Photos by Ryan Scherb
Photos by Ryan Scherb

PUBLIQuartet’s Amanda Gookin Shares Her Thoughts On Equality In Classical Music

Sponsored by Washington Performing Arts, PUBLIQuartet from New York City is bringing their one-of-a-kind string improv style to Sixth & I Historic Synagogue on Saturday, Feb. 24. Their newest program, Freedom & Faith, features arrangements by Jessie Montgomery, Meredith Monk, and Jihyun Kim, as well as the world premiere of “Get Into The Now” by Jessica Meyer and co-commissioned by Washington Performing Arts.

On Tap speaks with cellist Amanda Gookin about female representation in classical music, the importance of music education and PUBLIQuartet’s appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2016.

On Tap: Can you tell me a little bit about what your audience can expect from the performance in DC?
Amanda Gookin:
Our program is called Freedom & Faith and we are exploring the idea of creativity, inspiration and artistic freedom. The program features compositions all by women and many of them are living. We called it Freedom & Faith because I’m interested in exploring the freedom of women artists especially in composition because they are still sorely underrepresented in classical programming and the idea, not necessarily of religious faith, but more of a confidence in oneself and the faith that an artist has in them to create.

OT: Since your program is very focused on uplifting female composers, I would love to hear your experience as a female professional musician and what you think the industry can do to work towards equal representation.
AG: Essentially, I think it’s always just to ask yourself the tough questions if you’re a performing musician or you’re running a conservatory and accepting students. What are your demographics? Who am I empowering? Who am I encouraging to write, create and perform music? It seems like it shouldn’t be that difficult, but I guess because major orchestras and presenters are still programming music by primarily white males, and many of them are long gone, there’s a lot of work to be done. In classical music, people may be afraid of stepping outside of what we call “the greats” or “the masters,” which in of itself is a pretty oppressive term because the gender associated with the term “master” is usually male dominated. There are not a lot of people that we call “masters” or “greats” in the canon that are women. In fact, I really can’t think of any.

OT: Do the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have anything to do with creating an all-female composers program?
AG: #MeToo came about well after we had created this program. The program is layered; there’s the curiosity of understanding the female experience of these composers in addition to understanding where art comes from in general. My favorite quote is the Nina Simone quote, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” I do think it is our duty to do what we can to help the community grow and create a better future. If there are women in the #MeToo movement who have struggled, I hope that programs like this can offer a sense of comfort and solidarity, but at the end of the day, it’s about everybody coming together and celebrating the art and the music of these women and lifting each other up for a brighter future.

OT: When did you start playing cello? When did you realize you wanted to become a professional musician?
AG: I started playing cello when I was 9 in public school, and around age 10 I started taking private lessons. It was the first thing that I really latched on to, so as I continued taking private lessons, I really had a great relationship with my private teacher and she was very encouraging. Probably when I was in middle school to early high school I decided that music was going to be my path and all activities after that were focused on music performance.

Photo by Ryan Scherb

OT: Support for the arts in public schools is becoming a little bit of an issue with arts programs being cut across the country. Why is it important for music or other forms of creative expression to be available for students?
AG: Just on the baseline, there has been quite a bit of research on the benefits of music education. It is proven that music education is imperative for a child’s development. As somebody who has studied music and also teaches, there are so many facets that it’s not just learning how to have fun and play some notes. You learn really good listening skills, how to play with other people, and respect. On a mentally developmental level it’s really important, but it’s important on a social level as well because you have to learn how to communicate through another language and it can really bring people together in a way that many other areas of study can’t.

OT: With your background of teaching music in New York public schools and leading courses in career development and artistic programming, how do you help PUBLIQuartet bring music education to kids and people in general?
AG: We do a lot of education and outreach. Primarily, we bring improvisation workshops to these schools where students have the opportunity to create music on the spot. When students first learn, they’re so on the page and especially with string musicians in classical music, there’s a real fear of improvisation because there’s this oppressive need to play everything correctly. We try to encourage kids to see that they can be musical beyond the page, and they all have the ability to create and compose. With our audiences, we’re really focused on educating them on the importance of supporting living composers.

