The Tastes of Vacation: Farmer’s Market Edition

Farmers Market

Evensong Farm’s stand – our first stop every week at the Silver Spring Farmers Market

Vacations in the Brown family are wonderful times to try new foods and restaurants – even when staying at home for two weeks.

As yesterday’s post noted, I jumped out of the “vacation mode” gate early. The wonderful food and drink at Biga on the Banks in San Antonio simply whetted my appetite – literally – for the week ahead.  Last evening, Candice, Andrew and I spent a delightful evening at the tapas restaurant Barcelona in Cathedral Heights.  Candice and Andrew highly recommend the white sangria with the spring seasonings of lavender, sage, and rosemary.  We had a wide array of tapas, and all were tasty.  Some of my favorites included the mussels al diablo, the shrimp with a gazpacho dipping sauce, and the lamb chops.

But my vacation didn’t officially begin until today. So in the spirit of yesterday’s post, I’m going to report – as frequently as possible – about the meals and other foodie treats we’re going to enjoy these next two weeks.

It is a terrific time to sample what the city has to offer, as the annual DC Restaurant Week begins on Monday and runs through the following Sunday. The three of us sat down together this afternoon and made reservations for virtually every night of restaurant week (and then some).  More on that in a bit.

Today’s food adventure began where it does every Saturday we are in town – at the Silver Spring Farmers Market.  We bought our food from the regulars – eggs and meats from Julie at Evensong Farm, bread and pasties (including Rhubarb turnovers when they are in season) from Shana at Talking Breads, milk and cream from Clare at Clear Spring Creamery, corn on the cob and peaches from Winn and Fredi at Quaker Valley Orchards, mushrooms from North Cove Mushrooms, and cheese, butter, lettuce, tomatoes, green beans, blueberries and on and on…whatever is in season.

In the new movie That Sugar Film, we’re all instructed to “turn right upon entering the supermarket and head to the produce department, bypassing everything in the middle.”  We do that one better.  We simply bypass the supermarket for most of our food.

Before we put those wonderful ingredients to use for dinner tonight, Andrew and I took an “urban studies” stroll around Silver Spring to stretch our legs and talk about how the city is changing.  And as we walked up one block full of development and (actually) good architecture, we came upon the side wall of the restaurant Urban Butcher (another regular at the market) and this scene:

Urban Butcher restaurant

The indoor/outdoor bar is open at Urban Butcher

Ahhhh!  The “garage doors” were raised and the bar was serving customers both inside and outside – simply by having the bartender turn around.  We decided it was such a lovely day that we’d take a break from our walk and sample an Urban Butcher gin and tonic (DJB – made with the DC-distilled Green Hat Gin and Urban Butcher’s tasty homemade tonic water), and an Urban Derby (Andrew – Bulleit bourbon and grapefruit juice).

Suitably fortified, we headed home where Candice was putting the finishing touches on our meal – with all ingredients straight from the farmers market or our window boxes.  Sitting on our back deck, we had a wonderful mixed green salad and Zucchini Flan courtesy of a recipe that Candice found in the New York Times.  Eggs, milk, cheese, and zucchini – delicious, healthy, and all from the Silver Spring Farmers Market!

To whet your appetite, here’s our list of restaurants we’ve lined up to visit during DC Restaurant Week:

  • MXDC
  • New Heights
  • SEI
  • DC Coast
  • Jackie’s
  • Fig & Olive
  • Iron Gate
  • Mix

So check back in and see what we’ve found.  We’ll be sure to toast all our regular readers.  And in the meantime, you can get in the spirit with a little bit of Good in the Kitchen, by Bearfoot.

More to come…


Acoustic Music Old and New

Airline travel has its occasional benefits.

Earlier this week I had a trip to Boston booked on Jet Blue Airlines.  When I sat down in the seat, I glanced at the arm rest and thought, “Hot dog – Jet Blue is the airline with free XM radio!”  I whipped out my ear buds and settled in for 90 minutes of the XM station Bluegrass Junction.

I love to listen to my own iPod playlist, but it also great fun to settle in to an airline seat or a rental car to catch XM radio’s bluegrass station.  Every time that happens I always end up hearing some great new music, and my Boston trip was no exception.

On one leg of the trip, the station was featuring one of its staples:  a program entitled Track By Track where the DJ plays a full album by a featured artist who provides commentary along the way.  This week’s show featured the new Compass Records album Somewhere South of Crazy by the Southern songbird Dale Ann Bradley.

Now I’ve heard Dale Ann Bradley off and on through the years, but to be able to sit and listen to a full album – especially one that features the wonderful banjo playing of Compass Records CEO Alison Brown – was eye (or ear) opening.  What a wonderful bluegrass voice.

That led me to check out the Compass Records web site, which is chock full of music by a treasure trove of acoustic musicians.  I immediately downloaded several Bradley tunes (including the wonderful live solo version of Old Southern Porches).  I also sampled the new work by Bearfoot – a band I’ve loved live and in the studio – and ended up downloading the entire American Story album, which is highly recommended.

