Highlands Tap Room Soothes the Late Night Beast

Regardless in what city one resides, there’s always a joint or two that services the night owl community. A place where mutants can howl when the mood strikes. Often these are establishments of distinctive, if not questionable character, that serve viscous alcohol into the AM hours, and keep late kitchens catering to nightcap diners. In Louisville one such place is the Highlands Tap Room.

Located at 1058 Bardstown Road, in the heart of the nightlife friendly Highlands neighborhood, this fun, food (and supposedly) family friendly l0cation has multiple personalities.

Open seven days a week till 4AM, the Tap Room is frequented in daylight hours by neighborhood residents, walkers-by, and employees from small businesses that line Bardstown Road. But this location hits its stride after 11PM. That’s when the nocturnal movers and shakers give this place its character and energy.

On a recent Monday night, after attending a Gov’t Mule show at Iroquois Amphitheater, the need arose for drinks and food after 11PM. The Tap Room was clearly alive and well upon arrival, whereas most other spots around were already closed or barely registered a pulse.

It was Metal Monday, and the buzz saw beats were rattling the windows loose in the cottage performance space. Young men were visibly flying through the air inside the stage area. This merely added to the quality people watching for those seated on the patio. Here a menagerie of regulars were table-hopping their hype and hustling schemes over serious craft beers.

The Tap Room attracts a thirsty lot, particularly in the AM hours, with many partaking in extracurriculars. This is part of the joint’s charm. Be patient and go with the flow when ordering. There are two full bars housed side-by-side, with some 25 draft beers on tap. The kitchen offers a wide variety of interesting cuisine, from steaks and seafood, to burgers and veggie options, all priced kindly.

The next time out on a midnight creep, light past the Highlands Tap Room. All are welcomed and chances are the “open” light is burning bright.

Highlands Tap Room | 1058 Bardstown Road | Louisville, KY | 502.561.2100 (Tap) or 502.584.5222 (Grill)

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Gov’t Mule Brings Southern Jam to Louisville

Vocalist and guitar player extraordinaire Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule, performing in Louisville.

Got Mule?

For those needing some Warren Haynes – a heavy dose was delivered June 24 at Iroquois Amphitheater. Gov’t Mule returned to Derby City in all its Southern jam band glory. The festivities kicked off with Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe ably opening the show. Mule took the stage an hour later, delivering the precise, hard rocking performance this power outfit has come to define.

In particular Mule hits a sweet spot for the Grateful Dead faithful. When that jonz hits to hear a live guitar weep, such as how Mule vocalist Warren Haynes can play, there is no substitute but to find the boys out on the road. Mule, like the Grateful Dead or The Allman Brothers Band, are road warriors. Every year, every season, they are out making the rounds.

Formed in 1994, Gov’t Mule was originally a side gig Haynes and bassist Allen Woody came up with while on a break from their day gig with The Allman Brothers Band. Along with drummer Matt Abts, with whom Haynes played alongside in the Dickey Betts Band, Mule was considered a constructive way to fill time when not touring with the Allman’s. But quickly the new gig shifted from side project to the member’s primary focus.

They were a power trio churning out blistering Southern blues rock, with a flair for expanding the tunes live into jam sessions. After Woody’s tragic passing in 2000, a string of legendary bass players took turns filling his shoes. Guys like John Entwistle (The Who), Jack Bruce (Cream), Phil Lesh (Grateful Dead), Bootsy Collins (Parliament-Funkadelic), Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Les Claypool (Primus), Mike Gordon (Phish), Dave Schools (Widespread Panic), among others.

They’ve since added Danny Louis on keyboards (2002), and a permanent bassist, Jorgen Carlsson (2008). With The Allman Brothers Band now gone, and Lynyrd Skynyrd wrapping its final nostalgic tour, Gov’t Mule takes the mantle as one of the last bands carrying on the Southern rock legacy.