OT: Speaking of improv, I watched PUBLIQuartet’s performance hosted by The Late Show during the last presidential debate. What was that like? Did you get to meet Stephen Colbert?
AG: That was a definite highlight, it’s one for the books. It was really nerve racking because there were over a million viewers tuning in and there was a lot of pressure around the final debate. Because you don’t know what’s going to happen, everything is on the spot. We were on our toes the entire 90 minutes, and it just flew by. And yeah, we did get to meet him. A total dream come true.

OT: You said part of your mission is to bring improvisation to the classical quartet world, so what are the other parts of PUBLIQuartet’s mission?
AG: Honestly, I think any arts organization’s mission is always evolving because people change, times are changing, and I think it’s important to always keep your thumb on the pulse of society and how music evolves as time goes on. But the quartet’s mission in general is to support the work of living composers, to expand the traditional model of the string quartet, and to create pathways for younger musicians that are up and coming. We are always evolving in terms of what music we’re programming. Connecting with composers and audiences on a deep, humanistic level is always really important to us.

OT: How would you describe PUBLIQuartet’s sound and style?
AG: We do have a strong base of traditional quartet training, but we try not to think about our instrument as a box. Playing viola, violin and cello, there are limits, but we try to figure out how to overcome those limitations. So if we’re trying to emulate an electronic sound or something that you could only create with a computer, we have to figure out a technique to get it as close as possible. A lot of times, those techniques are far away from how we’ve been traditionally trained. We’re really into percussion, so we add rhythm a lot. Nick, our violist, is really good at chopping, which is this technique where you scratch the bow really close to the bridge. We really like to make the sound of what a record stop would be, or a record moving backwards. All in all, we come at it from a sound perspective. We have a sound that we want to achieve, and we just have to figure out how to surmount our instruments.

Check out PUBLIQuartet’s performance on Saturday, Feb. 24 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $40.

Sixth & I Historic Synagogue: 600 I St. NW, DC; (202) 408-3100;


Tedeschi Trucks Band At Warner Theatre

During the weekends of February 9-10 and February 16-17, the Tedeschi Trucks Band gave audiences at the Warner Theatre a glimpse of their powerful Southern soul rock, including some covers of rock n’roll stalwarts such as David Bowie. Photos: Nathan Payne

Photo: National Building Museum
Photo: National Building Museum

Building a Story: The Architecture and Design Film Festival Comes to DC

The Architecture and Design Film Festival kicks off on February 22 at the National Building Museum. Founded in 2008 by architect Kyle Bergman, the festival is about more than showcasing beautiful buildings and the architects behind them.

“We look for an interesting and engaging design story as well as a human story; that’s our sweet spot,” Bergman says. “As architects and designers, we talk to ourselves all the time, but film allows that dialogue to go broader and wider.”

Frank Gehry Maggie's Center.

Frank Gehry Maggie’s Center.

That’s certainly true of this year’s lineup. Building Hope: The Maggie’s Centres (2016) is a perfect example of a film with more than one story to tell.

“Was it in essence a film about cancer, or a film about architecture? Obviously, the answer had to be that it was about both,” says the film’s director, Sarah Howitt.

In 1993, a cancer patient named Maggie Jencks was informed that she only had three months left to live and had nowhere to go to process the news but a plastic chair in a hospital corridor. She dedicated the final year of her life to founding care centers for cancer patients that are beautiful, welcoming and comforting – a far cry from that cold hallway.

Howitt worked hard to make sure both the human and design sides of the story were represented:

“Using moving drone and gimbal shots to show the buildings off at their best, and the words of the buildings’ users under some of those shots, helped to strike the balance and bring both strands of the story, literally, under one roof.”

Howitt says making the film changed the way she thought about how architecture affects our daily lives:

“I really had never thought about architectural spaces in such a profound way before, and I’d certainly never been in buildings as special as these ones. ‘Special’ modern architecture for me was always something applied to iconic buildings, not buildings meant for ordinary people just to spend time in, and certainly not on the grounds of a hospital.

