Monday, December 30, 2013

Steve McLean's favourite music of 2013

The top 10

1. Barrence Whitfield and The Savages - Dig Thy Savage Soul
2. Kobo Town - Jumbie in the Jukebox
3. Young Rival - Stay Young
4. J. Roddy Walston and The Business - Essential Tremors
5. Slam Dunk - Welcome to Miami
6. Bree - Bree
7. Frank Turner - Tape Deck Heart
8. Rusty Ford - My Truck, My Dog and You
9. Two Hours Traffic - Foolish Blood
10. Hollerado - White Paint

The next 10
Lindi Ortega - Tin Star
Okkervil River - The Silver Gymnasium
The Racoon Wedding - Racoon Dead on the Side of the Road
New Country Rehab - Ghost of Your Charms
Headstones - Love and Fury
Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings - Give the People What They Want
The Growlers - Gilded Pleasures
Eels - Wonderful, Glorious
Gogol Bordello - Pura Vida Conspiracy
Stag - Chameleon

Honourable mention 

Steve Earle & The Dukes (& Duchesses) - The Low Highway
The Fall - Re-Mit
Brendan Benson - You Were Right
The Sadies - Internal Sounds
Richard Thompson - Electric
Robyn Hitchcock - Love From London
We Are Wolves - La Mort Pop Club
Elephant Stone - Elephant Stone

 


Reissues, compilations and live albums (alphabetical order)
Big Star - The Very Best of Big Star
The Bottle Rockets - The Brooklyn Side Reissue
The Fleshtones, Los Straitjackets, Southern Culture on the Skids - Mondo Zombie Boogaloo
Midnight Oil - Essential Oils
Nirvana - In Utero: 20th Anniversary Edition
Roy Orbison - The Last Concert 25th Anniversary Edition
The Presidents of the United States of America - Get Back In The Van
Various artists - Garage Swim

 

EP
Lydia Loveless - Boy Crazy

Concerts (chronological order) 

Robyn Hitchcock, Bill Rieflin and Scott McCaughey at SXSW
The Millwinders, Deke Dickerson and The Eco-Phonics, and guests - Jan. 12, Monarch Tavern, Toronto
Bob Mould - March 1, Horseshoe, Toronto
South by Southwest Music Festival - March 12-17, various venues, Austin
Canadian MusicFest - March 20-24, various venues, Toronto
Fidlar and Wavves - April 5, Horseshoe, Toronto
Various artists for Stompin' Tom Connors tribute - April 10, Horseshoe, Toronto
The Slackers - May 17, Horseshoe, Toronto
North by Northeast Music Festival - June 12-15, various venues, Toronto
Toronto Urban Roots Festival (TURF) - July 4-7, Fort York, Toronto
The Specials - July 9, Kool Haus, Toronto
Chris Murray - July 24, Horseshoe, Toronto
Riot Fest (The Replacements, Iggy and The Stooges, The Weakerthans, Rocket From The Crypt) - Aug. 25, Fort York, Toronto
Robyn Hitchcock - Sept. 4, The Drake, Toronto
Patti Smith - Sept. 6, Massey Hall, Toronto
The Selecter - Sept. 17, Lee's Palace, Toronto
Pere Ubu - Sept. 18, Lee's Palace, Toronto
Kid Congo Powers - Oct. 24, Horseshoe, Toronto
Flamin' Groovies - Nov. 6, Lee's Palace, Toronto
Frank Turner and The Sleeping Souls - Dec. 3, Sound Academy, Toronto

The Sadies - Dec. 31, Horseshoe, Toronto

Friday, November 29, 2013

Jingle Bell Rocks!

I first met Mitchell Kezin four years ago at Toronto's Lee's Palace when he was filming one of El Vez's legendary "Mex-mas" shows for a documentary he'd been working on for a while, Jingle Bell Rocks!

I had assumed my Santez alter-ego for the evening and Kezin interviewed me for his film about alternative Christmas music. That clip, with good reason, was eventually edited out of the film as it went through a number of changes that continued to delay its finish. But Kezin and I became friends and kept in touch as I sent him a few ideas, photos and videos for possible use in the film (which, probably again with good reason, weren't used), and I was trying to set up an interview between the filmmaker and Stompin' Tom Connors just before the Canadian music icon passed away on March 6.

Kezin kept me updated on the film's progress through emails and occasionally over beers on the few occasions when his busy travel schedule for shooting the film would allow a get-together. And I'm happy to report that Jingle Bell Rocks! is now finally finished and making its world premiere at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam this week.

The Canadian theatrical rollout begins next week, TVO will air Jingle Bell Rocks! at some point for Ontario television viewers, and it will appear at American film festivals throughout next year before receiving its theatrical release south of the border in December 2014.

While Jingle Bell Rocks! has plenty of both the kitschy songs and previously unknown-to-me musical gems that I expected, what really got me was the poignancy of many of its scenes and stories -- particularly Kezin's tale of how his father was seldom around as a child and he identified with Nat King Cole's "The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot."

Twenty years later, Kezin later discovered a 1962 album titled Jingle Bell Jazz, which featured a cynical song called "Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern)" that Bob Dorough had written and sang on the record by request of Miles Davis. It was a Christmas song for those who aren't particularly impressed with Christmas, and it launched Kezin on a largely secretive, quarter-century quest to find and collect honest and real Christmas songs and other "hip, heartfelt and irreverent" seasonal tunes you don't hear on the radio or in the mall every December. In the process, he found he wasn't alone in this obsession. And Jingle Bell Rocks! features some of these collectors, some of the songs that mean the most to them, and some of the people who recorded them in the first place.

Most of these collectors aren't like the eccentrics who amused and sometimes frightened me in Toronto filmmaker Alan Zweig's 2000 documentary Vinyl, but are seemingly socially adept and normal people who just happen to have an extraordinary passion for Christmas music.

