The Restaurant at the End of the Concourse: Review of Bistro Atelier

To the front and back of me, the blue and gold geometric pattern in the industrial grade carpet repeated every few feet as far as I could see. I had not really noticed it before, as I am typically enveloped in a sloshing sea of people moving with a great sense of purpose in both directions. But today, concourse D at the John Foster Dulles International Airport is uncommonly uninhabited. The rectilinear aging corridors and the 1980s–era sagging black pleather and scuffed aluminum sling-style connected chairs are eerily empty. It is Saturday May 23rd and slap in the middle of the highly popular Memorial Day weekend, which I assume is the reason for the lack of air travelers. I suppose most folks prefer to jam roads instead of airports for this particular holiday. Nevertheless it does not seem as though this vacationer lull was fully anticipated by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Association, or at least by some of the businesses in the terminal.

Part way through an endless several billion dollar upgrade program, the antiquated people movers or “mobile lounges” as imaginatively titled by the busy airport have been mostly replaced by a train system. The train, which seems to be modern and efficient, appears to work well, except that there are some really time-consuming ambles at either end. Presumably when the airport modernization program is complete there will be more of a seamless integration, but today at each end we have an amateur maze of meandering corridors, ubiquitous stairs, and near-vertical escalators like you might find in parts of the London Underground. And the train does not even go to Terminal D, for that you have to endure the mobile lounge black comedy or you can take the train part way to Terminal C and hoof it to Terminal D. Should you manage to look the part, you can flag down and appeal to golf carts for assistance on your expedition. After the protracted march to the train, and the even longer trek from the train stop in Terminal C, you enter the extensive, snaking corridor of Terminal D.

Even after this expedition, due to the absence of throngs at security and elsewhere we had some pre-flight time to kill and the long white marble bar at the Bistro Atelier, close to gate D15, beckoned. We had indeed arrived at the restaurant at the end of the concourse. The bistro looked authentically European, a welcoming watering hole for an espresso and a read of Le Figaro, such as you might find on busy Boulevard Haussmann in pre-Nazi occupied Paris. It seemed to have been mysteriously supplanted into this 1970s era, dingy airport terminal, 20 miles to the west of Washington DC. In front of the extensive line of empty, comfortable 1930s-style barstools there were no less than five smiling, welcoming servers, each wearing matching white waistcoats and dark, once-stripy pants.

It became abundantly clear that the wait staff was experiencing a very slow day at this distantly placed locale, which as we all understand in the American bistro business goes straight to the wallet.  A subtle but noticeable competitive spirit materialized as servers jostled and independently motioned towards empty tables all around us, to our left, right, and to the front and back. Five eager pairs of eyes rapidly scanned and roved like searchlights attempting to make contact as we strode with an appearance of urgency, eyes forward, heads down, directly to the inviting elongated bar, where F.C. Barcelona was hammering some other La Liga team on the TV.

Outside of our direct line of sight and earshot some paper-scissors-rock competitive process had to have taken place and the winning attendant appeared suddenly on the other side of the bar just as we were seating ourselves. The other four servers remained faithfully standing in place with large, fake wooing smiles, as they continued to hold the greet line at the bistro’s entrance on what could be the slowest day in the restaurant’s history. Rajendra, the winning waiter, appeared to be highly proficient and somewhat hurried, as he welcomed us loudly and quickly whilst simultaneously handing us menus and expectantly placing drink napkins on the clean empty marble surface. He hovered with intent as we scanned the underwhelming menu choices, which was one long, plastic covered page with drinks on one side and food on the other.

“Got any fish?” I asked bluntly as that is always my lunch-out preference these days. “Oh yeeesss, we have fiiish,” as he hastily motioned his hand around the menu in an inwardly spiraling fashion before arriving at the solitary fish offering of Tilapia. In real time I read the French-y sounding description and ordered the Tilapia with the salad dressing on the side. Raj then turned his complete attention to my wife, successfully pressuring her for an equally quick order. Under insurmountable stress she complied reluctantly with his enthusiastic suggestion of the French dip sandwich. Resplendent in the speed of the order, Raj brusquely entered the data into the lonely machine over by the till.

