Saturday, September 24, 2016

Corb Lund closes TURF in western style

Corb Lund is one of Canada’s best, and probably one of its most overlooked, songwriters. And I’m somewhat ashamed to say that it’s been several years since the last time I saw him perform despite deriving a lot of pleasure from his albums. Luckily, that drought came to an end on Sunday night at the Horseshoe Tavern as part of the Toronto Urban Roots Fest’s club series.

Lund cut his teeth in the ‘90s with Edmonton punk/alternative rock band The Smalls before returning to the music of his ranching roots and embarking on a career that embraces traditional, honky tonk and alternative country styles and has attracted fans of Americana and folk with his backing band The Hurtin’ Albertans.

Lund’s songs are clever and often humorous, but can sometimes be poignant and address social problems and personal travails, perhaps most notably in “Sadr City,” which tells the moving tale of an Iraq war veteran, and “Sunbeam,” which he wrote for his late niece. 

You can’t take Lund’s ranching heritage away, however, so western themes and tunes about horses, cows and other farm animals also have a place in Lund’s repertoire.

With three albums certified gold in Canada, Lund has obviously struck a chord with his countrymen. Even in downtown Toronto, many in the audience were singing along to rural and outdoorsy-oriented numbers like “Hair In My Eyes Like A Highland Steer,” “The Truck Got Stuck,” “Horse Soldier, Horse Soldier,” “Little Foothills Heaven,” “Buckin’ Horse Rider” (in which Lund incorporated some of “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys”), “Dig Gravedigger Dig,” the Hayes Carll collaboration “Bible On The Dash,” “(Gonna) Shine Up My Boots,” “Getting’ Down On The Mountain,” “Cows Around,” “Roughest Neck Around,” “S Lazy H,” “Talkin’ Veterinarian Blues” and “Hurtin’ Albertan.”

And an old school country singer is hardly worth a lick without a few drinking songs, and Lund and his SNFU sticker-emblazoned guitar engaged the crowd with a singalong cover of the cowboy classic “Rye Whiskey” and the set-ending “Time To Switch To Whiskey.” 

The audience wanted more and, after a brief time off stage, Lund and his bandmates returned to treat it to “The Truth Comes Out” and the ever-popular “Five Dollar Bill.”

Other commitments unfortunately prevented me from attending earlier TURF performances at Fort York on Sunday, but year four of the consistently high quality fest ended on a very high note with Lund and friends.

Friday, September 23, 2016

GBV and Mekons win Saturday at TURF

Heavy rains through much of the Toronto Urban Roots Fest’s second day probably resulted in a smaller walk-up audience than it deserved, but those that didn’t mind some precipitation and mud at Fort York were well-rewarded.

Lush broke up after the suicide of drummer Chris Acland in 1996, and I only saw the group twice before that, so I was looking forward to seeing lead singer/guitarist Miki Berenyi, guitarist/vocalist Emma Anderson and bassist Phil King with new drummer Justin Welch after they reformed last year. The band’s dreamy shoegaze sounded as lush as ever and, while a couple of songs may have plodded a bit too much for my taste, the 4AD scenesters didn’t seem to have lost much after the long layoff.

The overcast skies and occasional rainfall helped solidify the mood for what was often an atmospheric set on the West Stage that included “Light From a Dead Star” and “Hypocrite” as well as the more up-tempo sing-along number “Ladykillers.”

The Sheepdogs have become quite successful, they’re very good musicians and, whenever I’ve heard them interviewed, they seemed like good guys. But some unknown element has always held me back from embracing the Saskatoon rock band. The group took a few steps toward bringing me on board with its East Stage performance, however, as the members showed how tight and talented they are with songs including “I’m Gonna Be Myself,” “Bad Lieutenant” and the catchy and simple “Southern Dreaming.” I’ve seen Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings perform together and they don’t sound as much like The Guess Who as The Sheepdogs do.

Will Sheff has a completely new band around him now in Okkervil River and I found its new record, Away, almost a complete snorefest. So it was with some trepidation when I arrived at the Rebellion Stage to see the singer/songwriter/guitarist and his new bandmates. Some of the older numbers may have lacked some of the oomph that was present in their original arrangements, but there’s still no arguing that the likes of “Plus Ones,” “Down Down The Deep River,” “Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe,” “Unless It’s Kicks” and “For Real” are winners.

Even new songs “Mary on a Wave,” “Judey on a Street” and “Okkervil River R.I.P.” were brought to new life on stage. Mother Nature must have approved, as a rainbow appeared over Toronto during the set. I’ve seen better Okkervil River shows, but this one still exceeded my expectations.

Okkervil River
I’ve been a fan of Luke Doucet through his early days with Veal, his subsequent solo work and now with his wife Melissa McClelland in Whitehorse. The innovative folk-rock duo’s members often shared the same microphone to create fine harmonies and used effects to augment their material, which included “You Get Older” and a slow and moody interpretation of Chuck Berry’s “Nadine.”

I would have liked to have stayed longer at the Battle of York Stage, but there was more to see and hear.