Monday night’s performance opened with “Bad Little Doggie,” an uptempo number that castigates a metaphorical love interest who stayed out all night, returning home in the morning smelling of guilt. This was followed by “Blind Man in the Dark.” Both numbers are great scene setters for a Mule show. Two standouts in the eight song first set were the hard-living anthem “Rocking Horse” and “Thorazine Shuffle,” an ode to self medication.

My vantage point for this concert was spectacular, Row C, just left of center, to the side where Haynes was set up. It was a pleasure to have such close proximity to this master craftsman, from which to observe him work. Haynes speed on the frets and clean fingering of notes was wicked impressive.

The scene at intermission is why folks love Iroquois Amphitheater. It was a perfect summer night, warm with clear skies. As the cover of darkness fell, the heads were free to roam the elevated walkway in the rear of the pavilion, out into the grassy expanse that strategically failed to be lighted. The haze was thick and staff left peaceful pursuits alone.

Set two showcased an aspect of Gov’t Mule’s repertoire that is a fan favorite – giving referential recitations to other artists’ music, affectionately known as cover songs. This evening those in attendance were treated to multiple gems, including “Eyesight to the Blind” by Sonny Boy Williamson, “The Other One” jam from the Grateful Dead that was  incorporated into Mule’s “Fallen Down,” “Kind of Bird” by The Allman Brothers Band, and the epic closer “32-20 Blues” by Robert Johnson.

Gov’t Mule | 32-20 Blues | Iroquois Amphitheater | Louisville, KY | 06.24.19

Haynes looked the best I’ve seen him in years. He had clearly lost considerable weight, his skin tone was better and the man looked like a healthier Warren. The concert concluded at 11PM, and away we went with music in our ears into the evening for what came next.

Again, beautiful summer night, outside on a Monday in Louisville, with Warren Haynes on guitar – yep I “Got Mule.”

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Late Night Dining in Louisville at The Silver Dollar

I was faced with an interesting predicament recently. I took in an 8PM Friday performance of “Hamilton” in downtown Louisville. It ended at 11PM. By the time I was out of the garage and on the road it was nearly 11:30. Where could I drive that was still serving, that wasn’t greasy drunk pizza or mediocre bar cuisine? The answer was The Silver Dollar on Frankfort Avenue.

No doubt I was pushing the envelope. The kitchen at The Silver Dollar closed at midnight. But hopping on I-64, I was walking up to this red brick edifice in the Clifton neighborhood of Louisville by 11:45. Don’t get me wrong, I hate jetting in that close to shut down, but the hostess and waitstaff were nothing but polite and welcoming.

It was clear The Silver Dollar inhabited a former fire station. Built in 1890, this used to house Hook and Ladder Company No. 3 until 2009. Inside the fire poles, fireman’s map of the city and old call boxes remained as vestiges of the building’s former life.

The restaurant was longer than it was wide. Weathered brick walls stood untouched and offered the perfect backdrop to the strings of colorful lights running throughout. The muted reds, greens, and blues created a cantina feel and threw shadows into the alcoves and corners where diners and drinkers sat conversating.

With the fire engine door rolled up an immense entryway further lengthened the space and gave the brick enclosure a certain airy quality. Diners seated near the entrance were treated to urban views of street passersby and the festive goings-on at the Hilltop Tavern across the way.

The primary takeaway about The Silver Dollar is bourbon. It’s lit up in neon on the sign out front, “Whiskey by the Drink.” Behind a 42-foot bar fashioned from reclaimed tobacco barns and old distillery rick houses, on plank shelves running the length of the bar sat the collection. They stock a lot of Kentucky’s native spirit. I lost count after some 200 different selections on the whiskey menu.

I’m a big Eagle Rare fan, and they carry several house select single barrels over 10 years of age at $14 a glass. There are a serious number of bourbons priced $30 a glass and up, topping out at $200 for John E. Fitzgerald 20 YR. That makes Pappy Van Winkel’s Family Reserve 23yr a virtual steal at $135 a glass.

