Friday, August 31, 2018

Glitter on the West Streets

Never let it be said that I don't have range.

How else to explain an evening that began with chlorine and ended with a trumpet? An evening where I ran into old neighbors and discussed John Mayer and Texas with a dancing stranger? Richmond, you never let me down.

As soon as I saw that the River City Magnolias were having their final performance of the summer at Randolph pool, I was on board. Sure, I've seen synchronized swimming in the movies, but not in real life, so it didn't count.

Besides, what could be more late summer-appropriate than a pool performance before Labor Day?

The River City Magnolias definitely had the look going in, with each woman clad in a navy and white checked bathing suit, although the style varied by woman. Some were one piece and others were two. All wore bright yellow bathing caps, the likes of which I hadn't seen since I was a kid at the New Carrollton swimming pool.

Although the sky was getting darker and more threatening by the minute, the performance went off on time and without a hitch. The first group were students who'd spent the summer learning synchronized swimming and they swam to the Beach Boys' "Surfin' USA."

As they were exiting the pool, I heard my name, only to have my former J-Ward neighbors join me poolside. Their daughter's best friend was a Magnolia, so they were tickled to find a friend in one of the poolside plastic chairs. Now that they live on southside, we go long stretches without running into each other - a far cry from the days when we saw each other weekly at shows - so we used the opportunity to catch up.

They'd recently had a blast at Red Wing Roots Music Festival and Floyd Fest and were eagerly looking forward to Watermelon Park Fest. "It's right on the Shenandoah River, so you can watch the bands while you're in the water!" she told me. I gotta say, I like the sound of that.

Then the pros came out to perform to the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs' kick-ass "Heads Will Roll" and that's when we saw real pool talent. It was impressive to see how well timed each move was as they swam under and around each other to execute moves, never forgetting to smile widely when their bright yellow heads were out of the water.

Their next routine began with hoops which were eventually tossed onto the deck and was set to a medley of "You Don't Own Me," alternately the original Leslie Gore and a sped-up punk version. Besides being a landmark feminist anthem, the wildly different beat of the two versions meant that the Magnolias alternated a slower routine with a frenetic one, showing off their mastery of dancing in water.

When the performance ended, the three of us took it as a chance to chat, which lasted all of two minutes before lightening began and the lifeguard ordered everyone to leave. What mattered was that I left Randolph pool having seen synchronized swimming for the first time.

Enormous raindrops were just starting to fall when I got back to Jackson Ward, but it wasn't enough to deter me from walking over to Gallery 5 for a show. But apparently it was enough to deter a lot of people because I walked into a ridiculously small crowd.

Locals the Folly - singer, fiddle, guitarist, bassist, drummer - had just begun their first song when I arrived. Singer Anneleise (dressed in patterned bellbottoms with slits up the side, the left one revealing a thigh tattoo, over hi-top Chuck Taylors) had the pipes of a young Grace Slick, belting out every song to the rafters. Both she and fiddle player Tara had near waist-length hair, a throwback, for sure.

When Anneleise said, "This is an old song. It's called 'The Kraken," I couldn't help but wonder what "old" meant. A year? Two, tops?

The band had just dropped their new album two weeks ago, so they played through a fair amount of new material off it. Wrapped around her amazing voice were fiddle solos and guitar/bass/drum jams that allowed the two women to dance onstage while the guys rocked out.

For a group of musicians whose parents probably weren't even born in 1966 when the Rolling Stones first released it, the Folly's cover of "Paint It Black" rocked the room and caused widespread dancing, as well it should.

A guy came over and sat his beer down on a small table near where I was standing, saying, "Can I put this here to moderate myself?" It wasn't my table, so sure. He gave me an amused look, saying, "It's not your job to moderate me. It's on me," and returned to dancing in the center of the room. At least he knew that much.

The band closed with "Real Emotion," a barn-burner that showed off everybody's skill set and had the small crowd amped up by its end.

During the break, moderation boy finished his beer and purchased another, bringing that one over as well. "It's a good beer," he assured me. "Help yourself." I could smell the hops from a yard away, so I thanked him and passed.

In no time, headliners the Human Circuit had set up onstage and were ready to play. Glancing at the line-up, moderation boy noted, "Looks like they've got a horn player. I can dig that." Truthfully, I was thinking the same thing.

Where we differed was in his devotion to the Grateful Dead (he was wearing a Phish '98 t-shirt and his first show had been the Dead, "With Jerry, of course") and his righteous indignation about John Mayer being allowed to play with the band in its current incarnation.

The Austin band was five strong tonight and included two women - synth, keys, bass, drums, trumpet - but the big news was that they'd left six band members at home due to lack of touring funds ("One day we'll be able to bring the whole crew!") on this two-month tour. They had an orchestral pop sound with just enough quirkiness and layers to the music to be catchy on multiple levels.

"Thanks to the Folly for that amazing performance," singer/keyboardist Mat began, his green and white sunglasses atop his head. "We'd like to put you in our pocket and take you back to Austin with us."

Their songs weren't long and three were purely instrumental, but in every one, there was a lot going on and the meatiness of the trumpet and synth parts made for a big chamber pop sound. I know they call themselves psych-pop, but I heard everything from Fanfarlo to Hey, Marseilles to Arcade Fire, all bands I love, with some major humor in the songwriting and a vaguely vaudevillian vibe.

I'm talking songs such as "Disclaimer," with its lyric, "I cashed in my soul for this." Who hasn't been there?

Mat mentioned twice how much they loved the venue - c'mon, how often does a band get to play in a converted firehouse with gargoyles atop the stage? - and implored people to come talk to them after the show. "If you make art, I wanna hear about it," he said from the stage. "I dig that."

Standing there watching them produce such great music, it was hard not to focus on the curly-haired woman playing trumpet, singing background and smiling at the crowd like she was having the time of her life. If they sounded this wonderful minus six members, what must a full-on Human Circuit set do to mere music lovers like me?

Be still, my heart.

"Our dream is to play music every night and here we are doing it for you," Mat gushed midway through the show, about the same time I was thinking how glad I was that I'd walked over to Gallery 5 to hear such a stellar band lay their hearts and musical talent out for us.

"Thanks for coming out! Burn some sage and continue this vibe at home," Mat said before the last song. "Tonight is just a brief moment in the universe. We're all part of a bigger picture and we're really glad we all got to be part of this."

Even smelling of chlorine, I can dig it.

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