But then havoc wreaked. Make it snappy Raj had entered the wrong selection for me, and my wife, now having had the chance to actually read the menu, saw an opportunity to change her order to the curried chicken crepe. Raj was visibly startled and sweating and called urgently for help from the other non-working servers to input complex change instructions into the computerized ordering system. It was taking valuable time as Raj fidgeted and kept looking at his watch. To make matters worse the idle kitchen staff had instantaneously started preparing both wrong orders. Knowing that the bored chef had jumped on the first opportunity to prepare food in an age, Raj started loudly calling out order changes in the general direction of the kitchen as he and two others fiddled with the order machine. “The Tilapia platter, not the sandwich,” he cried out losing part of his waiter-ly demeanor. “With the dressing on the side.” “You ordered the sandwich,” said some loud faceless voice from the kitchen order hole-in-the-wall. “The customer changed his mind,” Raj yelled back. “No I didn’t,” I said to my wife, “You changed yours.” “And it’s a curried chicken crepe not a French dip sandwich,” yelled Raj adding insult to the chef’s injury.

After another few minutes of nouveau vaudeville, Raj, with great aplomb, proudly placed both correct orders directly in front of us. “It’s the end of my shift,” he said matter of fact-ly, “and my boss wants me to clear out my checks,” as he near-simultaneously presented the bill for the food that we hadn’t yet started eating. “We might want dessert,” I replied. “Ooooh we don’t really do desserts,” he retorted. “What about apple pie?” I pressed with a genuine sense of interest. “No apple pie, no cheesecake, nothing like that at all—just a couple things that you probably wouldn’t like,” was his monotonic response, accompanied by a hand swoosh towards the kitchen.

No longer in sales mode, Raj was trying fervently to realize his exit with at least one paying customer on this slowest of days. Sensing that my body language conveyed a continued sense of interest in dessert he relented and reproduced menus and an offer for another lonely server to take over should we desire one of their unappealing puddings. He rapidly picked up the signed check from us while wearing a mix of server and street clothes, thanking us as he bolted from the bistro presumably to get to his next job or his beach house for the remainder of the holiday weekend. At least the food was pretty good.

Note: The waiter’s name was changed for this true story so as not to unnecessarily expose someone who was perhaps just having a bad day.

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All the World’s A Stage: A Review of the Rush R40 Tour

Sound of immense proportions fills the entire amphitheater, instantly masking the distributed racket of a sellout 20,000-strong crowd. Batteries of lights irradiate everything from the exuberant faces of my new short-term neighbors to the jagged internal structure of the hockey arena, which, illuminated, looked as though it had been constructed using a giant child’s Meccano set. As my eyes and ears regulate, squinting through the layers of light the origin of the sound and light show becomes clear: three unassuming older dudes on stage with a guitar, bass and a drum kit. For three unassuming guys from Canada, Rush is known to be big, visually and aurally, and tonight, perhaps their final tour, is no exception.

When Rush first appeared on the Scottish rock music scene in the late 1970s, my teenage group of friends’ comparative assessment was limited to our meager assemblage of vinyl LPs, two one-hour radio shows per week, and our detailed dissection of a handful of music newspapers. We compared Rush to other established contemporaries for various musical traits. Back then, new potentially awesome bands would be discovered and announced excitedly by one of our friends in a manner similar to what you might expect at a Paul Revere re-enactment in Boston.

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The 1983 European tour followed the release of Signals

Musical comparisons were very important for the younger generation, then as now, as it was an intrinsic means of social communication. Now of course, it is different: more automated, more technology-driven and real time, and more media savvy. For example, today Pandora uses a patented method called the “music genome” which decomposes songs into various ingredients and compares all the constituent parts of artists’ offerings in order to determine the essence of similarity. Although I believe there is a human-in-the-loop at the company, Pandora generally uses automation to come up with a sequence of songs by different artists that an individual ought to like based on selection of favorite band or bands. And boy is Pandora spot on. When I selected Rush radio recently I was treated to an ensuing amalgamation of Black Sabbath, Van Halen and Deep Purple. Amazing—the other three performers we had ready to play back in 1977! I’m just left thinking I could’ve lined up those other songs myself instead of relying upon thirty-some years of advanced technological development.