Mitchell Kezin and Wayne Coyne


You'll hear reminiscences from both well- and little-known folks, including Dorough, former Def Jam Records publicist Bill Adler, Canadian radio host David Wisdom, record producer Tommy LiPuma, Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, The Free Design vocalist Sandra Dedrick, "naughty" soul singer Clarence Carter, cult film director John Waters, punk-cabaret genius El Vez, Run DMC's Joseph "Run" Simmons, novelty song collector Dr. Demento, minimalist indie duo Low, and many others.

Perhaps the most moving part of the 93-minute film takes place in a recording studio above Charlie's Calypso City record store in Brooklyn, where calypso legend Mighty Sparrow fulfills Kezin's wish by recording "The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot" as the film director tears up with emotion as he looks on.

Mitchell Kezin, Joseph "Run" Simmons and Bill Adler

Musically, what pleased me most was the inclusion of Plan 9's gritty 1984 garage-psych nugget "Merry Christmas," which instantly grabbed me when I first heard it on a mix tape a friend made for me back then. Other favourite tunes that get the spotlight treatment in Jingle Bell Rocks! and will likely be unfamiliar to many include Jessie Mae Hemphill's "Merry Christmas, Pretty Baby," Carter's "Back Door Santa" (which Run DMC sampled for "Christmas in Hollis"), Paul "Fat Daddy" Johnson's "Fat Daddy Claus," El Vez's "Santa Claus Is Sometimes Brown," Heather Noel's "Santa Came On A Nuclear Missile" and The Flaming Lips' "A Change at Christmas (Say It Isn't So)."

Whether you identify more with Scrooge or Saint Nick, you should find songs and people you can relate to in Jingle Bell Rocks!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Beer and more from Gourmet Food & Wine Expo

Toronto's Gourmet Food & Wine Expo keeps growing annually and has become one of my favourite events of the year. A wide range of vendors offers a variety of foods, condiments and alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks to sample for a reasonable price, while seminars held throughout the four-day event enable folks to learn more about subjects of particular interest to them.

Beer has always been of particular interest to me, so chatting with various breweries and beer distributors is how I spent most of my two days at the expo. I didn't taste anything horrible, but there were a number of average products and, luckily, some excellent ones as well.

Here's what caught my attention at the 19th annual Gourmet Food & Wine Expo:

Six Pints Black Lager
This style is based on Germany's Schwarzbier. It's colour befits its name and it pours with a small head. It's five-per-cent alcohol and rates a 23 IBU on the bitterness scale. Espresso and bitter chocolate are the predominant flavours in this medium-hopped brew that some people may be able to drink more of in one sitting than a heavier porter or stout.



Red Horse Beer
This extra strong lager is brewed in Manilla, Philippines by San Miguel Brewery. It's pale and poured with a little head. It's seven-per-cent alcohol and had a hint of tinniness even though it came from a bottle. There was a slight sense of the higher alcohol content in the aroma and flavour, but it went down relatively easy. The booth had a DJ and energetic servers, and San Miguel was generously making a donation for each bottle finished (it had other brands aside from Red Horse available) to support relief efforts from Typhoon Haiyan.

Mill Street Distillery Ale
This dark copper-coloured brew is fermented with English Ale yeast to give it a mild aroma and a hint of pear and apricot in the flavour. It's 5.8-per-cent alcohol, somewhat malty from caramel and chocolate malts and, while it's easy drinking, it lacks a distinct character.

Mill Street Weizenbock
This pours with a grey head that doesn't last long, but it offers a nice fruity bouquet. This unfiltered wheat bock is somewhat sweet, but not overwhelmingly so. The 7.5-per-cent alcohol content isn't evident in the flavour, and it leaves you with a very nice finish.

Mill Street Vanilla Porter
This brown/ruby red porter pours with an effervescent head and provides a distinctive vanilla bouquet. It offers rich vanilla and coffee flavours and a smooth and creamy body. The lovely lingering after-taste makes you want to take another sip almost immediately. I can see myself drinking this five-per-cent porter all night. This was my favourite beer of the expo and, even better, I was given a coupon that I could redeem for a free can at the LCBO.

Nickel Brook Bolshevik Bastard
This imperial stout is black and pours with a grey head. I'd previously tried the brewery's Kentucky Bastard, which is the same brew but aged in bourbon barrels. It's made with a blend of roasted barley, chocolate and amber malt, has a mild bouquet and the taste offers hints of chocolate and coffee. It's surprisingly smooth for a nine-per-cent beer, while providing some crispness and an easy finish. This is another one worth recommending.

Maisel's Weisse Original
This traditional Bavarian-made weissbier is pumpkin-coloured and presents a fruity and spicy aroma. It's a very full-bodied, 5.4-per-cent alcohol beer with banana and bubble gum flavours and a very good finish. Wheat beer drinkers should like this.

Maisel's Weisse Dunkel
The sibling of the beer above is copper-coloured and produces a nice head and pleasant aroma of banana and cloves. This 4.9-per-cent beer is brewed with a blend of wheat and gently roasted, caramelized malt and makes a great spring or fall beer, as it has more body than a more summer-oriented weissbier but isn't as heavy as the weizenbocks preferred by some in the winter.

Maredsous 8 Brune
The 8 in the name is the alcohol volume of this Belgian dubbel. The brown, bottle-conditioned ale is top-fermented and brewed according to Benedictine tradition, and then refermented in the bottle and conditioned for two months. I'm generally not the biggest fan of this style, but enjoyed this. It pours with a rich head and has a very fruity aroma. Dark berries are a major part of the pleasantly sweet flavour before a slightly bitter aftertaste takes over.

Samuel Adams Latitude 48 IPA
This six-per-cent alcohol IPA is brewed with a dry-hopped blend of German, English and American hops from regions located to close to 48 degrees latitude. The hops are evident in the aroma of this dark copper-coloured beer along with a touch of citrus. It's not overly hopped and the malt adds a hint of sweetness, which makes it a good option for folks who find west coast IPAs a little too much.


