Saturday, August 11, 2018

Exile with a Perch

Birdcage aside, I may as well have gone to see the documentary "Generation Wealth."

Looking at my Friday night options, I considered the film about our current wealth culture and the human cost of narcissism, capitalism and greed. But why watch bad decisions play out in modern times when the same lessons could be gleaned from art history?

Besides, after a day spent writing, the appeal of walking through 11 galleries was far greater than sitting in a darkened theater for two hours. I lucked out, too, because for a Friday night, the VMFA was surprisingly uncrowded, at least in the galleries, if not in the atrium where the wine tasting was happening. It was me and fewer than a dozen other art lovers making our way through "Napoleon: Power and Splendor."

Essentially a history lesson told through paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, furniture and household items (Napoleon took scrupulously good care of his teeth, including dipping his toothbrush in opium before brushing), the exhibition laid out how Napoleon rose to power using his extensive propaganda department and how it all came crashing down on him.

I was fascinated to learn that Napoleon had looked to the young U.S. for presidential portraiture (especially of George Washington) as a source of inspiration for how he wanted to be portrayed.

His court was huge and by huge, I mean 3600 people directed by 6 grand officers making sure everything was done according to directive. One painting showed a woman fluffing the pillow of the Empress, while the signage said that she was the only one allowed to fluff when the Emperor was present in the bed chamber.

Helluva thing to have on your headstone: Royal fluffer.

One of the most unexpected pleasures of the exhibition was Napoleon's architectural vision for Paris, which was laid out in a series of drawings, including one expansive panoramic drawing that was nothing short of breathtaking. So much planning.

But like the hedonistic set I would have seen portrayed in "Generation Wealth," Napoleon's court was a study in excesses, like the gold-plated dinner service - plates and flatware - elaborately laid out on a massive dining room table in the exhibition. To further convey the sense of luxury, there were fabric scrims surrounding the table showing an etching of a banquet scene of the era.

The throne room is red and as opulent as you'd expect, while the gallery devoted to hunting (Napoleon wasn't much of a hunter but did it because it was prime networking time for the upper crust) has the unexpected allure of video projections showing leaves in the Fonainebleau forest where they hunted swaying in the breeze.

As a female, it was especially tough to get behind Napoleon's view of women - apparently we're good for childbearing and nothing else - as he cast aside his beloved Josephine (her fatal flaw being she was 7 years older and unable to bear him a son) and wasted no time in marrying the fertile Archduchess Marie Louise. Taller than me, the elaborate candlesticks and altar decorations made for that second wedding also show up in the exhibition.

But without a doubt, the highlight is the ceiling-scraping birdcage Napoleon commissioned after he was exiled to St. Helena. About the size of my bathroom, the elaborate structure was created by Chinese artisans for Napoleon's garden at Longwood House, his final address.

For me, it resembled nothing so much as the cage I'd had for my finches Claude and Camille (Monet, of course) back when I was in college. Shaped like a pagoda, with various levels and perches throughout, Napoleon's was more of an aviary than a birdcage given its size, but the idea was the same. He used it for maimed birds and chickens which eventually escaped, which is probably what he was hoping for himself.

Looking at the final image in the galleries - a painting of Napoleon just after he died - all I could see was a broken man who'd milked his delusions for as long as he could before saner heads prevailed. Which meant instead of comparisons to greedy wealth-seekers, I was thinking of the last two and a half years and the delusional man currently being built up by the White House propaganda machine and wondering how all that will end.

Besides not soon enough, I haven't a clue.

"History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon," observed Napoleon.

For that brilliant analysis alone, I gave the man credit...and my Friday evening.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Wait and See When the Smoke Clears

You're insatiable! But yes, most likely.

To be clear, what I was asking about was whether or not I was invited to Pru's screened porch party  after our dinner and theater date this evening. Considering that it had been only four days since I last enjoyed porch pleasures with her and Beau, she saw my request, perhaps, as a tad greedy. How much outdoor conversation can one woman need?

