Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Dog Day Afternoon

We have a new way of being awakened in Jackson Ward and it's not about the noise, although that is excessive.

No, it's the vibrating bed and it takes an awful lot to shake the foundation of an 1876 house hard enough to rattle the floorboards on the second floor. And yet they're doing a damn fine job of just that.

I went to bed around 2 last night and at 8:30, I was jolted out of sleep by my wooden bed on the wooden floor shaking so hard that it interrupted a rather pleasant dream. It wasn't just hearing the ruckus through my open windows, it was actual movement. Since there was no going back to sleep, I got up and went out to talk nicely to the perpetrators.

Turns out the 'hood is getting new gas lines, all of which tie into the main line on Leigh Street. This means that both the street I live on and the side street one house away are being torn up daily in this endeavor.

Don't worry, the workmen assured me, it'll only be another month. I guess that means that weekends aside, I'll get a full night's sleep again some time in October.

And then there's the non-stop noise all day, drowning out my music. The endless dust being excavated and swirling around every time a car drives over it. The sudden lack of parking due to equipment and cones.

Ah, the price of progress.

To escape, I decided to take myself to lunch and since Tuesdays are Dollar Dog days at City Dogs, that's where I went, even though it meant dodging the hordes of VCU humanity on Main Street.

I'd already been to the City Dogs in the Slip, here, so I wanted to see how the Fan location compared.

There's really only one big difference between the two: how the mostly male customer base dresses. Downtown, the place was all men in business attire. Today was all guys in t-shirts, but still all men.

If not for the servers, I'd have been the only female in the place.

The dollar dogs are the Richmond Originals, marinated Thurmann's dogs with mustard, onions and chili. Being the dainty creature that I am, I got two and a lemonade (it seemed appropriate for this kind of heat) and sat back to enjoy my lunch with the guys in air-conditioned comfort.

A beer delivery guy asked if he could take the stool next to mine and I welcomed the company.

The bartender was placing his order when it occurred to him that the band Former Champions was playing there later this week. I know nothing about this band, but this realization necessitated him upping his PBR order by 50%. At the very least, I now know that Former Champions fans drink a lot of PBR.

He also got shot down when he tried to put in an order for Carta Blanca, a beer I'd never even heard of. The beer rep informed him that there was none available. Nada, zip.

"They told us to blame it on BP," he explained. "For real or is that just the new scapegoat?" I had to know. Shrugging, he laughed. "I just say what they tell me to." Apparently Carta Blanca is headquartered in Mexico, for what that's worth.

Me, I'm still headquartered in J-Ward where the nights are late, the mornings are early and sometimes a girl has to go eat some dogs just to escape the noise and heat.

Unfortunately, the vibrating bed can't be escaped for some time to come.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Lessons in Punk, Cheesiness and IEDs

I listened to a punk rock icon talk about the good old days, I saw quite possibly the worst movie of my life and I met a guy whose body had been shattered by an IED in Iraq. I guess I'll start at the beginning.

Tesco Vee, former lead singer of the Meatmen and co-founder of the Touch and Go zine and later Touch and Go Records, both enormous influences on the early punk rock scene, came to Chop Suey to sign books and talk about his life experience. Learning that he had been an elementary school teacher at the time he was doing the zine and singing in the band was a little hard to reconcile, but, oh, the anecdotes he shared.

I liked him immediately when he described himself as "a music fan first and foremost." He recalled being an uber-record nerd who drive 200+ miles to the best record store in Michigan for the latest punk imports back in the late 70s. "We had a feeling of being in the know and our job was to write about it," he said, explaining the birth of the zine.

"I'm not bitter that a lot of my contemporaries are making multi-gazillions," he insisted. "I'm a 14-year old in a 55-year old's body. And I'm still having fun." My goal exactly.

Crossing the street to the Byrd Theater for the benefit tonight was a trip back to the 80s. I was less curious about the retro element of the film than its location, the Jefferson Hotel, back before its renovation.

Todd Schall-Vass introduced Rock and Roll Hotel by saying, "The Byrd has played host to many fine motion pictures. This probably won't be one of them." And let me assure you it definitely wasn't. "A bad movie for a good cause," was how he put it.

The corny story of an aspiring rock band (and I use the term loosely) who make it to the Rock and Roll Hotel to compete for first place was cheesy beyond belief. Judd Nelson has been in a lot of bad movies but this one was in a class by itself. Bad 80s dancing, clothing and music, a cast of mediocre actors and a script so contrived and dated as to be groan-inducing.

If you need convincing, during a scene where the female manger of a radio station justifies a switch from a rock format to adult contemporary, she says, "After listening to Twisted Sister, I found myself doing the dirty boogie with the Xerox man." Baaad.

But we weren't there for quality film making; we were there for nostalgia and to see our beloved Jefferson. From the first scene of the exterior of the hotel to the fireworks exploding inside, the audience cheered for our four diamond hotel. When the grand staircase appeared, the audience erupted in clapping and yelling.

And did I mention the benefit raised $10,000 for the Byrd Theater?

For those who'd paid a premium, there was a post-screening soiree at the Jefferson. Many people headed directly across the street to Secco afterwards, no doubt needing to blot out the memory of the 80s with multiple beverages. And while I felt the same, I didn't want to fight the crowds.

As it was, a guy stopped me outside the theater and solicited my thoughts on the movie. Did it have potential as a midnight movie a la Rocky Horror Picture Show? With some additional editing, couldn't it make it as a new release of an old film? I guess he'd been to the movie alone too, and wanted someone to discuss it with.

So I escaped to Rosie Connolly's for a drink and some quiet, except that I was immediately invited to leave my stool and join two guys on their side of the bar. One was a former teacher from Chicago, so we talked baseball, weather and bad writing and the other was the vet who'd graduated from VMI and done two tours of Iraq.

He has an artificial lung, one kidney, a chunk out of his butt and several other reconstructed organs, but, as he put it, "I'm not dead and that's good, right?" His attitude in general was amazingly upbeat and positive. He is the fist person I've ever met who's been to Iraq, much less had his body ripped apart by an IED.

None of which prevented him from trying to rub my back ("That's inappropriate" I told him), telling me I was gorgeous from a distance of less than a foot ("No, I'm really not. And you need to back up a little."), saying I had the best legs in the world ("Let's just say they're the best in the bar, shall we?") and asking if I'd go out with him ("I don't date," to which he responded, "Well, I can keep trying, can't I?" Actually, I'd prefer that you didn't.).

I found it somehow reassuring to know that even after eleven years in the military, two tours of duty and great trauma, he was still comfortable enough with himself to just act like a guy.

Further proof, as I was reminded today, that guys really can be such simple creatures.

No Smacking Allowed

With VCU back in session and my later walking time, it's a whole new ballgame on Grace Street, as I discovered today. Honestly, I practically had to dodge the masses while out walking this morning.

A guy approached me, pulling out his earbuds as he got closer.

Him: How many miles have you already walked?
Me: Three
Him: How many more to go?
Me: Only one! (smacking my hip for emphasis)
Him: You're keeping it tight! I would have smacked it for you, but you smacked it first.
Me: (Gulp)

Another guy, whom I didn't recognize but who clearly recognized me, gave me a big smile and said, "Looks like both our schedules have changed, huh?"


An Evening in Four Parts

Three screens. Two couple dates. Three live bands. Five dishes. Three rooms at capacity. One dessert. One hell of a good time.

Earlier in the week, a friend had offered me a ticket to a documentary screening today. I'd declined, saying I was already triple booked for Sunday.

"It's at 4:00," he'd countered. Well, alrighty then, I could make it; I'd just be starting my evening a bit earlier. Plus I'd get to see the new RTP theater in Scott's Addition, which I'd not yet been in. I said yes to my first couple date of the evening.

4:00 Richmond Triangle Players Theater
The sold-out documentary screening was Gen Silent about the issues facing GLBT seniors as they age. Apparently, many go back into the closet to avoid prejudice or even abuse in long-term care facilities and nursing homes.

The people interviewed for the film shared touching stories of lives turned upside down by care giving, nursing home visits, inattentive or absent families and fear of being found out.

At today's Virginia premiere of the movie, many tissues were undoubtedly soaked and I heard sniffles throughout. I can't imagine not being touched by these stories of long-time couples struggling in later life.

It was a powerful film and it was being shown to engage the community in dialogue about how to improve the situation in RVA, so a panel discussion followed the film. I left feeling like I had seen an important film.

5:30 Belvidere at Broad, First Anniversary Celebration
The restaurant was hopping when I got there and only got crazier in the next few hours as regulars streamed in, filling up every available space. I saw neighbors, friends and a few who provided hysterical entertainment value.

The menu for the evening had fourteen specials, all of them tempting. By the time I met my second couple date for the evening, they had already ordered the first round of food: Spicy tuna roll (ahi tuna, spicy sriracha aioli, cucumber, sesame seeds), local tomato Caprese, and roasted stuffed mushrooms (stuffed with spinach, tomato, herbed cream cheese, and parmigiana reggiano in a red pepper cream sauce). May I say yum?