Royal Jamaican Ginger Beer
I've heard this described as the best alcoholic ginger beer in the world, and I can't argue with that. This beer is brewed in Kingston, Jamaica with Cascade hops, Jamaican ginger and cane sugar, and Royal Jamaican new crop rum. The ginger dominates the aroma and flavour and gives this a very crisp quality. It's spicy, but not overpoweringly so. And with just 4.4-per-cent alcohol, you can drink quite a few without getting too tipsy.

Spearhead Jamaican Fire
This dark, eight-per-cent stout has a 35 IBU rating on the bitterness scale and is brewed with coffee, oranges, sugar cane and scotch bonnet peppers -- with that last ingredient giving the taste and bouquet a definite kick. It's spicy but it won't knock you on your butt.

Spearhead Belgian Stout
This six-per-cent alcohol stout is made with six types of malt, three types of hops, trappist ale yeast and demerara sugar, Curacao orange peel and coriander. This creamy, unfiltered stout pours with a decent head and has a delicate, peppery introduction and a dry finish.

Moosehead Boundary Ale
This medium-bodied, copper-coloured ale is a cross between American- and British-styled pale ales that's made with four types of hops and seven different malts. The 5.3-per-cent alcohol beer has a very mild sweetness and was better than I anticipated, since I'm not a fan of its better known lager.

Pistonhead Kustom Lager
This Swedish beer features a flaming skull on the can and was being promoted by scantily-clad women with tattoos at the expo, so it will obviously trying to promote itself as a beer with edge when it arrives in Ontario beer stores in December. It pours gold with a mildly hoppy aroma from Spalter Select, Magnum and Perle hops and some nice maltiness from Munchener and Pilsener malts. It's an easy-drinking, 4.6-per-cent alcohol beer that seems better suited for summer, so I'm not sure that it's launching at the best time and the image seems incongruent with the product.

Ciuc Premium
I believe this is the first Romanian beer I've ever had. It's a pale gold and reasonably crisp pilsner with a hint of hoppiness. It's five-per-cent alcohol and would work best as a summer sipper.

Lake of Bays Top Shelf Classic Lager
The most noteworthy thing about this 4.5-per-cent alcohol beer is that it's the official beer of the NHL Alumni Association. It's an American-style pale lager that would be best suited for summer.


Niagara Oast House Brewers Saison
This Niagara-on-the-Lake brewery was my favourite discovery of the festival, and this 6.5-per-cent alcohol farmhouse ale was my favourite of its three beers that I sampled. It comes in a corked 750-millilitre bottle and is unfiltered and bottle-seasoned, which accounts for its slightly cloudy appearance. It has a fruity yeast aroma and some spicy citrus in the flavour. Excellent.

Niagara Oast House Brewers Barn Raiser Country Ale
This gold-coloured, five-per-cent alcohol ale is excellent as well. It poured with a decent head and had a citrus aroma and flavour. It's well-hopped, but not enough to scare away non-hop heads.

Niagara Oast House Brewers Pitchfork Porter
This dark brown porter pours with a rich head. It's fairly malty and robust and has a slight smokiness about it. Dark chocolate with a bit of nuttiness are the predominant flavours.

Sawdust City Gate Way Golden Ale
This Gravenhurst, Ont. brewery makes a lot of creatively named and flavoured beers, but this Kolsch-style lagered ale is the entry point for less adventurous drinkers. It's an easy-drinking, pale gold brew made with pilsner and wheat malt and spalter and magnum hops. It's both reasonably crisp and slightly sweet and is a sessional five-per-cent alcohol.

Sawdust City Red Rocket Stout
Red Rocket coffee beans, vanilla beans and cayenne pepper are added to Sawdust City's Skinny Dipping Stout to create this black product. The coffee and cayenne are highly evident in the bouquet and flavour, but neither overpower and gives this stout a surprisingly well-balanced taste.

Niagara College Brewmaster Wheat
This is the favourite beer I've tasted from the college. This unfiltered, 4.6-per-cent alcohol, wheat-based ale is light gold and features banana and cloves in the bouquet. There's a hint of banana in the flavour and it has quite a pleasant finish.

Railway City Black Coal Stout
The St. Thomas, Ont. brewery has produced a six-per-cent alcohol stout that has a 43 IBU rating on the bitterness scale. It's black and has a coffee aroma, while coffee, dark chocolate, smoke and oatmeal are the prime components of the flavour profile. It's okay, but nothing exceptional.

Ciders, Wines, Liquors and Cocktails

When I'd exhausted the new beers that I hadn't tried before, I moved on to this mix of other beverages:

Pommies Dry Cider
Despite the name, this five-per-cent alcohol cider made in Caledon with Ontario apples isn't excessively dry. The name is there more to differentiate it from sweeter ciders. It has a mild apple aroma and is bright, refreshing and reasonably crisp. It's gluten-free and not made from concentrate.

White Owl Whisky
It's a secret how this 40-per-cent alcohol spirit is distilled and filtered to make it clear. It looked just like vodka when it was poured over ice. It originated with a grain spirit that was aged for years in charred oak barrels, but that's all I can tell you about the process. The taste isn't as distinctive as with most Canadian whiskies, so this one is definitely intended more for cocktail use than for straight-up sipping by brown liquor aficionados.

Salvador's Original Margarita and Salvador's Mojito
I liked the Mojito better, but could drink both of these open and pour cocktails during those times when I'm too lazy to make my own -- which in the case of the Mojito is always since I don't keep fresh mint around the house.

Canyon Creek Pumpkin Martini
This isn't a martini at all, but you'll like it if you like pumpkin pie. It's made with Captain Morgan’s spiced and dark rums, cream, pumpkin and maple vanilla syrups, and is garnished with ground nutmeg and a cinnamon stick.

College Street Bar Whiskey Sour
It's more sweet than sour, but nice nonetheless.

