Tuesday, July 26, 2016

My Swedish lessons at Toronto's Festival of Beer

Johan Spendrup

I was having dinner and a couple of beers at the Richmond House Hotel in Fort Augustus, Scotland earlier this month when a Swedish family sat down at the table beside me. We got chatting and the father told me he was heavily involved with home brewing and he talked about trends in Swedish beer.

It made me realize that aside from Carlsberg, which I primarily associate with Denmark, and Pistonhead Kustom Lager, a run of the mill brand which got a marketing push in Canada a few years ago, I didn't know much about Swedish beer.

That changed on Friday when I met Johan Spendrup, the chief executive officer and brewmaster of Gotlands Bryggeri (and the brother of the man responsible for Pistonead), at Toronto's Festival of Beer. This year's fest put Sweden in the spotlight and featured 28 brands from six Swedish breweries.

While overly refreshed patrons were walking by and asking for Ikea beer, Spendrup generously took time to pour me each of his beers he had available at the fest from Sweden's first craft brewery and to explain about each one, while also telling me more about the Swedish brewing industry.

The first one I had was Wisby Hopfenweise, a 5.6-per cent alcohol beer made with 60 per cent wheat malt, light caramel malt and Bavarian malt as well as Chinook, Magnum and Centennial hops. It's fermented in open tubs. It poured dark gold and had a lovely aroma with a hint of banana. It comes in at 30 IBU and has a slightly bitter taste with a hint of acidity.

Next up was Sitting Bulldog IPA, an American IPA that was amber in colour and poured with a rich white head. The 6.4-per cent beer uses only American hops (Centennial, Chinook and Amarillo) and crystal and light caramel malts from an island off the coast of Sweden. It was a little more malt-heavy than I like my IPAs.

Great White Bulldog Wheat IPA is an American pale wheat ale made with 55 per cent wheat malt and hops from four continents. The 7.2-per cent beer pours golden orange with a medium, foamy white head. The taste is complex and somewhat fruity with citrus elements, and it's a bit heavier than most wheat beers.

I was aware that IPAs have taken off in Sweden from my conversation in Scotland, but I was surprised to see how many sour and gose beers there were at the festival. I'm not much of a fan of either style, so I stuck more to what I know and like when trying some of the other Swedish beers.

Omnipollo Leon Belgian Pale Ale poured orangey gold and is made with Amarillo and Simcoe hops and champagne yeast. The 6.5-per cent beer is mildly fruity, slightly acidic and has a decently dry finish. It's quite refreshing.

Omnipollo Mazarin Pale Ale is cloudy orange with a nice white head and has a hint of melon in its bouquet. It's made with Columbus, Amarillo, Chinook, Citra and Simcoe Hops. The 5.6-per cent beer registers 48 on the IBU scale but it tastes more bitter than that.

Omnipollo Viktor IPA is a hazy, pale gold that poured with a big white head. The 7.5-per cent beer has a lovely aroma with touches of fruit and brett, and the brett is quite evident to taste. It's quite bitter and has a crisp finish.

Omnipollo Olympus Mons Imperial IPA is made with Mosaic, Simcoe and Columbia hops. It has an eight-per cent alcohol content, and that comes through a bit too much in the flavour. It's OK but I had hoped for more.

Omnipollo Nebuchadnezzar Imperial IPA is dark gold and had a small white head. It has an 8.5-per cent alcohol content. While the aroma and flavour are complex, I didn't particularly enjoy it.

Dugges All The Way Session IPA poured gold with a thick white head. It's made with barley malt and Amarillo, Cascade, Columbus and Citra hops. The 4.2-per cent beer has a nice floral bouquet with a hint of pineapple, and there's a bit of pine in the flavour before finishing dry.

Dugges Orange Haze IPA is cloudy gold with a light white head and a light fruit aroma. The 6.4-per cent beer is made with barley malt and Columbus, Citra and Cascade hops. There's a hint of fruitiness in the taste but no overt orange element jumped out. There was some bitterness and a crisp, dry finish.

Poppels Bryggeri Session IPA is dark gold/orange and had little head. The 4.2-per cent beer has a fruit and malt aroma and a slightly malty flavour. It's mildly bitter, slightly malty, dry and relatively indistinct.

Poppels Bryggeri Fatserie 006 Single Hop IPA Southern Passion is made exclusively with Southern Passion hops from South Africa. The 6.5-per cent beer is pumpkin orange and has a slightly resinous aroma and finish. Melon and blueberry flavours make for a relatively juicy brew.

Tempel Brygghus Surpene Rhubarb Sour IPA is dark gold and pours with a creamy head. The 5.7-per cent beer has an acidic nose and flavour, and you can taste the rhubarb. This was my least favourite of the Swedish beers I sampled.

While I was in the Swedish section, women were walking around with trays of Aalborg Taffel Akavit, a Danish schnapps with 45 per cent alcohol that has a licorice flavour but isn't as sweet as Ouzo or Sambuca. I didn't need a second shot.

I walked around to see what else would catch my interest and came across a few breweries that were new to me.

Sextant Craft Brewery is from Etobicoke and its Why So Sirius? is a 4.8-per cent summery, light pale ale with elements of mango and citrus. It's dry-hopped and has a crisp finish from its 33 IBU bitterness. It's solid but nothing exceptional, but I like brewmaster Dave Wingfelder and wish him well.

Brock Street Double Vision IPA is an amber beer with a small white head. It's made with New Zealand hops and is fairly bitter. The 7.5-per cent alcohol content is a little too evident.