What she failed to consider was that our Sunday night verbal extravaganza had been a party, a birthday throwdown for Beau and had included two other couples besides the four of us and Queen B. We were the mortified guests who arrived an hour late to find all the other guests patiently awaiting our appearance so that the first of many bottles of Moet Chandon could be opened and poured.

I take full responsibility, since I'm the idiot who'd looked at the invitation and somehow seen 4 instead of 5:00. The good news was, once the champagne began flowing, no one seemed to care that it had been delayed. Not to mention they were all sipping on something or other, just not bubbles when the cat dragged us in.

This was a backyard party and a lavish table had been set up under a huge umbrella. It wasn't long after we took the only two vacant seats that Pru began delivering the fruits of her days-long labor: beef and veggie kebabs, six pounds of perfectly steamed shrimp, corn on the cob, fresh butterbeans and crusty bread to sop it all up with.

It was some time early on in the meal when the humid air broke and a gentle rain began falling. It was an inconsequential enough weather change that everyone continued eating and talking because between the arbor and umbrella overhead, the rain wasn't inconveniencing anyone. Or at least that's what those of us who were still dry assumed.

In fact, my date and Queen B were out of range of the covering and being doused continually while we sipped and supped.

By the time it came to the attention of the rest of us, the two of them were completely soaked. Queen B's feather earrings were reduced to a couple of rain-slicked points that in no way resembled feathers. My date's shirt and shorts could have been rung out there was so much water in them.

Neither had so much as mentioned how wet they were getting while it was happening, making us dry diners feel a little guilty for not noticing. But once it became common knowledge, Beau, the birthday boy but ever the good host, retrieved another, smaller umbrella and attempted to set it up. The result was that new lines of drippage were created and before long, my chair and the back of my dress were soaked through.

Still, no one suggested leaving the table because how often do you get to have a summer supper in a pouring rainstorm? Honestly, it only added to the good time vibe, although at times it drowned out whatever music Alexa was playing.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me...

There was a lot of talk about travel, with Beckham and the Beauty telling us about their recent foray to New Orleans and how underwhelmed they'd been by some of the food they ate in what is considered to be a stellar food town. The history couple shared that instead of going to Paris this year, they're forcing themselves to embrace a trip to Glacier National Park, even though it's going to cost as much as the City of Lights.

Pru and Beau continue to insist they want to do a Scotch-tasting tour of Scotland at some point, and that was enough for Beau to bring out a bottle of very good Islay, which suited Beckham but not everyone, so a bottle of Highlands Scotch followed, while Pru and I wisely kept to bubbles. "Brown liquors are for cozy winter nights, not summer," she sniffed.

The chocolate ganache birthday cake from Morsels got high marks from everyone and again brought up the story of Beau's first attempt at making ganache, a culinary misadventure involving using evaporated milk instead of condensed milk, resulting in a ganache with zero sweetness and a whole lot of bitterness. Problem was, the cake was a birthday offering for Pru, who prefers milk chocolate.

Beau loved it, but he was the only one. He has since stepped away from ganache-making.

It wasn't even midnight, though it was some time after the in-depth explanation of fencing from a guest who does it and the shared anticipation of next month's beach adventure for six of us that people began thinking about work tomorrow and making their farewells.

Translation: not nearly enough time for conversation beyond the constant bouncing from party guest to guest to join discussions already in progress.

Tonight's requested porch time was only the final stage of an evening that began at Secco for dinner, which for me meant chilled melon gazpacho with pickled blueberries and feta, followed by arctic char with creme fraiche. But I'm here to tell you that the most swoon-worthy part of the meal was a summer vegetable tian - a gratin-like dish that made better use of zuchinni and squash than I have ever put in my mouth - savored with Louis Pato Baga Brut Rose to kick things off and a bottle of Moreux Sancerre Blanc "Les Bouffants" to follow, because, as Pru is so fond of reminding us, why would we ever leave the Loire?