Real Sports Pimm's Garden
You can't go wrong with Pimm's No. 1 Cup, lemonade and fresh fruit.

Ogier Cotes du Ventoux Rose
I wasn't particularly fond of this extra dry, 13.3-per-cent alcohol, 2012 French rose from Caves Des Papes.

Mionetto Mo Prosecco
This light, fruity and slightly dry Italian sparkling wine had a clean finish and 11 per-cent alcohol.

Deinhard Dry Riesling
This German Riesling was a little sweeter than I would have liked, but was still okay with a hint of green apple and citrus. It was reasonably light and had a 12.4-per-cent alcohol content.

Bird Label Riesling
This off-dry and mildly fruity wine from Pfalz, Germany's Lingenfelder Estate had elements of lime and apple and a lower alcohol content of 10.5 per-cent.

Mosel Gold Riesling
This pale straw-coloured wine from Mosel, Germany's H. Schmitt Soehne is even lighter in alcohol content with 9.5 per cent and is reasonably dry with flavours of apple, peach and pear.

Beringer California Collection White Zinfandel
This 2010 vintage rose is made for casual drinking and carries a 9.5-per-cent alcohol content. It's light, with a fruity aroma and flavour.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Playlist: The Very Best of Big Star


Big Star is one of those bands that never achieved the success it should have but has acquired an aura in succeeding years that has it almost breaking through the boundaries of the cult status its had since former Box Tops singer Alex Chilton, guitarist/singer Chris Bell, drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel came together in 1971.

The Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me documentary that came out earlier this year received praise and brought the Memphis, Tenn.-formed group to the attention of music fans who may have read that it influenced R.E.M. and The Replacements but had never heard the three albums recorded from 1971 to 1974 that brilliantly melded melody and crunch and embodied what became known as power pop. Playlist: The Very Best of Big Star, which comes out on Nov. 26 through Columbia/Legacy, is meant for those folks.

This 14-track compilation includes one song from the #1 Record debut, two from the Radio City follow-up and two from Third/Sister Lovers, which wasn't issued until four years after it was recorded. It also includes a rehearsal take of Radio City's luscious "September Gurls" that was previously released on the 1999 official bootleg, Nobody Can Dance.

Bell and Hummel left the group in the midst of Big Star's initial three-year run, and Bell was killed in a 1978 car accident. But interest in Big Star inexplicably increased long after its dissolution, and Chilton and Stephens reformed the group with Posies members Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow for an April 25, 1993 show at the University of Missouri that was recorded and released that September.

Half of Playlist: The Very Best of Big Star comes from that concert album, including some of the group's most memorable songs: "Don't Lie To Me," "The Ballad of El Goodo," "Back of a Car," "Thank You Friends" and "In the Street," which many will recognize as the theme for That '70s Show. It also features a rendition f the Bell solo cut, "I Am The Cosmos."

The album concludes with "A Whole New Thing," which is probably the best song from 2005's In Space album that was recorded by the new lineup which had continued to perform sporadically.

I was supposed to see one of those shows at the South by Southwest Music Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas in 2010, but Chilton passed away from a heart attack on March 17 -- three days before the concert was supposed to take place. It instead turned into a moving tribute to Chilton featuring a number of artists touched and influenced by him, including: Hummel, Curt Kirkwood (Meat Puppets), Chris Stamey (The dB's), M.Ward, Mike Mills (R.E.M.), John Doe (X), Sondre Lerche, Chuck Prophet, Evan Dando (Lemonheads), Amy Speace, Susan Cowsill and The Watson Twins.

I attended another Big Star tribute at SXSW in 2012 featuring Stephens, Stringfellow, Auer and guests including Eric Earley (Blitzen Trapper), Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Doe, Cotton Mather and Star & Micey. Big Star's shadow still obviously looms large with many musicians.

You're not likely going to please everyone when assembling a best-of compilation -- especially with a group like Big Star where you can't just cherry-pick its highest charting singles since it didn't have any hits. So while I think that "When My Baby's Beside Me," "Way Out West," "Jesus Christ," "You Get What You Deserve" and "Thirteen" could have easily been included and kept Playlist: The Very Best of Big Star to one compact disc, I shouldn't quibble.

If this album introduces even a few people to Big Star and prompts them to delve into the band's catalogue and seek out other standout power pop proponents, then it's both a worthwhile and praise-worthy exercise.

Monday, November 11, 2013

This Ain't No Mouse Music!

Alan Lomax is probably the best known American ethnomusicologist and producer because of the thousands of recordings he made and collected over his life before he passed away at age 87 in 2002.

A new documentary, This Ain't No Mouse Music!, shines the spotlight on a gentleman with a similar mission -- but one who's still at it at 82. Chris Strachwitz left Germany for the United States with his family in 1947 and instantly fell in love with American music. He founded Arhoolie Records 13 years later and This Ain't No Mouse Music! (the last two words forming a term he coined to describe what he dislikes) tells the story of the man, the label and a wide range of music with roots in the U.S. and Mexico.

"My stuff isn't produced," Strachwitz says early in the film. "I just catch it as it is."

That was the case with the first artist he recorded, Texas sharecropper and  largely unheralded blues artist Mance Lipscomb, and continues in a similar fashion to this day. Strachwitz helped a number of aging blues artists gain exposure at folk festivals in the U.S. and Europe in the '60s and '70s, which helped raise Arhoolie's profile -- though it still remains a small operation that also spun off the Down Home Records store in El Cerrito, Calif.

That expansion was largely paid for with the publishing money Strachwitz received from making the first recording of Country Joe and The Fish's "Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die Rag" -- which went on to become an anti-establishment anthem after it was performed at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair and played a prominent role in the film and album that documented it.

Arhoolie's catalogue has grown to include klezmer, Cajun, Creole, zydeco, conjunto, nortena, New Orleans jazz, bluegrass and Appalachian music, and Strachwitz has often put pioneering artists from these genres together with more current ones to record.