High Park Brewery's Off the Leash unfiltered IPA is a 6.5-per cent beer made with English and American west coast hops. It's amber and pours with a medium head. It has a citrus-hop aroma and flavour and comes in at 57 on the IBU scale.

I met up with Spendrup the next night at Reposado, a Toronto bar best known for its tequilas and mezcals, but which also has a small selection of craft beers and ciders on tap. I introduced him to two Canadian beers and he bought a round of high-end tequila. 

Spendrup also turned out to be a big music fan and had heard of the Horseshoe Tavern, since Triumph had played there in the band's early days, so I took him there since I know all of the staff and owners and could help make him feel more at home. There was more beer and liquor consumed until we reached our limits and went our separate ways for the night. Hopefully our paths will cross again.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

13 days and 77 beers and ciders in the U.K.

I've never been much of a Scotch drinker, nor have I developed an appreciation for most of the Scottish or Scottish-style ales available in Canada. So since discovering and trying new beers is often a big part of my travels, Scotland may have seemed like an unlikely summer vacation destination.

However, much like in North America, there's been a craft brewery explosion in the United Kingdom in recent years. And I was able to take advantage of that during 11 days of sightseeing, exploring, hiking and drinking in Scotland and two days in London this month.

I've compiled lists of my favourite beers and ciders that I've never had before this recent trip and sampled for the first time, as well as all of the others. A handful of them weren't made in the U.K. but I've included them anyway since they're available there.

Top 10 beers

1. BrewDog Jet Black Heart Nitro

I got this sublime and slightly sweet oatmeal milk stout on tap in BrewDog's Camden pub in London. With 4.7 per cent alcohol content, it would be easy to enjoy several of them in a single sitting, and it tastes so good and goes down so smoothly that you'll probably want to.


2. Hogs Back Montezuma's Chocolate Lager
This collaboration between Guildford-based Hogs Back Brewery and the Montezuma chocolate company was a deserving gold medal winner in the International Specialty Beer Challenge in 2014. The 4.5-per cent brew looks like a regular lager but has a white chocolate nose and flavour with a hint of vanilla. It's not what I expected but it was excellent.

3. Beavertown Gamma Ray American Pale Ale
This cloudy gold, 5.4-per cent beer pours with a nice head and a bold citrus and hop aroma. London's Beavertown Brewery makes it with three malts and five hops. It offers a tropically fruity flavour that's well-balanced in combination with a decent amount of bitterness that comes in at 55 IBU.

4. BrewDog Elvis Juice
This 6.5-per cent American IPA is dark gold and provides a big grapefruit flavour and finish through the addition of grapefruit peel. The citrus and hops combination on top of a caramel malt base is delicious.

5. Franciscan Well Chieftain IPA
This 5.5-per cent, unfiltered amber ale from Cork, Ireland has a nice floral hop aroma and a somewhat complex flavour profile from ale malt and Citra, Tettnanger and Magnum hops. It's not so bitter that it will scare off those who don't like bolder IPAs, but there's enough there to satisfy those who do. It finishes very nicely.

6. Adnams Southwold Jack Brand Mosaic Pale Ale
Made exclusively with Mosaic hops by the Suffolk-based brewery, this 4.1-per cent alcohol ale is vivid gold and pours with a rich head and subtle hop aroma. Flavours that emerge include a nicely balanced blend of mango, peach, lemon and pine, leading to a nicely hopped finish.

7. Williams Brothers Birds & Bees Golden Summer Ale
This 4.3-per cent ale is made by the Alloa, Scotland brewery with a blend of lager malt and Cascade, Amarillo and Nelson Sauvin hops, with a late infusion of elderflower. It has a floral aroma but is surprisingly bitter. It's complex, flavourful and very good.

8. The Kernel India Pale Ale
This 6.7-per cent IPA brewed by The Kernel in the London suburb of Bermondsey uses Mosaic, Citra, and Centennial Simcoe hops and is closer to American-styled hop-forward ales than most British beers.

9. BrewDog Vagabond Pale Ale
Scotland's best known craft brewery is acclaimed for its experimental beers, but this dark gold, 4.5-per cent ale has a nice citrus hop aroma that has a little gentler hop flavour than expected and an excellent finish. This may be the best gluten-free beer I've ever had.

10. Loch Ness Brewery Smokie Ness Rocking Red Ale
This five-per cent amber ale is made in collaboration with Yorkshire rock band Smokie and was rather unique and a pleasant surprise. Ingredients include honey, ginger and a variety of hops and malt. The smokiness hits you first and then the ginger makes its way to your palate in the finish.

The others (in alphabetical order)
Anderson Valley Hop Ottin' IPA
Awesome Ness Amber Ale
Bellhaven Black Scottish Stout
Bellhaven St. Andrews Ale
Bellhaven Twisted Thistle IPA
Black Isle Organic Blonde Lager
Black Isle Organic Porter
Black Isle Red Kite Ale
Black Isle Organic Yellow
BrewDog 5 a.m. Saint
BrewDog Dead Pony Club
BrewDog Electric India Dry Hopped Saison
Broughton Hopopotamus IPA
Cairngorm Black Gold
Caledonian Deuchars IPA
Caledonian Coast to Coast Pale Ale
Caledonian Kickoff Summer Ale
Camden Pale Ale
Charles Wells/Dogfish Head DNA New World IPA
Cill Chuilmein Best Bitter
Crabbies Scottish Raspberry Ginger Beer
Cromarty Black Hop Down
Devils Backbone Eight Point IPA
Essex Street Brewery American Wheat
Famous Grouse Ginger Beer
Fierce Beer Lemmy 'Avit
Hebridean Brewing Islander Strong
Heverlee Premium Belgian Lager
Hogs Back Hopping Hog IPA
Howell's Howell at the Moon
Loch Ness Brewery Inver Ness Session IPA
Orkney Brewery Dark Island
Orkney Brewery Dragonhead Stout
Orkney Brewery Red MacGregor
Orkney Brewery Skull Splitter
Redwell India Pale Lager
Roosters California Common
St. Mungo Premium Lager
Skye Black
Skye Gold
Summer Wine Diablo IPA
Swannay Brewery Muckle IPA
Swannay Brewery Orkney Porter
Swannay Brewery Scapa Special Flagship Pale Ale
Uprising Brewery Treason
WEST Hefeweizen
Williams Brothers Ebulum Elderberry Black Ale
Williams Brothers Joker IPA
Williams Brothers Seven Giraffes Extraordinary Ale