Our next course was a little heartier: All natural beef sliders 3 ways (Gouda and bacon, fresh Mozzarella and caramelized onions and lettuce, tomato and caramelized onions) and grilled tenderloin canapes (crostinis topped with grilled tenderloin, caramelized red onion, chives and a house made horseradish sauce). By the time we finished these, I was full.

But never too full for dessert. We ended with the fresh fruit Napoleon: sliced pound cake, house made blackberry brandy whipped cream and assorted berries. Although not what I expected (Napoleons requiring puff pastry, after all), it was simply wonderful... and very pretty.

The place was mobbed, everyone was ordering food and absolutely everything that came out of the kitchen was stellar. There wasn't a single thing that could have been improved upon.

Even before I saw him, I knew Chris was in the kitchen, but the fact is, everyone back there did an amazing job tonight. I think they each deserved multiple shift drinks.

Roger Carrol was playing sax and Alan Parker guitar for most of the evening and it added a nice ambiance to the party. There were times that the crowd's volume only intensified when the music was really wailing, but parties are supposed to be loud. At least the good ones are.

8:00 Gallery 5, Silent Music Revival
In all the years I've been attending this event, never has there been a crowd the size there was tonight. Fortunately, my couple date had saved me a seat for The Adventures of Prince Achmed, an animated silent movie from 1926.

Musical improvisation was courtesy of Dave Watkins and he was up to the challenge of scoring a 67-minute film, the longest Jameson has ever shown at a SMR.

I can't begin to describe how beautiful the film was. It took its inspiration from Indonesian shadow puppet traditions, although it actually used cardboard cutouts and stop motion techniques. It was three years in the making and it wasn't hard to see why, especially for 1926.

The story is from 1001 Arabian Nights and the intricately cut figures with their tapering fingers and elongated legs were a thing of beauty and Dave's accompaniment created a Middle Eastern mood that had the audience under its spell. Everything about the performance tonight felt magical.

10:00 The Camel, Marionette
The perfect way to close out my busy Sunday was by seeing some of my favorite people playing in one of the best bands in Richmond. Alas, no couple date, but I know the people in this band as friends by now, so it was almost like a group date (my next frontier, perhaps?).

There was a surprisingly good crowd in-house for a Sunday night (is it because VCU's back?) and despite a few sound glitches, the energy in the room was terrific. A masseuse I know came over and asked me why more people don't know about this local gem, but that's a question I have no answer for.

After the show, I lingered to talk to the band, ending with Adam the guitarist, who teased me about not arriving early enough to have a long conversation before they went on. Instead I stayed for a long conversation afterwards.

It's all about time management. If I can't fit something in at the start of my evening, there's always room at the end.

Who would have guessed how easily I've settled into this 1 a.m. or later bedtime? Don't all answer at once.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Music for a Cause

"Fuck BP," toasted Ilad's lead singer Clifton, summing up tonight's Gulf Leak Benefit at the Camel (or maybe just wanting to do a shot). The four-band bill provided a lot of entertainment for a minimum donation of five dollars, which benefited the Gulf Coast Fund and Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research.

Ophelia's stunning folk rock got things rolling. Their recent FB status, "Ophelia practiced last night. We still got it...or something like it," belies just how amazing their sound is. They've got it alright and anyone who hears it immediately recognizes that magic.

A musician friend who had never heard them before said as much to me tonight. I had come knowing I'd be bowled over again, but he'd been unprepared for the sheer amount of local talent perfectly combined in this one project. Ophelia are not to be missed.

Next up was the evening's organizer, Lydia Ooghe, with two of the four members of her band Lux Vacancy (one had a wedding and one had a fever). For many in the audience, it was their first time hearing her with backing musicians, although I've been lucky enough to hear the group in total already.

As impressive as Lydia's voice and songwriting skills are solo, the music is taken to another level with other musicians rounding out her sound. One friend said even her voice sounded bigger. Tonight she had bass and drums behind her guitar and singing and the crowd was clearly enthralled with the trio. I suppose they'd have been over the moon with the full band in attendance.

After what felt like an endless break between sets, Ilad took the stage and played the best set I'd ever heard them play in several years of being their fan. Most of the songs are off the upcoming album and featured multiple vocalists, an interesting change for them.

My musician friend tried to define their sound by saying that they were 60s psychedelic-influenced but didn't actually sound like 60s or psychedelic music. It's as apt a description as any for their unique sound. Interesting tangents in the music brought to mind prog-rock or even jazz influences, not unlikely given some of the band members' jazz roots.

Caulit Anything was just taking the stage when I headed out. Their loyal fans had been noisily awaiting their set for some time before it actually happened.

Leaving the Camel and crossing Broad Street, a guy stuck his face out of the car window and made a big smooching sound at me. His mother would be so proud.

About as proud as BP should be.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Reading to an Omnivore

Because I'm so shallow I need the validation of others, I was hugely gratified to go to a fiction reading at Chop Suey Books and see every chair taken.

Even better, additional chairs had to be brought in.

Who would have guessed that so many people other than me wanted to be read to on a Saturday evening?

Marie Potoczny got things started by saying, "Get ready to weep," as she read one of her short stories, I Don't Want to Know What's Not a Good Idea.

The story of a woman dealing with loss and longing was made all the more touching for Potoczny's reading style.

Occasionally she even laughed at her own lines, endearing herself to the audience.

Favorite line: "Halitosis is inexcusable for someone in the talking profession."

The second author was Emma Rathbone and she was reading from her well-received book The Patterns of Paper Monsters. 

The narrator of the book is a17-year old living in Juvenile Detention and Rathbone read a section detailing his thoughts and memories of girls and sex (some hysterical, but others, like sex with one of his foster mothers, a bit disturbing).

I'm not usually a fan of books about teens, but the character was so engagingly written that I found myself chuckling at his thoughts and observations despite myself.

I'm not sure I'll ever outgrow the pleasure of being read to, but then why do I need to as long as Ward keeps bringing in authors to share their words with me and other listeners?

Tonight's reading was such a pleasurable way to begin my night.

Dinner was at 821 Cafe and by sheer happenstance I ran into a musician friend who took the barstool next to me moments after I ordered my favorite black bean nachos.

Julie Karr, she of the big and bluesy singing voice, told me that she'd just recently finished recording a CD with Lance Koehler at Minimum Wage Studio in Oregon Hill.

I was excited for her because hers is the kind of voice I can listen to more often than she plays shows.

Julie's a vegan, so I felt mildly guilty when my cheese covered plate of beans showed up, because she'd said that cheese was about the only thing she'd ever missed since going vegan eight years ago.

I admire the vegan lifestyle, but I'm constitutionally unable to give up bacon.

Or any kind of pig for that matter.

Or, god forbid, cheese. Or butter. Or cheeseburgers.

Okay, I could never go vegetarian, much less vegan.

Fortunately, when it comes to eating, I do not need the validation of others.

Perhaps that means that I'm only selectively shallow.

Perhaps it just means I like to eat.


Everybody's Got a Baby But Me

The last thing I was expecting to discover at the opening of the new Virginia Historical Society exhibit was the identity of the father of heavy metal. Just goes to prove the beauty of the unexpected.

Virginia Rocks! The History of Rockabilly in the Commonwealth appealed to me because of my ongoing desire to expand my musical knowledge base, but also because I know so little about this hybrid of rock and roll and hillbilly music.

It seemed like a good way to spend a Saturday afternoon, looking at all kinds of stuff that interests me: vintage photos, jukeboxes, guitars and show posters. And a rockabilly soundtrack playing the whole time.

Of course, a big part of the early interest in rockabilly music was brought about by the "hillbilly Frank Sinatra," Elvis. Loving the local angle as I do, I got a kick out of a story about a show Elvis headlined in Richmond at the Mosque in 1955. Out on Laurel Street, the waiting fans were apparently getting rambunctious so Elvis went out and asked them to settle down so the musicians could hear themselves warming up. It's hard to imagine a headliner doing the same today.

Another local connection was the immensely popular Old Dominion Barn Dances showcasing local talent. One show poster had a bill of seven acts and tickets were 80 cents for upstairs seating and $1.15 for downstairs. And I thought four bands for five dollars at Gallery 5 was a steal! The shows were held at a theater at Broad and 9th, just two blocks down from the National. I could have walked there, too.

At a show at the Safari Grill in Herndon, Virginia, the poster listed the bands and tickets prices, but also an added incentive. "Free shrunken head from the Pigmy region of Africa to everyone attending the dance this weekend." Even after seeing the exhibit, I'm still not quite sure about the connection between rockabilly and shrunken heads, but perhaps it spoke to a different generation's taste.

And the father of heavy metal? That would be Link Wray who took a detour through rockabilly on his way to the kind of power chord-playing that inspired the likes of Dylan, Hendrix and Townsend. Now I know.

The exhibit includes big screens and audio so you actually get to hear and see some of the performers at their peak. Like the records recorded at the time, the sound isn't great, but the energy of the performances still comes through.