To be fair there also are a head-spinning number of thoroughly interesting and satisfying pours at $10 and under. Not to mention the rotating choice of labels daily at $3 a glass. Then there is the rye, beer, wine and the tequila collection is impressive as well.

Strike up a conversation with any bartender. They are knowledgeable about everything bourbon, from the cheap, to the trendy, to the purple unicorns of pours. They love a good chat, mix a mean cocktail and are efficient at what they do.

Silver Dollar in Louisville. (Lauryn Morris)

This alone could draw plenty of folks inside. Yet The Silver Dollar’s story gets deeper. The owners envisioned a melting pot of sorts, inspired by the unintended results of the 1930s Dust Bowl. When residents of the Midwest and South were driven from their homes to the fertile West of California, locals ostracized them, referring to the newcomers as Okies. This banded together these displaced inhabitants, and they entertained themselves with their own unique brand of rough, hardscrabble country music that was as tough as the folks who played it. It became known as the “Bakersfield Sound.”

The Silver Dollar pays homage to this Bakersfield melting pot with its sprawling juke joint fashion and soundtrack to match. It’s subtle but heavy atmospheric when matched with the lighting, firehouse, food and bourbon. I doubt it’s quiet in here at rush hour, but around midnight it was perfectly chill on this Friday.

You can say the kitchen features its own version of the “Bakersfield Sound” in that it’s a mixture of talents turning out Texas fare, Southern staples and south of the border specialties. There are house fried pork rinds in rosemary & salt, baskets of buttermilk fried chicken livers, short ribs, baby back ribs, chicken & waffles, fried catfish, monstrous burgers and even a beer can hen (sitting atop an Old Milwaukee can).

Considering the late hour, I went with something comforting and simple – chili. Texas style to be exact, with white cheddar, pickled jalapeños, onions, cilantro and cornbread. A heaping bowl arrived filled with dense chunks of tender simmered beef, seasoned less than Texas hot. Mix in all the trimmings and splash the bowl with the house-made arbol hot sauce and the chili was spot on for a decadent midnight treat.

Drop in to see why GQ magazine named The Silver Dollar one of the Top 10 whiskey bars in America.

The Silver Dollar | 1761 Frankfort Avenue | Louisville, KY | 502.259.9540

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Hamilton Performance Dazzles the Senses

Whether one is a fan of the theater or not, it was virtually impossible to miss the promotional onslaught and news coverage surrounding “Hamilton: An American Musical” upon its arrival in Louisville for a June 4-23 engagement at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts.

This Tony-Award winning musical came from the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who starred in the original, and incorporates rap, hip-hop, R&B, pop and soul to tell the story of American founding father Alexander Hamilton. The subject may sound dry on the surface, but Miranda has taken the story, inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, “Alexander Hamilton,” and turned it into an edgy re-telling of Hamilton’s importance in the country’s formation.

The musical debuted Off-Broadway in February 2015, and was sold-0ut through its run. In August 2015, “Hamilton” made the transition to Broadway and received unprecedented advance box office sales. It was nominated for a record 16 Tony Awards, winning 11 in 2016, including Best Musical. “Hamilton” went on to receive a 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The crazy thing is with all the hype behind this production, and the expectations that come with it for attendees at each performance, it meets and exceeds whatever bar one might apply to a theater experience. It’s one of those performances that transcends the normal boundaries of popularity. It has become a happening, a groundbreaking occurrence, that continues to draw sold out audiences some four years later.

Upon arriving at the show in Louisville, there was an impressive number of groups, families and couples that clearly had made a pilgrimage to see this performance. Pictures were being snapped with attendees together before billboards and banners to memorialize the moment. Many near our balcony seats discussed how this was not their first time seeing “Hamilton.” That is rarefied air, and in a place like Louisville, which is not the most affluent of major cities, to have a three week run where most seats are going for $200 each – it’s quite something to fill the house each night and twice on Saturday and Sunday.