Fruit-flavoured ciders (aside from the traditional apple and pear) have taken off in the U.K. much more than in Canada so far, as they're available in bottles and on tap in almost all pubs and in store refrigerators. Most of them are quite sweet and reminiscent of wine coolers and the like that had their moment in the sun a couple of decades back.

I'm assuming they're largely aimed at people who don't like beer or more traditional ciders, but still want to get buzzed with their friends at the bar or merely quench their thirst on one of those rare hot British days.

I sampled a mix of apple, pear and these new fruit hybrids. Here's what I found:

The best

1. Thistly Cross Traditional Cider

This Scottish 4.4-per cent alcohol cider pours light gold and has a mild apple aroma but a deep and rich flavour that's well-balanced and tastes very fresh. Excellent.


2. Westons Wyld Wood Organic Cider
This six-per cent cider from England's Herefordshire company is matured in oak vats and has a robust apple flavour and a ripe aroma.

3. Bulmers Wild Blueberry and Lime Cider
This 4.2-per cent English cider is dark red and has a strong blueberry flavour with a hint of lime. It's not too sweet.

4. Kopparberg Pear Cider
This 4.5-per cent Swedish perry is almost clear and although it's sweet it's still pretty well-balanced.

5. Stella Artois Cider
This pours medium gold and has a nice apple aroma. There's a nice balance between sweet and tart. I'll take this over the Belgian brewery's much better known lager.

The rest (in alphabetical order)
Aspall Waddlegoose Bullhead Cyder
Bottlekicking Cider Company Fullback
Bulmers Zesty Blood Orange Cider
Celtic Marches Down Down Cider
Kopparberg Mixed Fruit Cider
Magners Orchard Berries Cider
Old Mout Passionfruit and Apple Cider
Old Mout Pomegranate and Strawberry Cider
Rocquette Traditional Cider
Strongbow Dark Fruit Cider
Thatcher's Katy Cider
Tillington Hills Premium British Cider
White Star Refreshing Cider

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Saturday night at the Great Lakes Surf Battle

I attended Saturday night's edition of the 11th annual Great Lakes Surf Battle at The Cadillac Lounge, which was won by Montreal's The Men In Gray Suits.

I unfortunately arrived too late to see The Surfrajettes, but they were obviously a crowd favourite and finished a close second when it came to the audience response voting at the end of the night. As a frustratingly heterosexual male, they get my honourary award for best looking band of the night.

This is how I ranked the five bands I saw (and photographed), with a non-stage shot of The Surfrajettes added at the end so they're represented:

The Men in Gray Suits (Montreal)  
The Hang-Ten Hangmen (Vancouver)
The High Tides (Toronto)
The Reverb Syndicate (Ottawa)
The Black Eleven (Toronto)
The Surfrajettes (Toronto)

The fun and surf sounds continue tonight with performances by The Blue Demons at 8 p.m. and The Red Elvises at 9 p.m. to help the Cadillac celebrate its 16th anniversary. 

I won't be able to make it, but I definitely recommend both groups. It's been a few years since I've seen either of them, but they've always put a smile on my face. I've purchased lucha libre masks from The Blue Demons and I think I still have a Red Elvises sticker somewhere. The big red balalaika bass must be seen to be believed.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Adam and the Ants' Kings of the Wild Frontier

Adam and the Ants' Kings of the Wild Frontier first came to my attention shortly after its North American release by Epic Records in February 1981 and instantly became one of my favourite albums.

Its popularity soon spread among my peers and by that fall it formed part of the dressing room soundtrack for my high school football team. In retrospect, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that our team repeatedly went down to defeat at the hands of schools from small farming communities whose players got pumped up before games listening to heavy metal while my new wave teammates and I tried to do the same via Adam and the Ants, Jona Lewie and Landscape.

The face lost on the gridiron was (in my mind at least) more than made up for in musical taste, especially when it came to Kings of the Wild Frontier.

As its song lyrics suggested, this was "a new flavour" and "music for a future age." That future, however, arrived quickly in 1981 with a big and colourful splash after 1979's Dirk Wears White Sox debut fizzled commercially and a major lineup change ensued.

The arrival of percussionist Chris Hughes (using the pseudonym Merrick) and guitarist Marco Pirroni was key in the transformation of Adam and the Ants, as Hughes produced Kings of the Wild Frontier and Pirroni co-wrote all of its songs with lead singer Adam Ant.

The use of two drummers to propel the "Burundi beat" tribal rhythms, heavily reverbed guitar and Ant's unique vocals and lyrics made Kings of the Wild Frontier as innovative and refreshing as any album of the era. The vinyl was spun steadily on my turntable and my self-taped cassette version still received play in my former car until I finally had to junk it a few years back.

