their motto? "If you're not sitting, you're living."

Light up the IB. I feel another laugh attack coming on.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Here's to the Girls on the Go

Once again, Billy Christopher has delivered all the estrogen I could possibly want in one fabulous evening.

Truthfully, he's been my source, my dealer, a reliable estrogen supplier for years now, chiefly by way of his Gender-Reversed Shakespeare performances. Tonight I scored from him with something different: his birthday present to himself, a cabaret, fittingly entitled "My Favorite Richmond Leading Ladies."

So he turns 35 and we get the present (not that turning a mere 35 isn't gift enough). I like the way the man thinks.

The photographer and I found seats down in front so as to have the best possible view of all these talented women, their pretty outfits and, perhaps best of all, their parade of cute shoes.

You haven't heard "Cabaret" sung until you've seen it done in sparkly blue peep-toe platform pumps to open the show.

There was a pop quiz - What is the "Wizard of Oz" about? - given by a woman in sparkly silver t-strap shoes with bows (!) purchased for her by the love of her life.

Answer: The "Wizard of Oz" is about a pair of shoes ("No, this isn't the medication. I'm always this funny," whilst draping herself and those shoes around the piano).

The immensely talented Starlet Knight, her white Mohawk a thing of beauty, did her best to accompany this group of divas on piano, eventually throwing up her hands and saying, "It's a lot of woman...in the middle of a bike race...while I'm trying to do "Hello, Dolly"! I'm doing the best I can."

We felt her pain, but in all honesty, she was doing a bang-up job of playing piano to a host of show tunes, with nary a moment to rest in between songs.

You really had to be there to see the red patent leather pumps straddling devoted theater patron Dennis in his seat while singing "Bring On the Men." If he didn't need his neck brace before that number, he probably did afterwards.

But she wasn't finished, cooing, "Come dance with me, darling," to BC who not only danced her around the stage but dropped her in a magnificent dip.

The fishnet tights-wearing beauty introduced "In His Eyes" by saying, "Someone once asked me to sing a song I never sang outside a crowded karaoke bar with a Broadway veteran" and then did just that, giving the crowd chills at the blending of their two voices.

Another pair of red patent leather pumps crossed herself (maybe in deference to the Pope's visit?) before doing "Don't Rain on My Parade," changing the lyric, "Hey, Mr. Arnstein" to "Hey, Mr. Maupin" in a nod to the birthday boy.

We got topical. There were old fashioned lesbian love stories and laments about every guy a girl tries to date ending up being gay (BC inserting a good-natured shrug at this point).

Only the red dress brought out her guitar, announcing, "Those songs were spicy but I'm going to bring it down to bittersweet," singing the haunting indie folk ballad, "Fighter Dancer."

Props showed up for "The Ladies who Lunch" because a drink is a must for that classic, along with a whole lot of attitude for "Some People."

The pretty pink dress and matching flower in her hair belted out "Love Changes Everything," which was taken into the stratosphere when shiny taupe pumps chimed in with "I Don't Know How to Love Him" (that song alone making my night) and the maternal one on "Unexpected Song," an Andrew Lloyd Webber trifecta that absolutely killed.

When it ended, BC said what the stunned room was thinking: "Holy, shit, that just happened!"

Of course, only the pregnant woman could sing "Little Girls" from "Annie," especially appropriate since she'd just found out that this baby bump will be her third daughter. As one of six daughters, all I can say is, three is nothing, honey.

Last up came sparkly t-strap shoes with double ankle straps, an actress with fond memories of having been cast as a Munchkin in "The Wiz" at 13, her first professional production, only to be given the part of Dorothy instead.

"I'm so glad you moved here and made this your home," she said directly to the birthday boy, who'd spent the night alternately beaming and tearing up.

Of course she had to sing "Home" from "The Wiz", the words made all the more poignant for the Band-aid on her knee.

All the divas in the house and their assortment of cute shoes, sexy dresses and powerful lungs took to the stage for one last song before everyone joined in a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday," celebrating the fact that for two days now, that song is officially in the public domain.

Just in time for somebody's 35th birthday. Just in time to benefit the Richmond Theater Artists Fund. Just in time for Richmond's favorite leading ladies to dazzle us with their unstoppable talent.

Here's to the King of Estrogen! Isn't he a gem? Let's drink to him.

Let's drink to all of them, all his favorite Richmond leading ladies. Then let's bring on the men for the birthday boy.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

No Such Thing as Too Much Cow Bell

I can't believe how lucky Richmond is to have gotten the UCI bike races.

Despite the bellyaching, fear-mongering and general trash-talking that's been going on for the past four days, the fact is that we've got an athletic event of global proportions happening on our front doorstep and it's nothing short of amazing.

Anticipating that having a bike-savvy buddy with me to answer my questions would enhance my experience, I invited a favorite cyclist to join me for an afternoon of race-watching. We met at my place and then began our adventure by walking over to the starting line at Third and Broad Streets just before everything got underway for the afternoon.

On the way, I positively glowed seeing the crowd dining and drinking al fresco in front of Max's. Back when I'd been part of the Ephemeral Plan: Brook Road, one of our suggestions had been to close off that stretch for outdoor dining. It was incredibly gratifying seeing it happening.

My biking ignorance was immediately on view since I'd had no clue that the racers came down a ramp to start their ride. It was particularly cool watching the camera on a crane follow them out of the gate and onto Third Street.

What I quickly figured out was that the spectators' role was to make as much noise as possible. Since we'd brought neither cowbells nor noisemakers, we resorted to clapping and shouting every time a cyclist went by.

And here's where my lack of knowledge reared its ugly head again. Who knew that each cyclist was preceded by a motorcycle cop and followed by a car (s) with extra bikes and bike parts?

But easily the coolest job, assuming you have nerves of steel, an adrenaline addiction and a core of sheer muscle, was the cameraman standing on a motorcycle behind the driver, filming the individual bike rider. Kids, you, too, can grow up to do this!

After watching a half dozen cyclists roll down the starting line, we made tracks for another vantage point: the corner of Belvidere and Broad where they had to make a wide left turn. But the best left turn was the one from Laurel onto Main, where they whizzed by the Altria Theater and almost took the paint of the fencing barricades where we were standing.

A woman nearby had been steadily taking pictures of them doing this sharp left and my companion began doing the same. Me, I just watched, fascinated, as these women took the turn, their bikes barely a foot and a half from the barricades. So close.

From there, we made our way down to Belvidere and Main to watch the riders begin the windy sweep over the Lee Bridge. It was here I first noticed the serious leg sweat on the cyclists. Despite the cloud cover, steady wind and cooler temperatures, these women were working it. Hard.

Next we started toward Broad on our way to watch the last leg of the course which includes bombing Main Street (and against the street's usual westward direction), climbing a steep hill on Governor's Street behind the executive mansion, a "false flat" once they turned onto Broad Street ('cause you're still coming up the last of the ascent from the Bottom) and the finish line at Fifth.

Along the way, cops smiled and said hello, friendly blue-shirted volunteers helped us cross streets like elementary school safety patrols and friends - the scuba diver, the urban planner, the gallerist, the vintage store owner -said hello.

It was like one big city-wide party.