As for everyone having a baby but me, that's the title of the one and only hit of Warren Miller, a musician who played around DC and Norfolk back in the 50s. He became a DJ at the first all-country station and back then, it was country stations who were willing to play the new rockabilly music.

And the requirements of rockabilly were simple enough: a drawling solo singer, a driving drum beat, a slapping, repetitive bass line, razor-edged guitar licks and catchy lovelorn or suggestive lyrics. "Everybody's got a baby but me" has it all, baby.

Everybody's got a baby but me
Everybody's getting lovin', everybody's getting huggin' but me.

I'm right there with you, Warren. Rockabilly on.

Don't Check Me for Ticks

Just when I'm ready to get discouraged about doing so much alone, I have an evening where I run into friends all night long. It may not be as good as a partner's company, but it was great to have the unexpected conversation almost everywhere I went.

And I went all over tonight. I began at the Visual Arts center for the other part of Darkroom: Photography and New Media in South Africa since 1950. This show had more contemporary photographs than the VMFA show, but was just as compelling.

The photo of 15-year old Lawrence Matjee after being assaulted and detained by the Security Police was heartbreaking. The unsmiling boy stares into the camera shirtless and with haunting eyes, both his arms in casts up to his armpits. Tragic.

Another photo shows eight young people running from a smokey blast during the political unrest in Soweto in the late 70s. Of the eight, only two have their feet on the ground. The other six are running so hard that both feet are in the air at the moment the shutter closed. It took my breath away.

In contrast to that is the image from 1952, Private Golf Lesson showing a couple in Sophiatown with their bodies curved around each other as he shows her how to make a shot. Their matching berets are seen against the background of the township's simple homes sloping up a hill.

If I'd been smart, I'd have taken the trolley from there instead of driving to the Anderson Gallery where I encountered a traffic accident (one car was up on the sidewalk of the Pollak Building), a street festival (one lane closed on Franklin on the first weekend of school? Lunacy) and non-existent parking. Luckily the exhibit was worth it.

Imaging South Africa: Collection Projects by Siemon Allen showed various collections of the South African artist, including relevant newspapers, 50,000 stamps and countless records. All three were meant to address the complex nature of South African identity.

Naturally the record and record label collections (two separate entities) gave me the most pleasure. The signature image for Darkroom is of singer Miriam Makeba and the record collection showcased primarily her records, in some cases duplicate copies, some autographed, some in other languages. I was surprised at how many records were on familiar American labels.

I ran into a friend who raved about the stamps (he's a biologist who pointed to a mole on a guy's neck and said, "Thought it was a tick." So stop thinking.) and a couple I have been running into everywhere lately ("Him: "Yea, but I like that."), who asked me about my later destinations, anticipating seeing me there.

I recommended to all three that they check out the accompanying VMFA and Visual Arts Center shows for a fuller sense of the South African experience, not to mention some outstanding photographs.

Afterwards, I strolled into Bistro 27 for a bite to eat, only to discover one of my very favorite couples, so I pulled up a chair to their bar table and joined them. After sharing some of their beef carpaccio, I had the deep fried sweetbreads over mushroom ragout and it was such a treat. Both of them tried it and agreed that this was sweetbreads done right. It's all about texture, as Carlos says.

I had such a good time chatting with them about a wide variety of topics (hangovers, the new Lulus's, birthday party plans, dressing faux pas) that I barely had time to pay my respects to the staff, always a favorite part of my evening at 27. I promised to be back soon to worship at their altars.

Lastly I made it to Balliceaux for Photosynthesizers and while I may not normally be much of a hip-hop fan, there is something about these guys doing live hip-hop that I knew from previous shows I loved. Two voices, male and female, with a live band and they had the audience enthralled (even the bad dancers who couldn't seem to find the beat).

And here I ran into loads of friends: the wild woman entrepreneur, the farmer and his harem, the restaurant owner and his chef, the trumpet player and his beloved, resulting in as much conversation as I could handle in between sets.

Eventually I took a seat at the bar, not to escape chatting with friends, but to talk to one of my favorite bartenders and to meet the random strangers stopping by for drinks. It's amazing how friendly people can be if they think you can get the bartender's attention. Or even just to kill time until it's their turn.

One guy kept asking if he could buy me another tequila and my bartending friend kept subtly shaking his head no at me, as if to underscore what I already knew: not my type, so don't let him get friendly. It's nice to have someone looking out for a girl when she's on her own.

And wouldn't you just know it was a restaurant owner tossing out the non-stop compliments and drink offers? Big sigh.

I see a lot of couple dating in my future.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Boy Bar/Girl Bar

You won't often find me at Penny Lane Pub, soured as I was by a night of watching really bad karaoke there last fall. And then there's that male-only crowd that sits on the patio assessing each new customer as if they were grading meat.

But Prabir and company were having an All Access Blog Launch party for the Richmond Symphony and the intersection of the two was too compelling to pass up. That and I was sure Prabir would give me crap if I didn't show.

Based on what was being shown at the party, the new website will definitely be a step forward in attracting viewers. It looks like there will be interviews and offbeat stories about the musicians and staff (like Prabir) and it'll be updated at least twice a week, making for some interesting reading and viewing for RSO fans and even the mildly interested. Hey, symphony musicians are people, too, or so I was told.

Prabir introduced me to a local show poster designer with great musical taste, so I enjoyed myself talking to him about my poster collection, why opening bands matter and how Shepard Fairey came through town without either of us being aware, despite our mutual rabid interest in seeing him. I love meeting new people who share my interests and like to talk.

When I left the pub, I went straight to the VMFA for a showing of the documentary Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, a tie-in to the South African photography exhibit I saw last week. The film was powerful, depicting the chronology of the South African liberation struggle for blacks in music and protests.

I was fascinated by the way the people used song to unite themselves and share their struggles with one another during those bleak years that their townships and lives were being destroyed. Ten years in the making, the combination of interviews and performances (some as casual as back yard a capella) encompassed countless musicians, activists and exiles to tell the story.

The audience was absolutely silent throughout, probably because of the need to listen to heavily accented voices in some cases and also because of the poignancy of the stories people shared. The combination of news footage and present-day interviews seamlessly told a story in which we all knew the ending, but were nonetheless drawn in.

Images of protesters being beaten and even shot were difficult to watch but a necessary part of the story. And throughout, the music was uplifting and inspiring and shared by the masses. As one former exile said, for black South Africans, the good times have just begun.

After the screening, I headed right up to the Best Cafe because I knew Hotel X was playing. The cafe was positively frigid, so I found a chair on the outside deck and settled in with a piece of chocolate torte for some world music-inspired jazz. I knew from seeing the band last winter that I would not be disappointed with their wide-ranging sound.

Even better, the weather put on a visual show while Hotel X provided the musical accompaniment. Facing west, I was surrounded by the reflecting pool with a view of the sculpture garden and the Pauley Center. Lightening lit up the sky over the trees and occasional thunder rumbled in the distance. It was perfect late summer night weather.

A light rain fell too quietly to hear, but I could see the drops hitting the pool in the dim light. Overhead, the deck of Amuse shielded me from getting wet while I enjoyed the balmy night air. The only jarring note was when someone inadvertently left the cafe door open and a blast of arctic air hit me. Although the dancing crowd would probably have disagreed, I really did feel like I had the best seat in the house.

When their last set ended, I decided to finish the night at nearby Secco. By some miracle, it was not mobbed, although every single barstool was taken. Julia surrendered her spot at the bar, closed her laptop and suggested we share a couch and catch up.

There was rose, there was cheese (Midnight Moon) and loveliest of all, there were even pink bubbles (Manoir de la Tete "Tete a Claques" sparkling rose), all necessary fortification for the tales of obtuse fathers, audacious young men and observation of overly botoxed customers ("Wait till she turns around. She looks like the Joker!" She did, too).

And that's not even counting the street theater that is the corner of Sheppard and Cary Streets, a magnet for colorful characters and unexpected behavior the later in the evening it gets ("Did he just...?" Yes, he did).

Julia mentioned the irony of a tomboy, which she most certainly is, ending up with a wine bar that attracts a majority female clientele. It's definitey not a place to go if a girl is hoping to meet someone of the opposite sex; the few men in attendance are inevitably with a female.

It's sort of the anti-Penny Lane Pub. Tonight I was one of those females who can go either way...or both.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Eat! Look! Stay Away!

Do people who walk on treadmills realize the great stuff they miss by not hitting the streets?

Like a guy waiting at the bus stop wearing a t-shirt that instructed: "Take your vitamin every day. It's called a STEAK!" Can't you just hear the self-righteousness implied in that statement? It would have been so much better if the guy in it had been a skinny little sprout-eating vegan wearing it for ironic reasons, but judging by the guy's girth, I think he meant it.

Walking down one block of Broad, I saw a guy approaching his truck notice me. He stared. Had I grown two heads? He went to open the door of his truck and fumbled because he was still looking at me and not the lock. He dropped his clipboard and stared some more. As I walked by him, I straight-up asked, "Did you get a good look?" Without the slightest evidence of embarrassment, he smiled and said, "Yea, I did. Thanks!"