Now I finally have a digital version, as Sony Music/Legacy Recordings is releasing a deluxe Kings of the Wild Frontier on June 3 that includes the original album, B-sides, previously unreleased demo recordings and rough cuts, a previously unissued 1981 Chicago concert recording and rarities. Everything has been fully remastered from original tapes by Ant and Walter Coelho, and a vinyl LP version has also been pressed.

My advance digital copy also includes a short "Ants Invasion" video documenting the band's first American tour, the "Antmusic" and "Kings of the Wild Frontier" videos, a Top of the Pops performance of "Dog Eat Dog" and an Old Grey Whistle Test appearance. A DVD that I didn't receive includes a 1981 Tokyo concert and a few extra videos.

The songs still sound fresh 35 years after the fact and the remastered studio versions show how important Hughes was behind the mixing board when those tracks are listened to alongside the more sparse live renditions. The band became known for its visually impressive and charismatic performances, and energy is always evident even if musical virtuosity isn't. 

I never saw Adam and the Ants and only caught Ant once with different backing musicians when he was well past his prime three years ago at Toronto's Phoenix Concert Theatre. Still, hearing some of the songs from this reissue performed live still gave me a thrill and had me singing along.

I was also impressed by the package's inclusion of B-side "Fall In," which was new to me and appealed with its blend of punk and power pop elements and a Beach Boys-like vocal hook.

The Chicago concert recording also offers some non-Kings of the Wild Frontier material in "Cleopatra" and "Cartrouble" from Dirk Wears White Sox as well as early single "Zerox" and "Cartrouble" B-side "Kick!" There's also the previously unreleased and playful "A.N.T.S.," an entertaining parody of The Village People's "Y.M.C.A."

Anyone of an age where Kings of the Wild Frontier was a new and cherished discovery when it came out will be pleased to know that their enjoyment of the album can only be enhanced by this deluxe edition. And for those who may not be familiar with what the "Antmusic" craze was all about, this is a great way to discover a sound that may have been relatively short-lived but still deserves to be heard and enjoyed today.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Great music from noon to 3 a.m. on CMW Saturday

It was bed at 6 a.m. and bands at noon for my Saturday at the Canadian Music Week festival. Luckily, the two acts I got up and out for at The Garrison's front bar were worth it.

I bought a coffee at the bakery across the street and Windsor, Ont. power pop trio Huttch were preparing to go on when I brought it in and planted myself on a stool. The personable young band played its "Gimme Some More" single, "White Sheets," "Fake Conversation" and several other melodic and rocking guitar-driven songs that were interspersed by calls from the drummer out the club's open windows for passersby to come in and watch instead of shopping. I was given a download code for some songs and enjoyed them on my computer almost as much as I did in person.

The Spook School
By this time I was ready for a French Press Vanilla Stout, which I figured was a good breakfast beer, as Edinburgh, Scotland's The Spook School set up. The quartet shares the wealth on vocals and plays quirky, punky and sometimes jangly pop songs, many of them with thought-provoking LGBT themes. "I Want To Kiss You," "Burn Masculinity" and "Binary" were among the most infectiously catchy songs played to a too-small crowd. By the end of the set, the drummer had taken his shirt off to reveal a large tattoo and nipple tassels.

I returned home to work for three hours before venturing out again at 5:30 p.m. for the annual Music Nova Scotia Tiki party hosted by Mike Campbell at The Rivoli. Cam Carpenter had a couple of beer tickets waiting for me, and I filled myself on free seafood chowder, scallops, oysters and wraps.

Reeny Smith
Reeny Smith -- along with a bassist, keyboard player and two female backing singers -- delivered a soulful and funky three-song set.

Smith was followed by The Mike Bochoff Band, which reminded me somewhat of Frank Turner on one song and The Weakerthans on set-closer "Distractions."

I moved to The Rivoli's front bar to watch the second half of the Toronto Raptors-Miami Heat basketball game, and more and more people kept joining me to cheer the local team on to a hard-fought win.

Forever Distracted
It was time for more music as 8 p.m. rolled around, so I moved on to Cherry Cola's for a young Hamilton pop-punk quartet called Forever Distracted, which opened up promisingly with "Pay Day." A cover of The Police's "Message In A Bottle," with a different singer, wasn't nearly as successful. There were about 15 people in the audience, largely parents and girlfriends, when one of the guitarists picked up a trumpet to add a ska-punk element to a song. "Charlotte" had a reggae rhythm, the lead singer's girlfriend came on stage to sing a cover of Cee Lo Green's "Fuck You," and the band also covered Eiffel 65's "Blue (Da Ba De)." More and better original songs are needed, but there's potential here.

No Stories didn't show up for its 9 p.m. slot at Cherry Cola's so I went to  Velvet Underground for the first time since its recent renovations to see England's The Orielles, which I had really enjoyed on Thursday. A more ethereal Best Coast is one way I'd describe the group, but it's quite difficult to pigeonhole. Unlike two nights earlier, the band ended with a Sonic Youth-like instrumental extro that showed yet another side of a very promising young band. I had spoken with the trio's manager, Damian Morgan, outside The Rivoli and talked to him again at Velvet Underground. He's an interesting bloke who also manages The Specials' Terry Hall, whose shirt he was wearing.

Sam Cash and the Romantic Dogs
I'd seen Sam Cash and the Romantic Dogs a couple of times before and liked it, but the group's 10 p.m. set at the Horseshoe Tavern seemed to take things to a higher level than I remembered. There was a fine mix of roots rock and power pop at play, and I was impressed by songs from the new Tongue-In-Cheek Vows album, including lead single "Tossing & Turning," "That Was The Summer" and "You Can't Hurt Me."