Looking at the dessert menu, Beau was bummed that our favorite butterscotch pudding was no more, but I happily had the lemon curd tart with toasted meringue, candied violets and edible flowers, causing shock waves among friends who think I must have chocolate to close out a meal.

Not so, mes amis, let's not forget that I'm also a sucker for coconut cake. Not all desserts must be chocolate, as Beau reluctantly acknowledged with his buttermilk gelato, which managed to be decadently rich without the characteristic tang of buttermilk.

You live, you learn, according to Alanis Morisette.

After a drive up scenic Route 301, we landed at Hanover Tavern to take in "Crimes of the Heart" and enjoy some Southern gothic family drama. And while watching a play about three southern sisters dealing with each other and their long-time roles in the family provided plenty of fodder for a compelling story, those of us with five sisters know that there's so much more that could have been mined on the subject of sisterly love, family history and devotion.

Don't get me started.

Take it from the oldest of six, Maggie Roop masterfully nailed the weight of carrying the life-long responsibilities of being born first, playing oldest sister Lenny as equal parts substitute mother and general peacekeeper, with little regard for her own needs.

And while the entire cast was strong, has anyone ever changed her pantyhose while giving a monologue and made it more hilarious than Maggie Bavolack as Chick? Talk about comedic gold.

Despite not getting home from Hanover until after 11:00, we closed out the night on Pru's screened porch, talking about the success of the birthday party - really, how often in life do you get to peel shrimp  and sip champagne surrounded by pouring rain? - the top-notch acting in the play and how little James Bond experts Pru and Beau recalled of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," which I'd just seen a few nights ago at the Byrd.

And that's just what I can mention.

My point is that I'm apparently not the only insatiable one since conversation flowed until the clock was hitting 1 a.m. and I finally headed back to Jackson Ward, where the recently returned student population was roaming the streets in search of a party.

My oldest sister advice to them would be to start by checking out the screened porches.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Come On Down

Of all the ways to try to surprise me, taking me to a Richmond restaurant I haven't been to has got to be one of the more challenging.

After all, when your livelihood revolves around eating at new places and your social life involves dining out before a cultural event, you tend to cover a lot of restaurant ground. Which only makes it all the sweeter when I wind up someplace I haven't been.

Some place like Longoven.

Like most Scott's Addition architecture, the building itself was so nondescript that we passed it without so much as a side glance. But walking through the door transported us to a sleek dining room with music loud enough to hear over the many tinkling dinner conversations already in progress and a vibe that didn't immediately scream Richmond.

The roving bands of beer drinkers outside did that.

I made it halfway to our prime table in the back - away from the fray, but with a good view of the large, open kitchen - before a familiar server spotted me and I was being hugged. But of course a much-anticipated restaurant like Longoven would attract some of the best staff in the city. I mean, it's not poaching if someone wants to jump ship so they can be part of a new restaurant, right?

The meal got off to a fine start when my partner-in-crime insisted we start with Alain Vincey Brut, a perfectly delicate and crisp champagne from a small producer. Let's just say it was a fitting choice to celebrate what completely different worlds the two of us inhabit compared to last August second.

And not to mock Don Ho, but tiny bubbles in the wine really do make me feel fine.

Everything about the meal validated Bon Appetit's 2016 acknowledgement of Longoven as one of the best new restaurants in the country, even if they were nothing but a pop-up when it was bestowed. Maybe most impressive was how light and unfussy the food was, allowing fresh flavors to shine and not leaving us in a food coma, which sort of defeats the point of a really good date.

Fluke crudo was nothing short of a work of art with trompe l'oeil "cucumber slices" made of cucumber and fennel juice foam between strips of fluke, cucumber and assorted varieties of basil. Touching down on multiple hot buttons, lump crab salad rested on the creamiest of corn custards (but not heavy) with shitake mushrooms and - be still my heart - grated egg yolk. Not the least bit overdone and the flavor combination was truly memorable.