The biggest names interviewed for the film who've either recorded for Arhoolie or hold it in high esteem are Richard Thompson, Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, Michael Doucet and Flaco Jimenez, who all discuss the influence that the label and its music has had on them.

This Ain't No Mouse Music! will introduce most people to artists, songs and perhaps entire musical styles that they weren't familiar with before, and will also show them just how motivating music can be in people's lives. Anyone with an interest in the roots of American music should track it down and watch it.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Flamin' Groovies are rock and roll

Fans of power pop, garage rock, blues and punk have all expressed admiration for Flamin' Groovies and the group's contributions to rock and roll over the years, and its performance at Lee's Palace on Wednesday night reflected all of those genres.

The Groovies formed in San Francisco in 1965 and have gone through both personnel changes and long periods of inactivity, but three-quarters of what's generally considered the classic lineup reformed earlier this year and gave many of us who thought we'd never see the band the chance to see our hopes become a reality.


Lead guitarist Cyril Jordan, singer/guitarist Chris Wilson and bassist George Alexander convened with young drummer Victor Penalosa and wowed my friend Craig Laskey when he saw them in San Francisco in May, and he got me pumped for this week's performance. I've been a fan since the late '70s, so that was hardly necessary, but it was appreciated -- especially since he was the guy who brought the quartet to Toronto.

The Groovies have been noted for their astute choice of covers almost as much as they have been for their original songs over the years, and Wednesday's set featured a balance of both.

The band opened with a cover of The Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and it was apparent right away that these guys are musicians through and through. But Wilson's voice was definitely off and sometimes sounded hoarse. It soon became apparent that more than the seemingly well-refreshed Wilson's voice wasn't quite right. He talked a lot of nonsense in between songs, made a request to Toronto mayor "Bob" Ford for "a huff," frequently held proceedings up to tune his guitar and had to be told by Jordan what was happening next before almost every song. 


It was much more professional in San Fran, Laskey assured me. But this raggedness and the possibility that the show could fall apart at any point gave it the spirit of punk rock that many in the crowd grew up on. That crowd included a lot of local musicians, including: guitarists Travis Good, Fred Robinson, Gord Cumming, Jeff MacNeil and Rob Sweeney; drummers Teddy Fury, Cleave Anderson and Sean Dignan; and singer/songwriter Kate Boothman.

Jordan held things together with his guiding hand and the rhythm section helped too, but the band's sound man unfortunately lost some of the bassist and drummer's contributions via a sometimes muddy mix that was loud but not as well-defined as it could have been, and an occasional squeal and crackle also emanated from the amplifiers.


Wilson's voice issues hampered some harmonies, but Jordan's jangly guitar work showed that he's a master of his craft on a set highlighted by covers of Freddy Cannon's "Tallahassee Lassie," The Byrds' "I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better," NRBQ's "I Want You Bad," Tampa Red/Chuck Berry's "Don't You Lie To Me" and the Stones' "Paint It Black," as well as originals "Yeah My Baby," "You Tore Me Down," "Please Please Girl," "Between The Lines" and "Slow Death."

The Groovies' 70-minute set ended with a song that Jordan introduced by saying, "If you don't know what it is, you don't belong here." We all knew what it was going to be. The title track of the group's 1976 Dave Edmunds-produced album has been covered by so many people and is such a great song that you'd think it was a huge hit, but it inexplicably wasn't. I'm talking "Shake Some Action."

The quartet left the stage, but it was folly to think that it wouldn't return without playing at least one more song. I was really hoping that five people would take the stage to perform it, however. I'd seen Teenage Head co-founder Gord Lewis at the back of the club earlier in the night and, since his band was named after a Groovies song and album, I thought it would be fitting if he was at least acknowledged if not invited to perform the last number of the night. It wasn't to be, but I'll never quibble with hearing the guys who wrote "Teenage Head" perform it.

This wasn't a pristine show by any means, but it was a rock-and-roll event that I'm glad I was part of. 


I found out earlier this evening that my friend Keats passed away today. I know that he would have liked this set too, and I was thinking about him as I wrote this. He'll be missed.

Thanks to Matzoh Ball for sharing his videos from Wednesday night. He's moving to Austin, Texas soon and will also be missed, but I know that I'll be seeing him again.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Barrence Whitfield and the Savages - Dig Thy Savage Soul

When the term R&B comes up these days, it's too often associated with syrupy, smooth ballads. When I think of R&B, it's much more in terms of what Barrence Whitfield and The Savages are kicking out on their Bloodshot Records debut, Dig Thy Savage Soul.

This is primal, stompin' and soulful rock-and-roll, the kind that was kicking asses in the '60s and -- on this album -- still is.

From opener "The Corner Man" to the wailing saxophone that drives a cover of Jerry McCain's "Turn Your Damper Down" 11 songs later, Dig Thy Savage Soul totally exemplifies its title.

The band broke out of Boston's garage rock scene in the mid-'80s and gained cult favourite status through its records and intense performances that earned it tour slots with the likes of Bo Diddley, Tina Turner, Robert Cray, Solomon Burke and George Thorogood before it went on a lengthy hiatus. The group reformed in 2011 with new drummer Andy Joy and saxophonist Tom Quartulli joining Whitfield and original guitarist Peter Greenberg (The Lyres, DMZ) and bassist Phil Lenker (The Lyres), and it seems that nothing was lost during that interim.

Whitfield's powerful voice growls and howls throughout the album, and it has to because a lesser vocalist would be drowned by the powerful musical forces driving almost to the point of recklessness behind him through a mix of original tunes and rather obscure covers. Whitfield is just a couple of years away from 60, but the passion and energy heard here is that of a man less than half that age.

Performances are supposed to be sweaty, high-octane affairs, and I'm hoping I can be part of one sooner rather than later since Dig Thy Savage Soul is such a knockout.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Make Mondo Zombie Boogaloo this Halloween's soundtrack

I've purchased or received a few Halloween-themed compilations over the years, and have made my own mix tapes for the same purpose, but it would be hard to find a better one than Yep Roc Records' Mondo Zombie Boogaloo.