But today's highlight was a handwritten sign on the door of Velocity Comics that was as much a statement of philosophy as a warning: "No soliciting! I am ridiculously happy with my current whatever!" If they'd been open, I'd have gone in to meet the sign-writer. Since I don't get solicitors because I live on the second floor of a locked building, there's no point in a sign like that for me.

But just for the record, I am ridiculously happy with my current whatevers, too. My only complaint would be the one whatever absent from my life. Should I ever get it, my ridicuous happiness will be complete. I might even put up a sign.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Just Don't Call Me Erin

My reservation for one was awaiting me when I arrived for Acacia's Wines of the Northwest dinner tonight. The bar, like the restaurant, was crowded, but my single place setting sat waiting for me amongst the crowd, welcoming this single diner.

I greeted Arthur the bartender, who revealed his inner smart ass by saying, "Hey, long time no see." In fact, we'd been at the same party Sunday night so we weren't even 72 hours since our last conversation. He was a blur making cocktails and apologized for the lack of wine dinner menus, saying they were scarce at the moment. I told him to take his time because I was in no hurry.

By the time he brought me the menu, I was already admiring the first course of the couple next to me. And really, all I had to decide from the menu was fish or veal and I told him that I already knew where that was going. He laughed and agreed.

The starter course was Caramont goat cheese panna cotta with olive oil poached skate wing and a fine diced veggie and herb salad. The wine pairing was Terra Blanca 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, tasting somewhere between a New Zealand and a Loire Valley style SB. Good acidity and minerality and practically perfect with the dish.

I've had Caramont goat cheese before (thanks to River City Cellars/Secco), so I knew how good it was, but this panna cotta version was like silk in my mouth. Then too, I've always had skate pan-fried, so this oil-poached version was a welcome change-up. It was every bit as smooth in my mouth as the panna cotta; we were definitely off to a decadent start.

It was about this time that I made the acquaintance of the couple sitting next to me. We got off to an inauspicious start when I received my second course before they did. Their reservation was a half hour earlier than mine and they were already into their first course when I'd arrived, so clearly something was amiss. I felt terribly guilty when my Lamb Two Ways showed up and they were still looking at empty placemats.

I offered up my plate, but the server assured us that their food was moments away, so they declined my offer. It was then that we introduced ourselves to each other. I did have the decency to wait for their food to show up before digging in, no easy feat considering what was on my plate.

Lamb tartare with grilled eggplant slices shared the plate with fried sweetbreads with eggplant puree. As much as I love a goof tartare, and I do, I tore into those sweetbreads like I hadn't just eaten a plate of skate.

Paired with the 2007 Claar Cellars Cabernet/Merlot, I had a few eye-closing moments over these two. The Cab/Merlot had delicate tannins and perfect balance (not a big in-your-face Cab). Two grapes, two kinds of lamb, too heavenly.

It was the third course that gave us the choice: smoked paprika-dusted tautog with Chardonnay or roasted veal with Pinot Noir. Come on, I like fish as much as the next person, but this was a foregone conclusion.

With it came sauteed gnocchi, house made duck sausage, fig and pine nut puree, Swiss chard and a red wine sauce. All this was complemented by a 2007 Seven of Hearts Pinot Noir, because how could there be a Northwest Wine dinner that didn't include a Pinot Noir? Impossible.

I knew one of the wine reps, having recently heard that she'd moved from a bartending position to selling small production Northwest wines, so I introduced her to my new couple friends. They too are restaurant goers, so we all got into a discussion of favorite Charlottesville restaurants and the ease of making that drive for the sake of a good meal.

They in turn introduced me to the couple next to them, Acacia regulars from Ashland. They misheard my name as Erin, which I quickly corrected (definitely not a name I want to be called) and then made the connection that I had a blog. It was a bit surprising being identified by a stranger, but also flattering to meet a reader so randomly.

Generally speaking, barsitters tend to be restaurant regulars, so there's often talk of who likes to eat where and why. And certainly one of the benefits of solo dining is making the acquaintance of interesting couples.

I never know when I might meet a twosome looking for a third wheel...conversationally speaking, of course.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Speak My Name in Whispers

I got called out for truancy again.

Last month I had missed the Listening Room because I'd gone to see music played for Tom & Jerry cartoons, here.

I had no idea that my absence had been noted until this past Saturday when it came up while talking to Antonia, part of the Listening Room Crew.

"Actually I was concerned when you weren't there," she told me. "If I'd gotten up the next morning and not seen a post from you, I'd have been seriously worried."

Like calling the police worried?

"Well, yea, you're always there."

And now I have besmirched my record with one absence.

So tonight's show was non-negotiable.

I had run into a friend on my walk this morning (or rather, he'd almost run into me with his car, yelling out the window, "Hey, nice legs!") and he'd suggested meeting up for dinner because he wanted to talk about something important.

I'd agreed, with the caveat that it had to be an early meal so I could make the Listening Room.

We met at Aziza right when it opened and we weren't even the first customers.

We'd come for the pizza because my friend hadn't had it yet, but we started with a salad of crispy egg, arugula and shaved Parmesan with roasted shallot vinaigrette.

If you have any idea what a crispy egg would be, you're smarter than we were.

It was a soft boiled egg that was then momentarily deep-fried, resulting in the lightest possible crispy shell on an egg that still had runny yolk.

Let's just say it made the salad, spreading its yolky richness over everything.

My friend is dating a rigorously healthy eater, so the first thing that caught his eye on the pizza menu was the nitrate-free pepperoni.

Oh, boy, processed meat and no witnesses, his face seemed to say.

But instead we got our pie topped with the Belmont Butchery hot sausage and caramelized onions (or carmalized, as the menu spelled it, omitting and transposing vowels).

The spicy/sweet combination was wonderful and we couldn't even finish it.

But when the server offered us a cream puff, we magically found room for dessert.

Once again, I was his partner in crime because the girlfriend doesn't eat refined sugar (I am clearly a bad influence).

Being a photographer, he took a picture of this monument to sugar, both untouched on the plate and another of me with my open mouth hovering just above it.

I'd worry about him posting it on Facebook, except that I doubt he'd be so foolish as to provide documentation of his errant eating habits.

And then it was time for roll call at the Listening Room.

I think there were just as many Tim Barry/Avail fans at the Michaux House tonight as there had been at Fine Foods Saturday, here. 

The man has a devoted following, that's for sure. It wasn't long before the room was at capacity.

The show began with Paw Paw, consisting of the brothers Parker.

Their set started with sibling sniping.

Jonathan: "This is a new song called Code Red." Pause. "Well, it's not really called that."

Brother Alan: "Well, it's not really new either."

As former members of local band Pendleton, the two played a mix of that band's material and their newer songs along with a whole lot of guitar.

It was good stuff.

Andy Cobb of the Itchy Hearts followed with his high energy soul/folk and often funny but observant lyrics.

Favorite: "People speak my name in whispers, What finer praise can there be?"

He was joined for one song by Alan Parker of Paw Paw and played a love song written by his best friend.

Tim Barry opened by commenting on the collective awkwardness he was feeling, asking if the audience was feeling the same.

He endeared himself to the audience right off the bat by saying, "So VCU is back in session. What a nightmare!"

I laughed because I had noticed the roving gangs of 18-year olds on the way over, seemingly oblivious to the city around them.

He then launched into a Richmond-centric set of songs he said meant nothing to tour crowds but clearly pleased him to play.

Josh Small joined in on guitar and vocals for the first couple of songs; the two play (all connotations of the word) together often it seems and their voices blended beautifully.

Sample lyric: "I come from Virginia, against the grain and with the wind."

Introducing a song, he said, "If you were ever in Oregon Hill in the early 90s, it was a completely different place than Oregon Hilliamburg is today."

That was just one of many musical references and opinions on everything from Scott's Addition to freight train riding to Fine Foods to 15th Street.

The man admits he's insane, proudly wears his anti-war stance on his sleeve and insists that the only way to stay vital is by taking on challenges that scare you.

He admitted to being scared to perform in front of a listening room- style audience tonight, but mid-set allowed that he was relaxing some.

When the last passionate song ended, the applause was room-filling.

I'd have been an idiot to have been absent tonight and missed so visceral a performance.

Besides, I wouldn't want to worry the people taking attendance.

Formerly Clueless About Coffee

There must have been something compelling about the subject of today's book talk at the Library of Virginia, because it was nearly a full house.

Author Bryant Simon's book Everything But the Coffee: Learning About America from Starbucks appealed to me because I don't drink coffee or go to Starbucks, so I was definitely curious about what can be gleaned about those who do. And Simon was a most engaging speaker, knowledgeable and witty.

Simon visited 450 Starbucks over a five-year period, coming to several cultural conclusions. He thinks that what we buy has meaning, that the spread of buying has been aided by a retreat away from public life to private spaces, and the fact that buying has simply become more important in American life.