Occasionally we passed people carrying on with the business of life, like the construction worker telling his buddies about how dehydrated his friend got after a night of drinking. "He put a Tums in his mouth before he went to bed and when he woke up, it was still there."

You don't say?

Watching the riders come down Main Street was thrilling for my biking companion and terrifying for me. They had to be going 40 mph, yet they had to brake for the sharp left onto Governor's Street and then work it up that hill.

As I was walking up it, a man with a microphone and press credentials pointed at my shirt - "Virginia is for Wine Lovers" - and said, "My wife would kill for that shirt." Luckily she wasn't around.

Everywhere, we saw people holding flags of other countries, waving them as riders went by. Cheering was mostly in English, despite the fact that so many cyclists spoke other languages. We even overheard some guys discussing whether or not the cyclists wanted people to make noise or be silent so they could concentrate.

"Are you kidding?" one said incredulously. "They want us to make noise!" Duh. Come on, the flippin' ABC was giving away cow bells to help the noise-making effort.

By the time they got up that hill and turned onto the "false flat," you could tell they were tired, or, at least, not as fresh as they'd been at the starting line. The crowds were much bigger near the finish line than any we'd seen, with spectators in the elevated VIP section and others comfortably ensconced at the usually empty T. Miller's patio in front of the Marriott.

We stopped to cheer on some of the cyclists reaching the end, but, let's face it, that's probably the least interesting part of the time trials to watch as a spectator.

In front of Eureka Workshop, we chatted with one of its staffers, who said she'd been interviewed by one of the TV stations about how the businesses along Broad were being affected by the race. Refusing to agree that the race was ruining business, she made a point to be upbeat about it all.

Of course, the reporter did her best to bait her - was it chaos? impossible to navigate?- and when she responded incredulously, they'd done a hatchet job in editing that made her sound far more negative than she'd actually been.

Likewise, when we got back from the races after walking nearly five miles and spending four hours watching the best cyclists I've ever seen, I was greeted by screeds from local media outlets bemoaning the low local attendance at area restaurants this week.

Seems all the business lately has been thanks to foreign visitors while the locals are staying away in droves. How idiotic of them.

The fact is, the city isn't hard to navigate, even with some road closures and there's a surprising abundance of parking spaces all over town. Some of us - gasp - are even walking the city to catch the races and it's been a blast.

Some cities would kill for an influx of cosmopolitan tourists and world-class athletes. Friends, if you're not taking advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the loss is yours.

We're talking half-empty restaurants and world-class leg sweat here. It's our moment in the sun, Richmond. Why on earth wouldn't we enjoy every minute of it?

You know I am.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

You Can Do Anything

The beauty of Richmond is that there's always something worth doing.

It's just another Tuesday night, right? The students have high-tailed it out of town with classes being cancelled, the suburbanites are holed up in their junior McMansions, afraid to venture out, and with everything going on this week, it's easy to throw up your hands and say why bother.

But then I see that Dave Watkins is playing at Black Iris, not even three blocks from my house and I know a perfect Tuesday night has fallen into my lap. The crowd is definitely smaller than usual - maybe 40 people - but it's a quality bunch.

I barely have time to say hello to the professor who's curated the gallery show when Dave, his dulcitar and his massive pedal board begin filling the gallery with something I've never heard from him before. Dynamic to the max and very controlled, hearing this different sound from him is a wonder for long-time fans like me.

With one of his unique light shows playing behind him, Dave has curated a total experience.

By the end of his set, there are elements of his usual improvisational sound with lots of looping, but it also feels like we are experiencing a subtle shift in his musical direction and that's exciting. It is definitely some of, if not the, best playing I've heard out of the dozens of his performances I've attended.

I only wish more out-of-towners were in the house tonight to help spread the gospel of Dave Watkins.

During the break, I get a chance to mingle. The photographer and I talk about Fall breathing down our necks. The busker thanks me for the article I wrote about her, saying it brought in a much larger crowd to her last show. The cook says business is Carytown has been painfully slow and we commiserate over the plethora of available parking in our beloved J-Ward this week.

"It's emptier than when the students are on break!" he laments. It's true.

Next up is tonight' touring band, the Andrew Weathers Ensemble, a singer/guitarist accompanied by a cellist. Of note is that they are from Oakland and are currently both barefoot on stage.

For their set, Dave puts on a nature slide show and soon leaves blow in the breeze and birds flit across Andrew's face as he sings.

Theirs is a kind of mournful experimental folk with the sadness of the cello matched only by Andrew's weary-sounding vocals. It's a fusion of indie and folk with just enough hints of Appalachia and drone. Suddenly I understand why they're barefoot.

I already know why I'm here. Beautiful music is being made in this unnaturally quiet city tonight.

Those who bother to venture out are rewarded. We are the lucky ones.

Monday, September 21, 2015

How You Get the Girl

Interpretation was the name of today's game.

For music lovers, the big event this Monday was the digital release of Ryan Adams' cover of Taylor Swift's entire "1989" album.

I'm not going to lie, I have a copy of "1989," not because I'm a devoted T Swift fan but because it was gifted to me last Christmas and I was curious. After months of listening to it, there are still songs I can't stand (see: "Bad Blood" and "I Know Things") but there are also practically perfect pop gems that I still enjoy even after months of listening.

But the thought of Ryan Adams - let's be clear here: Ryan flippin' Adams - covering the entire album in his distinctive style called to me like a ganache-filled chocolate cake with white icing.

So, seeing that it had been released today, I sat down to listen to it. Don't judge, but at the moment, I'm on my fourth or fifth listen. Part of that is that he's done exactly what he did when he covered Oasis' "Wonderwall" a few years back: made someone else's songs completely his own.

He's replaced her synths and young woman angst with typical Ryan Adams shimmering guitars and reverb, both like catnip to me. Even the songs I couldn't stand on the original appeal to me in his voice, with his arrangements.

One of my many Facebook friends who was also listening to the album today commented that the Ryan Adams version gave him and other men permission to admit they like Taylor Swift's songs. At my venerable age, I need no one's permission to like what I like, but I get what he means.

Ryan's "1989" takes the bones of what is indisputably a 21st century pop masterpiece (even if I find some phrases overused and far too much emphasis on looks in her lyrics for my taste) dressed up in the earnest, guitar-based clothing of one of my favorite dysfunctional singer-songwriters.

I can already tell that it's going to be a stellar road trip CD. Damn, Ryan, couldn't you have released this in time for my beach trip last week?

By the time I tore myself away from "1989" to walk, it was already 4:00, possibly a record for late walking for me. But it was also lightly raining and a beautiful time to get out there and take in the moist air.

Six blocks from home on my way back, I saw a front door open and out came a familiar face: a member of Richmond Comedy Coalition and easily one of the funniest improv comedians in Richmond. We fell into easy conversation as he joined me walking west on Marshall Street.

Since it's impossible right now not to discuss the bike race, we got right into it and I was thrilled when he said what I was thinking: that I'm already sick of the Debbie Downers complaining that (take your pick) there aren't as many visitors here yet as the city said there would be, that the small businesses are having a hard time this week because the media has scared people off from coming downtown, that the bike race is a bust.

What surprises me most about these negative comments are that some of them are coming from people I wouldn't have expected it from. Come on, people, the actual races haven't even begun. So far, it's just been time trials.