She also added some thoughts on how the Centres moved her even as she was filming:

“I still find myself drawn to the Maggie’s Centres. As a filmmaker you often try very hard to be something of a dispassionate observer. Of course, the truth is so much complicated than that. Working with the Maggie’s Centres charity though you cannot fail to care about the work they do. I hope any viewer will appreciate the work they do and tell others about them.”

Building Hope isn’t alone in its innovative and people-focused approach to telling design stories. Citizen Jane: Battle for the City (2016) is a true David-and-Goliath story about a fight for the soul of New York City itself.

Jane Jacobs was a reporter and the author of seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The film looks back at her campaign to protect what are now some of New York’s most iconic neighborhoods from power-hungry urban planner and “master builder” Robert Moses, who sought to build a road through the heart of Washington Square Park.

“I saw the book in a bookstore in Greenwich Village, so I bought it and immediately saw why the book has never been out of print since 1961; it makes you see a city differently,” says the film’s director, Matt Tyrnauer. “The power and effect of that book was extraordinary and Jacobs’ activism combined with her brilliance as an observer and chronicler of the city was not well known, so seemed like a ripe subject for a documentary.”

The guiding principle of Jacobs’ book and her community activism was that cities are made by the people who live in them – not bureaucrats.

“Thousands upon thousands of individuals going about their own business come together in this kind of chaotic order to make the city; it’s not the urban planner sitting in their office,” says Tyrnauer. “Cities tend to plan themselves if you let people do it.”

Tyrnauer says we can learn a lot from Jacobs:

“Her activism was very thoughtful and very well-plotted. It took a long time to gain results, but she was dogged and relentless,” he says. “She had several significant successes against an entrenched, egotistical and imperious bureaucrat in Robert Moses, who seemed to be an insurmountable foe before Jacobs came along.” It’s an inspiring story for inarguably turbulent times.

Photo: Alamy

Photo: Alamy

The National Building Museum is an ideal setting for a festival celebrating architecture, but it does present a few challenges: namely, the acoustics in its iconic Great Hall. The essential question for Kyle Bergan, (again, the festival director), was:

“How do we show a film there in a good way, because the space is so grand? The solution? Wireless headsets, creating a drive-in movie theater vibe: visitors who haven’t bought tickets can still watch the film without sound, adding a new dimension to the museum experience during the festival. The festival will also feature a lounge where attendees can view short films and even try on a VR headset – seeing a new way to experience the world around us and the buildings where we live, work, and play.

Bergman says that at the end of the day, the festival is about bringing the untold stories of architecture and design to people who wouldn’t otherwise get to experience them. “It’s not just [about] coming to see the films,” says Bergman. “It’s engaging with people and creating a dialogue.”

The festival runs through February 25. For tickets and showtimes visit:

National Building Museum: 401 F St. NW, DC; 202-272-2448;


Superchunk at Baltimore’s Ottobar

Superchunk kicked off their 2018 tour on February 15 at Ottobar in Baltimore. Their set list included several songs from their newest release, What a Time to Be Alive, as well as classic hits that everyone came to hear. The show packed a lot of energy from the band and the crowd. Superchunk is playing Black Cat on April 3, and this show is a can’t-miss. Photos/write-up: Shantel Breen

Photo: Cara Robbins
Photo: Cara Robbins

Josh Hodges Talks 10 Years in STRFKR, Upcoming 9:30 Club Show

Best known for hit songs “Rawnald Gregory Erickson the Second” and “While I’m Alive,” STRFKR is throwing a high-energy dance party on Saturday night at 9:30 Club. Since Josh Hodges’ solo project began at house parties in Portland 10 years ago, he’s released 11 albums, toured all over the U.S. and built a reputation for insanely fun homemade lighting effects at his live shows.

Hodges’ latest release was 2017’s The Vault series, featuring three volumes full of unfinished songs from the 2007-2008 era that he salvaged from a 15-year-old computer. To prelude his sold-out show, On Tap got in touch with him to talk about the band’s 10-year anniversary, playing drums, Target commercials and his personal take on Buddhism.