Conveyed primarily through rap lyrics, the show details the baggage that comes with Hamilton being an orphan, and an immigrant who arrives in New York from the West Indies, with a confident strategy to join other young rebels in the fight for American independence.

Alexander Hamilton ~ Lin-Manuel Miranda @ White House Poetry Jam

One of the early highlights is Hamilton expressing his vision to friend Aaron Burr, among other young influencers, portrayed in the song, “My Shot.”

My Shot ~ Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hamilton Cast

It was brilliant to witness this use of hip-hop as the soundtrack to the American Revolution. From the moment the house lights fell at 8:03 until three hours later, minus a 20 minute intermission, it was non-stop action. There is this initial buy in that must be made by everyone who attended in Louisville – that when the actors bum rushed the stage it quickly became clear that  Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, etc., were all portrayed by men of color. To Manuel’s credit, and the audience’s, all bought into this vision within the flash of an eye.

The use of African Americans in these roles was not by accident mind you. The entire cast featured a majority of men and women of color and differing races, many laced with tattoos and eye catching hair styles not usually displayed in a Broadway setting. It was a statement that further became clear during the performance of the unavoidable contribution people of color and those coming from different cultural backgrounds contributed during this crucial time of America’s formation.

Comic relief came in the form of King George III. He only made a few spot entrances with song, which intensified his humorous portrayal. Dressed in full royal red and gold garb, King George was the splitting image of a spoiled, arrogant, and detached autocrat, grown lethargic from generations of being a member of the ruling class.

The Songs of King George III from Hamilton

As the performance evolved, we see Hamilton become Gen. Washington’s right-hand man through the Revolutionary War. Meanwhile a quiet rivalry simmers to a boil with Aaron Burr. The show bristles with a raw intensity, athletic and sensual dance moves, frequent cursing and sexual escapades. The story continues to build, including some epic rap battles between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.

And just as furious as “Hamilton” rushed to life when the curtain rose, Hamilton died in a duel with his now nemesis Aaron Burr and the stage fell silent. It left a sold out crowd speechless momentarily, until waves of standing ovations erupted through the theater.

If a chance presents itself to see “Hamilton” make that opportunity happen. It’s a performance that is in a class by itself.

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Leah Chase, Queen of Creole Cuisine, Passes Away

She was a New Orleans original. Leah Chase, chef and restauranteur, known to the culinary world as the Queen of Creole Cuisine, passed away June 1. She was 96.

For decades now Chase was widely recognized as a cultural icon, a piece of living history, who continued working in her world renowned restaurant, Dooky Chase’s, located in the Treme section of New Orleans, until her passing.

If you were feeling down, Dooky Chase’s was the place to go. Chef Chase’s cooking would put a smile back on your face, and soon after visiting you would feel right as rain.

For it wasn’t merely the cooking. It was Chase’s personality, demeanor and mile-wide smile that warmed the coldest blues away. Dooky Chase’s was a mile marker for times gone by and for what the woman behind it endured on her road to becoming this beloved cultural figure. Whatever troubles most may face down, try walking a mile in the shoes of Leah Chase. She was an African-American female who owned a restaurant in the segregated deep South of the 1960s.

Chase was a civil rights activist, and her historic restaurant was on the front lines of the fight to secure equal rights for African Americans. It was one of the only locations in New Orleans, where white and black activists were welcomed to dine, defying the law of the day by providing a safe haven. In the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr. would join local leaders like Thurgood Marshall and Ernest “Dutch” Morial, to strategize over piping hot dishes of her famous Gumbo Z’herbes in the upstairs meeting room at Dooky’s.

“One of her most prized contributions was advocating for the Civil Rights Movement through feeding those on the front lines of the struggle for human dignity,” said a statement from Chase’s family.

Born on January 6, 1923 in New Orleans, Chase was one of 14 children. She was raised in the small town of Madisonville, LA. There were no high schools for black children, so after sixth grade, Chase moved to New Orleans to live with an aunt. After completing high school, Chase had a colorful work history including managing two amateur boxers and becoming the first woman to mark the racehorse board for a local bookie. Her favorite job, though, was waiting tables in the French Quarter. It was here that she developed her love for food and feeding others.

