Monday, October 16, 2023

2023 Richmond Folk Festival Re-cap

The Richmond Folk Festivals was this past weekend. Last Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I didn't go down to the festival on Friday. I regret that a little bit, but I certainly made up for it on Saturday and Sunday. Saturday started off rainy and cloudy, but that didn't bother me one bit because I dressed for the weather and I also know that rain means less of a crowd. It wasn't crowded at all during the time I was there on Saturday.

On Saturday we started off at the Center for Cultural Vibrancy Virginia Folklife Stage to see Virginia Meets the Virgin Islands. This talk/demo paired the St. Croix band Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Knights with the female Virginia gospel quartet The Legendary Ingramettes. This was a wonderful way to start things off. 

After getting some food and checking out a few minutes of the Hindustani violinist Kala Ramnath, we headed back over to the Virginia Folklife Stage for the Piedmont blues guitarist Gail Caesar. Gail was kind of shy and subdued on stage but her talent was apparent. 

Then it was over to the Altria Stage for a full performance by Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Knights. The Altria Stage is the main stage with the biggest capacity, but it's also uncovered open-air so I think people were choosing other stages over this one during the part of day where it was raining. We got right up front for what felt like a rare opportunity to see a quelbe or scratch band from the U.S. Virgin Islands. This is a type of music that I have a particular interest in. It was excellent and we stayed for the whole set.

Once that was done, we went back once again to the Virginia Folklife stage for a performance that ended up being incredibly good. It was billed as "Danny Knicely and Chao Tian - Appalachian traditions with Chinese dulcimer". What I didn't realize was that there would also be a tabla player plus a guitarist and bassist. Chao Tian was featured on an extended solo improvisation that was mesmerizing.  The Chinese dulcimer sounded great on fiddle tunes, but they did some full band Chinese tunes as well. Danny closed the set with a John McGlaughlin piece which was a showcase for the tabla. I was blown away.

It was getting to be 4pm now so we went back over to the Altria Stage for local Richmond salsa band Bio Ritmo's Folk Fest debut. Bio Ritmo has been around for 30 years so finally performing at the Richmond Folk Festival seemed like a big deal for them. It took a while to get the ten piece band set up but they started hot and never let up. The rain had stopped and I actually saw blue sky for a moment during Bio Ritmo's set. Unfortunately we called it quits for the day after this. I would have loved to have stayed longer but we needed to get home to our dogs and I wasn't sure if I was going to have a parking ticket. I didn't, thankfully.

Sunday was chilly and windy but no rain. I expected it to be packed on Sunday but it wasn't too bad. It seems like they've made improvements on logistics and getting around from stage to stage. This was the day for seeing groups we hadn't seen the day before, so I had a fairly precise itinerary planned out and still some decisions to be made. We started Sunday with State of the Ozarks String Band on the CoStar Group Stage over on Brown's Island. It's been a while since I've heard old-time fiddling, so I enjoyed this set a lot. I particularly liked the guitar and 3-finger banjo accompaniment.

After that we went over to the Altria Stage for Grupo Mono Blanco, a band from Veracruz which is a Mexican state along the Gulf of Mexico. That might explain why it had a little islandy sound to it. We had to cut that set a little short to go back to Brown's Island to catch the Native American Smoke Dancers (Haudenosaunee social dance). They had three little ones dancing with them. It felt very special.

At 2pm we had a dilemma because Baba Commandant and the Mandingo Band were on one stage, while Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper were going to be on another. We started with Baba Commandant but only stayed for a couple songs because there would be another opportunity to see them later in the day, but this was the last chance to see Michael Cleveland. It was a quick walk over to the Altria Stage to catch the last half of Michael Cleveland's set and boy did he and his band not disappoint. That was some top notch bluegrass!

Lutchinha, performing on the Altria Stage

It was hard to decide what to see next, but we stayed at the Altria Stage for the 3pm performance by Lutchinha, a band that plays Cabo Verdean music. Cabo Verde is an African island in the Atlantic ocean where they speak Portuguese, and the music is a perfect blend of those cultures. I had not researched this band and wasn't sure what to expect. I couldn't really put a finger on it but I loved every minute. We had back up plans in place but ended up staying for the entire set and actually missed some other 3:00pm/3:30pm things that I maybe wanted to see. It was worth it though.