And, by the way, he noted that Richmond is just about at Los Angeles' level for Starbucks saturation. I have to say, I'm prouder to be the third most tattooed city in the country than to know that we equal a place like L.A. for conspicuous consumption of Starbucks.

He stressed that people are willing to pay a higher price for coffee ($4 or more, I learned) and wait longer to get it for the sake of creating an image of themselves. And the elevated price of Starbucks coffee keeps a certain element out, further distinguishing a SB consumer from others. Certainly, he said, creating their own language helped create the insider/outsider separation.

I learned that Starbucks' coffee is the most caffeinated (twice that of McDonald's or Dunkin' Donuts), resulting in Simon's comment, "It's pretty good to sell a product that's addictive. Cigarette companies taught us that long ago." So true.

These lectures always end with a book drawing and unexpectedly I was today's winner. Accepting my gift, I mentioned the irony of it since I neither drink coffee nor frequent Starbucks. When Simon signed my copy, he wrote, "Karen, To more good luck! Enjoy, BS." Amen to the more good luck part.

As long as I was at the Library of Virginia, it seemed an ideal time to check out the new Positive Vibe Express Cafe. They were crowded with post-lecture attendees in line to order, so I took the easy route and got the Daily Special, a chili dog. Taking it to a nearby table, I settled in with my new book, a cultural history, one of my favorite reads.

The hot dog's skin had a nice snap when I bit it and the overflowing chili was full of beans, just the way I like it. And at $3.28, it cost less than a Starbucks coffee.

I'm hoping it also said something interesting about me as a person.

One is the Poppiest Number

So tonight I got to hear what a 21st century one-man band sounds like. Like Aqualung or Owl City (even Prince for a while there) Branch Clarke plays everything, sings his own backup and harmonies and then sings and plays live to recorded tracks of himself singing and playing. Yea, it was like a hall of mirrors.

He calls his one-man band Ghostdog and Cinnamon. The reason, I was told by a friend of his, is that he'd decided some time ago that if he ever got a dog, he would name it Ghostdog. If he ever went the feline route, it would be called Cinnamon. Years later, he's still petless so his band name was taken from the absent pets. Or so I was told.

Balliceaux had a really decent crowd for a Monday night show and a lot of people were there because they knew Branch. The two guys next to me grew up with him, hadn't seen him in years and just randomly happened to be at Balliceaux tonight for his show. They were unaware of his musical talent.

Branch came out, sat down at the keyboard with his back to the audience and proceeded to launch into lush pop gem after poppy lush gem, only occasionally turning around to retrieve his guitar on the floor behind him. If you closed your eyes, it was hard to believe that there was only one guy on stage. If you opened your eyes, you saw a guy's back as he played keyboard or guitar and sang his heart out.

Toward the end, he announced that the next song would be his last. "And I don't have any CDs, so you're fucked." Afterwards, when the crowd called for an encore, he said plaintively, "I don't have any more songs." The girl beside me observed that he could play the entire set again as far as she was concerned. Several other people in the crowd yelled the same suggestion moments later.

I'd begun the evening helping that girl finish the bartender's NYT crossword puzzle. Between the three of us (with only an occasional assist from the other bartender) we'd knocked out that puzzle in no time flat, three brains being smarter than one. That was the extent of the heavy lifting for the evening.

After the show, I chatted with a sculptor who inititiated the conversation by sharing his thoughts on tequila (he's in favor of it) and beer (refreshing after a long day of sculpting). He's hoping to be mayor someday and shared a few of his intentions, including charging tolls from every direction to come into the city. He already has his campaign slogan: "Change for effect." Can't you just see that on a button?

But the best part of our discussion was about how the city needs to nurture the artists who come out of VCU by providing opportunities for contemporary sculptors (obviously his area of concern) to place their work in public spaces, even if only on a temporary or rotating basis.

Yes, we've got a good amount of public sculpture, but it's all by dead guys and 60+ year olds. Shouldn't the city that has the number one sculpture school in the country be a public showcase for emerging and up and coming sculptors?

Shouldn't a one-man band have a tambourine?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Beauty in Brevity

I couldn't resist going to Fountain Books to hear a blogger (The Book Lady, aka Rebecca Joines Schinsky) interview author Susan Gregg Gilmore ( a journalist turned novelist). Writing geeks talking about books; what a great way to kick off a Monday evening.

Gilmore's new book was born out of a return to her hometown of Nashville after thirty years away. While house hunting, she looked at a house in which she had played as a child, a place that brought back happy childhood memories. But unbeknownst to her back then, the basement housed the servants' quarters, which she described as "Concrete walls, no windows, a dark, dank place." A seed was planted.

Then she met a woman named Bezillia, moved to a place called the Grove and after much researching of society pages and obituaries from old newspapers, began the book that became The Improper Life of Bezillia Grove, the subject of tonight's reading.

Gilmore said that many of the book's themes developed from her own youth in the 60s and 70s: the Southern Freedom Movement, the beginnings of feminism, wanting to take a stand but fearful of falling short, even wanting to date a black guy in high school, but afraid of her father's reaction.

When The Book Lady asked her about her influences, Gilmore cited Southern icons like Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor. When she added contemporary Southern writers such as Lee Smith, Fountain owner Kelly Justice reminded the audience that Smith had been a speaker at the book store in the past. For the first-timers in the audience, Kelly informed them that, "This is where you come to hear writers before they're famous."

As to what the author is reading these days, Gilmore cited short story collections and, due to her reading speed, being a huge fan of flash fiction. At 1,000 words or less, it's ideal for the slow reader or attention-challenged, but still provides the arc of a story and an ending.

When an audience member asked about the unfamiliar genre, Gilmore explained it eloquently. "I think of it as elongated poetry."

That was the takeaway. I needed to go to that reading just to learn that beautiful way to describe a short piece of writing. Nerd quotient satisfied.

Drawn to Dangerous Lead Females

I have a friend who sends me an offbeat news item first thing every day; it's his way of saying good morning, I guess. They often revolve around chicken nuggets or illicit sex. I'll comment, or pass judgment and, depending on how juicy it is, we'll bat it back and forth a few times.

Here's part of today's exchange:

Him: "Headline: S.W.A.T. Team Requested for Violent Midgets. In fact, they were steroid-using bodybuilding midgets, headed by an apparently particularly dangerous lead female."

Me: Particularly dangerous lead females are scary.
Him: I am rather drawn to them.
Me: Lunch?
Him: The way it's going today, why not?

Okay, so it wasn't an engraved invitation, but I know him well enough to appreciate his implied sincerity. I gave him first choice of eats, but he deferred to me (and not because I'm a dangerous lead female, either). I picked The Empress because it had been too long since I'd enjoyed a meal there.

We did a somewhat late lunch, 1:30, and only had to share the restaurant with a couple of occupied tables. Since it was my friend's first time there, he was taking forever with the menu while my stomach growled audibly. Seems he'd overeaten this weekend and was trying to make a wise choice.

I finally forced his hand by ordering the arugula, garbanzo bean, Edam cheese, roasted chicken, sunflower seed salad with red wine vinaigrette. They were out of arugula and offered a mixed greens bed instead, which I happily agreed to. With no time left, my friend got the cold-smoked salmon and caper cream cheese on toasted focaccia. There, that was done.

I loved my salad with its variety of textures and tastes; between the chicken, cheese and beans, it was wonderfully filling, too. Feeling virtuous, he inhaled his salmon plate and turned to me. "So what are we having for dessert?"

I don't know about you, but when a menu touts award-winning chocolate pate, I'm inclined to give it a try. And I'd already had their chocolate soup. So when our server asked, we asked for the award winner.

I've had a lot of chocolate pates in my time, but this one was extraordinary. There was nothing especially different about the look or texture, but the spices sang. There was a heat on the tongue afterwards, but it was contained by something else (cinnamony or gingerbread-like maybe?). We gave up guessing and asked.

The secret ingredients were ginger and cayenne and they added another layer of flavor to what is typically an all-about chocolate pleasure. Both of us gave it our personal award to go with whatever other accolades it has rightfully earned.

Would the midgets and dangerous lead female have liked it? Hard to say. With the way it's going for them lately what with the S.W.A.T. team and all, chocolate is probably the least of their concerns. Not so mine.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Overheard: "I Can't. I'm Already Lit."

"I'm having a housewarming party on Sunday 3:00-3:00. You should come, I'll have some decent tequila for ya..."

That kind of invitation is impossible to resist, especially when it comes from Julep's star mixologist, Bobby. His roommate is part of the food talent at Olio, so I knew they'd have victuals and drink of the highest order. And did they ever.

When I got there, I was introduced to all kinds of new people doing everything from having political discussions to playing beer pong to debating the merits of a vintage Stallone movie (I was plenty lost on this one). As part of the tour of the house (it was, after all, a housewarming) that I was given, I was shown the extensive bar on the back porch.