Can we give this thing a chance before we whine and complain?

It was gratifying to hear someone else as excited about the race and all the international visitors as I am. I saw that the Australian racing team had stopped at Lamplighter for espressos, chatting with locals as they sat outside. Another Jackson Ward friend said that in walking eight blocks, she'd heard eight languages spoken along Broad Street. It's all exciting to me.

Probably hoping to draw in some of those visitors, Firehouse Theater is doing a Firehouse Fringe Festival all week, so after another listen to "1989," that's where I headed.

Tonight's offering was a monologue-based short work by Joseph Chaikin and Sam Shepard called "The War in Heaven" starring John Porter with Drew Perkins providing the music and directed by Joel Bassin.

It was Joel who gathered the small but mighty crowd together in the lobby to give us some background on Chaikin and the play. After a stroke and partial aphasia, Shepard wrote the play for him to perform.

Warning us that it was not a traditional play (well, it wouldn't be fringe if it were, now would it?), we were led into the theater.

The stage was strewn with straw, Porter sat in a stool, barefoot and open-shirted, while Drew was at the back of the stage with multiple instruments - guitar, violin, harmonica, percussion - at the ready.

It was a meandering, disjointed monologue Porter gave, rambling at times, ranting at others, trying to deal with grief, feeling diminished, birth and death. Sometimes he'd stand and walk deliberately across the stage to a music stand and speak from there, only to return to his stool.

I have no life without your thought of me.

His character was an empty soul looking for a body, waiting for other bodies to release their souls (some don't), ruminating on becoming an angel as of day he'd been born. Perkins beautifully matched his moods with instrumental interludes and sudden bursts of percussion to punctuate some of Porter's musings.

There was a time when music surrounded me on all sides. Now, listen. Nothing. No sound but the sound of my voice. 

It was a moving meditation on life and death, told in jagged phrases with occasional anger about the need to sometimes look for an angel in the midst of hate and war and it was over before we knew it.

I only wish one of the biking teams had been there to see Richmond's fringe side.

Oh, wait, they're probably back at their hotels listening to the newest interpretation of "1989." Today was a time when music surrounded us on all sides. Now, listen.

No sound but the sound of Ryan Adams' voice. It's hard to shake it off.

Betwixt Hunger and Frustration

Yes, I left again. Apparently wine trumps car fatigue.

After having just gotten back from the beach yesterday, here I was using my E-Z pass again to drive west to Powhatan for "Dinner of the Grape," a wine dinner to kick off next month's Powhatan Festival of the Grape.

Don't let the intent fool you; I'm getting tired of the inside of a vehicle. But it sounded like fun.

Up and coming chef Travis Milton (he of the not-yet-open Shovel and Pick) was sharing cooking duties with Joe Downes of the County Seat, and while the County Seat is a place I've eaten before (because I was in the area), it's also easily the unlikeliest place I've journeyed to for a wine dinner.

But Travis runs a small farm on his parents' land in Powhatan, allowing him to source some of his ingredients there and I had a place to stay in that neck of the woods, so off I went.

The check-in line on the restaurant's large front porch was already long when I arrived half an hour before the 6:00 start time. Walking across the gravel parking lot, I passed a woman who smiled and exclaimed, "Gorgeous!" I thought she meant the weather (which was), but her response was, "No, you!" (must have been the hot pink dress). I couldn't have asked for a better start to my night.

Better I didn't know then where the evening was going from there.

Because they'd sold 175 tickets (or so I overheard) and were only seating complete parties, check-in took quite a while. My date and I ended up at a community table, fine by us since strangers can be fun. At our table were two couples, one younger living downtown and the other older living in the West End.

It didn't take long before we were all chatting and sipping what tasted like apple juice, confusing since the first pour was listed as Cardinal Point Winery Hopped Chardonnay and clearly this wasn't that.

But we all drank it as we chatted about favorite restaurants old and new and watching the bike race, noticing as table after table got their first course and we didn't.

A woman went over to the stage area and put some music on - an instrumental version of "Peace Train" was the first song - which pleased me no end since listening to other people eat while we had nothing seemed cruel.

But I'm an optimist, a Pollyanna even, so I kept the faith.

Finally, at 6:45, our first course arrived. Billed as a salad of pickled Albemarle peaches with Manakintowne arugula, pea shoots, charred cushaw squash, Caramont Farms Esmontonian cheese, Virginia peanuts and a Nehi peach vinaigrette, it was a tad underwhelming.

First, it was so small it would have made a house salad look generous. But then, the salads were also absent any peaches (hello, pickled PEACH salad?) or pea shoots. In barely four bites we were each finished and looking at each other wondering if this was a sign of things to come.

The pragmatist thought yes, but I held firm.

When a server came to pour the next wine, Blenheim table white, she explained that the first and fourth course wines had been switched at the last second, which was why we'd begun with Old Hill Betwixt cider. Okay.

Served family style, crab cake baguettes arrived at the table and everyone eagerly took their two pieces of sliced baguette with a mini crabcake atop each, grateful for something to eat. Since we were among the last few tables served again, we saw other tables having their plates cleared while we took our first bites.

Meanwhile, "Peace Train" came on for the second time.

By this point, we were beginning to joke about our redheaded stepchild status, but we took heart when we saw the gorgeous Autumn Olive Farms bone-in pork chops with butterbean and Appalachian blue barley miso, braised broccoli greens and smokey red peas going by. The chops looked thick and meaty and, frankly, we were all more than a little hungry by this point.

Blenheim table red wine was poured in anticipation of our chops arriving and we tried not to inhale it before our pig showed up, which it finally did at 8:00, as nearby tables were having their plates cleared.

Only problem was what showed up in no way resembled what other tables had been served. Instead, we got pork loin end pieces, cool to the touch and so dry as to be off-putting, except that we were starving and had no choice.

When I asked a server, she insisted that this was still pork chops, just without the bone. Meanwhile, braised broccoli greens were nowhere to be found on any of our plates.

It was when "Peace Train" started up again for the third time that I knew we had reached Dante's third circle of hell.

Before we even began choking down our dried-out pork, we'd noticed that people were already in the dessert buffet line, helping themselves. The menu had promised mini caramel cakes with roasted pecans, chocolate chess pie and fresh fruit cobbler but when we'd been seated, there had been many other desserts on the table.

All six of us immediately knew we'd have minimal dessert choices by the time we got over there. The non-dessert eaters took it in stride while the sweet tooths like me felt cheated. Again.

By the time we got up there, what was left was the dregs of peach cobbler (I'm allergic to peaches), a couple of cakes that had clearly been bought frozen and some cookies.

I never got to the Cardinal Point Winery Hopped Chardonnay for the dessert course, fine by me since the Blenheim Red was better with my black and white cake anyway. But that's not how it should have been.

When finally offered the wine, I said no, what I wanted had been a bone-in pork chop like I was promised and like most of the other tables got. And I didn't want a picked-over dessert table, I wanted the trio of three mini-desserts my date had paid for.

My disappointment must have been conveyed to the kitchen because six small take-out boxes arrived and although the server claimed they held the bone-in chops we'd been denied, it was just boxes of more dried out loin.