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Back at Wembley, this time for the 1988 Hold Your Fire tour

I loved listening to Rush in the 70s but maybe even more in the early 80s with the release of Signals and Grace Under Pressure. Many of my die-hard rock friends made opinionated distinctions about the 70s Rush and the 80s Rush as if the band had sold out by having more synthesizer dependence and trying to be a bit more pop-like and mainstream than the introspective Caress of Steel or the phantasmagorical 2112 albums. Geddy Lee’s voice was certainly strange in the earlier days with the ultra high-pitched vocal, which is not as noticeably present today. But that’s not necessarily a Rush highlight; it was never about the singing. Nor was it about the lyrics—you can love or hate Neil Peart’s scribblings, but he did put a lot of thought into them, and why shouldn’t there be songs about snow dogs and necromancers? It is all about the collective sound—the band. While all three are excellent musicians, together they are fabulous, a musical definition of synergy. You could pick three arguably more accomplished individual musicians who achieve less together, for example, Bozzio, Levin and Stevens, whom I admire greatly.

It’s great to see and hear Rush live; they play and look great and although their performances rely on heaps of technology they can essentially pull off all the songs including those that are difficult or otherwise complicated. However, generally I am not a fan of live albums and Rush seems to have gone over the top a bit in that department, like many other aging bands, with so many recordings to choose from, such as Live in Rio, Live Just the Other Night, and Live Again. I made some of those up, but my point is that the live shows are great to attend in real time; however, if I want to really listen to songs I want the original studio versions that were painstakingly mixed, mastered and produced so that fans like me can bask in every note, nuance and rhythmic refinement. Nonetheless, my preference for studio recordings does not necessarily extend to remixes. A higher quality version of an original is one thing, but changing the mix or providing alternative takes of songs after a musical lifetime I find strangely unsettling. Recently, I played Jimmy Page’s alternative productions of Led Zeppelin classics and I couldn’t help but feel somewhat perplexed, as I might should my Scottish mother suddenly start talking with a Bavarian accent.

Furthermore, while I love being a vital but teeny part of enthusiastic audience participation on show-night, subsequently listening to recordings of hollering drunken hordes such as those on Frampton’s Baby I Love Your Way is not something I view as a positive. Occasionally I have to listen involuntary to comparable live ballads on my car’s satellite radio with great sadness as I realize that many of these grandparents don’t go to concerts anymore. But that’s partly my fault for creating demand by tuning into 70s channels such as Classic Rock, Classic Rewind, 70s on 7 and so on. Caught by a TV interviewer on a street corner with the cameras rolling and the portable lights reflecting in the big silver golf umbrella I would probably admit, rather rapidly, that the 70s represents the pinnacle in rock music. But I lament being stuck there.

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At the shows, seasoned Rush fans enthusiastically sport treasured tee shirts from decades past

I do sometimes ask myself how many times in a month or a year should we have to listen to such classics as Bohemian Rhapsody or Stairway to Heaven. I hear them more repeatedly than the UK National Anthem, although not more often the old U.S. Stars and Stripes, since I am a sports fan in that country. I can imagine in a parallel life that as a young man I would have been thrilled to bits to land a good paying job as a disc jockey, especially if it was 70s music. Four decades later I think that might qualify as one form of cruelty in Dante’s Inferno.