Bobby made it quite clear that he would not be bartending tonight, but the bar he had assembled offered such a variety of alcohol, homemade mixers, herbs and obscure liqueurs as to make it overkill for anyone except the most ambitious party guest. I did see one amateur mixologist friend spend a good long while doing his best Bobby imitation, mixing and muddling.

And the food was just as impressive. Kielbasa, bangers and sauerkraut. Black bean cakes. The most divine mango and avocado guacamole. Blue cheese and walnut stuffed celery. Collard greens perfectly cooked and with just the right amount of fat and vinegar. Watermelon in balsamic. Burgers. Roasted corn. There may have been more, but I gave up after that much.

One of the biggest hits of the evening was the sweet potato salad, a pastel orange concoction that looked like something fruity and full of preservatives. Instead, it won over person after person who reluctantly put some on their plate saying, "I really don't like sweet potatoes." Ah, but what if you made a potato salad and used sweet rather than white or red potatoes? I watched as it made converts out of haters.

Desserts were plentiful, too. An array of cupcakes from the new Baby Cakes Bakery, assorted cakes from an Indian bakery (my favorite by far), fresh strawberries and tiny strawberry tarts in what tasted like a sugar cookie crust.

And because there's always room for Jello, there were Jello shots. As I told my host, I hadn't done Jello shots since the 90s, a fact which caused him to laugh out loud. On the other hand, no one had ever before offered me one made with tequila, much less offered me several. There were different flavors made with other things like rum and vodka, but a girl's got to stick with what she knows.

One of my absolute favorite couple dates was also invited, so I had the pleasure of their company as well as that of some favorite restaurant folks from Julep and Olio. After a discussion of the hazards of teaching public school these days (political correctness rules), we somehow degenerated into a discussion of what makes a difficult or even bad restaurant patron.

It was a timely conversation given that last night was apparently ridiculously busy due to it being UR and VCU move-in weekend. According to those who know, there were a lot of amateurs out, which meant a lot of impatient customers in completely full restaurants. With all the discussion, it soon became clear that restaurant people are so grateful for understanding customers.

When I finally decided to leave, some friends joined me in saying goodnight to our hosts. "Did you have a good time?" Bobby asked us repeatedly. Had we ever, and that was in just six hours. I can't imagine if we'd stayed the whole twelve.

Poor Thing, How Does She Manage?

In today's Washington Post, a letter to Dr. Gridlock raises an issue near and dear to my heart:

"What of people who don't have a cell phone - they exist, I understand - or who don't have one that is charged at the moment?"

What of us? I love the way the writer qualifies our existence by saying "I understand." Clearly she doesn't actually know any such Luddites, but she's willing to concede that they're out there.

I'm living proof.

At last night's show at the Camel, a casual friend came over to talk to me, lamenting that I hadn't been at his recent party. "I texted you an invitation, but it came back...like you had a land line or something." Grinning, I explained that I do indeed use that antiquated technology.

His reaction? "That's awesome! Really and truly? Good for you!" I've had the same reaction from people more times than I can count. People are impressed, they compliment me, but would never consider doing the same. And you can't imagine the number of people who have offered to buy me a phone just so they could contact me wherever I was. Shall I name names?

My new music-loving friend was more prosaic about it last night. "Really, people only need it for business. When I go out, like now, mine stays in the car."

And when we eventually move to a cell phone-only world, mine will sit on the table in my bedroom, exactly where my land line sits now.

And then what will friends give me a hard time about?

Welcome, Please Play Saw

"For those of you that I don't know, I'm Liza. There, that's done."

So began the triple bill at the Camel tonight and the ruby-throated Liza Kate kicked things off. As many times as I've heard her, I continue to enjoy each time as if it were the first. I watched as a couple who had recently moved down from NYC fell under her spell. I watched other musicians studying her. She really is a local treasure.

Next up was Durham's Midtown Dickens, a three piece who combined folk, punk and even bluegrass. One of the highlights of their stellar set was seeing the saw being played. As Jonathan Vassar later pointed out in a nod to seeing such a feat, "Playing saw is hard...and it hurts!" For what it's worth, hearing saw is fascinating and doesn't hurt a bit.

The band's collection of instruments (recorder? melodica?) and their punk energy were a terrific combination, as were the beautifully harmonic voices. They hope to be back soon and we 'd be lucky to have them here again.

Jonathan Vassar and the Speckled Bird, minus Chris Edwards and his mandolin who were apparently off in Nashville, didn't even bother setting up on stage. Instead they played in between the stage and the front row, making for a very intimate set. It was appropriate, too, because tonight was their next-to-last show until the end of the year.

The band did their part to represent RVA after Midtown Dickens' impressive turn on the saw with Antonia's vox saw. Not to point out the obvious, but it's not every Saturday night you hear both saw playing and vox saw. I know I considered myself fortunate.

I'd made plans to meet a new music-loving friend for the show and he was as impressed as I was. He was funny, too; since our first meeting, he'd found out that several of his friends read my blog. Apparently he didn't get very far in his description of me before they guessed who he was talking about. I wasn't surprised, but he seemed to be. This is, after all, a small town.

Now that he knows who I am, he realizes we've been at a lot of the same shows. But as I pointed out to Antonia tonight when she told someone, "Karen does everything," the truth is that I really only do the good things. I'm not interested in doing everything. Imagine the blog hate that would inspire.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Hoping to Rooster Like I Used To

Much the way the Watermelon Festival swells the Museum District for a day, the Down Home Family Reunion takes over Jackson Ward every August.

And naturally J-Ward girl has to be in attendance.

It was about 3:30 that I was standing in my bathroom next to the open window, and I heard music.

Since the festival starts at 4, I recognized it as what had to be the sound check.

Listening as I brushed my teeth, I realized it was time to gather my forces and get myself over to Abner Clay Park.

There was a surprisingly good-sized crowd already seated in front of the stage when I arrived. I found a shady spot and set up my chair just as the MC began introducing Leroy Thomas and the Zydeco Roadrunners.

People started dancing to the very first song of their accordion-based sound and more joined in throughout, despite the heat of the afternoon sun.

The band had driven all night from Rhode Island to make this gig and had to leave the second it was over to play another in Baltimore tonight.

You'd never have known it by the energy that they expended onstage.

Introducing one song, Leroy said, "This a song my Daddy wrote waaay back in 1981!"

Wow, practically a golden oldie.

Most ear-catching lyric: "Can't rooster like I used to, I think I need a booster."

Yes, it was a song about Viagra and Cialis.

That's 21st century zydeco for you...and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it.

After their set, I wandered the global market, admiring fabrics and clothing and inhaling a lot of essential oils.

Wanting a little something to eat, I tried ordering a Hawk's BBQ, but they'd already sold out.

I ended up with a jumbo hot dog instead and took it back to my corner of the park to enjoy.

A recent transplant from Idaho sat down with me to chat.

I said hello to several neighbors, but didn't run into the one I was certain I'd see until the next band had started.

They were Back 'n Da Day, a group who sang classic Motown to recorded music.

But they had all the required voices to duplicate every big hit of the Spinners, The Temptations, et al and, just as importantly, all the right choreographed moves.

More than a few of the guys lounging behind me sang every note perfectly along with them, which I found pretty cool. It was my very own chorus.

I know from previous years that the crowd will grow much larger for the evening performances, and the atmosphere will get very party-like, familiar and fun.

My neighbor and I had been so busy talking that I hadn't even realized how late it was getting.

But it was, so I put my shoes back on and we walked out together, him going to a neighbor's house for another drink before returning for more music and me home to get ready to go out.

Three hours plus lost in a haze of zydeco, Motown and neighbors; now that's a down home family reunion in the 'hood.

And now I'm going to make some arriving reunion-goer very happy when I vacate my parking space.

I know they'll enjoy.

Morning Music Unplugged

When worlds collide: I had to walk through VCU's campus on move-in day to get to the Tim Barry show at Fine Foods this morning.

The campus was crawling with freshmen and their families unloading their worldly goods for transfer to the dorms (two things common to every pile: a full-length mirror and bottled water). The students looked impossibly young and the parents looked harried even through the morning was young. The sidewalks were clogged with people and stuff. Welcome to VCU.

Arriving in Oregon Hill, minivans, SUVs and frantic families gave way to an almost entirely tattooed crowd of kids in bathing suits, kids with cases of PBR and kids on bikes. One guy had on the most amazing pair of green glitter bathing trunks; they looked like the scales of a mermaid's tail. Welcome to Best Friends Day.

Like last year, here, and the year before, I always make a point to be at the Saturday morning show at Fine Foods. It doesn't matter what the music is, either. I go because I can't resist the lure of a morning show (even earlier at 10 this year compared to 11 the last two years), the crowd is always colorful and I like showing support for a true Richmond tradition.

After the past two years of full-on noise, today's show was relatively low-key. Former Avail front man Tim Barry did an unplugged set, no doubt surprising some of the audience members. Surrounded by the sweaty and hungover crowd, he played an energetic show in the shaded part of the parking lot.