At that point, the six of us felt utterly defeated. The guy sitting next to me, also hungry and disappointed, summed it up best.

"Well, it sure did happen," he lamented with a wry smile.

I give him credit - that's about the kindest spin anyone at our table could have put on that debacle of a meal

Oh, peace train, take this table
Come take us home again...

Sunday, September 20, 2015

When Days Fly

Dig, if you will, the picture of me having breakfast in front of Wink's, squinting at the ocean through sunglasses as I eat.

The only problem with this picture is that it requires leaving the beach followed by three hours in the car to make it the Continental for lunch.

Despite dire warnings about the UCI bike race, I have zero trouble getting back into town or my neighborhood and parking spaces abound.

Dream, if you can, a restaurant full to the rafters of customers, far too many of them with fussy young children. Our trio is fortunate enough to snag a table on the breezy patio while most of the squawking and food throwing is going on inside.

I should be ashamed to admit how much I enjoy a plate of dirty chips - housemade potato chips covered in jack and cheddar cheese, bacon and chives - and sips of boozy limeade, but I'm not.

For the second time today, I have absolutely no problem getting where I'm going despite seeing signs saying, "Bike Race in Progress" at several intersections.

Decide, if you choose, like a friend and I did, to meet at Toast for a fried dinner - sliders, fries and a seafood bucket - to trade tales of the last fortnight's beach trips (hers and mine), miscommunications (ditto) and soul-searching (always).

Driving over, the streets are noticeably empty, no doubt due to media fear-mongering about coming downtown. A pity, really.

Conceive, if you try, of a thought-provoking two-actor play called "Uncanny Valley," which is the term coined for the human tendency to react negatively to robots that seem human (see: "The Polar Express" movie - disconcerting, right?).

Produced by 5th Wall and performed at the tiny Hatt Theater out in the hinterlands (driving west on Patterson for what seemed like hours, my friend says, "Where are we? Canada?"), the play addresses the question of what it means to be human ("In your mind's eye, how old are you?").

And, more specifically, what does it mean to be human and so filthy rich that you can keep yourself alive indefinitely by having your life experiences and memories uploaded into a robot who looks like you at whatever age you choose for it to (34 in this case).

Alexander Sapp is brilliant as the robot being coached on human behavior by the maternalistic scientist played by the reliably-strong Jacqueline Jones ("We're a skittish species. That's how we've lasted so long.").

With the addition of each component - another arm, torso, legs, he becomes more human-like - but it's his early, robotic like voice and distinct learning curve that provide many of the early laughs while endearing him to the audience. This is Julian A.

A real relationship develops between the two and after much coaching from the patient Jones, he receives the download from the dying man (Julian B). The result is the new creature, Julian C, an amalgam of human and a robot.

Playwright Thomas Gibbons took the stage afterwards with director Morrie Piersol and the two actors to talk with the audience about the provocative nature of the play's subject matter, inspired by a National Geographic article he'd read at his dentist's office.

I don't know that an article on artificial intelligence would've grabbed me the same way, but the resulting play certainly did. Are we merely our consciousness? Can it be replicated for another body?

The play raises some hard questions, all the more significant for how close apparently we are to this sort of thing becoming, well, a thing. Only for the 1%, mind you, but that's even scarier since all the "immortals" will be the super-rich.

It may be time to start worrying about the Donald doing something like this.

Or, better yet, it's definitely time to go see "Uncanny Valley" because this is the very best kind of theater: beautifully acted, subtly directed and forcing us to look at some hard issues of personal ethics and technology.

As Gibbons pointed out in the talkback, algorithms already shape our daily lives. Should they be used to shape the minds and personalities of robots to achieve immortality?

Call me the skittish type, but you can probably guess how the woman without a cell phone or TV is going to weigh in on this.

Real life in progress. It's enough for me.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Skin Tight

A smart woman makes the most of what is likely her last beach day of the year.

It didn't hurt that the weather was picture postcard perfect and the ocean bathwater warm. The younger woman contingent who had provided so much entertainment value and opportunity for mentorship the past three days gradually drifted back to their rightful homes, leaving Pru and I to go at it a deux.

The last day means doing all the vacation things you can.

You read. With Ralph Abernathy's autobiography finished yesterday on the beach, I moved on to Hilary Mantels' Man Booker Prize-winning "Bring Up the Bodies," an historical fiction about Henry VIII and Jane Seymour and an unlikely thing for me to read (it was a gift and came highly recommended).

You nap on the beach. We'd been in bed by 2-ish the past couple nights (which could be considered reasonable compared to the up and comers who stayed up till 5 a.m. every night) sleeping in till 10, but there is nothing quite like sleeping on a beach towel mere feet from where the surf is rolling in.

It's also a great way to tan some last bits before the pallor of winter sets in.

You happy hour on the beach. The couple who are staying in the house next door do the same but they do it in plastic chairs up by the gazebo while we begin ours much nearer the water. A flash of brilliance results in us moving the party into the ocean with our acrylic wineglasses. Which leads to...

You spend as much time as possible in the ocean. Pru isn't much one for water. Despite having been here a week, she's yet to enter the pool or hot tub. Fine, fine, neither of those interest me, either. But the ocean? The source of all sensory pleasures at the beach? Yes, my dear, we go in that.

And somehow, I managed to convince her that once in the water, there was no good reason to come out except for occasional forays to refill wine glasses. Wine is drunk mixed with salt water and occasional sand and no one cares.

Before long, we'd been smacked with waves from every side. The water was warm and the tide receding, so we kept inching farther out. We talk about visiting Bermuda and summer salons with rotating guests.

We compare mountain and ocean vacations and Pru makes the pithiest analogy. "Would you rather taste like a salty oyster or the flippin' Appalachian Trail?" The imagery is vivid.

Our fingers go prune-y. Pru's sunglasses get knocked off by a wave, never to be seen again.

Better at the end of vacation rather than the beginning.

You take all the vacation photos you've been meaning to all week. If you're Pru, you take pictures of your friend sleeping and sitting on the beach with wine. If you're me, you take them of your friend in the ocean because no one who knows her will believe it if you tell them.

But because you're a good friend, you do not take a picture when, heading out for fresh wine, she falls on her ass, ending up covered in sand. The memory of her cracking up and gritty will have to suffice.

You enjoy one last evening on the deck facing the ocean. "I think we need some Ohio Players," Pru says, as if it's obvious, making it happen on her little boombox. "Love Rollercoaster" competes with the sound of the surf as we dance around the deck.

By the time we get to "Fire" - and that's "fi-yuh," no "r" involved in pronunciation, it's probably better that we're the only ones around. No telling what questions the younger generation might have had if they'd witnessed this dance party.

You go to sleep with the balcony door open, the sound and smell of the ocean along with your partner in beach crime the best possible sleeping companions on your final beach night of 2015.

Pru and I, we'd really rather taste like salty oysters.

Friday, September 18, 2015

See You in September

September on the Outer Banks is a whole different animal.

For one thing, on today's walk I saw a group of Mennonite (Amish?) woman on the beach, a first in all my years coming down here. Four of them sat wearing long dresses and bonnets on a beach towel while a brave fifth stood at the surf's edge clad in a sleeveless purple dress that went down to her mid-calf.

A blow-up swim ring encircled the long bathing costume. Her bonnet was nowhere to be found. She looked terrified.

