Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Fleshtones Weekend: Rehobeth Beach DE, Harrisburg PA; Dec 4-5

'Is THIS a Susquehanna hat?!'

I'm going to take a break from Spain to tell you about last weekend. Ken Fox picked us up Friday afternoon in his mini-van and we drove down to Rehobeth Beach, DE to play that night at Dogfish Head (http://www.dogfish.com). Thanks to our friend Chris Lausch, it's become a regular (and welcome) gig for us. I'll have to tell you more about Rehobeth at some point, but it's a low-key beach resort that we, in true Fleshtones fashion, happen to play mostly during the winter (why change our business model at this point?). A mile or two up the coast is Lewes (pronounced like Dean Martin's partner), where the Cape May ferry comes in from New Jersey. In Dutch colonial days it was called Swannendael, and as such claims to be Delaware's oldest town, but there's nothing left from then (or its ephemeral Swedish period). Still, the compact village has a super-quaint, salty English colonial vibe and is worth investigating. Although hardly unique for bombarded American sea-side towns, they do have their own 'cannonball house' with a iron memento cemented where it smashed into a wall during a British siege, if I remember (I'm not going to research that now) from the almost-forgotten War Of 1812. The only person I ever knew who got worked up over that conflict was Gordon Spaeth. We may not have gotten Canada in that one, but did wind up with two good songs: The Star Spangled Banner and Johnny Horton's 'Battle Of New Orleans'.
Anyway, the worst part of touring (even in this small way) during the winter for me is arriving at our destination in the dark. It's always given me the creeps. As soon as we 'loaded in' however, The Dogfish Head lifted all spirits. During the evening it's a cheery, family seafood place. There's canoes and a dinghy suspended from the ceiling as well as vintage photos and fishing gear on the walls. Although a bit exotic for my tastes, they brew their own award-winning line of beers that are starting to get national distribution, as as well distilling their own vodkas and (excellent) rums.
There's lots of great places to eat in Rehobeth, but we decided to stay put and dine right at Dogfish Head. Nothing fancy. The speciality is of course seafood, with with optional hamburgers and steaks if you're in the mood. Most of us chose crab-cake sandwiches, $11, which comes with a pile of excellent french fries which is good if you like french fried potatoes. I like french fries. To wash it down I had a pint of their 'Lawnmower', the closest thing they brew to what I'd call a 'normal' beer, but I've got pretty pedestrian tastes when it comes to the stuff. Then we went back to Chris's to watch a DVD of 'Young Frankenstein'. Gene Hackman tackles his cameo with his usual delight, but YF hasn't held up well (I didn't even bother seeing it when it came out, and as weak a leading man as Gene Wilder was, Brooks' films hardly improved later when he replaced Wilder with himself. But to have made one movie like 'The Producers' is enough to redeem them all).
Back at the club the opening band, Harrisburg powerpoppers The Jellybricks, (who were also kind enough to lend us their 'back line'), got the fun rolling with an energetic set, then we did our thing for a modest-sized, but appreciative, audience. It's always a pleasure to play Dogfish Head.
Afterwards, Chris was once again kind enough to host the band. On the way back to his home we stopped in front of Apple Electric on Route 24 just off Highway 1. Every year, the building and grounds are covered with an elaborate (to say the least) all-night light display that is synchronized to Christmas music broadcast over 88.7FM. Bill and I clamored to stop, so we pulled over and tuned in just in time for opening bars of 'Charlie Brown's Christmas'. The lights went into a mad dance, then both radio and lights went dead as Apple Electric's power blew, plunging everything into an inky, silent night.

The next morning after coffee and mini-bagels (and again many thanks to Chris and his lovely wife Olga), we headed off to Harrisburg. We decided to screw 'Mapquest' (usually, not a good idea) and cut cross-country (well, yes, we did use a road), heading to Harrisburg via the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. It's an interesting drive through the flat Delmarva farmlands and small towns that reminded me a lot of the Long Island of my childhood (which could have been in the 19th century for all the irrevocable change that that place has undergone). The route took us right through the middle of the Sussex County seat (DE only has 3 counties) of St. George's, with it's green surrounded by beautiful red-brick (there's no stone here) colonial buildings including the courthouse and an inn that looks like a great place for at least a drink, if not more. Let me know if you ever stop there. We were listening to Irma Thomas and I was engrossed in the harrowing climax of Hemingway's 'For Whom The Bell Tolls' - something I should have read in school, or at least while driving around Spain, but only had recently picked it up on the urging of my son, who came by it by way of Metallica. By the time we got to the bridge, it was snowing heavily, reducing visibility to a tight perimeter. What we could see of the bay far below us was dark and gray, whipped into a white-capped frenzy by the raising wind. "This is really something" Ken and I blurted out simultaneously, but what we really meant was 'scary'. It snowed all the way to Harrisburg, but as we crossed the Susquehanna River into the city, the weather settled into a misty, sorrowful gloom. I'm a patriotic guy, but staring down at the broad, shallow river, the place seemed more foreign to me than anywhere we'd been in the over 3 weeks in Spain. Well, I don't think we've played in Harrisburg in 20 years, the closest we've gotten was rocketing by miles to the north on the 'interstate' on our way to points west or east. At least I'd have some observations for anyone who finds themselves here if they become governor or something.