It’s probably been at least 20 years since it was cool to like Barenaked Ladies in Toronto, and I haven’t seen the band since Steven Page’s 2009 departure, but I still have a soft spot for the group’s earlier material — and I guess the gold award for its independently released self-titled debut cassette release that hangs on my wall is proof of that.

I arrived midway through BNL’s West Stage performance, just in time to catch a jazzed up rendition of “Hello City,” which briefly transitioned smartly into The Housemartins’ “Happy Hour.” I continued to be impressed with a keyboard-heavy “Narrow Streets,” a faithful version of the group’s old cover of Bruce Cockburn’s “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” and “Sound Of Your Voice.” Adam Hindle from Born Ruffians joined the cast for “Brian Wilson,” and “Pinch Me” slowly faded from my ears as I walked toward the food trucks for a burrito.

I’m not sure if I saw Ween at The Rivoli in the early ‘90s or whether I’m somehow imagining it, so Dean and Gene Ween’s East Stage performance was either the first or second time that I was in close proximity to them. After a plodding instrumental introduction, Ween opened with “Did You See Me?” and followed it with “Roses Are Free,” “Take Me Away” and “Up On The Hill.” Aside from the countrified and up-tempo “Piss Up A Rope” and “Waving My Dick In The Wind,” most of it was too jammy for me. It was no surprise that there were quite a few Grateful Dead T-shirts in the crowd.

People were pressed up against the barrier in front of the stage yelling out song titles and holding up signs for Ween. I didn’t realize that the group still had such a large and fervent fan base, but this set made me realize that I’m not destined to be part of it. I left for the Rebellion Stage.

I haven’t seen Guided by Voices since before the Dayton, Ohio band first broke up in 2004, and I definitely missed frontman Robert Pollard and company. The kids’ swimming pool full of beer was missing from the stage, but  bottles of Bud Lite and tequila were always nearby for the singer and his latest bandmates: drummer Kevin March; bassist Mark Shue; returning guitarist Doug Gillard; and surprise new guitarist Bobby Bare Jr.

Guided by Voices
The guitars were slashing, the drums were pounding and Pollard was typically prolific. The club was open. I lost track of how many short and punchy songs were played, almost all of them introduced by Pollard, but the group fit a lot of music from the GBV, Boston Spaceships, ESP Ohio, Ricked Wicky and Pollard solo catalogues into 80 minutes. Hardcore fans sang along with many of them, including “Come On Baby Grace,” “Royal Cyclopean,” “Arrows and Balloons,” “I Am A Tree,” “Dragons Awake!,” “Back to the Lake,” “Poor Substitute,” “Tabby & Lucy” and “Love Is Stronger Than Witchcraft.”

If that wasn’t enough, the band granted my silent wishes by playing three of my favourite GBV songs toward the end of the set: “Teenage FBI,” “I Am A Scientist” and set closer “Glad Girls.” Venue curfew was imminent but the crowd’s resolution to hear more was unyielding so the band returned for a brief encore of “Don’t Stop Now” and “Shocker in Gloomtown.” I have it on good authority that Pollard had to be talked out of doing a cover of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.”

Guided by Voices
Just when I didn’t think things could get much better, I believe they did.

In addition to the Fort York festival, TURF includes shows at the Horseshoe Tavern and Lee’s Palace. Some friends and I walked up to the Shoe and we arrived just in time to catch the end of Skinny Lister, which I had seen and enjoyed the day before.

After what seemed like a longer wait than it probably was (anticipation and beer can play tricks with the mind), the eight members of The Mekons trundled on stage. Things couldn’t have got off to a better start, as the band kicked into “Memphis Egypt.” It could have gone downhill after that lofty beginning, but it’s to The Mekons' credit that it didn’t. The group has an extensive and diverse catalogue, a fine new Bloodshot Records album called Existentialism, and a cast of characters that ensures the between song banter will always be entertaining.

You want country? Reggae? Folk? Punk? Roots rock? With The Mekons you can have it all, with violin, accordion and saz augmenting traditional rock and roll instrumentation. On this night the menu included “Beaten and Broken,” “Tina,” Sally Timms’ divine vocal take on “Millionaire,” “Diamonds,” “Abernant 1984/5,” “Fantastic Voyage,” and “(Sometimes I Feel Like) Fletcher Christian.”

Longtime Jon Langford collaborators Dallas and Travis Good walked on stage for “Orpheus” and randomly came and went for most of the rest of the set, which featured “The Bomb,” “Last Dance” and “Hard To Be Human.”

The Mekons left the stage for a quick breather, some drinks and to exchange pleasantries with Bare Jr., who had made his way from Fort York after his GBV set, before returning for an encore. It began with the slower and more folk-oriented “Afar & Forlorn” and picked up steam with “Thee Olde Trip To Jerusalem (which Timms turned into her personal dance party),” “Big Zombie” and the plaintively beautiful “Wild and Blue,” which included Gord Cumming briefly sneaking on stage to play some guitar.

A big finale was expected and it was delivered with “Where Were You?,” the 1978 single that remains the most timeless song from The Mekons’ early punk days.

That called for more drinks and conversation, and most of the band members were happy to oblige and indulge until the whee hours.