I don't think that ring was going to do much considering that all along the beach were yellow flags warning, "Dangerous Surf," but I admired her pluck.

Pru and I set up camp on the beach after I returned from my walk, intending to spend the day, only to discover that the younger inhabitants of the house had no such intention. Despite over five hours on the beach, not one of them ventured down at any point to join us, opting instead for the air-conditioning and TV of the house.

As has been pointed out before, youth (and beach houses) are wasted on the young.

It was a gorgeous day again, blue skies and swirling clouds, sailboats on the horizon and just enough breeze to keep things interesting.

We resisted leaving the beach for as long as possible but since we also wanted a night out, eventually we had to. One thing about September at the beach is that you just don't have the hours of evening daylight you do in July.

When we got to Ocean Boulevard for dinner, we were greeted by a sign on the door alerting the world that Elizabeth and Jake were having their rehearsal dinner downstairs at the restaurant. That meant walk-in patrons could come back after 9 or sit upstairs.

"I wouldn't mind having an intimate dinner at a table with you," Pru said with what sounded like sincerity.

We were there so we settled for upstairs, intending to move downstairs as soon as the bar re-opened. The hostess led us to a small room upstairs with four tables and three couples occupying them.

It was close quarters but the problem was that there was no music and we were mere feet from three other couples, each trying to have their own conversation. I told Pru that music-less restaurants were denying the customers ambiance.

"Are you talking about there being no music?" the guy at the table by the window asked, unable not to overhear our conversation. When I checked to see if they'd mentioned it to their server, they admitted they hadn't. "Well Karen will," Pru told them.

"Thanks, Karen," the stranger said.

"They turned off the music because the bridal party was doing toasts and talking," said the guy at the table behind us, who had also done nothing about the situation.

When our server returned with our Shaya  Verdejo, I stage-whispered to him, asking if he could turn the music back on. He stage-whispered just as loudly that he'd do his best before admitting that he hadn't even noticed.

Every single time I've ever told a server that the music had stopped (or was endlessly repeating or skipping) they've said that they hadn't even noticed. And while he made sure it did come back on, it was so low a volume that the most we heard was some occasional percussion.

On my way to the loo, I walked by a couple at a table, hearing him tell her, "I'm not saying I got you figured out, I'm just saying I want to try."

Luckily, it would soon be 9 and we could escape the awkward room.

In the meantime, we ate well, sharing a bistro salad with candied ham; North Carolina ham wrapped around housemade Mozzarella with balsamic and melon; mussels in white wine and pesto; and N.C. shrimp with corn and red peppers and a field pea cake, all small plates with at least one too many ingredients.

I appreciate a complexity of flavors but sometimes less is more.

Once we'd eaten, we took our wine glasses and headed downstairs in search of some life to the party and were immediately greeted by John from Annapolis (first concert: Pink Floyd, 1976) who asked what had taken us so long. He had place settings set on either side of him at the bar and indicated that they were for us.

In fact, they were for his cousin and her friend, both year-round residents of the Outer Banks, who soon arrived and the party began. Despite our stranger status, we were soon talking over each other, asking nosy questions and gleaning each other's pasts.

John was a Porsche fanatic and while trying to pique our interest with Porsche stories, got the attention of the guy nearest me who just happened to be a Porsche owner himself. "I thought I recognized you from a Porsche meet," he said to John.

Margaret was a cruise fanatic - top three cruises, she said, had been Iceland, Alaska and Norway - and Sydney was a hoot, telling us her first concert was Gary Wright and then pulling up a Gary Wright video on her phone. She also informed us that Joe Walsh had married Barbara Bach's sister, so Christie Brinkley and John Mellencamp was nothing.

We couldn't have asked for better strangers.

The bridal party was finally breaking up and the bride came over to the bar to collect the vases of flowers that had been set around it. She was a difficult-looking blond in a cut-out dress who looked very high maintenance.

As she walked by, Margaret said in her direction, "Don't do anything you don't want to do for the rest of your life. That's my marriage advice." We gave Elizabeth and Jake three years tops.

It turned out that both the women's families had roots on the Outer Banks, as did Pru's family and they all got off on trying to outdo each other, OBX-style. To establish her fam's longevity, Pru mentioned a family member performing in "The Lost Colony" with Andy Griffin.

Pshaw.

"My grandmother went to the opening performance of "The Lost Colony" in 1937 that Roosevelt attended," Margaret tossed off. "She was a teenager and caught a ride in a laundry wagon with her friends to see it with FDR."

Outer Banks point and match, Margaret.

John insisted on plying us with wine, everyone kept talking while music played overhead and all of a sudden, we were the last five people in the joint.

After getting over the shock that I have no cell phone, Sydney insisted on getting Pru's contact info so they could invite us out tomorrow. John came over to show us his 15-year old flip phone to brag about his lack of technology despite having three post-graduate degrees. Margaret wants us to come have drinks on her deck.

Locals make time for tourists in September. I'm not saying I understand it, but I'm also not going to try, either.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Hurts So Good

It's a fabulous hostess who presents her beach guest with a nightgown to sleep in.

Pru had invited me to visit her during her week in Nags Head and since I am constitutionally unable to turn down an invitation to the seaside, I obliged today.

The UCI reared its encroaching head almost immediately when I got on Route 5 only to be stopped shortly by a line of policemen blocking traffic east. So, after driving 15 minutes east, I had to turn around and retrace my drive 15 miles west.

Once restored to my usual Route 460, I passed a stuffed shirt with its arm pointing to a sign reading "Hoarder Sale." I can only imagine.

Surprising license plate because it was N.C. and not RVA: "Inkfreak."

Sure sign that we're post-Labor Day and not high season summer: "Watermelons 3/$5. Next they'll be giving them away.

Arriving to find most of the house's inhabitants at the beach, I did a quick tour of the four-story rental before walking out on the deck off the bedroom I'll share with Pru. Down below at the backyard pool, I see a girl in a bikini sunbathing with no top.

Welcome to the beach.

I soon meet the bare-chested one when the sun goes in and she gives up tanning her breasts to walk down to the beach with me. There I meet the other house denizens enjoying a glorious September afternoon by the ocean.

They tell me that compared to the past few days, today's weather is not nearly as sunny or hot, but having just arrived, I think it's gorgeous and set up my chair under one of the umbrellas. Pimm's Cups and pitchers of margaritas are already being served on a colorful tray. Estrogen is rampant.

After I hear about the ocean being cooler than yesterday (hard to believe once I walk down there) and how the breeze was off the land the first few days, I realize I need to move. The drive down has left my limbs in need of a good stretching.

That, and it's the ideal way to ease into a house full of people, only three of whom I know.

Leaving them to their cocktails, I set off down the beach toward Jeanette's Pier, appreciating the less-crowded beaches of September, ducking under fishing lines (one particularly friendly duo said they'd pulled in some drum) and enjoying periodic detours into the very warm, very low tide water.

The pier turns out to have been a tad further than I'd guessed, but I'm the last person who's going to complain about a four-mile walk on the beach on a lovely, warm day. I know Fall is coming and I'm not happy about it.