When that was done we went to the Folklife stage for the first and only time that day and saw Rodney Stith play his classic soul music. He had a superb band with him, both singers and instrumentalists. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this set.

Now it was getting to be 5pm, when each stage has its last performance of the festival. It was time to choose and we went with Baba Commandant and the Mandingo Band over Cyril Neville. This was a tough call, but having gotten a taste of Baba Commandant earlier in the day I knew that I wanted to see their full set and this time it was going to be in the Dominion Energy Dance Pavilion. Even better! Usually I go to the Dominion Energy Dance Pavilion a lot, but this was the only time all weekend that we saw a set there. 

Baba Commandant and the Mandingo Band
Dominion Energy Dance Pavilion
with a guest sitting in on trumpet

Baba Commandant was a great way to finish off a great weekend of music. Their guitarist is awesome. I love that African style of guitar. The bassist kicked total butt. The drummer was bad ass, and Baba Commandant himself seemed to be channeling some kind of inner spirit. We ended up right at the front of the stage and the energy was intense. Baba Commandant and the Mandingo Band is like a band you'd go see in a night club on tour. 

I'm writing this the next morning, feeling a little bit funky from all the over consumption of food and drink over the weekend. It's always bittersweet when the Folk Festival is over. It almost brings a tear to my eye. Over and done with in what felt like a blink. Every single band and musician we saw was good this year. No duds whatsoever. I wish there was another day but it's time to move on and get on with the week.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

The Time I Met Russell Batiste Jr.

Photo from the day before
we met Russell Batiste Jr.
The renowned New Orleans drummer Russell Batiste Jr. passed away on September 30, 2023 at the age of 57. As I write this it's October 11, 2023...exactly one year after my chance meeting with him which took place on October 11, 2022.

Laura and I were in New Orleans for a weeklong vacation. It was a Tuesday night and rather than see music on Frenchman Street we did a ten minute walk out of the way to check out Russell Batiste's band at Sweet Lorraine Jazz Club on St Claude Ave where, according to the local calendar, Russell would be playing.

I had heard of Russell Batiste Jr. through his work with Page McConnell and Oteil Burbridge in the band Vida Blue. Maybe not the hippest way to become aware of his musicianship, but a common entry point for a Phish fan, I suppose. Anyway, my understanding or intel for that night's event was not exactly correct. It was more like an open-to-the-public band rehearsal than a performance, per se. We were the only patrons there.

Well, not the only patrons if you count George Porter, Jr. Yes, the legendary bassist for The Meters (real New Orleans royalty) was also there to listen to the music. It sounds like I'm making this up but I'm not. In one of those weird N'awlins type moments, he wasn't playing he was just there being himself. No big deal. Happens all the time. It was all I could do not to go up to him and say something. As Mr. Porter was leaving I did manage stammer out something like "I'm a big fan of your music".

However, the point is when Russell came by on his way out the door I stupidly said something like "What were Oteil and Page really like?". Russell immediately said "I'll be right back!". After he had taken his gear out to his car not three minutes later he came back to hang out with us. The next thing I know we're outside in Russell's car listening to music, clouds of smoke billowing out onto St Claude Ave. One of his band mates in the back seat. These weren't some flashy rock star wheels by the way. I jokingly say it was a 1998 Toyota Tercel or something like that. You should have seen the things he had in there! Paper airplanes.

Russell treated us instantly like we were old friends. Comfortable, laughing, joking, goofing off, letting loose. He didn't know us. We were just tourists in New Orleans for the first time having one of those magical Big Easy moments that becomes a life long memory. We probably spent 20 to 30 minutes in his car listening to recordings of his band and unreleased Vida Blue. It never seemed to get awkward, somehow. We kind of all mutually agreed when it was time to part ways.

Even though it was still early in the evening Laura and I couldn't really do anything else that night afterward. I remember just being in awe. Not really believing what had happened. We called a ride back to our place and watched House of the Dragon when we got back. 

It was shocking to learn that Russell had passed. I'm so glad to have had that moment. He touched so many lives, including ours.