On Tap: I read that you never really thought that STRFKR would become as big as it did, so that’s partially why you chose the name. 
Josh Hodges: Both things are true, but not causally. I didn’t choose the name necessarily to not make it big, but I definitely chose it as a joke. It was just a solo thing for me to play house shows in Portland.

OT: As you were gaining more and more popularity, was there a moment when you realized that your music was reaching a lot more people than you ever thought possible?
JH: The first time I remember was when we played a festival in San Francisco that was really successful – like the biggest crowd we’d ever played in front of – and it was kind of trippy. I never thought we’d do this. And also getting to travel; we just did an Asia tour. That’s cool in that way too – meeting people in Thailand and Taiwan and China.

OT: What was going through your mind when one of your songs was featured in a Target commercial in 2009?
JH: That was like winning the lottery for me. That was what even enabled us to tour. It was super amazing, actually, even though I definitely felt like it was sort of embarrassing because there’s something about selling a song to a commercial [that] is a lame thing to do. But I also was pretty poor, and if I could make some money doing something that I actually like to do instead of making coffee for people, I think it’s a pretty good use of my time. And so I had to wrestle with it, but I feel way better about it now. I’m actually really grateful for it now because if that didn’t happen, maybe we still would’ve toured, but it really funded everything.

OT: I’m sure it got your name out more because people watching the commercial might have looked up your song if they liked it.
JH: That definitely happened, and that was a trip too. Many people at shows would say, “Oh, I heard your song on that Target commercial.” Man, that’s trippy.

OT: So, it’s STRFKR’s 10th birthday. Are you doing anything special for it?
JH: It’s not totally set in stone yet, but we’re planning a tour of the first cities that were supportive and special to us on our first couple of tours. We’re still going to do the whole first album front to back and some other stuff, but there’s a bunch of songs on the album that we’ve never played. It’s kind of crazy that it’s been 10 years. Time flies. It’ll be kind of a cool weird thing we’re going to do; we’re going to play at small clubs, like the clubs we used to play back then and just do a couple nights at them. We’ve never done anything like this.

OT: What can fans expect from your 9:30 Club show?
JH: We put a lot of time into working on the light show with this, and then we designed a bunch of stuff. We tried to switch up some songs we’ve been playing. We added a bunch of deep cuts, like some weirder B-sides and songs from The Vault period. I think people who have been coming to our shows for a long time will be happy because we’re changing the set around quite a bit; we’re trying to rotate out old songs and put in songs that we’ve either never played or haven’t played very much. If people request stuff on Twitter or whatever, we usually try to accommodate them.

OT: How important is it for you to have an engaging stage show, and what are some of your favorite moments while you’re performing live?
JH: I think it’s important for us because it’s kind of our thing; we’re known for having fun live shows. The fun part for me is when I get to play drums, because a lot of the project when it started was I would just write songs that were simple for me to play drums on because I like to play drums, but I’m not a great drummer. So I only play drums on a few songs, but that’s probably my favorite part. There’s a later part of the show where we have people dress weird and come out and dance and that’s fun – just seeing people’s reactions.

OT: I read that you went through a period of depression, and even though you were going through that, your music is mostly light and groovy. Is there any reason you felt like writing the way you did?
JH: That’s always been like the vibe with this project: feel-good music. The lyrics can be dark, but the music generally has a feel-good vibe. When I first started it, I had this idea where I don’t even really like to dance, but if people come to shows, even if they don’t like the music, but they can still dance [and] have fun. So I was trying to make it where it’s an even mix of that; where it’s still songs that are written and not played on a laptop but also danceable. Sorry, I’m walking around getting lost in Milwaukee right now. I’m trying to find a place to get a flu shot.