When it comes time to make dinner, Pru directs the troops like the general she was born to be. Maybe it's my recently arrived status, but my only job is to sit at the kitchen island, drink Sancerre and point out what she's really saying when she politely condescends to one of her minions.

I wander out on the deck while she's grilling salmon and look down to see a girl in a bikini stretched out in the hot tub, looking blissful.

It's only when she comes upstairs that I learn that on entering the tub, she'd dropped her lighter in the tub. Unwilling to get out, she'd soaked without a cig, the whole goal of going down originally. I point out that she wound up with an unexpected experience because she'd never have been in the tub without smoking otherwise.

"Yea, I guess you're right. I wouldn't have." Let me guide you, grasshopper.

Restaurant talk follows when one of the women, a server at a recently-reviewed restaurant, bemoans how her bosses have handled the negative observances of the review (embarrassingly defensive) online. It's a shame when the employees have more sense than the managers.

Directing the conversation and interacting with each other in the overly-familiar way Pru and I do results in one of the women sighing. "I can't wait until I'm..." and I rush to finish her sentence. "Older like us?"

"...as smart as you guys are for having had so many experiences," she says, perhaps back-pedaling, perhaps wiser than she appears.

It's going on 10 before dinner winds down entirely and then Pru and I move to the big deck facing the ocean, where we have the occasional guest wander by for a chat. Cards Against Humanity is suggested, but we decline to join, far preferring to talk about why we read what we do, what we would do if we had a week at the beach with no other guests (pure indulgence) and why Christie Brinkley could possibly be dating John Mellencamp.

Somewhere in there, she tells me she's the best friend ever and that she has a gift for me. Sitting together on the rocking Adirondack double-seater, she presents me with a navy and pink nightgown. "It looked like you," she says, as if she has to explain why she got it for me.

Stylistically, it does look surprisingly like a nightgown I had when I was 25. It's adorable. Speaking of, the last time someone gave me a nightgown was 1985 and I still have it.

I'm not a hoarder, but experience teaches a smart woman to hang on to some things, cute nightgowns and smart friends among them.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Home, James

You're very Richmond if...you watch an evening's worth of movies about the mighty James River being projected on the floodwall.

Yep, sure did.

Outdoor movie season may be winding down (and that's a crying shame) but not before tonight's "Films on the Floodwall" put on by the James River Outdoor Coalition. Two years ago, I'd seen my first floodwall movie when Elli Morris' "An Affair with the James" had screened and I remember what a cool thing it had been to experience so close to the river itself.

This time, they had booths about various river groups and food trucks for the crowd's benefit before they wandered over to the grassy field to set up blankets, chairs and find room for their dogs to lounge.

And there were a lot of dogs. The event invitation had specifically said pooches were welcome and probably half the crowd had taken them up on it. Other than a few random barking episodes during the film, the canine set was extremely well-behaved.

I found a good viewing spot behind two women who quickly got friendly, offering me the use of their herbal bug spray, acquired at Target and leading to a discussion of what we did before we had Target.

"Spent too much time and money at Walmart?" one posited. Not me, I can assure you. "I'd have a lot more money but not so many cute things if there was no Target," the owner of the bug spray concluded.

The viewing began with a PSA about trash in the James River Parks, a nod to how films at the Byrd always begin with the infamous litter PSA from the '80s. Apparently, this past summer was a particularly bad one for trash left behind so we were being implored to set a good example when in the park.

Of course, they were preaching to the choir since anyone who'd come to a James River film fest probably already cares about such things.

Then it was on to the regular films and while all tied in to the James River one way or another, each had a different feel to it.

"Snow Day" was shot near 42 Street on a frigid day, the people in the water assuring the camera that they don't let a little bad weather stop them. I say the same thing when people act surprised that I walk no matter what the weather is. Weather wimps, not.

There was a brief film about Greg Hawkins, to whom a park water fountain was dedicated because of his tireless work mentoring others in stewardship of the James.

Some films such as "The Spawn" were hugely educational, explaining how important the James is for shad and herring come spawning season. Unfortunately, with dams being built, the fish have lost 100 miles of spawning area.

"Urban Forestry" followed scientists who have chosen three areas around the river to survey, taking measurements of tree widths and cataloging which kinds of trees grow where and then tagging the trees so they can go back and make comparisons next year.

I don't know about you, but it makes me feel good to think that some person's job is to keep track of the park's trees. Kids need to know that they can grow up to be tree scientists.

Ditto "The Return of the Great Atlantic Sturgeon," about the fish that live in the ocean but spawn and are born in our river. There were plenty of closeups of the ugly, prehistoric-looking bottom-feeders being caught, tagged and released. They've even built reefs near Hopewell to encourage spawning.

We're here for you, sturgeon.

During a break, a guy from the James River Association who lives in Powhatan County got up and spoke. He said that the James River in Powhatan County is pretty much exactly like it was when Christopher Newport sailed up that far in 1607. Amazing.

I'd somehow missed that there was raffle, but the girl with the bug spray in front of me won a 60-gallon rain barrel, even posing with it Vanna White-style before picking the monster up and toting it over to her chair. No clue how she's going to get that home.

One filmmaker thanked the crowd profusely for coming, saying usually they just threw their films up on the Internet, so they never got to see an audience's reaction to them. Glad to oblige.

Films like "Home on the James" showed daredevil types flipping their kayaks in whitewater and through scary high water, clearly taking delight in the adrenaline rush, while "The Dimensions of the James River" was wordless with very dramatic music and imagery.

One film that got a big reaction showed former James River Park director and patron saint Ralph White talking about why Belle Isle matters so much to Richmonders. "As soon as you cross that suspension bridge, you leave the city behind," he said from the water's edge, explaining how the "rather rough crowd" that used to hang out there had given way to families now.

Ralph said we love Belle Isle because we respond to the sound of moving water and I couldn't agree more. When I walk there, I make a point to go out on the rocks, peel off my shoes and socks and submerge my legs while the sound of rushing water makes me a happier person.

"On the James with Mitch" showed paddleboarder Mitch Davis doing his river surfing thing for pleasure and in competition, wishing for a man-made pool over near the Manchester climbing wall as a way to attract visitors.

"Seasons on the James" began with the river fanatics out on the water on a 39 degree day. Having walked down by the river last winter just after some particularly frigid weather, I remember being astounded at seeing adrenaline junkies out on the water (in wet suits and board shorts, in some cases).

We saw a 12-year old who said he'd been paddling for four years already. Now there's someone who'll be a formidable paddleboarder in a few years. Scenes of Dominion RiverRock showed scores of fans watching the competition, April showers showed frighteningly high water and summer scenes showed people sliding down the sheer vertical face of a dam's waterfall.

All of it looked just as scary as it sounds.

Unlike the typical crowd at a movie theater, tonight's group was silently respectful watching the films. The main interruptions of noise came from planes and helicopters above and sirens from traffic on 14th Street nearby.

Even nature cooperated with the moon a little fingernail of a crescent so as not to impart too much light and interfere with our viewing.

I may not be as adventurous as the daredevils in the films, but, make no mistake, I have my own affair with the James.

I'm just more of a voyeur.

Following the Grape Trail

Two days, three wineries, one killer view.