Longoven is the kind of place where your server will remind you of all the components in your dish when she sets it down, in case your wine drinking exceeds your menu memory. I actually find this to be kind of endearing. Our server was sweet, though somewhat abashed-looking every time she returned to find us so busy talking in low tones that she was reluctant to interrupt us.

With more champagne, we tackled roasted monkfish that was no kin to any monkfish I previously had and I say that as a big fan of monkfish. The lobster-like meat rested in a broth of kombu and mushroom, with an assortment of mushrooms providing all kinds of earthy flavor notes married to the bounty of the sea.

Three savory dishes earned us two desserts, which is only appropriate in a place with a pastry chef. Safe to say neither of the desserts we chose will soon show up on other local menus.

My hazelnut mousse was taken over the top with Comté ice cream (and believe me, nothing could be more obscene than incorporating such a rich cheese into ice cream), hazelnut sponge cake and hazelnut praline, while himself - an alleged non-dessert eater I'm doing my best to convert - tucked into a roulade of coriander cake with blueberry gelee, white chocolate mousse, cilantro oil and blueberry sorbet.

Toto, when it comes to dessert, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore.

Although the place was emptying out when we finally stopped talking long enough to get up to leave, we only got as far as the front room before I heard my name called. "I didn't even see you come in," said the handsome face behind the bar. "J. told me you were here."

After he told me how good I looked, we agreed that next time we're in, it's only fitting that we sit at the bar for dinner. No sacrifice breaking bread with a conversational bartender.

The only problem is, now that my main squeeze has had a taste of dining with me somewhere for the first time, a pleasure we'd not yet experienced except when out of town, it may be a while before we return. As he watched me drinking in the decor, the crowd, the servers, the meal, even the feel of the place, I think it's safe to say he liked sharing first-timer status with me. It may be a while.

Don't worry, Longoven, a woman never forgets her first time. Or ComtĂ© ice cream.

Friday, August 3, 2018

All That Happens is Wonderful

In the past, if I did not blog, something was wrong.

I may have been nursing a recent hurt or upset about something or even, for those months last winter, too low to rouse myself only to depress my readers. Not blogging could be seen as a statement of mindset.

It still can, but for wildly different reasons.

"I'd like to say first that any day you don't have a blog post, I smile. No post means you're enjoying yourself, likely in the company of someone very close to you. I have tried a couple of times to post a comment, but I get caught in a loop and it won't take. Then I would draft an email in my head and not send it because it really should be shared with your readers."
~ Leo, "Intel" email, July 25

Like a faceless priest absolving me of my childhood sins in the confessional (in my pre-heathen days), hearing one of my oldest friends was gratified when I didn't post exonerated me.

"But something has happened to the woman with the notebook. I have come home and sunk into my enjoyment of him as into a warm summer day. The journal is secondary. Everything is secondary...This is strange. Before, as soon as I came home from all kinds of places, I would sit down and write in my journal. Now I want to write to him, talk to him...To have a summer day like today and a night with him, I ask nothing more."
~Anais Nin, "Henry and June," my beach read

Of all the books to choose to reread while ensconced in Kitty Hawk oceanside earlier this week - and soley because I'd read a biography of Henry Miller at the beach in May - what could have better suited my mood than the unexpurgated diary of a writer and journalist completely enthralled?

I have not given up on this blog, but it's reassuring to know there is a literary precedent for my lack of attention to it. Even better, those who know me best applaud my absence.

As summer days and nights go - the air, the smells, the sun and moon, the company - these are mine alone. Blogging time is scarce these days.

Lucky me.

Monday, July 30, 2018

With Surfboard on Ceiling

I'm a low maintenance beach guest. Real low.

Give me a bed, preferably private, but I've been known to share a king size bed with my hostess when it was the sole availability.

Because I bring my own breakfast, snacks and sometimes lunch, no preparation for this guest is required. When it comes to dinner, I'm good whether we stay in or go out. Whatever my hosts desire.

As for entertainment, I can sit on the expansive deck on intermittently rainy afternoons like today and talk while being mesmerized by the ocean or set up camp on the sunny beach when everyone wants the full beach experience. A quick SPF50 and I'm good to go.