I talked to a bunch of people who told me they were there specifically for Barry. Two guys with whom I was sharing the shade of a tree told me that they' d driven up from Norfolk this morning solely to see him play and then do some rock climbing by the river. Nothing more. Barry and rocks and they were out.

I didn't have the heart to tell them that he's playing the Listening Room Tuesday night. It's a good week to be a Tim Barry fan in Richmond.

Walking home through Monroe Park, I detoured through the misting tent, using VCU's water to cool my Fine Foods show sweat. Now that's the kind of worlds colliding I'm talking about.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Taking In Amuse and Darkroom

Tonight was something like my sixth visit to the museum since it reopened. The occasion was the opening of the new exhibition, Darkroom: Photography and New Media in South Africa Since 1950. I was really looking forward to the show.

I'd decided to make an evening of it by making a reservation for one at the bar at Amuse. I'm still testing the waters on which Richmond restaurants take bar reservations and whether they do it easily or begrudgingly.

I continue to be pleased with each restaurant that agrees to do so (Acacia, Bonvenu, Bistro 27, Six Burner). And although I was the first to be seated, every table except three were full within half an hour. Thank you, opentable.com for making it all possible.

It was my first visit since the second week they were open, here, and the staff was noticeably more comfortable; the menu had also gone through a revision, as had the wine pricing. I ran into a guy working there who'd left one of my neighborhood restaurants a while back; now I knew where he'd landed.

My tastes turned out to be the popular choices tonight. When I asked for the Chateau Routas Rose, bartender Tommy told me that they were out of it, so my second choice was the White Hall Viognier. Within minutes, a nearby couple also tried ordering the rose, only to learn that pink was all gone.

I began with the soup du jour, a roasted tomato and roasted corn with wild rice. It's the best time of the year for corn and tomatoes and the chunky soup had a lot of fresh flavor and texture.

Tommy and I had some great conversations when we found out how much we had in common. We lived in the same neighborhood for years, watching it change from funky and a little dodgy to gentrified and wholesome. I learned his favorite places for reggae. Turns out he's also the oldest of six children, just like me.

I alternated talking with him with chatting up newcomer barsitters. Meanwhile, he brought me a small version of one of his drinks to sample: a sunset martini (Blueridge Vodka, Cristolino cuvee, Lemoncello, fresh-squeezed OJ and grenadine). It sure was pretty.

Just when I'd decided to order the hoison-glazed skate, I was told that the skate had been replaced by tilefish. So I took Tommy's recommendation and got the mussels and Surry sausage in butter and garlic.

The dish was heart-stopping, literally, with a healthy serving of P.E.I mussels with almost an overabundance of Surry sausage (consider that hyperbole because there is no such thing as too much pig in my mussels) in a decadent bath of butter with garlic and shredded fresh Parmesan. Tommy was right on with his recommendation.

Among the most interesting neighbors I had while eating was a native Richmonder who'd then moved on to Paris/NYC/LA and yet returned (don't they all?). Another was a woman I went through VMFA Docent training with five years ago (before I realized that I didn't want to become a docent). She wanted me to have dinner with her but she was too late.

Another was a confirmed bachelor in a kilt. And just for the record, I know exactly one Scottish man and he has assured me on more than one occasion (as recently as on my birthday in May) that no real man wears anything under his kilt. Despite this, apparently Richmonders do (I was told; I did not look). I can't bear to give my friend Frank one more reason to belittle us Yanks.

After a three hour plus meal, I finally made it downstairs to the opening and immediately knew I hadn't left nearly enough time to experience it properly. Most of the photographs were taken during the apartheid years 1948-1994, long before I visited in 2004.

Of course there were the familiar familiar faces: Biko leading the Black Caucus; Mandela in his law office in 1952, looking so young and unworn as to be almost unrecognizable.There was a wonderful shot of RFK on top of a car shaking hands with South Africans in Soweto in 1966. The image was was pure Kennedy charisma.

Some pictures carried reminders of the ugliness of the era. In one, a sign read, "United to Keep South Africa WHITE! " In another, hundreds of black faces were under a sign saying, "They will not kill us!"

But there were just as many photos of life as usual. A shot of a sax player exhaling with the smoke curling around him and his instrument. A bronzed couple lying on the beach, him in a Speedo with his shirt over his face and her with a book covering hers. Another showed, "A non-white family in bed on Sunday illegally."

I didn't even get to the video and I'll have to go back to really take in some of the images I had to rush through as the guard began accompanying me in a vain attempt to get me out of the museum. On the plus side, he did provide someone with whom to chat about the exhibit as he walked me out ("Thank god she's finally gone!" I know they were all thinking it).

I made one last stop on the way home at Balliceaux. Amazing Ghost was scheduled to play later, but I only stayed for the DJ. Kilt man showed up, I met a couple of guys having some after-work drinks (at 10) and I saw the usual musical suspects. I got in some conversation with my favorite bartender there about the Devendra Banhart show (yet another vote for how poorly that show was promoted). I watched the room fill up and furniture be moved out.

At a satisfying six and a half hours in to my evening, I was feeling satisfied and ready to move out myself.

View from the Water

My photographer friend messaged me this morning, saying that the beautiful day called for a picnic. I one-upped him and suggested we picnic on one of the canal boat cruises (food + fun). It worked out that we ended up picnicking on the canal walk and then taking the cruise, so we did get to enjoy lunch outside.

We stopped by Tarrant's for a couple of picnic salads, one Cobb and one Tuna Nicoise. Our picnic basket was a plastic bag, if that tells you something about us (if it doesn't, try reading my tongue-in-cheek picnic piece at my former employer's website, here.) Anticipating a lot of sun on the water, we'd both brought hats and, for a change, he'd remembered his camera.

When I took my first canal cruise a few years ago, I remember being struck by the views from the water, so unlike any other of Tobacco Row and the hills to the west. I'd come back for a second cruise just to take pictures of it all.

So if my untrained eye was impressed with it, surely someone who makes money taking pictures would be. And he was, snapping furiously the whole time. Hell, he was even taking pictures of us while we sat there waiting for the boat (shall I look pensive?).

We enjoyed our shady lunch chatting with the boat captain ("I'm not normal, so I'm going to make this fun!" he promised. Probably just as well that we were only going to be in three feet of water...) and a woman visiting from upstate New York with her speed-skating champion grandson (sunglasses, iPod, sullen).

In fact, it turned out that we were the only local residents on the cruise, accompanied as we were by visitors from England, NC, NY, and and a boisterous group from Philly.

Our captain regaled the guests with stories of Tropical Storm Gaston's fury, the perils of the Mighty James and an encyclopedic listing of long-forgotten cigarette brands. The visitors got the critter sitings they wanted with snapping turtles and great blue herons putting in appearances.

His tangents meandered, but he showed a lot of enthusiasm for the city and its offerings. He warned us that 5:00 is the bewitching hour for Richmond museums to close up, suggesting an early start for museum visiting. "Don't think you can go in at 2:30 and see everything," he warned ominously.

Since the captain knew it wasn't my first cruise, he made a point of asking me when we disembarked if I'd heard anything new this time around. Honestly, I'd been sort of lost inside of my own head enjoying the views for most of his spiel and what I did hear I had heard before, but that wasn't what he wanted to hear.

"I had a great time," I enthused. Which was entirely true, if not exactly the answer to his question.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Tails Were the Turnoff

I have a friend who is a decidedly un-adventurous eater. Last winter, when I ordered the wild boar meatballs at Bacchus, she was repulsed and gave me a hard time about eating them. After enough wine, I might add, she begrudgingly tasted them and reluctantly admitted that they were awfully good.

Fast forward to tonight and she suggested Bacchus again, even throwing out a tease that she might get the wild boar. This was something I needed to see. We set up camp at the bar, which was completely empty, although nearly every table and booth was full. We ordered wine and started looking at the menu.

Alas, the wild boar was gone, replaced by all kinds of other delectables. My friend went right from the exotic to the mundane and ordered the white pizza and the white beans with pesto. I'm not so easily led; I decide to start with the spinach salad with green apple vinaigrette, goat cheese and toasted almonds.

But what had immediately caught my eye was the sugar toad scampi. It's not every day that you find Chesapeake puffer fish on the menu, but when I do, I want some. And unlike probably the most frequent preparation, lightly fried, this was something different.

My salad was perfection with the sweet dressing well serving the spinach and goat cheese. I think I enjoyed it all the more for knowing what a rich delight was to follow. Because, quite honestly, those sugar toads were the thing.

Five little bodies in a bowl full of butter and garlic and a big piece of frisee on the side, this didn't look quite like anything else that readily came to mind. It was then that my friend glanced down and gasped, "Are those tails?" Why, yes, they were and that was the end of the possibility of her tasting sugar toads. Their fatal flaw was their end piece.

Not long after, a couple of guys became the third and fourth bar sitters. The first guy introduced himself as Persian (I love how much more romantic that sounds than Iranian), but an American citizen since 1971. He was effusive about his passion for his adopted home in that way that oly non-natives tend to be. His friend and former co-worker was originally from Mexico. We now had two delightful accents to share conversation with.