Sunday was the South African Wine Festival at Grayhaven Winery, a celebration of all things South African. Since it's been 11 years since I've been to South Africa, the festival is like a booster shot to remind me of why - 21-hour flight aside - I fell in love with the place.

And while they can bring in the wines, food and music, there's no pretending that Gum Springs is Stellenbosch or Paarl, although Grayhaven is a charming property with the feel of a farmhouse winery, an inviting place to spend a day.

That is was such a gorgeous day only made it better to taste through wines by Man Vintner and Fairview, including the colorfully-named Goats Do Roam (and I can assure you that they really do at the winery), meeting a burly Burmese mountain dog and personable dachshund named Rigby and their people along the way.

And speaking of dogs, a lamb resembling a greyhound was turning on a spit nearby when we spread out a blanket and settled in with wine and fried oysters with Peri Peri sauce to watch the entertainment from near the crest of the hill. Down in front of the stage, loopy festival-goers were feeling the spirit and dancing, some more ably than others.

The people-watching was exceptional given that an all-day event devoted to wine is bound to produce all kinds of behavior. One drunk woman had to be led out by a muscular friend, her head hanging forward, her barely-there dress creeping higher than anyone needed to see. A woman came back from the marketplace with a bar of handcrafted soap, only to be derided by her friends for buying soap at a wine festival.

And somebody please tell me why on earth you'd bring a baby to a day devoted to drinking? As my Richmond grandmother was fond of saying, "Karen, that just don't make good sense."

Day two of wine adventuring took us to Williamsburg Winery, after a scenic drive down Route 5 - aka Plantation Row - which provided a stellar opportunity to assess the progress of the Capital Bike Trail from Richmond to Williamsburg.

With less than a week to go until the UCI Race madness hits town, it was clear that VDOT was hustling to get the last bits of the trail completed. We must have passed at least a half dozen work crews scattering grass seed, laying hay or working on fencing along the path, parts of which are still marked "closed" despite riders using other sections.

After a satisfying lunch on the patio under a wisteria-covered pergola at the winery's Gabrielle Archer Tavern and a walk around the vineyards, we opted out of a winery tour and headed straight to the tasting room, naturally outfitted to look like a colonial-era room.

Its most appealing feature was a series of woodblock print enlargements chronicling how to farm grapes for wine.

Highlights of the reserve tasting included the 2013 Wessex Hundred Petit Verdot and, naturally, the Governor's Cup-winning 2012 Adagio, their Bordeaux blend, but at $65 a bottle, not likely one I'll ever get more than a taste of.

What surprised me was how far afield some of the grapes they used came from and I don't just mean Culpeper and Charlottesville, but Washington state, too.

The winery tour group arrived in the tasting room with a verbal whip-cracking taster in charge who all but threatened to crack their knuckles with a ruler if they ruined the wine by rinsing out their glasses with water between tastings. She was not putting up with any nonsense, making us glad we'd been tasted through by a sparkling-eyed young woman with a near-constant smile and no rules.

We finished there with just enough time to get to Saude Creek Winery, a place I'd passed countless times on the way to Northern Neck destinations but never bothered to stop. The last thing I was expecting was a sleek tasting room on a hill, mainly because I thought New Kent County was flat as a board.

I guess with enough money, you can find a hill practically anywhere.

Since we got there half an hour before the winery closed, we were a bit of a surprise to the girl behind the tasting counter, but she affably welcomed us in as we marveled at the hilltop location.

"You should see the view from upstairs," she enthused. "You can see all the way to the paper mills in West Point."

For me, this was a dubious selling point since I can't abide the smell of those mills when you drive over the bridges there and although I habitually roll down my car window when I cross a bridge (no matter the season), that's the only one where the windows stay up. A native to West Point, she said she doesn't even smell it anymore. Get out while you can, honey.

But upstairs, she was right, there was a magnificent view all the way to the Pamunkey River, sparkling blue on this cloudless afternoon and far enough away that the mills' odor was a non-issue.

We tasted through the wines quickly and then scored glasses of the Pamunkey Falls white blend and the Merlot and took them to the lower deck that looked out over the treetops toward the river, but with the water view blocked by our lower elevation.

I have a t-shirt that says "Virginia is for wine lovers" and it gets comments from strangers every time I wear it. Say what you want about Virginia wine, but glasses enjoyed outside three wineries on two beautiful afternoons pretty much proves it.

But, please, leave the babies at home.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Under African Skies

I'm always thrilled with the cosmos when real life dovetails with what I'm reading.

For the past week or so, it's been Ralph Abernathy's autobiography, "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down," an absorbing memoir of the Civil Rights struggle told by one of the major players. Even his godliness (he was, after all, a man of the cloth), such a stark contrast to my raving heathenism, comes across as just part of who he had to be to accomplish what they did.

So imagine how thrilled I was when I saw that the Southern Film Festival's final offering of the weekend was the documentary, "We Shall Overcome" about the song that was the de facto anthem of the movement.

What I didn't know until I got to the Grace Street theater was that a Civil Rights activist would speak beforehand. Man, I get lucky sometimes.

Although I'd never heard of Joan Trumpauer Mullholland, I only had to hear that she'd been a frequent participant in sit-ins and a Freedom Rider to be completely intrigued by everything she had to say. In a testament to the time, because she had been white and southern, her sanity had been called into question for her activism.

Today she showed off her t-shirt commemorating the 50th anniversary of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and spoke about her years working for the movement. Despite that I'd been reading about people just like her, I'd never expected to hear from one.

Narrated by Harry Belafonte, the 1989 documentary told the story of the iconic song and its place in the movement through interviews with everyone who mattered: Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, to name a few, plus singer Guy Carawan, apparently a major figure whom I'd never even heard of.

While I'd known the song had originally been a black spiritual, I'd had no clue it had been adopted by the labor movement in the '40s, long before the Civil Rights movement picked it up and carried it forward. Since then, it's been used for movements all over the world, including the woman's movement, and in Ireland, Korea and South Africa. Desmond Tutu spoke in the film of its power in the anti-apartheid movement.

Someone said it was the glue that held movements together, a way for disparate groups to recognize their connectedness.

Best of all were the myriad versions we got to hear: Peter, Paul and Mary's, Pete Seeger's, the Freedom Singers performing it in the '80s, the finale of the 1963 Newport Folk Festival with an all-star cast, Taj Mahal, who said he'd learned the song from his mother as "I'll Be Alright Someday" and, as is only fitting, Joan Baez - the woman who'd sung it at the March on Washington.

Needless to say, this was all pretty wonderful and hugely compelling to me because of the book I'm reading. But, wait, it gets better.

After the film, we were treated to a performance by the VCU Black Awakening Choir, a group that probably numbered 60 or 70 black-clad college students plus a three-piece band.

They sang "O, Happy Day" and I'm not exaggerating to say that when they all lifted their voices to the rafters, I felt goosebumps. The sound produced by that many talented voices was soul-stirring even for a non-believer.

I don't think the Southern Film Festival could have ended on a higher note.

So where do I go from there? Straight to Hardywood, of course, for the sixth installment of the Cover to Cover series. In what I choose to see as yet another tenuously connected thread, they were covering Paul Simon's "Graceland," the album that exposed American pop culture to African music.