When everyone's occupied in their own way, I will slip away to walk despite a sky so menacing-looking (albeit artistically) that people are packing up in droves. When I ask a lifeguard what the forecast is, he says they're not allowed to look at their phones while on duty. Okay, but should I keep walking? "If I were you, I'd go inside. Now."

I didn't get far before the sky opened up, but I thought of it as a rain baptism for my new hat.

In my carefree guest mode, I'll listen to whatever music my hosts want to play, even if  it's something I'd never choose. Or something overplayed. Or hackneyed.

The sound of the ocean is enough, for that matter.

I won't get up early and make any noise that might disturb others, but I also won't expect anyone to worry about bothering me. Hosts' prerogative, after all.

You can count on me being a good audience. I'm happy to be the plus one when someone wants to go to the beach or in the ocean and needs reinforcements. Born ready.

Rest assured, I won't say a word when every window in an oceanfront cottage is shut instead of being open to the sea breezes. I may bite my tongue until it bleeds to avoid sharing my opinion about the soundness of such a choice, but it's not my call.

You can even ignore me entirely. Fear not, I will find countless ways to amuse myself while at this oceanfront cottage and I will say goodbye before I drive off.

And always, I will be grateful for the invitation.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Once in a Lifetime

I bought my ticket to see David Byrne a lifetime ago.

And by lifetime, I mean February 11, which might as well be the same thing considering the seismic shifts in my world since that long ago day.

I can't tell one from the other
Did I find you or you find me?
There was a time, before we were born
If someone asks, this is where I'll be, where I'll be

When tickets for his May show at the Anthem in D.C. went on sale, I'd passed on going because of the venue. But when a Merriweather Post Pavilion date was added, I jumped on board despite the steep price (for me anyway).

MPP was the site of my second-ever concert - Carol King - back in 1972 or '73 and the thought of seeing as iconic a performer as David Byrne at Merriweather on a July night was irresistible, even if I did have to cross state lines and go solo.

As fate would have it, I didn't go by myself. As fortune would have it, I picked the right show to return to Merriweather for. No doubt about it, 2018 has been my year.

I'm just an animal looking for a home
Share the same space for a minute or two
And you love me till my heart stops
Love me till I'm dead

First of all, the evening weather was glorious, not too hot or humid. We arrived when the gates opened and had our choice of great views. Then there was the benefit of the show not being sold out. Our chairs may have skirted the blanket laid down by a happy hippie-ish couple to our right named Tom and Karen, but everyone had breathing room.

Not necessarily a bad thing when an occasional whiff of weed wafted by.

It wasn't even dark when English poet and singer Benjamin Clementine took a seat on a stool in front of a piano and began singing and playing in an intense way that was poetic, moving and quite beautiful. Nina Simone came to mind. I sensed immediately that he'd been chosen by Byrne to open, no doubt for his incredibly distinctive voice and talent.

Let's just say it was an impressive start to a stunning evening of music, choreography and theater.

The less we say about it, the better
Make it up as we go along
Feet on the ground, head in the sky
It's okay, I know nothing's wrong

Byrne, not to mention that magnificent head of hair he's got, began the show alone onstage, sitting at a table and holding a model of a brain while singing "Here" off the new album "American Utopia," which all ticket buyers were sent as part of the deal. Right off the bat, it seemed like an appropriately intellectual and musical way to set the tone for a man known for his art school roots.

But where it got truly wondrous was when a dozen people, musicians and singers all in identical suits, joined him, each of the musicians with their instrument strapped to their body like a drum line or marching band. It was an incredible amount of sound they produced while a duo sang backup and danced the most difficult moves.

We drift in and out
Oh! Sing into my mouth
Out of all those kinds of peoiple
You got a face with a view

Every song was fully choreographed, with Byrne dancing along with his cadre of musicians and singers (loads of drums and percussion, natch, but it was the strapped-on keyboard that was the most impressive when being played), whether it was one of the kickass new songs like "Everybody's Coming to My House" or one of the Talking Heads songs that set the crowd off into a frenzy.