Three of the best live bands around -- Los Straitjackets, The Fleshtones and Southern Culture on the Skids -- have joined forces on this 15-track album that came out on Oct. 1. Los Straitjackets and SCOTS contribute five songs each, The Fleshtones chip in four, and the three groups collaborate on a Spanish version of "The Monster Mash" titled "Que Monstruos Son."

The lucha libre mask-wearing Los Straitjackets weave more of their intricate guitar magic through their primarily instrumental offerings, beginning with the vintage-sounding "It's Monster Surfing Time." The band presents "Theme From Halloween" and the slower "Theme From Young Frankenstein." "Ghoul On A Hill" isn't a variation of The Beatles' "Fool On The Hill," but "Ghostbusters" is a playful interpretation of the title track hit from the popular '80s movie.

The Fleshtones strike it rich early with "Ghoulman Confidential," and I have a feeling that the band's gentrifying hometown of Brooklyn may have been the inspiration for "Haunted Hipster." "(Sock It To Me Baby) in the House of Shock" packs a lot of fun into less than two minutes with a great mix of keyboards and guitar, and "Dracula A Go Go" is what you'd expect to find in the classic Fleshtones songbook.

It's been more than nine years since I've had an opportunity to see SCOTS, and the material here gives me even more reason to witness it again. The group covers The Cramps' "Goo Goo Muck" and, while Mary Huff's vocals are a little less threatening than the late Lux Interior's, there's still some solid howling going on. Cramps fans may also be interested in knowing that Steve Blickenstaff, the man who drew the cover art for that band's 1984 Bad Music for Bad People, is also responsible for the graphics on Mondo Zombie Boogaloo.

SCOTS mixes acoustic and electric guitars on "The Loneliest Ghost In Town," gets appropriately bluesy on "Tingler Blues," throws in its own instrumental number in "La Marcha De Los Cabarones" and ends the album with "Demon Death."

These three groups are touring together in support of Mondo Zombie Boogaloo, and I've heard great reports from those lucky enough to catch them since the triple bill unfortunately didn't make it to Toronto. They're on the road in the eastern United States until Nov. 2, so there's still time if you're in the vicinity.

Whether you have the chance to see these songs performed live or just get to hear them coming from your living room stereo while joined by costumed friends later this week, I perceive no way in which you won't enjoy yourself.

Mondo Zombie Boogaloo is available on compact disc, digitally and as a double long-player on coloured vinyl.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

My night partying with porn stars

The Everything To Do With Sex Show has arrived in Toronto, and I was invited to the Oct. 17 media launch at Oasis Aqualounge -- a sex club  that earns its name via a swimming pool and hot tub.

I was on the guest list for the same event at another swingers club called Wicked about five years ago. But my invitee status still didn't stop the door staff from briefly barring my entry because my red Converse Chuck Taylors weren't classy enough to grace their sticky floors. I eventually talked my way in and ended up chatting with 2008 "Playboy Playmate of the Year" Jayde Nicole and porn stars Nikki Benz and Bree Olson -- who briefly gained mainstream notoriety in 2011 as one of Charlie Sheen's "goddesses."

Do you want to take a ride in the shaggin' wagon?

Flash ahead half a decade and, not wanting to risk the potential wrath of the Oasis Aqualounge footwear czars, I kept the black leather shoes I'd worn to my office earlier in the day firmly in place on my feet. It turned out that it didn't matter what I wore, but security was tight in other ways. I had to enter personal information into a computer, listen to a recited list of rules and then agree to an online waiver before being allowed to pass through the club's entrance foyer.

I now have a password if I ever return and know that the fifth day of the week around this place is known as "Foreplay Thursday." 

Feel like makin' whoopee?

There was a bar right inside the door, so I felt obliged to make use of it. I was asked to pay seven dollars for a plastic glass of Mill Street Tankhouse Ale. A media launch without free booze? Epic fail. Yes, we journalists can be a spoiled and jaded lot at times.

A friendly woman named Fatima then offered to take me on a tour of the joint. Aside from the bar, there was a lounge area with a stripper pole and a wall-mounted screen showing porn, a sauna, showers and washrooms on the main floor, with a pool and deck outside. Cool, wet weather made that area pretty useless except for those seeking a smoke break.

I always thought that dungeons were supposed to be underground, but the Oasis Aqualounge has its on the second floor. It had a cage, some bondage apparatuses, a suspension device, a large bowl full of condoms and lubricants, and a couple of warning signs.


We went up another flight of rose petal-covered stairs and saw various rooms meant to inspire romance and/or hardcore rodgering. There were more bowls of condoms and bowls of candy, as well as customized cupcakes and a penis-shaped cake, but no food of any substance. I filled the void in my stomach with another Tankhouse Ale.

One of the highlights of the night was supposed to be a fashion show. But what we got were several young women and a couple of guys dressed in skimpy superhero costumes who walked so quickly past the patrons that they couldn't get decent photographs.

The biggest attraction, however, was the chance to interview "ETDWSS Celebrities, Entertainers and Sexperts." I don't know if one particular attendee was included in that grouping, but she described herself as a "famous publicist." I'd heard of her. But if you're using "famous" to describe yourself, you probably aren't.
 

Lady luck may have been on my side when I was standing at the bar as the party's two marquee names, porn stars Charmane Star and Breanne Benson, arrived on the scene. There didn't seem to be any formal interview set-up, so I figured I might as well take advantage of the situation and asked Star to pose with the penis cake. Once her days of being paid to do reverse cowgirl are over, I think she could have a bright future as a Price Is Right model. 
Ladies and gentlemen: the penis cake.

The ladies were quickly escorted away before I had a chance to ask them any questions. Since I've never covered the sex beat (though I confess that the concepts of porn and beating aren't entirely unknown to me), I'm not sure what queries I would have come up with anyway.