Such an ambitious album had not only been the original inspiration for the C2C series but necessarily required a bigger band than usual. Tonight's group of musicians included horns, accordion and an extra guitar player. They even had a gospel choir, albeit of 7 rather than the 70 I'd just heard.

"Who's a Paul Simon fan?" organizer and lead singer Matt asked the beer-drinking crowd and a roar went up in affirmation. "We are, too. Wish us luck!" Then they were off, and by they, I mean that crack band and choir with Matt and Maggie on vocals.

"These are the days..." Matt began singing and the room exploded with the energy of "The Boy in the Bubble." Around me, people sang along and those who didn't were dancing.

"Graceland" got the choir onstage for the first time, causing Matt to note, "The stage just got a lot more good-looking." They left when Maggie got singing (rapping?) rights for "Gumboots," saying afterwards, "I love Paul Simon. He just had to tell that story."

Behind the music, Cover to Cover version.

The choir was back for "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" and Maggie used the opportunity to sit down in front of the choir and give her soles a rest while they belted it out.

Directly in front of me, a girl sang every word, usually directly in her boyfriend's face and danced non-stop. During a pause between songs, she looked at him and sighed, "I'm gonna cry! This is so great!"

Cover to Cover tends to inspire fanaticism, I'm telling you.

During "You Can Call Me Al," I saw lots of people singing the familiar chorus to each other but everyone was amazed when choir member Anthony Smith pulled out a penny whistle for the distinctive solo. The audience went nuts for it; ditto the brief but muscular bass solo.

When the song finished, Matt gave three big snaps up and down. "Y'all weren't expecting a whistle were you? You thought, there won't be a whistle, but there was!"

He was right, it was pretty spectacular.

They pulled out the tambourine and accordion for, as Matt put it, a trip to New Orleans and "That Was Your Mother," taking me back to the Big Easy of this morning's "King Creole," except not in black and white.

By then, it was so hot in the brewery that if your arm or leg touched someone else's while dancing, you were likely to stick together. Matt and Maggie looked just this side of soaked in sweat by the time they finished the album.

After a ten-minute break, the band returned for some Paul Simon favorites such as "Cecelia" and "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," with Matt noting, "I'm really more of a Garfunckle based on my look," no doubt referring to the blond curly locks falling in his eyes as he danced and sang all night.

Saying they were going to slow things down and do Matt's favorite Paul Simon song, we got "The Only Living Boy in New York," which was enough to get the millennials motivated to pull out their cell phones in place of Bic lighters to hold up and sway. So post-modern.

Then because it's become an unwritten rule that they always repeat one song from the evening's album during the encore, we heard "You Can Call Me Al" again and the night was complete. And completely wonderful.

"For those of you who've never been to a Cover to Cover before, that's what it is," Matt said to close out the night. Say goodnight, Maggie.

I've been to all six and they continue to be as fabulously impressive as (geek alert) having the pages of the book you're reading cross over to real life. Oh, happy day...and night.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Dixieland Rock for Breakfast

When it came to the bacon, I did my best Elvis imitation, a feeble attempt to make up for never having seen one of his movies before.

Don't get me wrong, I've got some Elvis under my belt. I read "Last Train to Memphis," Peter Gurainick's excellent biography of Elvis' early years, I saw the VMFA's "Elvis at 21" exhibit (twice, once for a talk) and I'd seen the documentary "Elvis, '56," Fascinating, all.

But actually watch one of his more than 30 films? Nope, never had. So pelt me with peanut butter and bananas.

Fortunately, VCU's Southern Film Festival kicked off today with a breakfast/movie combo, a wise move if you ask me because it also kicked off at the ungodly hour of 10 a.m. and at, of all places, the bastion of hipsterdom, Sticky Rice.

But it was worth it to me, so I hoofed it over shortly after waking up and joined the throngs pitifully small crowd who'd come to see Elvis in "King Creole." Endless Lynyrd Skynyrd was playing overhead, so maybe that's what kept people from coming. Eventually, I did recognize three attendees from last night's movie.

I couldn't have been more surprised at the lack of a crowd. I've been to prior Saturday morning SFF breakfast events - "The Thrillbillies," "Thunder Road" - and they were packed. Where were the hungry Elvis fans?

Since I don't usually walk on an empty stomach, I was starving waiting for the breakfast buffet to be put out, but the others around me got right down to drinking. The King Creole cocktail created for today's soiree was especially popular (I heard something about coconut vodka and saw a lemon garnish), but I also saw beers and shots being served. Multiple rounds, even.

Viva Elvis in the morning.

Because we were about to see a movie set in New Orleans, a guy at the table next to me told a story of rolling into NOLA the day after Mardis Gras. "A bunch of us spilled out of the van about 10 a.m. and the full strength of the sun was just hitting all that leftover shit and baking it. God, the smell! It was like the bathroom at CBGB's, except not contained." His friends groaned.

It was visceral imagery for an empty stomach.

Finally, food was put out and I was first in line as we descended like vultures, loading up on bacon, eggs and pancakes. And this is where I matched The King strip for strip.

Of the many Richmond Elvis tales, none is more well-known than when he ate breakfast at the stately Jefferson Hotel here and mortified the restaurant manager by, gasp, eating his bacon with his fingers. Apparently in the '50s, there was another way. I'm here to say that in my entire lifetime, hand-held bacon is the only kind I ever knew.

Once everyone had a plate, a historian/musician got up to prime us for what we were about to see. It was only Elvis' third film, he'd been a tender 23 years old when he made it and the draft board had deferred his service for 60 days so he could finish it. Elvis always considered it his favorite role.

"He was at the height of his powers when he made this. Forget about the fat Elvis, the bloated Elvis dying on the toilet. This was the film that proved Elvis could act and he never had a script this good again," he told us.

Most surprising to me was that it was directed by Michael Curtiz, as in the director of "Casablanca." "Robin Hood" and "White Christmas." That alone speaks to Elvis' clout in 1958.

Since I was an Elvis movie virgin, I had nothing to compare it to, but as far as '50s film noirs go, it was spot on. Shot in black and white instead of color for a grittier feel, the movie was fascinating for its depiction of New Orleans during a simpler time.

I especially loved the roving vendors selling gumbo and seafood who roamed the streets singing and shouting to people to buy their wares. Even if NOLA was never really like that, it's charming to imagine it was. And, truly, the distinctive architecture, balconies and verandas, even Bourbon Street rang true. They'd actually shot on location on Lake Ponchatrain, which was very cool to see.

Satisfyingly, it had all the film noir requirements, too: rain-slicked streets, dark alleys, gangs, a "boss" who ran most of the businesses in town, fights, murders and molls. And hats, lots of men wearing hats, thus requiring hat check girls.

But mostly it was a typical late '50s cautionary tale about all the hot buttons of that era: juvenile delinquents, good girls and fallen women, the importance of finishing high school, finding a true profession (singing not being one) and, of course, the dangers of that new-fangled rock and roll music.

The smartest thing Elvis said was that he couldn't get involved with a girl because that would lead to marriage and kids and he needed to find out who he was first. Pretty revolutionary stuff for the Eisenhower era.

That, bacon and pancakes plus seeing Elvis sing and wiggle his hips to "Hard-Headed Woman" made getting up at the crack of 9 a.m. positively worth it.

Spoken like a true hard-headed woman.