Where he made time stand still for me was in playing "Naive Melody," a song I hadn't dared to hope I'd hear and one that sounded transcendent sung into the soft night air. It was while he was singing "Burning Down the House" and the middle-aged crowd was losing their minds that the all but full moon finally rose above the tree line like a benediction on the show below.

Oh! I got plenty of time
Oh! You got light in your eyes

When they did "Blind," Byrne played guitar while a bright light focused on the performers caused shadows to be cast against the background. Byrne's shadow looked enormous compared to the others, reaching almost to the stage's rafters, in the same way that his giant suit used to make him stand out back in the Talking Heads days. It was like having a Balinese shadow puppet show, except with real people.

The final encore was Janelle Monae's "Hell You Talmbout," with drums backing the names of black people killed by police and the admonishment, "Say his name." It was incredibly powerful way to end the evening.

I come home
She lifted up her wings
I guess that this must be the place

I don't recall how I felt after Carol King finished performing, but I know that I won't soon forget how I felt when Bryne and company took their final bow. Standing under that bright moon with my favorite person next to me, I knew we'd seen something wondrous, something that would have been worth a 3 1/2 hour drive alone for.

Lucky me, I got to share it with someone who was not only as wowed as I was, but who's willing to make it up as we go along. In fact, cruising home on Route 301, that's how we ended up at Captain Billy's Crabhouse on the Potomac having a late waterside lunch. Crabs, shrimp and hushpuppies (not to mention Homes' favorite crab and vegetable soup) go down mighty easy watching sea birds vie for pole perches and reveling in the passing of time together.

And you're standing here beside me
I love the passing of time
Never for money, always for love
Cover up and say goodnight, say goodnight

This is where I'll be. Where I'll be happily.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

I Don't Know, But I Been Told

Hey, hey, Mama, said the way you move
Gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove

I have stopped working for the day. I've showered and the radio rewards me by playing a live version of Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog" recorded in 1973 at Madison Square Garden.

Outside, it's overcast because we're between showers for the fourth day in a row. I don't mind because it feels very beachy to me with constantly changing skies, winds and fronts. Walking the pipeline in a steady, warm rain made for a pretty wonderful morning.

The moment "Black Dog" comes on, though, I'm back in my high school cafeteria and it's blaring loudly from the jukebox. Because of course a school cafeteria had a jukebox in 1973. If I recall correctly, we didn't have a single lunch hour that it didn't get played - and, mind you, the song was already a couple years old then - but I never got tired of hearing it.

And while I didn't own a single Led Zeppelin album (still don't), I suggested to my then-boyfriend that we get tickets for their upcoming show at Alexandria Roller Rink. "Nah, they'll never be able to recreate their sound live," he said, dismissing my suggestion out of hand. I acquiesced because  I wasn't a big Led Zep fan, although I think the incongruity of a band like that at a roller rink spoke to me even then.

How could it not have been great/weird/awful/fascinating to experience?

While in college, I worked in a bookstore under a manager who was maybe a dozen years older than me. One slow evening, we got to talking about music and dancing. Both he and his wife loved to dance and still did so often, while my generation, he pointed out, didn't dance, we just stood around and listened to music.

Given the hard-rocking bands of the day - Yes, Jethro Tull, the Who - I'm not sure we had much choice. Dancing was uncool, old fashioned, stigmatized even.

But now that I heard "Black Dog" on the radio, I also know more about the song, namely that bassist John Paul Jones deliberately wrote it with a winding riff and complex rhythm changes so it could not be danced to.

And people question why disco had to come into being? C'mon, we were a generation starved for  music we could dance to. We took what we could get.

One thing that hasn't changed in the intervening decades is getting together to listen to records with friends. It was so commonplace in my youth that there are entire artists' catalogs I never bothered purchasing because so many of my friends owned them. Why buy Jackson Brown, Steely Dan or the Police when everyone I knew could play them for me?