I returned to The Rivoli for another Nova Scotia band called Walrus. The quartet played some new songs that it had only performed for the first time the previous night. When the band was in '60s psychedelic/garage rock mode it was quite effective. When it wasn't, the songs suffered despite consistently good musicianship throughout the set.

Attica Riots
I returned to the Horseshoe at 11:30 p.m. to hear the last song from Modern Space and then stuck around for a few numbers from Attica Riots, which I enjoyed. But I had bigger fish to fry.

Fat White Family
Fat White Family was one of the buzz bands at the beginning of the week, and the British band didn't disappoint. The sextet struck me as a mix of The Black Lips, Jesus and Mary Chain and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, with brooding songs that often somehow managed to maintain an uplifting underbelly. A dark surf song stood out in an exceptional and loud extended set that I still loved even after singer Lias Saoudi dumped part of his beer on me. I wasn't alone in my adulation as the packed front of the house was also totally digging things.

Ferraro's Losing Sleep is one of my favourite albums of the year thus far and the group played a late-night set on its home turf at The Cameron House that filled the front bar -- and deservingly so. From opening with its own "Shake It Off" and following it with a cover of The White Stripes' "Hotel Yorba," it was evident that good times (and several bottles of Collective Arts' Rhyme and Reason) were in store for me as I alternated between taking notes and dancing at the foot of the stage.

The quintet continued to mix great original songs like "My Girl For You," "Losing Sleep" and "Coffee Smokes" with well-chosen covers of The Crew Cuts' "Sh-Boom," The Beatles' "When I Saw Her Standing There," Bruce Springsteen's "Hungry Heart" (with guest vocalist Sam Cash), Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)," Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti," Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Born On The Bayou," Dion's "Runaround Sue" and The Band's "Up On Cripple Creek."

The choice of covers is reflective of Ferraro's overall sound. Losing Sleep is a blissful listen full of pop hooks and a healthy reverence for music from the 1950s and '60s that's at least twice as old as the band members. And the group pulls it off live while creating a fun party atmosphere.

By this time it was after 3 a.m. and, while it may have been possible to catch one more act at a nearby club, I was happy to end things on a high note that capped off what was probably my favourite Canadian Music Week festival of the past several years.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Pop thrills at Nightowl and Handlebar for CMW Thursday

My Thursday of the Canadian Music Week festival was divided between Nightowl and Handlebar and was likely the most consistently enjoyable night of the four I spent club-hopping.

The Kickstand Band
Nightowl is a relatively new live venue located in the basement of a bar/restaurant of the same name. It's an intimate space but seemed cavernous when I comprised half the audience at the beginning of The Kickstand Band's 8 p.m. set. The Detroit male-female, guitar-bass duo deserved much better, as they opened with "I Don't Care" and ended with "New Year's Eve." In between were several short, snappy and relatively simple but wonderfully melodic songs with a retro vibe, excellent harmonies and great pop hooks. The band's appreciation of well-crafted power pop was evident by its cover of the Dwight Twilley Band's "Looking For The Magic." The soundwoman came out from behind the board to dance, which was a nice touch, as was The Kickstand Band's use of house lamps with no shades as stage lighting.

Surf Dads
I then made my way to Kensington Market and Handlebar for Surf Dads. The four members looked too young to be dads but some of their songs delivered a surf-style guitar sound with a much tougher edge than offered by The Ventures. The loud quartet hails from Regina, Sask., which of course is renowned for its surfing. Several other songs were a mix of punk and alternative rock that didn't really stand out like what was produced by others who I saw on Thursday.

The Orielles
England's The Orielles -- comprised of a male guitarist/singer, female bassist/singer and female drummer all wearing what we called when I was a kid, flood pants -- followed. This was the young trio's first Canadian show  and it exhibited talent well beyond its years. There was sunny pop played with a raw edge but skilled precision. There were chiming guitars and a great mix of '60s garage rock and '80s power pop, but also some more atmospheric moments. The tempo changes were very proficient and the overall impression left was great. Gillian Zulauf gave me a three-song CD from The Orielles and a Woodhouse Stout. Both were much appreciated.

Thrifty Kids
The space in front of the stage filled up for Ottawa's Thrifty Kids. Lead singer/guitarist Sarah Cogan has a beautiful voice which she made fine use of on the enchanting "Cherry Wine," and the harmonies from the other members were also spot-on. The group often conveyed a vintage '60s pop sound with plenty of hooks and reverbed guitar, and a cover of "Twist and Shout" fit perfectly among the original numbers. There wasn't a lot of chatter between songs, but the music spoke my language and it went down quite well with a "Dark and Stormy" cocktail.

Laura & Greg
I returned to Nightowl just before midnight and Meltybrains? were just finishing what appeared to be quite a colourful set with band and audience members wearing white masks splashed with paint. That late finish meant that Laura & Greg didn't come on until 12:20 a.m. It appears that I'm a sucker for male-female duos that attract fewer than five people. Like The Kickstand Band, Laura & Greg deserved a much bigger audience after making the drive from New York City. He played guitar, she played keyboards, they both sang and their voices blended well together on finely crafted indie pop songs. Laura's voice was particularly captivating. I really liked what I heard and would be happy to see the duo again, but the late start meant that I had to leave before the end of the set to make the 20-minute walk back to Handlebar for 1 a.m.

