It was Best Fest Buddy Tom’s birthday recently, so over the weekend we headed to the St. Louis area, where his brother lives, to celebrate.
Tom’s waist size remains less than his age, and there is a currently airing police drama set in Honolulu. Those are the only clues I’ll give you about how old Tom is, Dan-O.
So, since we’re of that age, a fitting start to the festivities was a stop Friday night to hear the St. Louis Symphony play the music of Led Zeppelin.
If I ruled the world, there would have been some opera stars accompanying the orchestra for Black Dog, Kashmir, Immigrant Song, Whole Lotta Love and other selections from the Dazed and Confused era canon.
Instead, joining the symphony on the Powell Hall stage was an amiable rock band featuring singer Randy Jackson (not that one), guitarist and Cheech Marin lookalike George Cintron, bass man Dan Clemens, drummer Powell Randolph and electric violinist Renee Izzi.
Izzi dressed all in black with boots, short skirt and stockings – which gave me an idea. The next Celtic Woman show also should be Celtic Woman: Zeppelin. And maybe there should be a drum solo – and the conductor can turn the baton over to an adoring fan as Brent Havens did for the symphony show.
After all, Led Zeppelin’s tunes are all approaching 50 years old, meaning at this point they are a form of folk music, heavy on the hobbits, infused with with the blues. Plus, a sultry all-black getup would be a nice change of place for Celtic Woman’s spritely violinist.
The fog remains the same.
All told, it was a fun night, and Jackson was a real trouper. Before the inevitable last song – Stairway to Heaven – he told the crowd that one of his best friends had passed away that very day.
Back out into the heat, we learned a lesson about Uber: it’s making it hard for us old-fashioned types to find a cab. In fact, after about a half hour we wandered back into the Powell where staff called one for us – and it still took another 15 minutes or so to arrive. Any longer, we could have stayed for the Bowie tribute June 17, the Elvis show June 19 or maybe even the music of McCartney June 24.
Once back at the Hilton at the Ballpark, we wandered across the street to Ballpark Village, a mall of restaurants and bars attached to Busch Stadium. If you like malls, Navy Pier or Latinicity in Block 37 you might like Ballpark Village. It also has huge TVs, so playoffs for any sport – this might be the place, if you don’t mind loud and like the Cardinals.
Me, I liked looking down at it – and into the stadium from the hotel room window, where I hope St. Louis didn’t see too much of me in return. Missouri, after all, is The Show Me State.
Blues, beer and …
First stop Saturday morning was the new National Blues Museum, which just opened April 2.
It joins the list of places archiving and saving the history of the music that gave birth to rock that includes the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi; WC Handy House Museum, The Blues Foundation and the Rock n Soul Museum in Memphis; and the Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation in Chicago.
The St. Louis holdings include some spiffy outfits, including threads from St. Louis area native and rock godfather Chuck Berry and one of BB King’s Lucille guitars.
National Blues Museum Executive Director Dion Brown came to St. Louis from the BB King Museum in Mississippi. He noted that a goal of the new museum is to connect the dots between blues and other genres as well as to other places along the Mississippi and its tributaries that now honor the musicians and sounds made in those towns then exported to the rest of the world (MY NOTE: and borrowed by English kids like the dinosaurs left from Led Zeppelin).
In fact, Brown said his favorite exhibit is a wall of suitcases that helps tell the story of how the blues spread with the migration of black people from the south to the north.
“It gives me goosebumps,” Brown said.
It’s something to which the any number of immigrant groups – and the Irish in particular – should be able to relate: leaving to find a better life somewhere else, and along with some belongings comes your contribution to the culture at large.
As with a good many museums these days, Brown noted the National Blues Museum is an interactive space where you can learn to play spoons, washboard and other jug band instruments. And where – with what’s like a more sophisticated version of the game Rock Band – you can put together your own blues tune with guitar, piano and harmonica parts. You write your own lyrics, too, but those don’t get thrown into the final mix via some magical computer-generated voice.
You have to pick your words and phrases from what’s provided, which keeps it clean – though Tom did find a way to write an ode to Viagra, he claims. I called my piece Catfish Blues, which may or may not be a tribute to two former Oakland A’s pitching greats.
Either way, you get your opus emailed to you, and it all comes courtesy of a donation from White Stripes founder and voracious music archivist Jack White.