OT: That’s okay! Good luck with that. There’s a book by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh that helped you through your depression. I’m wondering what book that was and if you could talk about some of your favorite Buddhist principles.
JH: A lot of what he writes is pretty similar, but Being Peace was the book that I read that I really like. I was in a particularly dark place then and my dad gave me that book and I just started reading it and [Hanh] is really good at making Buddhism simple and accessible. It’s not super esoteric; it’s practical shit. My interest in Buddhism or Eastern philosophy has always been kind of practical. It’s actually useful to me and it can help change the way I engage with people, and a lot of depression for me was almost like obsession with my own suffering. And what I think is cool about it is it truly addresses a big spectrum of what’s difficult about being a human or being alive. It’s not necessarily satisfying answers, because a lot of times it’s about doing a difficult thing. It’s counterintuitive.

OT: Would you say that has affected the way you write your lyrics and music, or is that a separate thing for you?
JH: [For] a lot of the songs, especially in the first few albums, I wrote stuff about [Buddhism] because I was coming out of that depression when I first started the project and so I was definitely influenced by it. And even [in] a lot of the Alan Watts samples from a lot of the songs from the first album, I found a lot of that stuff to be really useful. Watts isn’t particularly great with that stuff, but he’s an entertainer. For me, using his voice and parts of his lectures in our songs is kind of vague; it’s like, “Oh, this is silly dance music.” But if someone resonates with it and ends up exploring it more, it may be useful. And I’ve met people who’ve said, “Oh, I found out Alan Watts because of your music,” and that totally makes it more meaningful to me to do this.

OT: Why did you decide to turn STRFKR into a trio instead of a solo project?
JH: I always liked the idea of it being a big extravaganza thing. It was easier to just get one person together because if I needed to book a show, it [was] easy. But it’s more fun and interesting to have other people in shows. I didn’t really know [Shawn] when he joined the band, but he’s been with me the longest. And then me and Shawn and this other guy did a tour, and we were like, “Wow, we need a real drummer.” And then we played with a band [that Keil] was in and we just kind of stole him, and then eventually we started touring a lot so he just started playing with us.

OT: What can people expect from STRFKR in the future?
JH: When I have time, I’ve been writing R&B stuff, and I still have a long way to go. A bunch of songs are started, but I don’t know when or how I’ll finish [them]. A lot of [them] are songs that I wrote when I was trying to write another record for STRFKR, but I thought about it and it wasn’t the right fit. Playing these songs live, it wasn’t going to be a party. So I still need to figure some things out with it.

Although STRFKR’s show at 9:30 Club is sold out, check out some of Hodges’ other tour dates here.

9:30 Club: 815 V St. NW, DC; 202-265-0930;

Photo: Courtesy of Left Door
Photo: Courtesy of Left Door

Prestige Champagne Flight at Left Door

Come quickly; I am tasting the stars!” – Dom Pierre Pérignon

February 14 is a perfect occasion for champagne. In fact, I would argue that most every day (holiday or no) is a perfect occasion for champagne; Mick Perrigo, partner and bar manager at Left Door, agrees.

Well-known for its creative and delicious craft cocktails, this Logan Circle favorite also has an impressive prestige champagne flight on the menu. Whether you’re celebrating with friends, enjoying a romantic night out with your partner, or you’ve just had a long day, this flight of Ruinart Rosé, Krug Grande Cuvée 164th edition and Dom Pérignon 2006 will be a memorable (and surprisingly affordable) treat.

The flight is presented with a tasting mat full of fun facts about each of the wines; did you know there are approximately 49 million bubbles in a standard bottle? The flight is always available at Left Door, making the venue a perfect happy hour or late night spot for cocktail aficionados and oenophiles alike.

Make sure to keep an eye on Left Door for more innovative champagne features down the road there are rumors of real champagne cocktails and champagne sorbet.

Sparkling wine is experiencing a well-deserved renaissance in DC and beyond, and we can enjoy a wide variety of producers, styles and price points at many venues throughout the DMV. While excellent cavas, proseccos, crémants and pét-nats certainly abound, there’s no arguing that champagne is in a class all its own.

Treat yourself this coming Wednesday, either because it’s Valentine’s Day or simply because you’ve made it over the hump. Do you really need a reason?