The Magic Gang
Another British band, The Magic Gang, provided more well-crafted, classic pop music that was occasionally a bit quirky but always enticing. I'd make a mild Teenage Fanclub comparison. New song "All This Way" was a standout, as were the two final songs, "Alright" and "Jasmine." I hope to hear more from this quartet.

The final band of the night was Toronto outfit OL' CD. The quartet plays the kind of garage rock I want to hear at 2 a.m., and it seemed that sentiment was shared by the 20 people who crowded the front of the stage -- including two guys who play-wrestled on the stage during a cover of The Who's "My Generation." OL' CD delivered a crunch but also knows its way around a melody. All in all, it was a great way to end quite an entertaining night.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Tommy Stinson and New Swears top off CMW Friday

My Canadian Music Week festival got off to a late start on Friday due to another commitment, but it was far from a lost night.

The Vidos
Things began at Cherry Cola's at midnight with The Vidos, an energetic teenage rawk and roll trio that adds some boogie, funk and classic rock elements to its sound. The band is still developing, but the musicianship is already there and there's good growth potential. The Vidos played their single "Horseshoes," but my favourite song was "Sex Potion."

From there, I took advantage of a nice evening with a drink at the Bovine Sex Club's rooftop tiki bar with Cam Carpenter. Tommy Stinson was there with owner Daryl Fine, who he's apparently been friends with for 18 years. I shook Tommy's hand but didn't ask if he remembered buying me a beer before a Replacements show at London, England's Town and Country Club in the summer of 1987. I went downstairs to the main bar where a woman promptly spilled a beer down my back while watching We Are Monroe.

We Are Monroe
We Are Monroe were a somewhat commercial sounding modern rock band that I thought was proficient but certainly nothing special. The lead singer/guitarist had a decent voice that at times was vaguely reminiscent of Joy Division's Ian Curtis and at others like Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos. I was essentially using the band as a time-filler before Stinson, and I guess it played that role OK.

Tommy Stinson
Stinson and his three-piece band started 20 minutes late and I was surprised that the Bovine wasn't more packed, but perhaps the 2:20 a.m. start time and the fact he had played the Horseshoe Tavern the night before were contributing factors. Stinson played favourites including "It's A Drag" and "Making of an Asshole" (which he dedicated to Donald Trump) as well as several new and unreleased songs that I wasn't familiar with. There was an acoustic interlude for a handful of numbers before things got electrified again for a short run to close out the set.

Aside from two Replacements shows, this was my fourth time seeing Stinson. He's good, but nowhere near the songwriter that Paul Westerberg is. He's not a great singer or guitarist, but he's imbued with the spirit of rock and roll and that shines through in his songs and stage presence.

New Swears
Collective Concerts booker Craig Laskey told me that I would love Ottawa's New Swears, and since he seldom steers me wrong I continued east on Queen Street to the Horseshoe after 3 a.m. The quartet was playing a Billy Joel cover when I walked in and the group later covered the Allman Brothers Band's "Ramblin' Man." The originals reminded me of The Black Lips, as did the on- (and off-) stage antics. The members paraded through the small but appreciative audience, climbed on tables, formed human pyramids, pulled off contortionist moves and engaged in some wrestling -- all while still playing. Confetti cannons and cans of Silly String were going off regularly while all of this was going on. New Swears are the most fun band I've seen at CMW so far this week and I doubt anyone will top them on Saturday.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Mabel, Darts and Archie Powell highlight CMW Wednesday

Going into the Canadian Music Week festival on Wednesday evening I knew I'd get one knockout show and was hopeful of the same result for five more. The anticipated KO was delivered, while the final outcome was mixed on a night which took a turn after the clock struck 12.

The night began at The Painted Lady with Toronto quartet Spindrifter. The two guitarists were talented players who made a fair amount of use of their effects pedals to create a shoegaze/indie rock sound reminiscent of the early '90s. The group was very loud in the small room and perhaps wasn't mixed optimally, but the melodies I heard in the group's recorded work were largely missing on the stage. Spindrifter didn't live up to my expectations so I moved on before the end of its set.

Sydney, Australia's Mabel was probably the band that was formerly unknown to me that I was most looking forward to see at CMW and, after a bit of a slow start with the first two songs, the quartet soon started sounding the way I had envisioned. "Rachel" had a nifty '60s-sounding pop hook and a soulful vocal delivery and the momentum continued from there with the slightly psychy "Spaceman," most recent single "My Way," vintage power pop-sounding gem "I Wanna Love You" and other songs that were infectiously jangly and enjoyable. When washed down with a pint of Beau's Kissmeyer Nordic Pale Ale, it was a very tasty 40 minutes at Handlebar. Mabel is playing several shows during CMW, so I might see it again. You should as well.

Elk Walking
Up Augusta Avenue at Supermarket, Chicago's Elk Walking opened its set with "Dreams." Considering some of the group's songs remind me a bit of Fleetwood Mac, sharing a song title with that group was appropriate. Savanna Dickhut and Julian Daniell shared vocal duties, both solo and together, and also played guitar in front of another guitarist, bassist and drummer. A mild white funk rhythm spiced one number up and Daniell also played a djembe for a song. First single "Just Don't Know It Yet" was the highlight and the set ended with "Magic Potion." The set suffered from some technical issues that affected the sound and may have coloured my judgment, but I had hoped for more from Elk Walking.

The rest of my night was spent at the Bovine Sex Club, beginning at 11 p.m. with another Australian act, Darts. This was the three-women, two-men outfit's first show outside of its homeland, and its indie rock travelled well. The sound was somewhat dark, but with some uplifting moments, and the several time changes incorporated into their songs were handled very well. The somewhat spacey "Aeroplane" was a favourite along with the final song. The group members handed out free tote bags because they're not allowed to legally sell them in Canada. Darts might be playing more shows during CMW than any other band, and I advise you to catch one of them.