The Mekons

The Hives stole the show on TURF’s first day

The Toronto Urban Roots Fest (TURF) has established itself as one of the highlights of an already impressive local live music scene over its first three years, and this relatively new yet proud tradition continued at Fort York from Sept. 16 to 18.

TURF 2016 began for me with the last part of Margo Price’s energetic honky tonk set at the West Stage. Her Midwest Farmer’s Daughter debut solo album created a buzz when it was released in March by Jack White’s Third Man Records, and Price’s sassy performance with her five-piece band brought the LP’s songs into vivid life. The 33-year-old is based in Nashville and reflects more Grand Ole Opry legacy than most country artists making the rounds these days. That’s good for fans of rootsy Americana, but it’s not likely to get her a lot of exposure on mainstream country radio.

Price’s Nashville and White connection was evident in her cover of Loretta Lynn’s “Rated X,” while other highlights included “This Town Gets Around” and a closing rendition of the single “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle).”

For pure showmanship, The Hives had it over everyone else who played TURF on Friday. The Swedish garage punk band was preceded on the East Stage by two roadies dressed in respective black and white ninja outfits, and the group followed a Dave Hodge introduction by making the scene decked out in eye-catching black and white suits. After seeing The Specials on Tuesday, I guess I was catching my second 2 Tone act of the week. If I ever get invited to another wedding, I’d like to wear a Hives suit to it.

The Hives
Things got off to a bang with “Come On!” and a slew of high-octane, hook-filled songs followed. These included perhaps the group’s biggest North American hit, “Hate to Say I Told You So,” as well as “Abra Cadaver,” a crowd participatory “Go Right Ahead,” “Bigger Hole To Fill,” “Main Offender,” “Won’t Be Long” and set-closer “Tick Tick Boom.”

The Hives
Lead singer Howling’ Pelle Almvqvist went into the photo pit and crowd a few times to engage the fans and addressed them frequently between songs, including declaring “I’m your favourite rock and roll asshole” before launching into “Main Offender.”

The Hives
The Hives drew a healthy-sized audience to its 4 p.m. set but, judging by its performance and the enthusiastic response to it, these rockers deserved a later time slot so more people could have felt the joy.

The Hives
London, England sextet Skinny Lister plays Celtic-infused folk music with punk rock spirit, and I was happy to share in the spirits when singer Lorna Thomas passed a jug of whiskey around to those of us at the front of the Rebellion Stage. I thoroughly enjoyed the band’s set at the Horseshoe Tavern earlier this year and the subsequently released The Devil, The Heart and the Fight seems destined to be among my 20 favourite albums of the year. The set was heavy on songs from the new record but also included such older numbers as “John Kanaka,” personal favourite “Trouble on Oxford Street” and “This is War.”

Skinny Lister
Skinny Lister
I arrived at the West Stage just in time to catch the end of Jake Bugg and his three-piece band’s set. The young British musician impressed me with his guitar playing and the influence of Donovan and Bob Dylan are ensconced in his songs and delivery. The new “Gimme The Love” was solid and the set-closing “Lightning Bolt” from his self-titled 2012 album had me beaming.

Jake Bugg
I used Explosions In The Sky’s 6:40 p.m. set on the East Stage as an opportunity to check out TURF’s large selection of food trucks and made good choices with a jerk chicken sandwich and Sichuan French fries. The Texas post-rock band’s instrumental drone served as background music while I ate, drank and chatted with friends at the Bricks & Sticks Lounge.

I’ve seen Boston Celtic punk sextet Dropkick Murphys a handful of times in the past and, while I don’t think this performance was quite at the level of those occasions, the group still delivered a rollicking good time. The fans right in front of the West Stage with me certainly got into it, fist-pumping, singing along and generally getting their butts kicked to such anthemically catchy numbers as “The Boys Are Back,” “Which Side Are You On?,” “Famous For Nothing,” “Sunshine Highway,” “Bastards On Parade,” an extra fast version of “The Irish Rover,” “Rose Tattoo” and “Going Out In Style.”

Dropkick Murphys
The Murphys paid homage to another Boston band by covering The Cars’ “Just What I Needed.” Despite being adopted as a signature song by the Toronto Blue Jays’ American League East rival the Boston Red Sox, baseball hatred took a back seat to band idolatry as the crowd exploded and eagerly sang along to “I’m Shipping Up To Boston.”

Dropkick Murphys
I listened to Drive-By Truckers’ new American Band album the day before TURF began and, while I don’t think it reaches the high water mark of the group's early 2000s output with Jason Isbell, it solidly ranks ahead of 2014’s English Oceans. There was a mix of old and new coming from the Rebellion Stage, with “3 Dimes Down” and “A Ghost To Most” among those representing the former, and “Baggage,” “Ramon Casiano” and “Ever South” introducing people to some of the latest politically charged repertoire.

Drive-By Truckers
Drive-By Truckers’ brand of well-played Americana and southern rock combined with Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley’s insightful lyrics have created a dedicated and long-term group of followers despite a band lineup that has undergone several changes over the years. While I’ve enjoyed other Truckers’ performances more than this one, this was a step up from the group’s afternoon set at TURF 2014

Drive-By Truckers

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.