My friend can be direct. "Do you smoke?" she asked one of the guys, apparently based on his breath. It turned out that they both did, not surprisingly given that one works for Philip-Morris and the other is a retiree after 30+ years of service. They were charming, well-traveled and obviously long-time friends.

We started with health care reform, went on to the attitudes of the German people and finished with tales of intrigue from South American tobacco farms. My perception of P-M employees was blown out of the water with some of their more colorful stories about tobacco acquisition. Corporate intrigue! Radio interviews! Sacrificing a cow!

But the sugar toads were the thing tonight...tails and all.

It's Just a Freakin' Farm

Driving to the Northern Neck this morning was like driving through an English countryside, with scene after picaresque scene. Atmospheric, with verdant greens seen through veils of white and gray. Stay with me here.

First it was all kinds of foggy; in places it was dense and opaque and in others wispy and drifting. But it was layered over the rolling hills of Route 360 East and dotting those fields were goats and cows and bales of hay.

But mostly it was the splendor of the roiling sky that made the panorama feel like a Constable landscape. The clouds were enormous, stacked on top of each other and all shades of gray. It wasn't the typical sky you see in these parts.

Further along, the Rappahannock River looked to have been painted by Turner's chromatic palette. All an artist would have needed today to achieve that array of grey-greens was green paint to which he could add varying amounts of black or white and achieve every single shade i saw crossing the river. The small bit of morning sun showing through that massive cloud cover was both shimmering and subdued. Otherwise, there was not a thing moving.

My destination was my parents' house for a lunch of crabs and watermelon. The three of us destroyed a couple dozen crabs at our leisure on the porch. My plans to walk down to the dock afterwards were shot down when I was informed that the mosquitoes were huge and hungry after all the recent rain. On the plus side, sitting on the porch allowed me to enjoy all the wet smells: pine needles, herbs, bark, crab shells.

Heading home afterwards, I made a stop in downtown Tappahannock. Parr's Drive-in has been sitting there, squat and concrete, since I first started coming down to the area, but I'd never been in. It wasn't that the figure out front wasn't welcoming.

Who wouldn't want to try a place with a giant cone of french fries with his arms holding a bouquet of neon pink flowers and his skinny legs encased in combat boots? He stands right next to the red telephone booth, which someone was using when I pulled in.

Parr's is old school. The menu is on a plastic letter board and clearly they have run out of a few of the popular letters. Still, the most expensive thing is the steak sandwich at $3.69. A sign warns patrons, "No sitting on tabletops!" Apparently some people need reminding of that there.

I went for something I hadn't seen in ages, soft chocolate ice cream with a dipped top. I have no idea what kind of unnatural substance makes that topping harden like that, but nor did I care. As the owner handed me my cone, it immediately began to ooze ice cream through holes in the chocolate shell in the un-air conditioned drive-in.

"You want a cup for that?" he asked anxiously.
"Not really, but it is going to make a mess, isn't it?" I said giving in.
"Yea, it is, but it's so good it doesn't matter," the authority said.

I smiled and took the cup, but I didn't use it. I ate my cone right out front while a man sat in his blue truck and watched me make a mess. I think he'd decided that I wasn't a local.

Driving home, the fog had dissipated but the cloud cover was still decidedly European. But now the afternoon sun was making a valiant effort to filter through the clouds.

The result was a Dutch landscape, maybe 18th century, with lush green fields and dramatic differences in light and shady areas. The sky was still bigger than usual, but the sense of the farm and fields was very end-of-the-workday tranquil.

Warning/Stand Clear: When art history lovers take road trips.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Pork Belly and Post-Rock

Because it's been a month since we last got together. Because a longer period can't be covered in one evening's conversation. Because our recent attempts to rendezvous had to be rescheduled. Because it's Wednesday.

Does the reason even matter?

We met at Six Burner just as they opened, causing server T. to ask me, "This is early for you, isn't it?" Actually it worked out well because the sky was noticeably darkening when we got there and we were safely inside before the rains came. I'm really enjoying these rain bursts we've been having and this one was no exception. Plus I had a great viewing point because of all the windows.

I could tell the second my friend had walked in that there was a very high stress level going on. "Glass or a bottle?" I asked, anticipating the answer by her harried look. We'll take a bottle of the 2006 Vietti Barbera d'Asti "Tre Vigne," please. Quickly. And let the stories begin.

My friend was thinking ahead, though, and quickly ordered the crispy pork belly over polenta with a spicy pepper sauce and ratatouille, just in case we got going and forgot to order, which we might have. We had a lot to cover (in fact, her e-mail earlier today had specified, "Remember everything...from Nags Head to now...at least").

Not that I've seen one, but I think our subject matter tonight would have made a great women's talk show (I realize that sounds sexist, but you know what I mean). Hoarders, partners who give bad birthday, sexual expectations and sibling issues. How's that for a well-rounded show?

The wine was having the desired effect, especially once it opened up a bit and the pork belly smoothed off the rest of the rough edges. Crispy and fatty, it cried out for that polenta and spicy sauce, proving once again that even pig perfection can occasionally be enhanced.

We had every intention of ordering the braised rabbit with shitakes and gnocchi but got so wrapped up in life tales that before we knew it, we both had places to be. Alcohol and fat are fine, but sometimes non-stop conversation is the best stress reliever of all. I know I needed it and she sure seemed better.

My place to be was Gallery 5 again for music. I've heard music the last two nights, but I had a couple of compelling reasons to want to check out this show too. First, Long Division, a Norfolk post-rock quintet, was playing and the last time I'd seen them, I'd fallen hard for their instrumental sound. There was no way they were going to be playing so nearby and I wasn't going to be there.

I can't say what it is about post-rock that appeals to me so much because I don't have the musical vocabulary. Suffice it to say that I can appreciate a band that doesn't rely on lyrics, doesn't use a typical popular song structure and employs an ever-changing sound scape. Once again, they made my night.

The Blue Letter. a local band, I hadn't seen since they played the Silent Music Revival for the Halloween edition 2008 improvising effectively to The Tell-Tale Heart. That show had been at Rumors, a place far too small for their sound. I was curious to hear them in a bigger space where they could breathe and it did make a big difference. The crowd understandably was very into them.

Headlining was Junius, dressed all in black, a hard rock quartet with some post-rock leanings, although they do have a vocalist, which I consider very un-post-rock-like (Sigur Ros can get away with it, but only because he sings in a made-up language). Junius' sound was big and atmospheric and they rocked...hard.

Because there's nothing wrong with going out for music three nights in a row. Because it was only four blocks from home. Because post-rock makes it sound like everything is possible. Because it's Wednesday.

Does it really matter?

Just Call Me Don Quixote

I have spent the past few weeks tilting at windmills and undoubtedly at one of the most frustrating windmills I could have ever taken on: the US Postal Service.

I had no choice because about a month or so ago, my mail stopped coming. Oh, I got a few things, but important stuff like bills and paychecks weren't coming. Next thing I knew, I was getting calls from people like my insurance agent, trying to verify my address because their bill to me had been returned. What in the world...?

I had no idea what could be going on. Everyone who got their mail to me returned had used my correct address, the one where I have lived for seventeen months now. And before that, I lived only a few blocks away. My mail carrier has been the same for the entire four years I have lived in J-Ward; he knows me well, both my name and my new address. I knew he wasn't the problem.

So where was my mail and why had it suddenly started being returned? I called my Post Office and spoke to the supervisor. He hadn't a clue what was up, but said he'd check on it and call me back. After not hearing from him, I called him back. He was mystified, but promised to talk to my carrier and figure it out.

When he didn't call back again, I went to my carrier. He was at a loss. He'd checked my name and address in the system and I had indeed disappeared. Despite having received my mail with no problem for sixteen months at this address, a glitch had occurred and now I no longer existed. My mail wasn't even making it as far as where he picks it up each morning.

Okay, back to the supervisor. "I've been here over 30 years and I've never seen anything like this. It's like you were pulled out of the system, except that you weren't." Well, that solves everything, sir.

After our fourth conversation of him marveling at the oddness of my situation, but offering no solutions, I asked who might be able to better assist me. His frustration must have been nearly as great as mine because he suggested calling the Postmaster. Now we were getting somewhere.

Except that the Postmaster was out of town. His secretary was gracious enough to connect me to someone in the office whom she was certain could figure it out. After extensive discussion, that person admitted to being flummoxed, too. "This doesn't make any sense. It shouldn't be happening." Now there's a conclusion long ago reached.

But she did call me back later with the news that someone in Data Management might have figured it out and possibly even corrected it. We wouldn't know for sure for a few days because apparently their system moves slower than the polar icecap. But she was hopeful.

As for me, well, I didn't get any mail the past two days, either, but I'm going to give the USPS until tomorrow to acknowledge my presence on the planet again.

What if someone has written me the most romantic letter of my life and it's lost out there in the nether regions of snail mail? I'm sorry, that just won't do, USPS. Get your act together.