Archie Powell & The Exports
The Sick Things were supposed to follow at midnight, but something happened to change that so Chicago's Archie Powell & The Exports moved up an hour to take the time slot. This was the band I knew for sure would deliver since I've seen it twice before (although unfortunately just during abbreviated festival sets during North by Northeast and South by Southwest). I'd put the group's three albums from this decade (2010's Skip Work, 2012's Great Ideas in Action and 2014's Back in Black) against any other trio of records from the same period and say that they're cumulatively better. I was therefore disappointed to find out that the group isn't playing anything from the debut anymore.

But I was still satisfied with what was played, and how it was delivered to a disappointingly small crowd, with Powell bouncing around the stage and off his bandmates and losing his Blue Jays cap and his glasses in a great display of frenetic energy. The songs had the harder edge that came out more on Back in Black, but the hooks were still there, as was Powell's sense of humour between songs.

Punchline 13
I had nothing on my schedule after that, but my friend Jennifer showed up towards the end of Powell's set and convinced me to stick around even though we didn't know who was playing next. It turned out to be Montreal pop-punk band Punchline 13. Singer Sly Rawk took full advantage of his cordless microphone as he moved from the stage to the floor several times during a set that was a very pleasant surprise since the group wasn't originally on my "to see" list. Aside from a fun and shortened version of "Footloose," my favourite song was "What Will Yo Do." If you liked Simple Plan early on but not as much now, Punchline 13 might be a band for you.

Lost Cause
Jennifer thought the next band looked promising as it was setting up, so I ordered another can of Strongbow and stuck around for what turned out to be a young and loud power trio featuring two brothers from Oshawa called Lost Cause. My expectations weren't high, but the original aggressive alternative rock songs were surprisingly good and the cover of Nirvana's "Breed" was exemplary.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Bob Mould wins as Raptors lose

The Toronto Raptors threw a bit of a wrench into the start of my Canadian Music Week festival plans by playing a nail-biter of a game one in their National Basketball Association playoffs against the Miami Heat.

Bob Mould hit the Horseshoe Tavern stage with time running out in the game, which was extended into overtime through an unlikely half-court shot by Kyle Lowry as regulation time ran out.

So, my apologies to Mould, bassist Jason Narducy and drummer Jon Wurster if my attention was divided through the first 20 minutes of your set -- particularly because it hit the ground running at full speed by beginning with back-to-back Sugar dynamos in "A Good Idea" and "Changes." Luckily, as you'd expect from a Mould show, the volume was loud enough that I could hear everything from the rear of the back room and even when ducking into the front bar for hoops updates.

Those two opening salvos thankfully weren't the last Sugar songs we'd hear, as Mould dipped into his impressive catalogue that dates back 35 years with generous helpings of Husker Du and solo songs filling out a 70-minute set.

Mould's Fender Stratocaster still both shimmers and quakes, full of power but still with enough subtlety that he doesn't totally bludgeon the listener. His voice shows no signs of strain and adapts well to each song as they almost bleed into each other, as banter is kept to a minimum. Narducy and Wurster, excellent musicians in their own right, have been with Mould for years and it shows. The rhythm section was in lockstep with the frontman, creating a ferocious power trio -- the lineup composition that Mould has always preferred.

I've yet to hear all of Mould's new Patch The Sky album, but I'm sure that there were a few numbers from it thrown in to the set that fit the mood and tempo of the rest of his repertoire.

Song selection definitely wasn't an issue. With a resume as long as Mould's, there are always going to be songs that you want to hear and don't. And now that I've probably reached double digits in seeing him in various incarnations, there likely aren't a lot that I'm aching to hear for the first time.

Tuesday night's set progressed with the likes of Sugar's "If I Can't Change Your Mind," solo number "See A Little Light," Husker Du's "I Apologize," solo track "Tomorrow Morning," the new "Losing Time" and Husker Du's "In A Free Land." Husker Du's "Hardly Getting Over It" then offered a nice respite and slowed things down after a frantic pace.

It didn't take long to crank things back up with Husker Du's "Celebrated Summer," which ended the set.

The musicians left the stage for less than two minutes before returning for a short encore capped off by the Husker Du cover of Sonny Curtis' "Love Is All Around," which some might know better as the Mary Tyler Moore theme, and the Husker Du standby "Makes No Sense At All."

Mould, Narducy and Wurster will be doing it all again tonight at the Horseshoe as Canadian Music Week kicks into a higher gear with more venues getting involved.

Monday, April 04, 2016

UIC reunion and more as part of Mike Star tribute


Before Saturday night, the only other time I'd gone to Oshawa, Ont. to hear music was for a Bob Dylan show at the General Motors Centre in 2008. While no one who took part in a fundraising tribute concert to the late Mike Star will ever reach his iconic status, I can say without hesitation that their performances were more inspiring and less bewildering than that of Robert Zimmerman.

I never met Star (whose real last name was Shulga), never shopped in his Oshawa record store and never attended any of the concerts he promoted. I was a fan of many of the punk and garage rock bands he supported, however, and bought some of the albums he released on his Star Records label. But that's as close as a connection as I had to the man who passed away last September at age 64.

Most of the more than 200 people who came out for the April 2 concert at the Royal Canadian Legion in Star's honour had deeper bonds than that, and it was evident in the organization of the event, the live and video tributes offered at it, and in the sets played by the acts who took the stage.