In retrospect, however, I think they would have been:
a) Do you actually enjoy getting jizz all over your face and in your eyes?
and
b) Do you want to go over in that corner and ride me silly?

I wandered around a little bit longer as some of the club regulars started showing up, including an immodest woman with admittedly bought and paid for breasts leading around a much older (and unfortunately shirtless) man with a leash and collar. The clientele didn't exactly get my loins stirring, so it may be a long time before I ever make use of that password.

Charmane and Breanne check out their selfie.

I made one more sweep of the third floor and, if I was braggadocious, I'd tell you that I did both Charmane and Breanna from behind. The reality is that our private parts touched, but it was through mutual denim as I brushed past them in a crowded room.

I never got a chance to see the fourth floor private party room, but I helped myself to lots of condoms -- not that I have any use for them these days, unfortunately.

For an event and a venue that's supposed to be all about climaxing, this launch was pretty anti-climactic.

The Everything To Do With Sex Show runs from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Oct. 20 before it pulls out.

Breanne and I successfully execute the "I'll shoot the mirror image of you while you're giving me the finger" photo.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Fall - Re-Mit

The Fall's 2011 album, Ersatz GB, was its first for Cherry Red Records and marked a fine return to form for main man Mark E. Smith and what has now become the most stable lineup of the band ever.

Everyone is back again for The Fall's 30th official studio album since forming in Manchester, England 37 years ago, but numerous compilations and live albums boosts that total considerably. Smith's vocal rants are as cryptic as ever, but the consistency of the lineup (Peter Greenway on lead guitar on all tracks but three, where Tim Presley takes over, Keiron Mulling on drums, Dave Spurr on bass and Smith's wife Elena Poulou on keyboards and backing vocals) seems to be reflected in the consistency of the record's quality.

A minute-long instrumental titled "No Respects" opens the album and is brought back again in an extended version with vocals halfway through. Both have a surprising but welcomed '60s surf/garage rock vibe and provide the biggest highlights of a solid album. "Sir William Wray" was released as a limited edition single earlier this year and features more of the jagged post-punk we've come to expect over the years, with synthesizer and shouted backing vocals rounding things out.

I wish "Jam Song" actually was something from Paul Weller and company, as a mod Smith would be pretty amusing. But there's enough enjoyment to be gleaned from "Kinder of Spine," "Hittite Man," "Victrola Time," "Irish," "Jetplanes" and "Loadstones" that longtime Fall fans should be satisfied.

I bought Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E. Smith a few weeks ago, and I'm hopeful that I'll enjoy the autobiography at least as much as Re-Mit, which I like quite a bit.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Hits and misses at Toronto's Festival of Beer

Black Oak Brewing Company's 10 Bitter Years made the biggest impression in my 19th year of attending Toronto's Festival of Beer.

The double India pale ale has been voted Canada's best imperial IPA, and with good reason. The eight-per cent alcohol ale is double dry-hopped using three types of hops and presents a very well-balanced quaff. The amber beer offers a robust aroma with hints of pineapple and grapefruit that then give way to the ample, though not overpowering, hops. It has a nice body and a slightly malty finish, and it's no wonder that Black Oak has difficulty keeping the small batch brew (which was originally created to celebrate its 10th anniversary) in stock.

I was impressed enough to stick around and sample Black Oak's Dubbel Entendre, a dark brown Belgian-style ale brewed with Belgian candy sugar. I'm generally not a big fan of this style and, while I could tell that this 7.4-per cent beer was well made, it's too sweet for my palate.

Black Oak was also offering a one-off cask while I was at its booth, a 5.2-per cent brew that uses its nut brown ale as its base and is then topped off with Dr. Pepper. I expected more carbonation from the soft drink, but it was as flat as the vague black cherry flavour that it added. Just one keg was made, and that's enough. It's not very good.

I don't mind Creemore Springs' Kellerbier, so I decided to try the seasonal one offered by King Brewery. The unpasteurised beer was a cloudy gold colour, had a non-distinct aroma and lacks the crispness of most European-style lagers. I found little of note to recommend it and will stick with Creemore's version.

Lake of Bays' River Walker Summer Ale features a blend of ginger and lemon. Its bright gold colour and early aroma and taste initially impressed, but you can taste a bit of the alcohol in the six-per cent ale, which you normally don't want in a summer sipper.


Silversmith Brewing Company was established two years ago, but this was my first experience with the two products it had on hand. I started with its Bavarian Breakfast Wheat and, while I could drink any beer for breakfast if pressed, there seemed to be a creaminess to it even though it's just brewed with water, wheat, malt and hops. I'll attribute that to the secondary in-keg fermentation that adds more depth. It's 5.2 per cent alcohol and okay, but there are a lot of other wheat beers that I'd take over this.

Next up was Silversmith's Black Lager, which comes from a German recipe dating back 700 years. The five-per cent brew starts like a stout and ends like a lager owing to its dark, malty character, but its smoky aroma and flavour didn't make a great impression.

Snowman Brewing Co. makes its Pail Ale on Black Oak's premises, and it's gluten-free status is its key selling point. I may have a few problems, but luckily eating gluten isn't one of them. I couldn't envision having to drink a beer as unappealing as this unfiltered, foresty concoction.


Sawdust City One Bourbon One Scotch One Bier was aged for three months in a bourbon barrel. I got notes of vanilla and cherry from this light brown, German lagered ale. It may have been my second favourite beer of the fest after 10 Bitter Years.

Flying Monkey's Matador Imperial Ale was dark amber and slightly cloudy and poured with a decent head. It's aged in a cedar barrel, and you can pick up a lot of cedar in the taste and aroma. It's both complex and distinct and, while I enjoyed the first few mouthfuls, I liked it less the more I drank.

Old Kentucky Bastard is a 10-per cent Imperial Stout from Nickel Brook Brewery. It pours with a nice head and is chocolatey and slightly sweet, and the high alcohol content doesn't overwhelm the other elements. I approve.