In 1946, she married local musician Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr., whose father had opened a street corner stand selling lottery tickets and his wife’s homemade po’boy sandwiches in 1939. Eventually, Leah and Dooky Jr. took over the business, which by 1941, had become a sit-down restaurant and a favorite local gathering place. Under Chef Chase’s guidance, Dooky Chase’s became one of the first African American owned and operated fine dining establishments in the United States.

She served Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, along with countless entertainers like Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, and Quincy Jones. Charles even mentioned the restaurant in his song, “Early in the Morning.” Chase was the inspiration for the Princess Tiana character, Disney’s first African America princess, in the “Princess and the Frog.” Beyoncé featured a cameo of her in the video for “Lemonade,” and Chase earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the James Beard Foundation in 2016.

One of Chase’s most famous statements was, “To be a woman you have to look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man, and work like a dog.”

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed Dooky Chase’s, but two years later Chase reopened her restaurant.

“People said well, what are you going to do at your age. There was only one thing for me to do. No matter what you do on this Earth, do it and do it well,” said Chase.

On a personal level, as someone who grew up in the border-south region of Kentucky, Leah Chase was one of the first ambassadors of New Orleans cuisine I identified back in the 1980s. Since this was before the Internet, it required quite a presence to emanate beyond certain geographic boundaries.

It was Chase’s recipes that first schooled me in how to make a roux and introduce the subtle use of heat in dishes like shrimp & Andouille gumbo, jambalaya, and crawfish étouffée.

Before eventually moving to New Orleans, I sought out dining at Dooky Chase’s on early pilgrimages to the Crescent City. It was here I learned what real fried chicken was truly about, and found an appreciation for greens, okra and red beans & rice.

I am indebted to Chase’s tolerance and quiet dignity. It’s comforting to know that Ms. Chase will live on as the spiritual grand matron of N’awlins.

“In this restaurant, in some ways, we really changed the course of America, and I say we changed the course of America over a bowl of gumbo,” said Chase.

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Dr. John, A New Orleans Original, Takes the Big Adios

He was known as Dr. John, the Night Tripper, part hoodoo medicine man, part psychedelic parishioner. The individual behind this persona was Mac Rebennack, who as a person and musician, embodied all the mysticism that fills the heart and soul of New Orleans. Rebennack died June 6 at the age of 77.

New Orleans is littered with boogie woogie piano players. Setting Rebennack apart from the crowd was his virtuoso capabilities on the piano and guitar. Add to this his flamboyant personification of the New Orleans spirit, and this earned Dr. John a top tier spot with Louisiana keyboard greats like Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Art Neville, Huey “Piano” Smith, James Booker and Jerry Lee Lewis.

To attend a Dr. John show was the equivalent of a Mardi Gras celebration, cut with a voodoo ceremony and the rambunctious nature of a traveling medicine show. There was funk, blues, a dash of jazz and pop, and rock-n-roll all mixed together that dripped thick with New Orleans, like the mixing bowl that city has always been.

DR. JOHN w/THE BAND – SUCH A NIGHT ~ The Last Waltz (11.25.76)

His bandmates would set a hard funky beat for several minutes before the Night Tripper would come strutting out onto the stage, always at his own pace. In the second half of Dr. John’s career he was New Orleans royalty, and never had to move fast for anyone.

Rebennack always looked the part, sporting a fashionable chapeau to compliment his pointed greying beard, tribal beads were strung around his neck and he carried along his trademark oversized wooden walking stick. This accessory was a sight to behold, adorned with voodoo beads, a yak bone, an alligator tooth and milestone rings from Narcotics Anonymous. It spoke volumes about the life of the man who carried it.