There's Something Out There...

Physically, Harrisburg was a lot more attractive than I remembered. It's basically a pre-Civil War (I bet things got pretty jittery around here when Lee's armies were down the road in Gettysburg) era city with its guts ripped out by some more recent, misconceived urban planning. We pulled into the Comfort Inn Riverfront ( 525 S Front Street, Harrisburg, PA 17104; www.comfortinnriverfront.com), which has recently been redecorated -contemporary furnishings, lots of granite and all. Not bad! And river front indeed -right in front of our 'picture window' was the wide Susquehanna (well, there was a bit of a parking lot in between), crossed by the city's trademark long, low old multi-arch bridges -I tried counting the concrete aches of the closest one but lost count after 30. The adjacent Indian restaurant is supposed to be pretty good too, but tonight's promoter (he hates that term and if a 'promoter' he is a most exceptional one) John Traynor had other plans for us. Driving to the venue we passed blocks of old row houses, sort of like the older parts of Philadelphia. The Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center (268 Herr St and Susquehanna -'is this a Susquehanna hat?!', Harrisburg PA; www.harrisburgarts.com), very much a work in progress, occupies a multi-thousand square foot disused former Jewish Center in a residential part of town. For once I felt relieved to be in a bright, renovated performance space. The ceiling was soaring, high enough to accommodate the witty stainless steel sculptures (giant fly meets giant swatter, etc) that topped the long, inviting bar. The walls were hung with an exhibit of large, contemporary paintings. John explained that they were a series of autobiographical pieces created by 'at risk' youth -an outreach program for kids that have been kicked out of schools and worse. John was quite proud of the project and to cynics (with a small C) I'd say it's a hell of a lot better (and cheaper) than jail. There's always time for that later. Hearing far and wide that The Fleshtones were reputed to be veritable idiot bon-vivants, John was very excited to show us what rebounding Harrisburg had to offer.

He brought us, and Mike from the opening band Parallax Project (who had helped arranged the show together with Chris), to Mangia Qui (272 North Street, Harrisburg PA; http://www.mangiaqui.com) which is diagonally across from the Pennsylvania's grandiose capitol -complete with a dome patterned after St. Peter's Basilica.
Behind the wooden venetian blinds on the windows there was a nice 'buzz' in the medium-sized store-front dining room. The walls were a soothing ochre. The well-dressed diners looked, and sounded, like they were enjoying themselves. Co-owner Staci Basore effusively greeted John -he seems to be quite the man about town. He certainly is doing a good thing for Harrisburg. Having the unusual background of parents from Norfolk, England and our own Rockaway Beach, Queens, he grew up in New York and England, later opening a boutique hotel in Bejar de la Frontera, Spain. He was on the verge of moving to Brazil and opening a hotel there, when he made the next logical choice and landed in Harrisburg.
The waitress ran down an formidable array of specials and recommendations: seared fois-gras with 'Italian' fruits...... marinated and grilled local 'boletus' mushrooms..... fresh 'corzetti' pasta served with a lamb.....Portuguese snapper -I can serve it two ways: ......whole...... fillet.... local micro greens..... magret de canard... 'Tuscan grill' (?)....... At $14 a 1/2 dozen, there was a pricey, but good selection of cold water oysters, including small Rhode Island Umani (like nearby Fisher's island) and Effinghams from BC. I used to love oysters on the half shell, but have been mighty gun-shy of them (especially on performance nights) since two catastrophic encounters (in France, no less). I'm no sissy and I had been drinking wine (Pio Cesare Barbera d'Alba 2006 -hmmm, what's that, a hint of? vanilla? 'flan?' -I'd been in Spain too long), so swept up in the general enthusiasm I downed one oyster, and then another and another. John also insisted on me trying the seared fois-gras with 'Italian fruits'. I know this sweet fruit thing with meats is sort of cheating, but it was very good. Anyway, I've got no brief against maraschino cherries, a venerable product of Trieste. I spilt the 'corzetti' and the Tuscan Grill with Ken. The corzetti was like orecchiette, only bigger and flatter -served with a rich lamb ragu, and the Tuscan grill (served with roast fingerling potatoes -local too, I presume!) turned out to be a thick disc of a rib-eye, semi-charred on the outside, red on the inside and salted, just like in Florence, but much, much better meat -but I wished I had chosen Streng's duck, which was rare and more flavorful than any steak. Wasn't there a show to do? And I did say we don't eat before shows?
Instead of the dozen or so old fans creeping out of the woodwork, we were surprised to play to a full house. Again, the openers Parallax Project, were ace musicians, generous and lots of fun, and the sound, eerily hollow during sound check, was excellent. We had a great time, even whipping out a version of The Guess Who's 'It's My Pride' (more Canadiana) that we've been reluctant to perform ( it does have an unnecessarily large amount of lyrics for me to remember).
Well, you can still learn things. I love Harrisburg.

Next: back to Spain -Valencia, Barcelona, Burgos, A visit with Ricardo Palacios and 'Don't Talk To Juancho'