Left Door: 1345 S St. NW, DC; 202-734-8576

Photo: Ben Schill Photography
Photo: Ben Schill Photography

A Midsummer Night’s Dream Gets Opera Treatment

How do you make a writer like William Shakespeare even more dramatic? You turn his work into an opera. Full of comedy, romance and fantasy, the Virginia Opera’s performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream allows audiences to experience Shakespeare’s classic play of the same name through a new lens.

The well-known story about a fantasy world in which a fairy king and queen have a dispute that breaches the human world, causing chaos to ensue, was adapted for the opera in the 1960s by Benjamin Britten. Though Britten’s version is almost word for word the original Shakespeare play, this opera production has cut certain sections to fit a musical style and keep it from running too long.

Building on Britten’s work, the Virginia Opera’s production – at George Mason University Center for the Arts this weekend – will have English supertitles so audiences can better follow along. The performance is broken into three categories, which Virginia Opera’s Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor Adam Turner calls sound worlds: the fairy world, the human world, and the rustics or mechanicals.

“Each of them has their own individual sound, and you hear [the characters’] inner thoughts,” Turner says. “You hear the psychological motivations or underpinning emotions that they maybe can’t express with text. That all comes out in the music.”

This is the first time in the Virginia Opera’s 43-year history that the company has performed Britten’s opera. Turner says part of his decision in picking this production was to find something new and exciting to offer audiences.

Beyond that, the Virginia Opera wants to expand its audience to younger generations and “take operas outside the opera house,” adding that when he comes across younger people, he urges them to give opera a try.

“There’s really nothing like the live, acoustic version that you experience in a theater.”

Not to mention, he says, if younger generations don’t become invested in opera, then it may not last.

“I think people take for granted that it’s always going to be there, but it’s something too important to our culture – to our hearts and minds – to let go.”

The Virginia Opera has worked to reach younger audiences by rebranding themselves and making opera more accessible, a job Turner has taken the reigns on. These changes include an updated website, an enhanced social media presence and affordable ticket prices.

The company also has a statewide education and outreach tour that introduces opera music to kids all over Virginia, one of the biggest opera education programs in the country, and an emerging artist program that looks for new talent to nurture.

Turner hopes the Virginia Opera will stay healthy and thrive while introducing younger generations to opera, thus erasing any preconceived notions they may have.

“I think once you’re in the opera house, you see that not everyone is dressed in a tux or a fabulous gown. People of all shapes, sizes [and] creeds come together to hear this incredible music live and in person.”

See A Midsummer Night’s Dream at George Mason University Center for the Arts on Saturday, February 17 at 8 p.m. or Sunday, February 18 at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $54.

George Mason University Center for the Arts: 4400 University Dr. Fairfax, VA; 703-993-8888;

Photo: múm's Facebook page
Photo: múm's Facebook page

múm on a Sunday Night

The shot that captured the night was the slow but persistently waving Icelandic flag. Some lone fan leaned against the stage, and waved the flag like the turtle from Robin Hood – that is, gently and unfaltering.

múm played for a sparse but appreciative crowd Sunday night at 9:30 Club. The Icelandic collective, best known for tracks like “Green Grass of Tunnel” and “We Have a Map of the Piano” makes down-tempo, experimental electronic music inflected with acoustic instruments.

Last night, these acoustic instruments included a cello, which Gyða Valtýsdóttir plays standing, and a water jug used as a drum. The group was a little pretentious and, begrudgingly, I loved it.

They opened with “Sveitin milli Sólkerfa,” a track that – like the two aforementioned tracks – is off of their second record, Finally We Are No One. The song’s a 12-minute slow burn, and it was their strongest of the night. The glitchy, building beats along with Valtýsdóttir and Sigurlaug Gísladóttir’s voices feel like a call to the new communion.

Örvar Smárason spoke for the band that night. His banter was amusing but never clownish, much like the band; they’re cool, but toe-the-line dull.