Born Nov. 20, 1941 in New Orleans, his awakening as a musician began around age 12, when he started performing with Professor Longhair, and was tutored on guitar by Walter (Papoose) Nelson, who played guitar for Fats Domino. Rebennack would play guitar up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week – sitting in at Bourbon Street clubs and strip joints.

He dropped out of high school to pursue his passion full time after the Jesuits informed a young Rebennack that he would need to steer clear of the New Orleans clubs. By the late 1950s, his professional career was off and running as he became a well regarded session musician on the scene. To his credit, Rebennack would piece together integrated bands, which at the time was not something commonly seen, especially in the deep South.

This life brought with it certain perils that are all too familiar to those who make a living after midnight. Rebennack took part in many of the criminal hustles of the day and developed a well recognized and lengthy heroin habit. A pivotal moment came in the early 1960s, when Rebennack aided a friend being attacked, and was shot in the ring finger of his left hand. This necessitated a switch in musical instruments, from guitar to piano.

In 1968, Rebbenack recorded “Gris-Gris,” which captured his unique blend of the New Orleans sound, Creole magic and psychedelic rock. Included on this debut was the Dr. John classic, “I Walk on Guilded Splinters.” This record also saw the introduction of Rebbenack’s Dr. John character.

DR. JOHN – I WALK ON GUILDED SPLINTERS (1968)

This classic blending of styles and sounds was further evidenced on the 1972 recording, “Dr. John’s Gumbo.” Allen Toussaint produced and the Meters backed up Dr. John’s recordings of New Orleans classics like “Iko Iko” and “Tipitina.”

Hit songs were not something that defined a performer like Dr. John. He was more atmospheric and the duly appointed representative of the New Orleans sound, yet he did score one Top 40 single in 1973, “Right Place Wrong Time,” that reached No. 9 on the Billboard chart.

DR. JOHN – RIGHT PLACE WRONG TIME

Considering all the albums he recorded, more than 30, winning six Grammy Awards and a 2011 induction into the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame, records were not the part of his musical career that earned him the most money. It was his side gig cutting jingles and theme music. There was Popeyes chicken, Scott tissue and Oreo cookies. His trademark delivery was heard by a new generation of young people in the theme music for “Blossom” and in the opening song of the “Curious George” cartoon. Rebennack also was the inspiration for Dr. Teeth, the leader of the Electric Mayhem on the Muppets.

You can also credit Dr. John as responsible for providing the name given to a little music festival that takes place annually in Manchester, TN. Organizers were researching old recordings to find inspiration in naming their new festival, and came upon Dr. John’s 1974 release, “Desitively Bonnaroo.” The Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival has continued to grow in size and influence since 2002, pulling in 80,000-plus attendees annually.

Rebennack gave voice to his blending of sounds and culture in his 1994 autobiography, “Under a Hoodoo Moon,” saying, “In New Orleans, in religion, as in food or race or music, you can’t separate nothing from nothing. Everything mingles each into the other – Catholic saint worship with gris-gris spirits, evangelical tent meetings with spiritual-church ceremonies – until nothing is purely itself but becomes part of one funky gumbo.”

Mac Rebennack was a man with one funky soul. We’re going to miss you Dr. John – R.I.P.

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Thurby @ Churchill Downs Goes Gonzo

On a gorgeous Thursday before the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby I had a choice to make. On one hand there was work. On the other hand there was venturing to Churchill Downs for Derby week festivities. The Thursday before Derby has become an official part of the Derby celebration, and is marketed as “Thurby.”

Most visitors arrive in Louisville on Thursday, but don’t make the track until Friday for the Kentucky Oaks, or Saturday for the Derby. This leaves Thursday as a locals day at Churchill. Those wanting a taste of the energy that surrounds Louisville leading up to the first Saturday in May, can put on their finery and hit Thurby, without enduring all the chaos of mega crowds or escalated ticket prices.

Ultimately, what swayed my decision was the planned anniversary celebration by Churhill Downs for Hunter S. Thompson’s essay, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.”

