Sunday, April 30, 2017

Underhill Rose Live

As much as I enjoy listening to Underhill Rose on my CD player — I've got three of their discs running on a continuous loop in my car — there's nothing better than listening to them sing their mesmerizing harmonies in a live performance.

And, preferably, to hear them in a place like High Rock Outfitters. Spending two hours or so listening to them perform is like taking a break from the noise, from the crush, from the smog that sometimes clouds around us.

It's like taking a breath of fresh air. Mountain air.

So last night, at HRO, I got the best of all possible worlds.

 There they were, three seriously talented women from Asheville (guitarist Molly Rose Reed, banjoist Eleanor Underhill and upright bassist Salley Williamson) once again singing their songs in one of their favorite venues, promoting their latest CD, "Underhill Rose Live."

I've been waiting patiently for this moment. While their three previous CDs are accomplished products, they are also studio productions that give us a sound you don't quite get on the stage.

The stage, of course, is less cluttered. The sound from mouth to ear, from instrument to ear, offers us a better sense of the truth, I believe, when not enhanced by studio gadgetry. We are there. It's electric. It's acoustic.

That's what I like about live recordings. It helps put me back in my front row seat, where I want to be. Interestingly enough, several of the tunes in this album were recorded at HRO last September. I was there. Perhaps you can hear me applauding.

You can find most of the songs in this 15-tune collection in their previously released CDs, but one of the joys, for me anyway, are the songs not found on any of their other albums. Their covers of "Bette Davis Eyes," "Trouble in Mind," "In Color," "These Boots are Made for Walkin'," and "Long Monday" are, in my opinion, some of the best tracks on the CD.

Just listen: Molly deliciously delivers a particularly soulful rendition of "Bette Davis Eyes;" Salley is full of fun — wait, did she just wink at us? — in "These Boots are Made for Walkin'," and Eleanor's wistful serenade in "Long Monday" artfully turns John Prine's plaintive lyrics into a moving picture show.

They might have included another one. Last night, on stage, they offered us "Ode to Billie Joe," and it was absolutely stunning, what with Molly's moody, understated vocals recalling the story line. New life to an old favorite. Very nice.

You'll find Underhill Rose's ear-pleasing harmonies and crisp musicianship everywhere on this album, tune after tune, clearly defining what their stage show is all about. Simply slip the CD into the player and you've paid the price of admission.

Underhill Rose is about to embark on its third British Isles tour in June, so it may be autumn, or later, before we see them again. That's why I'm going to my car right now and adding this latest release to my unending loop.

(See "Ode to Billie Joe" video at 7:45, but enjoy four Underhill Rose tunes at HRO here: Thanks to Franklin Bell for this.)

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Memory Lane

For some reason, I keep body surfing in a tsunami of nostalgia.

A couple of days ago I was scrolling through my Facebook friends when I came across an old black-and-white photo of something I thought I recognized.

It was a picture of Fountain Hill, Pa. And not just any picture, either. It was a shot of people building the borough playground. There were horse-drawn wagons, men with shovels, and, in the background, a fuzzy line of row homes. The picture was taken in 1928.

Constructing the playground in Fountain Hill, Pa., circa 1928.

I lived in Fountain Hill, sometime around 1955-59. It was a small community (pop. 3,500?) happily nestled in the ridges of South Mountain, just outside the shadow of Bethlehem, Pa. These were my formative years, when I was between 4 and 8 years old. We lived in one of those row homes where the street was lined with sycamores and chestnuts. The playground they built was directly across the street from us. Beaver Cleaver couldn't have done better.

Somehow, I had stumbled across a Fountain Hill Facebook page. There were pictures. There were discussions. There were videos. I had no choice. I had to join the site.

One of the pictures I found was of my Kindergarten class at Stevens School. There was Miss Rau, our teacher. We had milk and cookies between sessions of learning our ABC's, then we took naps on little rugs that we'd unroll. I think the naps were her idea so she could have a few minutes a day to herself, even though she told us that naps would help make us smarter and grow stronger. I think she probably needed our naps more than we did.

Miss Rau's Kindergarten. Am I the guy on the front row, extreme right?
 I'm not sure if that's me in the picture. Not 100 percent sure, anway. I look like me; my wife says it's me, but my brother says, Yeah, sure, if that's what you want to think. So I just don't know. I'll continue to say it's me until some Joe Blow says it's really him.