Today, music for me continues to be a necessity and vital pleasure and not some form of torment. Torture by music is perhaps playing full-volume thrash heavy metal at blindfolded secluded prisoners in recent desert campaigns, as depicted in some movies and newspaper stories. Perhaps the closest I come to sonata suffering is through overexposure to background music. My wife and others habitually tut tut or give me some expression of chastisement as I request that unwanted, piped music, or muzak, be turned down or switched off in taxis and restaurants all over the world. Sometimes I’m the only customer and knowing the ambience is intended solely for me I’ll politely ask for its prompt cessation. In deepest Asia I explicitly tip for silence, as those songs kill me at any volume, especially when I’m hopelessly stuck in traffic. One time, I was stuck in a huge snowstorm at 6 AM going to the Boryspil International Airport in Kiev and the driver, with great fanfare, proudly produced a CD of ABBA’s greatest hits. In a Blizzard, before the light of day, if my flight isn’t canceled I’ll probably miss it anyway and some guy thinks I want to relax and groove to Dancing Queen. More recently in Manila, I arrived at the Ninoy Aquino Airport and was treated to unwanted muzak piped through the terminal, car, hotel lobby, elevator, and down the long hallway into my room, where tunes emanated from the large-screen TV. Since I stopped drinking Scotch a while back, oxygen or sunlight is the only commodity I yearn for continuously in such quantities.

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Those cunning Canadians designed their R40 show to start from most recent all the way back to their debut album, while roadies continuously deconstruct the set from lavish to basic, taking us through a series of stages as if from a stadium to a club.

Yet tonight I’m in a private suite watching one of my all-time favorite bands and all the songs spanning a 40-year history are sounding great.  Every guitar riff, bass thump and symbol crash of their three-hour, 30-song set has my complete attention and tomorrow I’ll tweet my old high school friends back in Scotland to wallow in the afterglow. Hopefully, this is not the last time I’ll get to see Rush exit stage left.

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You meet many ardent supporters on Rush tours. These two guys say they’ve been following the band, going to all the tours since the 1977 Farewell to Kings tour, yet the guy on the right still hasn’t decided when he’ll get his first tee shirt.

The Heir Guitar

In 2002 I bought a used left-handed Brian Moore Custom P-90 guitar at South Paw Guitars in Houston, Texas. I had never heard of the brand, but this was an entire day in a store in busy Bellaire, Houston, where I just sat happily playing rack upon rack of lefty guitars. Lefty players never usually get such an opportunity. Normally, in every guitar store in the world, there are no lefties or only a couple or so sitting unloved over by the cobwebbed rack next to the bathroom door. This guitar just played great and would soon become my go-to electric guitar. It was lightweight, looked fantastic, had a great sound, and played very easily—that’s pretty much what guitar players look for in an instrument. However, over the years it gradually lost its lustrous finish, apparently caused by exposure to moisture during the finishing process in the year 2000 when it was made.

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Under the fog there is a beautiful maple veneer just waiting to get out

Believing, as always, that with problem comes opportunity, I felt that this once-loved but now sidelined instrument could be the focus of an art project, customizing the axe while raising it from the ashes. My initial thought was to default to an original Celtic design theme, which was well within my comfort zone boundaries. That was before some of my daughter’s amazing artwork started appearing randomly around the house in her senior year at high school (2014 – 2015). Some of the designs were amazing: bold, confident, and instantly appealing. One haunting design in particular was the swirling stars—a series of imaginative shapes that looked like a cross between some deep-water invertebrate and a martial arts weapon. Using various methods, such as linoleum printing, she productively churned out various swirling stars that would be brought home during part of the creative process. If you were paying even the slightest bit of attention you would notice the migratory pattern of these conceptions arriving surreptitiously through the garage door, moving to the breeding grounds in the basement, then traveling together in small pods through the dining room, the kitchen, ultimately leaving the premises a few weeks later in the early morning, usually before sunrise.

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Crazy high school artwork invades your thought processes

These strange creatures caught my attention and one of the patterns was used for the cover of the Two World’s Apart CD “Glue.” Shortly afterwards the design inspiration for the Heir Guitar project became patently obvious.

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Swirling stars debuted on the multi-platinum Glue album

Many traditional electric guitars sport a sunburst finish, notably the early Fenders with their various shades of Sienna. Many folks believe that the origin of the hugely popular appearance was either to replicate earlier violins, to emulate graceful aging, or to conceal manufacturing flaws. In any event it remains a very popular staple of guitar finishing. While I eschewed that notion in decorating this particular instrument, I did end up giving it a nod by darkening the background honeycomb pattern just a bit toward the edges. My friend Larry from Wooden Wizard Guitars helped with the heavy lifting on the project, removing the electronics, stripping the old varnish from the guitar and applying the new finish, while paying extra attention to the ambient temperature in our unpredictable local winter-spring-summer climate.