“I’m going to play a special apparatus now called a synthesizer,” he told the audience, a line he’d also used during their KEXP performance.

He also made some rehearsed jokes about how it’s now “bikini weather” in DC. I’m sure nothing is cold like Iceland, but it’s f–king freezing out. Though if you want to wear a bikini, Örvar, be my guest.

A Little Bit, Sometimes” was the most energetic track of the night, from their 2006 record Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy; it sounds like a really cool cover of “Hotel California” that Yann Tiersen helped arrange.

Much of their music actually reminds me of Tiersen. It plays on the same tropes of eclectic instruments, modal changes and a subdued aesthetic. Like Tiersen, they had a strong record in the early aughts and have since continued to make music from that capital.

For Tiersen, that record was L’Absente (2001), which was famously used for the movie Amélie (2001). For múm, that record was Finally We Are No One (2001). Since then, múm has continued to make music in a similar vein, but I’m sure only a deeply invested fan could tell me why they keep coming back to it.

Since Finally We Are No One, their music doesn’t sound much different, but it has little of that initial verve. Still, I envy what they do, and still, I enjoyed their performance. The crowd was small and quiet, but genuinely enthusiastic in their applause after each song.

I probably wouldn’t go see múm live again if I had the chance, but I’m sure they’ll continue to come up in my work-related listening. Follow múm on Twitter to learn of upcoming performances, and check out their KEXP performance for further listening.

Oyster with caviar, finger lime and almond milk // Photo: Courtesy of Captain Gregory's
Oyster with caviar, finger lime and almond milk // Photo: Courtesy of Captain Gregory's

Captain Gregory’s on the Rocks

While the exclusivity of some speakeasies can feel slightly intimidating, Captain Gregory’s cuts through the pretension with a warm and welcoming atmosphere. The 25-seat room is laden with nautical décor – evidently, the Maine sea captain inspired more than just the name of this venue.

A picture of Captain Gregory himself can be spotted on the wall along with a brightly colored mural that serves as a fun focal point in the room. The relaxed, beachy vibes of this secret bar allow for guests to get comfortable and focus on what really matters – the expertly crafted cocktails and small plates.

The seasonally changing menus and over 300 cocktails in daily rotation are already enough to make the spot notable, but Captain Gregory’s goes one step further by offering creative theme nights and events. I was lucky enough to get to check out one of these exciting events this Thursday when Captain Gregory’s hosted the Salute to Divas Drag Dinner to kick off Mardi Gras.

The evening included cocktails, food and entertainment from Miss Shi-Queeta-Lee’s cast of music’s hottest divas. There aren’t many things that could avoid being overshadowed by performances as fabulous as the Salute to Divas, but each course and cocktail proved that it was able to hold its own.

For my first drink of the evening, I chose the pine-smoked Old Fashioned. Captain Gregory’s take on this classic featured Four Roses Bourbon, burnt sugar and angostura all poured into a glass, smoked with untreated pinewood and garnished with an orange peel.

The smoky flavor of the bourbon and pine was met with the sweet aromas of the burnt sugar syrup and orange to make tipping this one back a truly sensory experience.

Next, I was given my first small plate of the evening. I went with the oyster and caviar trio. These oysters were a welcome change from the traditional hot sauce and saltines, and were instead prepared with almond, caviar, cucumber and finger limes.

Each oyster was plated in a ceramic oyster shell, making for a clean and pleasing presentation. The salt flavor of each oyster was smoothed by the almond, and the finger limes delivered the perfect amount of tanginess.

My second cocktail choice was the Red Devil, prepared with ginger, lime, blueberry, crème de cassis and Thai basil. This cocktail had a bright red hue and a basil sprig garnish, and came with a stainless steel drinking straw – an environmentally friendly detail that I thought was a classy choice.

The medley of flavors in this cocktail were delightfully complex, and the drinkability was almost sinful.

For my final plate of the evening, I went with the scallops. These were cooked to perfection with fennel, shoyu, olive oil, yellow mustard seeds and garlic. The fennel and mustard seeds added dimension to the texture of this dish while the shoyu anchored the delicate sweetness of the scallops with the right amount of umami.