Notice that Miss Rau is standing directly behind me, probably for a reason. I'm scowling.

I was enjoying this.

Then I had a brilliant idea. I posted a picture of my father back when he was an English teacher at Fountain Hill High School and, Boom! the posts started flowing. Some people fondly recalled my dad as their teacher, as their mentor and as their friend. That really got to me.

Then one poster said she remembered me after all these years, confessed that she had a Stevens School crush on me and was sad when our family moved away to New Hampshire. I felt kind of bad about that. I didn't know any girl actually liked me that much. I hope I didn't break her heart. Hey, it wasn't my idea to go live in New Hampshire. I was only 8.

Anyway, my other brilliant thought was to tell my brother, David, about this page. So he quickly joined, too. He's three years younger than I am and his memories of the place are about as vivid as mine. He posted an era-correct B&W picture of kids playing box hockey — an incredibly favorite activity at the playground back then — and the posts suddenly started flying off the page as memories ignited.

Two things — the playground, and Stevens School — were the centers of our age of innocence back then. Dave and I talked about the responses that filled the discussion boards, most all of them hinting about the quality of life we had and the way the tight little community looked after its people. A lot of folks used the word "special" about their experience growing up there.

My wife, Kim, a lifelong resident of Lexington, grew up in the Erlanger neighborhood, which was also inclusive and had its own play area, ball field and swimming pool — not too unlike Fountain Hill. She, too, feels a sense of community when she talks about her childhood.

As my brother suggested, "Hey, growing up there made us who we are today."

Amen, and amen.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The end of an era

For the past 37 years, at least one person with my last name worked at Lexington State Bank/NewBridge Bank/Yadkin Bank/First National Bank.

That ended a week ago when my tenure as a part-time employee — who worked in the mailroom the past five-and-a-half years — finally ran its course, staggering down the stretch, looking somewhat dehydrated and nearly out of breath.

The first 31 years were filled by my wife, Kim. She spent most of that time as the assistant to both the CEO  and the bank president (it's now deemed improper to label somebody as a secretary, unless they work as the head of a government cabinet position), keeping the ship stable behind the scenes.

She was hired out of junior college and subsequently flourished as a reliable, intelligent and faithful employee for what many customers and clients pretty much remember as an exceptional community bank.

She recalls those years with fondness. She made several lifelong friendships there. To this day, LSB remains a part of her essential core. Thirty-one years.

But times change. In an era of mergers, LSB combined with Greensboro-based FNB Southeast in 2007 in what was said to be "a merger of equals." Well, equal assets, anyway. What became NewBridge Bank turned out to be something less than equal for former LSB employees. Some lost their jobs as a result of the merger. And, at least here in town, some felt the bank had lost some of its personal touch.

Kim lost her job when her position was eventually displaced. She was let go in a final round of dismissals across the bank's footprint. A few months later, I learned the bank was looking for part-time help in the mailroom. I'd already retired from The Dispatch, but I needed to help out financially at home while Kim looked for work. So I applied for the job. And somehow, I got it.

A Wehrle was still at the bank. Go figure. Well, yeah, I worked in the basement, where the mailroom was located, and no one could find me without a map and GPS. But I contributed, and I made some good friends. It was the perfect job for a retired guy. It probably helped that Kim had paved the way before me.

Anyway, NewBridge managed to keep Lexington as its operation center and the bank remained a vital part of the community. Well, at least until 2015, when it was purchased by Raleigh-based Yadkin Financial Corp.

Here we go again.

That seemed to be the end of the merger-go-round, but, no. Within months, it seemed, we found out we were purchased by Pittsburgh-based First National Bank, a megabank.

The acquisition happened so fast, Yadkin Bank never got its signage on the building. Much of the stationery still had "NewBridge Bank" on it. Log-ins still referred to NewBridge, and courier bags from the branches still carried the NewBridge logo.

But it all ended last week. The once-thriving five-story building is now a first-floor operation only. Nearly 200 employees who once worked in the Lexington Main building have been whittled down to about 30 or so.

And for my wife and myself, well, an era comes to an end. A Wehrle has worked at the bank for our entire married lives together.

Not anymore.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Party time

Less than 24 hours from now, music is going to fill the air in Lexington.

And there's going to be about 1,000 people on hand — maybe more — to listen to six acts perform over 11 hours at the brand-new Breeden Insurance Amphitheater, located between 3rd Avenue and 4th Avenue just south of Main Street.