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Waiting for inspiration

My daughter and I focused more on the fun part of the project, selecting the art materials, working on the overall design, and developing templates for scaling and design placement. Then we got out the paintbrushes and had some fun. Exclusively, we used alcohol-based inks so as not to interfere with the application of the polyurethane coatings.

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Who said men don’t like shopping? The art and design team gets some essential supplies from Utrecht. The initial decision was to use alcohol-based inks to minimize any bleeding in the wood finish process.

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First coat of ink, attempting to replicate the idea or notion of hand set stones such as you might find on a Scottish brooch.

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We made a conscious decision to freehand the design and painting. While computer aided techniques and other methods such as airbrushing give fabulous results, we felt that we would trade off perfection for authenticity, while having a lot of fun with our paintbrushes.

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We love the end result. The finishing process brings out the natural maple grain pattern and the overlaid ink honeycomb adds warmth. The guitar just asks to picked up and played, but I might just hang it on the wall and admire it for a while. 

Struck by Lightning

Sports Review: With youthful suspense, I wait eagerly in the cavernous darkness as blue neon streaks dart above me in all directions. Hearing the apparent crackle and sizzle of electrical arcing, I crane my neck up to the left and right to observe streams of sparks from what could be large Van de Graaff generators suspended 75 feet overhead. I hear the increasingly enthusiastic oohs and aahs of a large crowd all around me as the light and electrical show unfolds with great drama. Thumping music fades in gradually while roving searchlights briefly illuminate random swatches of revelers in what transpires to be an eighteen thousand strong gathering. “Na na na na na na na na na,” is the growing chant and it’s hard not to join in. I went to my first AC/DC concert in Glasgow, Scotland decades ago as a teenager and that Australian rock band has certainly demonstrated staying power. The song playing tonight,  Thunderstruck, is a recording, however, and the crowd is not here to party with Angus Young and Brian Johnson. We are at Amalie Arena to watch Tampa in the National Hockey League (NHL) playoffs. Nevertheless, the show is more grandiose than most rock concerts.

Tampa has a pretty good hockey team, and in my opinion, one of the better named: Tampa Bay Lightning. Lightning connotes irrepressible power, heavenly streaks, electrical arcing and sparking, and it annexes pyrotechnics and thunder while channeling the very best of AC/DC. Lightning gives the fans a satisfying array of choral and brand messaging options; for example, let’s go bolts, let’s go light-ning, be the thunder, and we are lightning. Not all hockey teams have such creatively powerful monikers, for example the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Pittsburg Penguins. There is only so much that can be done with foliage or small flightless birds to capture the imagination and evoke vigorous human emotions.

Like a lot of sports, hockey is a mega-business in America, with 30 teams playing a total of over 1,000 rock show games per season to reach the playoffs—which in Europe we would call quarterfinals, semifinals and the final. Except, in America each of three playoff rounds has up to seven games against an opponent, pretty much assuring a most devoted fan may spend every waking hour following the action. And action it is—the puck is played rapidly up and down the full length of the field, even behind the nets, while fighting and brawls between players are customary and encouraged. Players will punch the living daylights out of each other, and in contrast to the World Wrestling Federation, hockey fights are authentic. In UK soccer, if a player punches another he will be red-carded, sent off, suspended for a number of future games, and may be charged with violent conduct by the Football Association and the local police. In U.S. hockey, the offending player receives a two-minute timeout—the same punishment meted out for nefarious misconduct, including tripping, hooking, high sticking and interference. Oftentimes this two-minute relegation is considered too severe for the hockey fighter as he sits out his chastisement angrily banging on the glass and recklessly spilling Gatorade on those around him.