Throughout the evening, if guests weren’t being given their next unique course or cocktail, they were being wowed by the energy of the next dazzling diva. The timing of each detail of the night was carefully planned to keep patrons constantly engaged and presented with something new.

This concept was so fun and well-executed, that it is safe to assume that Captain Gregory’s is a place to watch for future events that continue to push the envelope.

Captain Gregory’s: 804 N Henry St. Alexandria, VA; 703-577-9023;


Photo: Mathieu Zazzo
Photo: Mathieu Zazzo

Carla Bruni Brings French Touch to Birchmere

Even over the phone, Carla Bruni is wonderful. She says she’s doing well, though it’s a very rainy day in London. She speaks in a way that puts you at ease, like a lazy morning. There might be some cloud cover, but you feel a good walk in you yet. For now, you’re still taking in your breakfast with a guitar in reach; it’s the kind of morning well-suited to her music.

On Tuesday, February 13, Bruni brings her music to the Birchmere. She says she’s made a special mix for her American tour, combining French songs and tunes off her latest record French Touch, a collection of covers of American and English music.

From The Clash’s “Jimmy Jazz to my personal favorite, her cover of Willie Nelson’s Crazy (note: I attached both Nelson and Patsy Cline’s versions because both are great), French Touch is a diverse assortment of songs. But what holds them together on the record is what Bruni calls the “French Touch.”

“I like very, very simple production,” Bruni says. “My favorite thing is to really have the simplest [production], to have the songs work [with] just the lyrics and the melody. What I like is when a song can stand without heavy production. That’s the way we try to do this album, and even though most of these songs are very famous, we tried to do them as personal songwriting – as if I wrote them myself.”

The simplicity of French Touch, as well as her other records, hearkens back to the ease of earlier French pop artists like Georges Brassens. The title “French Touch” is also partly ironic, Bruni tells me.

“The ‘French Touch is supposed to be that wave with Daft Punk and Air and many others, and I couldn’t be more far from the real ‘French Touch.’”

Bruni says the idea for the record came to her one day when she was hanging out at her studio with a few friends, including producer David Foster, known for his work with musicians ranging from Madonna to Andrea Bocelli.

“I played for [Foster] maybe all afternoon. We just hang out and play. He played on the piano and I played on the guitar, and he kept saying, ‘Oh this I love, oh this no, oh this I love,’ because there are some songs that are so famous that you can’t really change them at all, and there’s no point to covering them. Like ‘Moon River’ – it’s impossible to change it. You can’t change the tempo, you can’t change the tune, you don’t want to change it. It’s sort of a perfect song.” 

The songs that ended up on the record are ones Bruni says she’s been singing and playing since she was a teenager. She laughs as she speaks about her early enthusiasm for groups like The Clash or The Rolling Stones.

“Discovering most of these songs as a teenager, I was very excited about everything,” she says. “I was incredibly excited about discovering a new band or new songs from a band. I remember my brother sort of teasing me saying, ‘You know, these songs have been listened to for years and you’re discovering them now, [but] the world’s been listening for like 20 years. I can’t believe you’re discovering the Stones; everybody knows about the Stones, so stop bothering me as if it was a new band.”

Toward the end of our conversation, Bruni tells me, “You know, I wish I could dance onstage, all dressed in glitter. But I’m going to go onstage and sing my songs, and hope people like it. I’m always very much admiring the incredible people – those singers who throw themselves into the crowds. But me, it takes all my energy just to go onstage and sing.”

Not that I knew what to expect in making a phone call to Carla Bruni – international model and music star, and wife to former President of France Nicolas Sarkozy – but I didn’t expect someone so gracious and down to earth.

Catch Bruni at the Birchmere next Tuesday, February 13 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $59.50. Listen to Bruni on Spotify and YouTube – including her take on Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,”  featuring Nelson himself – and learn more about her here.

The Birchmere: 3701 Mount Vernon Ave. Alexandria, VA; 703-549-7500;