Saturday, November 19, 2016

Old Dreams and New Dreams

I know you well enough that I'm certain you spent as much time as you could outside enjoying the beautiful November afternoon.

You'd better believe I did. The Barrister knew of whom he spoke.

In fact, I'd gotten up around 10:15 and been out the door, fed and ready to walk, by 11:15, which worked out nicely since I had plans to meet a friend at the VMFA at noon and it was a glorious morning to cover the distance on foot.

Yes, I'm shallow enough to be thrilled that we're the only U.S. destination for the "Jasper Johns and Edvard Munch: Love, Loss and the Cycle of Life" show and no, I didn't know nearly enough about either artist before today's most instructive and larger than expected exhibition.

Even so, it wasn't difficult to recognize the same walkway from Munch's "The Scream" in his "Despair" painting (there was also "Angst," surprising neither of us), although I was amazed to read that there had been a major Munch retrospective at the National Gallery in 1979 and I have no memory of such a thing or why I wouldn't have gone to it.

The show, tying together Munch's incalculable influence on Johns both directly and indirectly, read like a who's who of the creative set of the era.

One of John's 1965 pieces had a Frank O'Hara poem written on it - Sputnik is only the word for travel companion here on earth - and he was friends with composer John Cage and dancer Merce Cunningham.

His 1963 "Hatteras," with an arm print at the top, referenced the Hart Crane poem "Hatteras" and the writer's untimely death when he jumped off a ship, his arm sticking up briefly before drowning.

There was so much good high artistic drama back in those days, none of this namby-pamby Instagramming and tweeting by celebrities instead of doing something that better demonstrates their tortured souls than showing off or whining. That said, there were also several "selfies" taken by Munch that surprised us both.

My artist friend and I were far from the only attendees discussing everything we saw, although occasionally we got off topic.

Her: So he got that out of his system.
Me: Yep, worked through it and moved on.
Her: Like any good relationship...

Everything comes back to relationships. Follow me around for a day and I'll prove it.

Easily one of the most unlikely pieces in the exhibit was Johns' summer bedspread from the early 20th century, notable for its cross-hatched pattern, seen in so many of the show's paintings. Where it got eerie was seeing Munch's 1940 "Self Portrait Between Clock and Bed," because the bedspread in the picture was identical to Johns' real one.

Utility imitating art.

When we finally reached the last gallery, my friend inquired, "Are they going to have a nihilistic gift shop when we leave here?"

Nope, but by then it was lunch time, so who cared?

Amuse was almost completely full at mid-afternoon, but welcomed us to its bar for the soda of the day (strawberry vanilla), mussels and ham in butter, garlic, Parmesan and white wine broth and a special of salmon over pink-eyed peas for my friend while we compared notes on the past few weeks.

In no particular order, we covered upcoming road trips (her husband's and ours), relationships based on sex, post-election online baiting and the work of gray hallways, eventually choosing the wrong chocolate dessert even if it had a magnificent lemon curd to recommend it.

Because she's the best kind of friend, before we parted ways, she gave me a jar full of seashells she'd collected for me in September at the Outer Banks knowing they were just my style, so I walked the nearly three miles home reveling in this incredible weather and shaking a Mason jar of small purple shells.

I'd have recited the words to Crane's "Hatteras" as I walked if I'd known them, but, alas.

By the time Barr came to collect me, I'd used every scrap of sunshine and warm air available, fulfilling his prediction while leaving me resigned to a cooler evening that began at Sabai with Moo Sam Chan (because somebody was unable to resist the siren song of crispy pork belly) and Pad Broccoli (so our arteries didn't close up mid-meal or music) and managed to be in and out in just over an hour.

The parking lots near UR's Modlin Center were mobbed with cars in a way I hadn't seen since Chuck D. came to speak at the Alumni Center and we both knew it couldn't be solely because of the Steep Canyon Rangers show we were attending (although it was sold out). Turns out the problem was simultaneous shows tonight.

I'll admit, Steep Canyon Rangers was only a name I'd heard but knew nothing about beyond that they were a young North Carolina bluegrass band before Barr's invitation. So when they came out - upright bass, acoustic guitar, fiddle, mandolin, banjo and, yes, drums - we were both a bit surprised.

There's no percussion in bluegrass, right?

Except there is when you're talking about a group of musicians who use bluegrass instrumentation but allow the music to encompass whatever they like, whether rock, folk, jazz, Americana or a sample of the "Jeopardy" theme, among other snippets sampled by the fabulous fiddle player.

When they first walked out, banjo player Graham - he of the unexpectedly deep voice - had to bow his knees to lower himself to the microphone before raising it as he sang, saying, "It's our first show here," and smiling sheepishly. The mic immediately slid back down and he tightened it yet again.

As they began their energetic set, I couldn't help but secretly hope that these guys in narrow-legged suits were as nerdy as they appeared.

Mike shredded his mandolin like nothing I'd ever seen, each musician had lengthy solos like jazz (and the annoying attendant applause) and they about wiped up the stage when they did the title song from their new album, "Radio."

Doing what they referred to as "an old tune," they broke it down to four-part harmony with occasional additions of guitar, mandolin and banjo, a gorgeous thing to hear.

It was especially satisfying when, say the fiddle and mandolin would get into a pissing match trying to outdo each other, then the banjo would jump in and before long it resembled nothing so much as a big grass-tinged post-rock soundscape, absent vocals and soaring through Booker Hall in a completely un-bluegrass like way.

"Thanks you for having us, Richmond," they said. "We could be persuaded to come back."

I'm willing to bet that no one in the room wouldn't be willing to do the same after experiencing a band forged by bluegrass yet completely open to every genre and interpretation performed by guys with solid musical chops and unbridled youthful enthusiasm.

Despite barely over a month of friendship, the Barrister had done himself proud by choosing a stellar night of unexpected music for us to wind down Friday with.

Except, of course, you don't end a superior sunny November day with just music, you end it with conversation at Rapp Session with wine (a killer Chateau du Coing Chardonnay) and smoked bluefish dip studded with red onion and celery, smeared on Saltines.

I have been eating bluefish practically since birth and I expect I'll go out eating it.

That way, there's time to discuss violin versus fiddle, possible hiking destinations (as usual, I made a case for local trails), where to find the best selection of East Coast oysters and how our mothers managed to mangle most of the foods they cooked when we were children.

As tends to be the way when we get together, we covered the important topics: love, loss and the cycle of life, minus the Sputnik references.

The only way to know someone well enough to predict their behavior is to spend a satisfying amount of each evening together exchanging pertinent opinions and back stories.

Or figure out early on they're a sucker for sunshine and roll with it. I can be so obvious about some things...

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