Churchill was going Gonzo. The good Doctor’s famed illustrator, Ralph Steadman, was returning to the track for the first time since his booze-filled escapades with Thompson 49 years prior. For the occasion the Welsh-born Steadman, 82, created a special edition print for sale at Churchill exclusively.

I mean come on, it’s Dr. Gonzo. I had to go pay my respects.

A 20-spot scored parking in the front yard of an apartment complex walking distance to the gates. A general admission grandstand ticket could be had for a paltry $22.

The scene inside Thurby was banging. It skewed considerably younger than Oaks or Derby. These attendees were immaculately groomed. Clearly the guys had gotten the memo that neatly trimmed facial hair was the way to go. The vest, tightly fitted, with a jacket or without, was the article of choice for wear by men. It was that dress accessory that allowed one’s flavor or personality to be expressed. One of my favorites was a faded blue suit/vest combo splashed with white Storm Trooper heads.

Now beg your pardon, but goodness to God, there was explosive cleavage as far as the eye could see! At times it was impossible to find anywhere to look away. Impending doom undulated around every turn, as enormous, gravity defying racks stretched their taffeta boundaries as golden orbs sought their escape from push-up bra subjugation.

This was an upwardly mobile population by and large, educated and conversant with belonging to a gym. The vast majority were trim and willowy. And let’s not forget hats, hats, hats (big, small and everywhere in-between), dotted the landscape. Even the guys donned chapeaus in large numbers, as they puffed on fat, hand rolled cigars.

The first order of business was cocktails. Old Forester was the sponsor of Thurby, and its Old Fashioned was the signature drink. Mint Juleps were infinitely available for sale, but the sugar content is vicious, and what does one do with a fragile souvenir glass after consuming the cocktail. Few sounds are more tragic than hearing a Derby glass shatter on concrete. It’s a distinct noise, and anyone in earshot lets out a heavy sigh of condolence for the downing of a lost compatriot.

Winning Splat | Ralph Steadman | Thurby 2019

The Old Fashioned was spirited and not cheap. One was sufficient in the steady heat. Besides I was running on Gonzo power this day. Speaking of, locating where Steadman’s Thurby print was for sale became my next task.

After a few twists and turns across the plaza, I located a row of white tents tucked away off the main drag. I plunked down my $25, and now had a cardboard tube to wag around the remainder of the day. Steadman was on-site signing items in the same area, but the queue began at 11AM. In this heat that was not a viable option.

I needed to sit a spell, preferably in shade. One of the inherent drawbacks to general admission tickets is one can get stuck on the long rows of metal benches spanning the grandstand level, either exposed to the blazing sun or without cover in case of rain. I anticipated Churchill would adhere to assigned seating, like at Oaks or Derby, but this was not the case. No ushers were staffing entranceways in the common areas for Thurby.

I started on the benches before exploring better confines upstairs. On level two my friends and I commandeered a box with folding chairs. Up the half-flight to a lofted level came another box, but with cushioned folding chairs, overlooking the homestretch near the finish line. It was a pristine view, and ultimately came included with my $22 general admission ticket.

While I entered the day with aspirations of laying down Derby wagers for Saturday’s race, that quickly became an unrecognizable dream. My brainpan was going in a million splintered directions. Far and away too many to hone in on what horses might finish in what order in a race two days from now. Besides it was way more fun to party out in the plaza. A stage was set up, where a DJ and full band were spinning tunes. This vantage point allowed a perfect view of the paddock area, where the horses paraded through on their way to the next race.

By 6PM the sun had taken its toll. With poster in hand I made a beeline for my vehicle and its soothing air conditioning.

Thurby exceeded all expectations. While horse racing was remotely involved, it was more of a social gathering, with heavy cocktails. A venue to see and be seen, and with a crowd of around 48,000, it was considerably more manageable to navigate than the 100,000 at Oaks or the more than 150,000 at the Kentucky Derby.

Hunter Thompson was spot on when he said, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” I’ll saddle up for Thurby again come next year.

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