What follows is a brief synopsis and photos from the tribute.

Bradley Boy MacArthur was the only artist on the  bill who I wasn't familiar with, but his solid one-man-band blues-rock performance got the audience warmed up as it grew in size early in the evening.

Bradley Boy MacArthur
"O Canada" is normally played at the outset of events, but Paul Irvine inexplicably performed it after MacArthur. It seemed a bit out of place, but his solo saxophone version was impressive.

I've been a fan of The Royal Crowns since the rockabilly group's inception. I've written glowing reviews of their albums (which are something we could use more of, by the way), seen a couple dozen of their performances, had the privilege of singing with them a few times, and was honoured to be asked to don my inherited Elvis jumpsuit and pay tribute to drummer/singer Teddy Fury for his 60th birthday celebration at Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern last August.

I've never been disappointed by The Royal Crowns, whether it's Fury or guitarist Danny Bartley handling lead vocals or whether the trio is performing an original song or a golden nugget from the '50s. Saturday was no exception. The group was tight, the sound and vibe were perfectly vintage, and Fury's one-liners kept people chuckling between songs. I don't think I'll ever grow tired of The Royal Crowns.

The Royal Crowns
Teddy Fury

A video tribute followed and included lots of great 1980s footage from bands that played The Star Club, and Fleshtones lead singer Peter Zaremba showed impeccable timing by entering the hall just when an interview with him was being shown on the screen.

During a break in the action to set up for the next band, I found out that the legion had another large room where two guys were playing classic country songs for a couple of dozen senior citizens. Their countrified take on The Melodians' reggae classic "Rivers of Babylon" was particularly impressive, but that's not what kept me returning to that room. It was the $4.50 cans of Guinness.

I was a casual follower of Chalk Circle in the '80s, never buying any of the intelligent pop-rock band's albums, but appreciating several of their songs. It was good to see former Sam the Record man executive Jason Sniderman behind the keyboards, singer/guitarist Chris Tait was in good voice and songs like "Me, Myself and I" and "The Moralist" still sound fresh. The group ended with a faithfully rousing rendition of T-Rex's "20th Century Boy" that lacked The Waco Brothers' chaotically joyful interpretation, but was nevertheless entertaining.

Chalk Circle's Chris Tait

Singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer Bob Bryden was next up along with a female singer and dancer, and the able backing of Crummy Stuff for an illuminating long-form musical monologue titled "The Ballad of Mike Star."

Bob Bryden

Crummy Stuff, led by former Durango 95 and Purple Toads member Rob Sweeney on guitar and vocals, kept on playing their own songs after Bryden's departure. Lou Molinaro, a longtime friend of Star's who emceed the evening, joined the band for a song.

Crummy Stuff
Lou Molinaro with Crummy Stuff

Soon after, Zaremba and fellow Fleshtone Keith Streng joined the fray and … voila … Crummy Stuff became Peter Zaremba's Rock Delegation featuring Keith Streng. The black-clad Zaremba looked vampirish as he emerged wearing an identically coloured cape, which was eventually removed by two modishly attired young women.

Zaremba and the guitar-slinging Streng remain supreme showmen and party-starters and you'd be hard-pressed to ever see a more entertaining band than The Fleshtones. The group tore things up -- with the two men often jumping off the stage and into the crowd, and Sweeney laying down while still playing -- in a set that included "House of Rock," "Remember The Ramones" and a ripping cover of what Zaremba called his favourite song ever, Tommy Roe's "Sheila."

The Rock Delegation
Peter Zaremba
Keith Streng
Rob Sweeney lies down on the job.

Finally, it was time for the biggest reason that I attended the tribute (though I was also pleased that the money raised at the show went to the Mike Star Scholarship fund for Durham College's music business management program, for which I did a few guest lectures a number of years ago): a reunited UIC.

I was at what we thought was the Exeter, Ont.-formed rock band's final concert at Toronto's Lee's Palace on Jan. 14, 1995 (and have a VHS tape recording of it that hopefully will soon be converted to a digital format), and I've been friends with the guys in the band going back further than that, so this was a treat that I'd been looking forward to since I was first told about it in January.

Dave Robinson remains one of the most energetic and entertaining (and definitely the most missed) frontmen in rock and roll, and he was in as fine a form as when I last saw him strutting around on stage with his post-UIC band The Chickens a decade or so ago.

The rest of the band showed that their recent rehearsals paid off, and they delivered the expected thrills. Guitarist Fred Robinson, bassist Dan Preszcator, drummer Murray Heywood and new addition Dave Dysart on guitar celebrated the 30th anniversary of UIC's Our Garage debut album by playing songs off it and blissfully ignoring my joking calls to "play more new stuff."

It wasn't known if original guitarist Ted Triebner, who now lives in Saskatchewan, would make an appearance. But the band found out a couple of days before the concert that he would, and he strapped on the axe for a few songs as well.

Things were running later than they're supposed to at the legion, but that didn't stop the crowd from demanding an encore. It started with a cover of Tommy James' "I'm Alive," which was featured on both Our Garage and UIC's final album, 1993's Witches In Credible. Next up was The Stooges' "No Fun," which closed off that previous final show 21 years ago -- though this time I didn't jump on stage and join in like I did back then. Things came to a righteously rocking conclusion with a cover of The Ramones' "Rockaway Beach."

Dave Robinson
Fred Robinson
Murray Heywood
Dan Preszcator and Dave Dysart

And that was it. A night of great music and memories, rekindled friendships, and a giving spirit that was apparently ever-present in the man everyone had come out to posthumously honour.