Then my eye wandered over to the new Noam Pikelny album Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail on Compass, which I’d seen previewed on the Bluegrass Today blog.  In fact, I’d read the interview with Pikelny in the online version of The Fretboard Journalmy favorite magazine – just the day before.  Pikelny is the banjoist with the Punch Brothers and won the inaugural, $50,000 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, an award he was given on the David Letterman show.  Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail is a terrific showcase for Pikelny’s technical prowess and musicianship.  Naturally, I downloaded the entire album!

My bank account (and the fact that I have two children in college) put the brakes on further purchases for the day, but I loved sampling more on the Compass site.  John Doyle – my choice for the best rhythm guitarist in roots music today – has a new record out, and I recently purchased the release from his former Solas band mates Mick McAuley and Winifred Horan.  I continue to believe that the Nashville-based Compass Records has taken over the spot as the best roots music independent label on the scene today.

Besides Alison Brown and the Compass staff, the other person who deserves a great deal of credit for helping to promote and support roots music is none other than comedian – and banjo player – Steve Martin.  Along with his own bluegrass records with The Steep Canyon Rangers (named “Entertainer of the Year” at the 2011 International Bluegrass Music Association awards) and the aforementioned prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, Martin has worked tirelessly to showcase the tremendous musicians playing bluegrass and acoustic music today.  Just go to You Tube and search for “Steve Martin Banjo” and you’ll see great videos with greats such as Earl Scruggs, Bela Fleck, and Tony Trischka.

There’s so much good acoustic music being played at the moment, and I just want to say thanks to Alison Brown and Steve Martin for following their vision in bringing it to us.

Martin awarded his prize on David Letterman…and did it with his usual wit.  Check out the video below of Dueling Banjos with Martin and Pikelny…great banjo and pretty damn funny comedy as well.

More to come…


More Strings Make Beautiful Music

Several weeks ago the Spring 2010 issue of The Fretboard Journal showed up in my mailbox.  I was traveling a great deal at the time, so I popped in it my briefcase and caught up on all the news from the world of beautiful instruments in airplanes and hotel rooms.

Ricky Skaggs, the young acoustic band Bearfoot (which I caught at last year’s Merlefest), and Bedford County, Virginia luthier James Jones are all featured in this issue.  But my eye was immediately taken to an article on harp guitars.

I had never seen a harp guitar until I attended the Shenandoah Valley’s Oak Grove Music Festival one year and Stephen Bennett pulled out the strangest instrument imaginable.  But then he began playing the most beautiful music, and I was transfixed.  I’ve since met Stephen through my friends the Pearsons and Harringtons, and I’m always amazed at how someone can play such lovely music on such an awkward looking guitar.

Stephen Bennett and Gregg Miner (whose guitar photo from leads off this post) are featured through the article.

Harp guitarists approach their instruments with what can only be characterized as religious zeal.  Thus, it’s fitting that if you want to learn about the harp guitar, you’ve got to make a pilgrimage to see the “pope.”   The pope is Gregg Miner, a musician and collector at the center of the harp-guitar universe.

Miner is a musician and incredible collector, and I encourage a visit to his harp guitars web site to learn about this mysterious world.  However, I can talk all I want about harp guitars, but the best way to understand the allure of these instruments is to let you hear one.  Fortunately, YouTube has several terrific videos of Stephen Bennett working his magic, and the Oregon clip below includes the bonus of a quick tuning lesson at the beginning.

Treat yourself.  Give a listen to Bennett on YouTube and find out when he’s next playing at a venue near you.

More to come…


Compass Records Artists Shine at MerleFest

Missy Raines and the New Hip at MerlefestI know that when I travel to MerleFest, I’d better take along some spending money for CDs.  The MerleFest Mall includes what I’ve heard described as “the world’s best Americana music store” and I wouldn’t disagree.

This year’s store was sponsored by Compass Records, which was appropriate since so many of their artists were playing at the festival.  Compass is a label that over the past 10-12 years has grown to be one of the best in Americana and roots music.  Their website tells the background story:

Co-founded in 1994 by musicians Alison Brown and Garry West, Compass is a new breed of roots-music label: eclectic, sophisticated, and artist-friendly. Called “one of the greatest independent labels of the last decade” by Billboard Magazine, Compass Records has provided a thriving haven of creativity for artists and a reliable beacon of quality for music fans. Its 2006 acquisition of the Green Linnet catalog and the 2008 acquisition of the seminal Mulligan Records label has made Compass the place to go for Celtic and roots music.

Brown is one of the most innovative banjo players on the scene today, who just happens to have an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a MBA from UCLA.  She put that education to work in founding Compass Records, and has assembled one of the most creative group of artists of any independent label today.