Now when I go to listening parties, there's a good dinner first. Tonight's was at Acacia with Holmes and Beloved and a couple of bottles of Langlois Chateau Cremant de Loire Brut Rose (because, to quote Pru, "Why would we ever leave the Loire?"). When the sommelier opened the delicate and dry pink bubbles for us, he shared not only that it's a personal favorite of his, but that the vineyards are associated with Champagne Bollinger.

All I can say is, more, please.

The most amusing moment arrived when our young server came to open the second bottle. Unlike the first, which had been uncorked with barely a sigh, the second let off a resounding pop and from across the room, the sommelier raised his eyebrows at her noisy opening. "He's gonna kill me," she joked.

There are various ways to tell that we're smack in the middle of the summer - the absence of VCU students, the ease of parking - but none so clear cut as being in a half-full restaurant that is usually slammed every night they're open. I know, I know, everyone's at the ocean or the river, but for now we had to settle for eating from those places.

Beginning with Ruby Salt oysters and cucumber soup, we moved on to white anchovies made obscene with the richness of fourme d'ambert, pine nuts, grilled radicchio and romaine in a creamy garlic dressing. Beloved orders them every single time we go to Acacia and Holmes and I benefit by getting a taste or two out of her.

Neither of them could resist the siren song of Acaia's specialty, sauteed velvet softshells from Urbanna, served with asparagus, cream corn polenta and tomato bacon gravy, while I tucked into grilled mahi mahi accompanied by a mesclun salad loaded with heirloom tomatoes and goat cheese.

Over desserts of chocolate cremeaux with sea salt caramel ice cream and pound cake, they regaled me with highlights and photographs of their recent trip to Solomon's Island to celebrate Beloved's birthday. Just looking at the pictures, I could see how relaxed and happy they'd been to get away.

When we finally headed back to Holmes' hideaway, it was still early enough for a full-blown record listening party. Laying on the bar from a former evening was a square of paper with a handwritten message: "Scream now!" Neither Holmes nor Beloved recalled why it had been necessary to write such a message.

But he did make sure we knew that it was national tequila day before dropping the needle on Todd Rundgren's 1973 album, "A Wizard, A True Star." I love me some Todd.

When we do these listening parties, the starting artist is inevitably decided during the phone call between Holmes and me to set up the evening. In this case, when I called him, he answered the phone by saying, "This is Holmes," to which I responded, "Hello, it's me." Right away, we both know Todd Rundgren would launch the listening festivities.

We were soon far down a rabbit hole because on this album, he does a medley of Curtis Mayfield's "I'm So Proud," Smokey Robinson's "Ooh, Baby, Baby," the Delphonics' "La La Means I Love You" and "Cool Jerk," a song they knew but couldn't recall who'd originally done it. Don't look at me, I only knew the GoGos version from 1982's "Vacation"

Now that Holmes has softened his position on cell phones, Beloved is allowed to look things up if he deems it worthy of research. Turns out that a band called the Capitols had released it in 1966  on the - wait for it - Karen Records label. Who knew?

As much as we enjoyed Todd, where Holmes really bowled us over was with an album I hadn't even heard of: Joni Mitchell's "Miles of Aisle," a double live album from 1974 recorded when she toured behind "Court and Spark" (although there's only one C&S song on it) with the L.A. Express. Her voice was exquisite, not yet ruined by cigarettes, whiled the live versions offered new takes on classic songs. I wouldn't have thought I could like "Turn Me On, I'm a Radio" better live, but I was wrong.

"And this is just the songs that she'd written by 1974!" Holmes said incredulously.

I never owned any Joni Mitchell until a few years ago for the simple reason that I didn't need to. Everyone had Joni Mitchell when I was young and she got played a lot everywhere. What an innocent petunia I was. Only now do I realize that I must own all the Joni Mitchell.

Because sometimes I'm the one hosting the listening parties. And should you come across a note here or there, I can assure you it won't say, "Scream now!" Talk now?