Workers put the final touches on the Breeden Amphitheater Friday.
 The scheduled performers include the nationally known Gin Blossoms, and Edwin McCain, the Lilly Brothers, On The Border (an Eagles tribute band), The Steppin' Stones and Holy Ghost Tent Revival.

The place is going to be rockin'.

And maybe, in part, you can thank city manager Alan Carson for that.

The primary purpose of the event, said Carson, is to draw attention to Lexington, and just as significantly, to the potential of the Depot District, which seeks a long-range plan for the development of the old Lexington Brands Furniture property, including an Amtrak stop.

The city purchased the property for just over $1 million back in 2006. Back then, many doubters wondered why.

But the vision of a decade ago is slowly coming into focus. A popular farmers' market took hold in the nearby freight depot several years ago, more or less getting people used to the idea of seeing something besides abandoned buildings where a thriving industry once stood.

Bull City Ciderworks arrived with some fanfare in 2015, rented a building for its brewery, and now recently bought the property, thus putting it on the city's tax rolls.

And now the amphitheater, to which Mark and Jill Breeden of Breeden Insurance gifted $200,000 toward its construction. The amphitheater, of course, could likely be a draw for future events.

Suddenly, that million-dollar purchase of some forlorn old buildings might just be the steal of the century.

As of Friday morning, Carson said there have been more than 800 tickets pre-sold, with more than 65 percent of those sales coming from outside of Lexington. No, wait. Outside of Davidson County. No, wait. Outside of the Piedmont.

"It's amazing," said Carson. "We're getting people from all over, including places from as far away as California and Minnesota. I don't know if they're family members of the bands, or what. But it's good."

Carson said there's no way the event will make money this year. Most inaugural events hardly ever do. But the primary benefit that will come — is coming — is an outsider learning a little bit more about Lexington.

"Maybe a developer or an investor will come to the concerts, look around, see what Lexington has to offer, see where we're going, and maybe looks into buying property here," said Carson. "Who knows? But it's exciting to think about."

Depending on how things go tomorrow — and it looks promising, with a sunny day and temperatures expected in the mid-60s — the music fest could be an annual event.

So far, it seems to be hitting the right notes.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

My right foot

About a year ago, Kim was walking down our back porch steps. The wooden steps were wet, and she was wearing her well-worn and slick-soled Crocs, which probably best explains how she ended up on her bottom before she reached bottom. Thump, thump, thump...

The offending steps...
 I wasn't home and she told me about it later. She wasn't hurt in the fall — just sore — but it could have been considerably worse. We were lucky.

"Be careful," she tells me to this day, every time I go out the back door.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

I thought about all of this while I was in the middle of my own slippage down the porch steps earlier this past week. It had been raining, and I was wearing my own worn out Crocs while taking out the garbage early Monday morning.

Surprise. My foot slipped out from under me...

I have noticed this peculiar phenomenon that occurs when you are in the process of having an uncontrollable accident — time goes into slow motion. Thoughts go through your head with lightning speed — maybe even faster than that.

So anyway, while still in the process of falling, I swear I was thinking, "This is what happened to Kim. I hope this doesn't hurt..."

My right foot has become a canvas for modern art...
 I'm not quite sure what happened next. I think I tried to catch myself, but with both hands loaded with recyclables, there wasn't much I could do. I ended up on my ass, with my right leg bent awkwardly behind me. On the steps.

I didn't hear anything snap. I didn't feel anything tear. I stayed where I was for a moment, waiting for the pain to announce itself. I looked around to make sure my neighbors hadn't seen any of this. Kim was getting ready for work. I slowly started to unfold myself, limb by limb. The only thing that was starting to hurt was where I skinned my wrist, heel and knee. But no blood.

Nothing broken.

That was close.

But later in the day, several toes on my right foot were starting to swell, then turn black and blue. I went to work anyway, but early on, I had to take my shoes off because of the swelling. Apparently, I jammed several phalanges when I landed, in the way a basketball player might jam a finger miscatching a basketball. I showed a couple co-workers my mostly purple toes, because, you know, it was turning into a pretty good war story by now and I relish undeserved sympathy.

When I finally got home, I applied ice.

I felt better the next day. And the next. By the end of the week, most of the discoloration had gone. No doctor required.

Life has returned to normal speed.

We were lucky. Again.