Friday, October 6, 2023

Followup - Dutchi Bike / Brompton Comparison

As I mentioned in a previous post, I sold by Brompton folding bike and used the money to purchase a Linus Dutchi 1. I actually could have bought two Linus Dutchi bikes with the money I recouped from the Brompton sale. 

I suppose I'm a little biased in this comparison because I got rid of the Brompton and got a different bike instead. The main area in which the Brompton wins hands-down should come as no surprise, and that's storage and portability. It takes up less room in the house and you can easily fit it in the trunk/boot of the car for road trips. That's the only category that easily goes to the Brompton. 

When it comes to maintenance, the Linus Dutchi 1 is expected to win. It's just got less parts. Less that could malfunction. Single gear. Coaster brake. No cables. No frills. The Brompton has so many moving parts, despite being the absolute best folding bike, it's still a folding bike. From a day to day maintenance perspective, the Linus takes the cake because of it's larger tires. I had to pump air into the Brompton's 16-inch tires almost every time I rode it. With the Dutchi I'm not expecting to have to pump those 700c tires as often. Less maintenance leads to ease of use. I can get out the door faster with fewer impediments and that's going to make me want to ride it more.

Speed actually could go to the Brompton. I think it was about 5 to 10% faster. That difference might matter if I was trying to get from point A to point B in the fastest time, but that's not a factor for me. I'm going for 30 to 40 minute rides out the door and back, so it doesn't really matter how far I go during that time as long as the exertion is there. If I can burn 300 calories on a ride I'm happy. Each time I've ridden the Dutchi so far my pace has gotten a little faster, from 11.7 mph to 12.4 mph to today's 12.7 mph pace over 7 miles. Maybe it will wind up at the Brompton speed. 

The Dutchi has a smoother ride and more visibility. The large tires can roll more easily over bumps and the higher, upright posture puts seeing and being seen at a premium. You can simply take in your surroundings and enjoy being in the moment. I'm no longer thinking about how many times I'm going to have to cross a railroad while on my route.

The last category I can think of is cool factor, which is hard to measure. What's cooler, a folding bike or a step through city bike? I'm going to go with the Dutchi again on this one. It's less eccentric looking and feeling, and seems more practical. And it came with a kickstand!

The Brompton that I had and then sold

The Linus Dutchi 1 that I got October 2023


Pittsburgh Highlights

Laura and I have visited Pittsburgh, PA twice this year - once in the spring and once in the fall. The spring highlights included riding the historic Duquesne Incline, passing through the colorful Randyland open air museum, and food + palinka at Huszar Hungarian restaurant. Both stays also included a Pirates game at PNC Park. One win and one loss. 

The point of this post is to mention the fall highlights. Here they are.

City Steps and The Steepest Street

Pittsburgh has more public staircases than any other city in the United States. Over 800. It would take years to walk them all, so as a visitor I had to prioritize and I chose the Rising Main Avenue steps for my first steps excursion. At 371 steps these are the longest steps in Pittsburgh. They are also among the most unusual, as they seem to rise to nowhere. Despite being in the city, it's like you are hiking straight up a mountain in the woods (on a cement staircase). After making it all the way to the top of Rising Main Ave., we wound our way down through the Fineview neighborhood to the stunning Middle Street Steps which took us back down to the hustle and bustle.

Rising Main Avenue

Pittsburgh also has the steepest street in the USA - Canton Avenue - so of course we had to check out its 37 degree incline. After parking at the base of the street it was a surprisingly easy walk up...easy only because it's a short street. As a bonus, we managed to find the Coast Avenue Steps near the top of Canton Avenue and cautiously walked back down those winding, little used steps. This made it like a loop and added to the adventure. 

Canton Avenue sign

Murals and Painted Houses

Artist Jeremy Raymer has many murals throughout Pittsburgh, and there's a cluster of them on Mulberry Way near 35th St. in the Lawrenceville neighborhood. Despite rain at this time, we set out to see the Yoda mural and were able to find it as well as several others on that block of Mulberry, many of them Simpsons themed. Apparently there are several other Raymer murals nearby but the downpour kept us from lingering. We definitely missed some in the nearby vicinity. 