Many of those artists were at MerleFest, and a number were promoting new CDs.  Missy Raines and the New Hip were my favorite act on Sunday (see photo above), and they included another Compass artist, Matt Flinner, on mandolin.  Bearfoot, a new young band from Alaska, was also all over MerleFest.

Over the next week or so, I’ll post reviews of a few of the new albums from Compass.  They deserve a listen.  But until then, check out this promo video from Alison Brown and her 2008 release The Company You KeepI like the line from her husband/business partner when he says, “Alison Brown music, to me, is where bluegrass music goes to play with its Celtic, jazz, and American folk song friends.”  That’s a perfect description.  Enjoy.

More to come…


Bright Morning Stars

Bearfoot at the Creekside StageEvery day at breakfast before heading off to MerleFest, I’ve sat down and planned how I’m going to negotiate the day and the 14 stages.  This morning I had penciled in some old favorites, but when I arrived at the festival site I had a change of heart and decided to spend my morning listening to new bands.  You could call them the bright morning stars of the Americana music world.

Saturday is the longest day of the festival, so I’m just back into my hotel room after midnight and have downloaded my pictures.  Rather than write a long, involved review, I’m just going to hit some of the highlights of the day for me:

  • Hearing the young band Bearfoot from Alaska.  They sing beautifully and write interesting songs such as Drank Up All the Whiskey and Good in the Kitchen.  Angela Oudean is a promising young fiddler and Odessa Jorgensen is a fine songwriter and singer.
  • I love the energy of the New Generation Super Jam on the Watson (main) stage.  The SteelDrivers played great straight-ahead bluegrass.  Next Generation Super JamThe Belleville Outfit and The Dixie Bee-liners joined together for the spirited Bo Diddley number Mona, which included that most rare of bluegrass festival sightings – a drum solo.  Cadillac Sky had another entertaining set, singing songs you don’t normally hear at MerleFest (You Shook Me All Night Long).  And The Farewell Drifters offered good progressive bluegrass.  (Yesterday, the leader of the Drifters got off one of the festival’s best lines when he said they were going to play some old time music – for them – and then launched into Ticket to Ride.  That hurt.)
  • It wasn’t all new acts.  I did go back to the Creekside stage for more John Cowan (can you tell I like The Cow?).   What’s not to like – the band zipped through the catchy Carla’s Got a New Tattoo, flexed their instrumental chops on Tony Rice’s Gasology, and then turned the Creekside into a revival meeting with Sam Cooke’s Jesus Gave Me Water.  Just wait, you’ll find more Cowan a bit later in the day.John Cowan
  • Hearing Sam Bush sit in with The Greencards, who are still a new young band even though these two Australians and a Brit seem to have been around for a while, was a treat.
  • David Bromberg’s set at the Hillside stage was much better – in my mind – than the one I heard a couple of years ago when he returned to touring.  He was right on today, especially with the blues.  He showed those chops on The First Time My Woman Left Me – This Month .  On What a Wonderful World It Would Be, Bromberg updates the lyrics by adding “Ain’t nobody here knows what a slide rule is for.”  That got a laugh in our section of the hillside.  Finally, he brought on the Angel Band for a spirited version of Roger McGuinn’s Lost My Driving Wheel.

By 5 p.m. the entire Hillside Stage area was covered with thousands of people (a friend of mine estimated it at 10,000) for the highly anticipated Hillside Album Hour hosted by The Waybacks.  Guitarist James Nash knows every single rock guitar lick ever played, and I’m convinced the Album Hour was conceived so that Nash and Sam Bush could live their rock god fantasies and so everyone can hear John Cowan sing pure rock and roll. 

Emmylou, Ronnie Simpkins, and Sam Bush on the Watson Stage

The identity of the album is kept a secret until the opening chords ring off of Nash’s guitar.  During the sound check, he must have played five or six well-known licks, at one point stopping and saying, “Damn, that’s another record we can’t do.”  But soon enough the classic kick-off of Brown Sugar started the set, and the entire crowd was ready for the Stone’s Sticky Fingers.  Emmylou delighted the crowd by being the guest vocalist for Wild Horses, and while there wasn’t time to get through the entire album, these true guitar heroes rocked the Hillside Stage for a very satisfying hour of rock and roll history.

Tonight’s headliner at the Watson Stage was Emmylou Harris, and she didn’t disappoint.   Playing to a huge crowd, Harris and her three-piece acoustic Red Dirt Band touched on songs from throughout her career.  Poncho and Lefty, Red Dirt Girl, and Bright Morning Star (see the connection!) were all favorites.  Sam Bush joined Emmylou for the finale Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight and had the crowd wanting more.  Bromberg played the short Cabin Stage set to bridge the shows on the main stage, and then the Sam Bush Band was rocking…even on bluegrass numbers like Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.  As I left, BeauSoleil had the dance tent hopping to a Cajun beat.

As the clock nears 2 a.m., I have to close this out.  There’s the Nashville Bluegrass Band/Doc Watson gospel sing in the morning, not to mention the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

More to come…