The museum has a traveling exhibit opening July 2 for which blind visual artist Sharon McDonnell-Dickerson has made life-cast masks of 40 blues musicians.
Brown pointed out that the museum has panel discussions, talks and, of course, live music in a room you can see into from the street. The museum also also has partnered with the CityArchRiver Foundation to put on outdoor concerts by the Gateway Arch in August.
Next to the museum is the Sugarfire Smokehouse. You’re allowed to bring your food in from the eatery to the lounge to listen to the live music.
The line was already a few dozen deep the Saturday we were there, and we were thirsty, so we headed to the 10th annual St. Louis Brewers Guild Heritage Festival held beneath the Gateway Arch instead.
It was 95 degrees, and we’re both big boys, so we were moist and parched by the time we trekked through the renovation zones for the $380 million revamp of the Gateway Arch to the riverfront.
The fest was very trusting of its crowd in that it gave out actual glass glasses to use to taste samples – the bottoms of which were thick enough you could probably use them to sear bugs with the sun’s sweltering rays,
I did search for some heritage beers of my own and found a few Irish Red Ales and some Wee Heavy Scotch Ales.
And heavy wee is something you have to make sure you do on a sultry day, lest you risk dehydration.
Anyway, the birthday boy’s favorite brew was Cucumber Wheat from Ferguson Brewing. Yup. A cucumber beer.
I think you can wash your face with it to remove wrinkles, too. Either way, it’s surprisingly refreshing.
Despite the heat, there was a good-sized, polite crowd – and, oddly, quite a few, big redheaded dudes with bushy beards. Then I remembered: Mark McGwire hit lots of home runs for the Cardinals. Never mind. His stint in St. Louis was 15 – 20 years ago, so just a tad too recent for my theory to hold water.
After our hydration session, it was up those sun-baked steps and back to the hotel to meet Tom’s brother Mark before heading out for the evening.
Dinner was at Rigazzi’s, which is located in The Hill, the city’s Italian neighborhood from whence baseball legend Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola hailed. At Rigazzi’s we could have sat by a statue of Al Capone but I heard he gets fresh with tourists.
For dessert, to relive part of our last visit to St. Louis, we headed back to the Social House in Soulard to see the painted ladies, who are anything but Victorians.
Alas, maybe the heat made it a slow night as the place sent at least one waitress home before 9 p.m. Our server had a tattoo of Elsa Lanchester as the Bride of Frankenstein on the upper part of her right arm.
I had to ask, and, yes, she loves horror movies, but she’s not goth, but she’s totally into paranormal stuff….and with the mere mention of pseudo-science it all turned into how teachers sound on the old Charlie Brown cartoons.
Which might be how you’re feeling right now if you made it through to this point – for which I salute you, loyal reader.
In keeping with the nostalgia for February, we visited the zoo once more, too – where the heat meant a good many animals were being kept indoors, including the gorillas and big cats.
We did pet some stingrays. A woman working the souvenir stand said she once was in the tank with them – like the Little Mermaid, I said.
She said petting them felt like wet baloney. I did not say what you probably are thinking.
Of course, I had to see my cousin, the polar bear, who was out in the pool, with children gawking at him – much like my trips to the beach.
Finishing the nostalgia phase of the journey, it was brunch once more at Evangeline’s to hear the swing jazz of Miss Jubilee over jambalaya and eggs.
Bellies full, this time we took a bit of an alternative route home, following the Mississippi River north for a bit through Alton, Grafton and 10 miles or so more north before heading east.
I should come up with some dandy metaphor for how the big river and its bluffs are symbolic for the best friendships, but Mark Twain did that already, didn’t he?
Still, seeing the river that cuts the country in half – all the commerce it carried and still does, all the characters that traveled up and down it and west on the Missouri, the Indians, the pioneers, the slaves, the immigrants, the history, the geology of it all – sometimes it’s best to just shut up and stare.
Gaze, then do something touristy like stop at Grafton Harbor, replete with a marina, riverfront bar, a small pool, and free wine tastings. Wouldn’t you know it? There was the Grafton Winery & Brewhaus nearby to visit, too.
We didn’t plan any of these Sunday diversions. Mixing the familiar with wherever the day might take you, rolling down a highway along a river with your best buddy, well, that’s downright American in a novel sort of way.
Adventures make for good birthday gifts.