Contrastingly, In UK soccer there can be too many faked player dives or feigned injuries during a game. Oftentimes, one player will bump into another and the roughed receiver topples conveniently amid great drama, while writhing, grimacing and holding a limb or other body part. Milliseconds later the perpetrator falls over too while applying clear and High-Definition observable pressure to some appendage. Both victims lie wincing on the field for what seems longer than a standing ovation at a Lady Gaga concert while waiting for some formal expression of sympathy. The offending player feels he should stay down as long as the traumatized recipient, should the referee feel the need to dole out some color-carded punishment. Then the recipient starts to feel a bit awkward having squirmed in fake agony for so long that he needs to make a good show out of it and be helped up by others. Not infrequently two guys that weren’t really hurt in the first place cause a situation that forces them to follow through with Shakespearian performances. This does not happen in ice hockey—bloodied players get up promptly and unassisted, gather their belongings and put on an ice pack while the game continues all around them. For this reason alone, as amazing a soccer player as he is, Ronaldo could not succeed in hockey, although he would make a fabulous prince in Disney on Ice. On the other hand I could envisage Wayne Rooney or John Terry suited up in a hockey outfit.

With religious-like zeal, the vast majority of ice hockey fans exhibit allegiance by sporting official shirts, hats and various emblematic accessories. As a testament to true American marketing genius, each team may have multiple uniforms on sale at any one time—the standard, the away, the Winter Classic, playoff versions, and other must-have special editions. Each adaptation carefully mixes genuine team tones in a variety of hues and shades that don’t stray too far from the original. Since most cities have only one team, any side playing at home is guaranteed a sell-out crowd clad in a sea of conforming club colors, much like a big bathtub filled with compliant M&M’s.

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Eager fan sporting a matching playoff cap and T shirt

As with American football, soccer and basketball, hockey has an exclusive compendium of drop-dead gorgeous cheerleaders. In America our angelic advocates are flawless, stunning young ladies equipped with bubbly personalities, celebrity-white teeth, luxuriant flowing hair and original Barbie doll physiques. Their main occupation appears to vary a little by sport, but seems to be principally presence, and not exclusively to manage cheering activities as the average American sports fan is generally capable of raucousness without the need for guidance, instruction or other visual cues. Like a gift presented in pleasing wrapping paper with an affixed flower crafted from self-adhesive ribbon tape, cheerleaders enhance our overall experience.

In Washington DC, for example, home-team cheerleaders are driven around the street outside the arena in an open top double-decker bus before the game, fervently brandishing tinsel pompoms at the local populace. While cheerleaders in other sports have well-rehearsed, coordinated dance routines, in hockey they seem mainly relegated to lobbing free tee shirts to noisy supporters or pizza coupons to the loudest fan sections in the arena. I’m not sure why they don’t don skates and give us a few little party ice numbers, as the dance pageantry in basketball and football is fabulous.

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Some guys go to games just to meet women

In addition to the snow bunnies, the regular ice hockey fan is treated to a varied assortment of entertaining skits every time the puck stops soaring. Waiting for repeated face-offs each time the game restarts, we enjoy 20 seconds of our favorite rousing songs, which stop precisely at the good part when the puck drops. And what is it with that pipe organ that sounds like a maniacal church organist at a carnival in hell? Oddly you become accustomed to it over a long period of time, just like the other forms of torment in Dante’s Inferno. Then, of course, for visual celebration and audience reaction there is the kiss cam, the dance cam, the decibel meter to record crowd cacophony and a variety of other product and service-sponsored entertainment acts. The diversions are, however, way better than watching Zambonis make interminable rink loops or reading innumerable unsolicited emails on your phone.

Of course, the national anthem is an integral part of the framework for the evening’s spectacle. It is a solemn almost funereal affair in the UK and is sincere and ceremonial in the USA too; however, with two main differences: US fans know the words and they join in for some parts. For example, in unison the 18,000 strong crowd will loudly yell “red,” in the “rocket’s red glare,” denoting the Washington Capitals team colors. At this time in the tournament both Tampa and Washington are playing well with the Lightning leading the Montreal Canadiens in the second round of the playoffs. With any luck the God of Thunder will continue to abet. Let’s go Bolts!