Yoda mural, Mulberry Way

The next morning we strolled along Sampsonia Way on the Northside where City of Asylum has rehabilitated a stretch of houses for use by its artists-in-residence, with each house being turned into a painted "House Publication" of public art. These include House Poem at 408 Sampsonia, Jazz House at 324 Sampsonia, and Comma House at 308 Sampsonia. Amazing.

Points of View

Pittsburgh is known for its views and nothing beats the overlook from Point of View Park at 1435 Grandview Avenue, atop Mount Washington. It's pretty much the quintessential Pittsburgh photo op. You'll know you're at Point of View Park because of the larger-than-life bronze sculpture depicting a meeting between George Washington and Seneca leader Guyasuta in the year 1770.

Pittsburgh view

Another great vantage point awaits those who make it over to the West End Overlook. We were there in the morning, but I bet this would also be a great place at night. Speaking of views, almost any seat inside the Pirates' PNC Park is going to have a great city scape, but especially the third base side.

Honorable mention goes the view from the top of the aforementioned Middle Street Steps in the Fineview neighborhood. This is the where the cover image of Bob Regan's Pittsburgh Steps book takes place. This spot offered a totally different perspective of the Steel City.

Middle Street Steps

Haunted Brews and Spirits

We rain into a rainstorm and ducked into Church Brew Works to sample some of their selections. This former church turned brewery was featured on the show Ghost Hunters. It didn't feel haunted when we were there but the traditional style beers, such as their Dunkel, sure tasted good. On another day we darkened the Tap Room at the esteemed Omni William Penn Hotel in downtown. Approaching one-hundred years old, this bar-room is most certainly haunted, according to our friendly bartender Laurie who recounted a couple encounters she's had herself. 

Church Brew Works

Maybe not haunted, but the Leo A. Public House cocktail bar in the Manchester neighborhood rose to the top of the cool factor because the bartender will make improvised cocktails for you. On top of that, the music is solely provided by vinyl records that he plays for patrons behind the bar. You can bring in your own records or pick from the in-house selection. I squinted through the stacks and picked out Real Gone by Tom Waits and an out of left-field Bad Brains album choice while we were there. The mixologist played them both!

Pierogis and Pizza

We're not foodies, per se, but after walking up the Rising Main Way steps and back down the Middle Street Steps, we kept hoofing it south across the Sixteenth Street Bridge and turned left into The Strip to make a bee-line for SD Polish Deli where we had some pierogis and haluszki. These weren't the only pierogis I had in PGH, but certainly the ones I walked the most miles to taste.

SD Polish Deli sign

When a wide open afternoon of nothing planned presented itself, we journeyed out to Squirrel Hill with the goal of trying both Aiello's and Mineo's pizza to settle this much hyped debate once and for all, LOL. We went to Aiello's first and unfortunately a "small" pizza there was actually pretty doggone big, leaving no room for trying Mineo's. Oh well next time. The pizza at Aiello's wasn't really anything all that great after all. I don't see what the big deal is. We probably could have just stayed closer to our home base and tried Badamo's pizza instead. Live and learn.

Bicycle Paths and a Museum

We nixed a few attractions along the way, but this shifting of priorities freed up time to make some spontaneous pivots, and one of those pivots was to Bicycle Heaven, the largest bicycle museum in the world. There we saw vintage Harley Davidson bicycles, some penny farthing replicas, the bike from the movie E.T., the Pee-Wee Herman bike, and a bicycle ridden by The name a few. There's approximately 3,500 bicycles on display and another 27,000 in storage.

Inside Bicycle Heaven

On our way to the Pirates game we walked along the North Shore River Trail to Three Rivers Heritage Trail and caught glimpses of the Mr. Rogers statue and the Roberto Clemente statue. This would be a great place to ride a bike. There seem to be lots of great bike paths all over PGH. 

Until Next Time

During the next vist we might do a sightseeing cruise on the Gateway Clipper riverboat, eat at Apteka vegan restaurant and/or one of the many ethnic restaurants in Squirrel Hill, visit the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Schenley Park, and do a tour of the Andy Warhol Museum. I'm sure there will be plenty to do.


Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Books Read - September 2023

Star Trek: Prime Directive by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens (9/9)

How Can I Help You by Laura Sims (9/11)

Backflash by Richard Stark (9/14)

Looker by Laura Sims (9/20)