Melville's just recently arrived in Canada, and comes to us courtesy of the same people who brew Innis & Gunn. Its Ginger Beer is made with pure, natural stem ginger, but this 4.1-per cent alcohol lager is surprisingly subtle with the amount of ginger you smell and taste. It's definitely the key ingredient, but doesn't have the bite of some ginger beers. A few of these on a summer day would go down just fine.

Melville's Strawberry Craft Lager uses Jubilee strawberries to give it a striking red colour. The fruit comes through much more in the flavour than in the bouquet. I prefer the ginger beer.

I've seen King Heffy Imperial Hefeweizen on the LCBO shelves on my past few visits, but didn't pull the trigger on purchasing one of the large bottles. I was therefore eager to try a sample of this unfiltered, German-syle wheat beer from British Columbia's Howe Sound Brewing, which had a banana and clove aroma. The 7.7-per cent beer would be best served with a lemon wedge, but there were none available. I still doubt if I'll pick up a bottle at the liquor store.


Elysian Brewing Company's Immortal IPA is a light copper-coloured ale from Seattle that has a lot of hops up front, but not enough to scare non-hop heads away. It has 6.2-per cent alcohol and was one of my favourites of the festival.

Silver City Brewing Co.'s Whoop Ass Double IPA packs an 8.5-per cent alcohol punch, but it was silly that the server wouldn't let me order one for myself and another for my friend and photographer Jeff, who was standing nearby. I had to order one, deliver it to him, and then come back for mine. It's unfiltered and reddish orange, and offers fruit and grass elements to both the nose and tongue, along with a hint of caramel sweetness.

Last call rolled around, so we made haste and headed for the media lounge to enjoy a couple glasses each of Goose Island's Sofie. I'm a fan both of this Chicago brewery and the saison style, so it's no surprise that I enjoyed this 6.5-per cent Belgian-style farmhouse ale that's aged in wine barrels with citrus peel. It's cloudy gold in colour, sparkling in its body and blends citrus and vanilla flavours.

Should I start counting down the days to the 20th edition of Toronto's Festival of Beer yet?

Friday, June 21, 2013

Teen Violence and Beach Day end my NXNE on a high

Teen Violence
The North by Northeast Music Festival returned again last week, which meant a lot of running around Toronto trying to catch as many bands as possible.

Here's what I caught on night four:

After taking a break for a few hours after the afternoon's "Bruise Cruise," I hit the clubs again with a 9 p.m. start at The Painted Lady with a young Kitchener, Ont. quartet called Teen Violence. Hearing one song on the NXNE website was my only familiarity with the group to this point, but after its set I can unequivocally say that it was my best discovery of largely unknown talent at the festival.

Teen Violence displayed a vintage '60s Mod-Britpop sound for most of its set, and midway through it played a song it said was inspired by The Everly Brothers. Not only were they talented, they were troopers, as the drummer played with a broken right foot. If you like short, sharp songs with a frequently forceful jangle, give a listen to Teen Violence. It definitely won't hurt.

The Dildoniks

Beach Day
A relatively new bar called May was just east on Dundas Street West, and I soon found out it had Kensington Watermelon Wheat on tap in addition to hosting The Dildoniks. There was nothing wrong with either the beer or the band, but both left me less fulfilled than I had hoped they would. The Toronto trio started with an instrumental that that would have done Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet proud, and I preferred the other surf-based instrumentals the group played over its songs with lyrics. They had more reverb and seemed to be performed with more energy, and the singer's voice and words were nothing special anyway.

French Girls
There were two bands I was really hoping to see during NXNE since I missed both of them at the South by Southwest Music Festival in March. And wouldn't you know it, they were both playing tonight at 11 p.m.: Shannon and The Clams at Silver Dollar Room and Beach Day at Handlebar. I figured the Silver Dollar might be more crowded, it was farther away, and I'd never been to Handlebar before, so the Kensington Market venue won the competition. And as a bonus, it had Kensington Fish Eye, a decently hopped pale ale that I'd never tried before.

The Hollywood, Fla. trio fronted by sexy singer/guitarist Kimmy Drake, played '60s girl group pop with a garage rock edge that's totally infectious. They write songs about love, shoes, having fun and, on the lead single named after the group, spending a day on the beach. The group's Trip Trap Attack debut album was just released and, if it provides just half of the good vibes that the live show does, it will be an entertaining listen.
 

I moved south to Queen Street and Hideout for French Girls, a San Francisco quintet making its first Canadian appearance that's located at the point where garage and alternative rock intersect. The music got people dancing and clapping along and, while it had all the elements I usually love, I only ended up being merely satisfied by the revival rock.

I planned to see The Blank Tapes at The Cameron House, but there was a long lineup and I was told I'd have to wait to get in, so I moved a bit west to the Horseshoe Tavern, where I thought there would be an even longer lineup to see Fucked Up. I was somewhat surprised that I was able to walk right in, but the club was packed once the band reached the stage.

Fucked Up

Lead singer Damian Abraham said it was his dream come true to play the Shoe again since his conceptual hardcore punk act's success has moved it on to much larger venues. Not surprisingly, his shirt came off during the first song. The moshing, stage-diving and crowd-surfing that ensued throughout the set came as no shock either, and Abraham high-fived most fans who made it up beside him.

I'm a bigger fan of the singer as a person than I am of Fucked Up and its music, but "The Other Shoe" was a clear musical highlight and watching Abraham carry fans on his shoulders and stage-diving while singing showed his dynamism as a frontman that he's been able to translate into other opportunities beyond the band.

Soupcans was on my list to see at 2 a.m. and, while I didn't have to leave the Horseshoe to see it, I became too engaged in talking with friends at the bar to pay any attention to what was happening on stage. When 3 a.m. rolled around, I figured it was a good time to start the walk home and end my NXNE for another year.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Sun, bands and booze on NXNE "Bruise Cruise"

The North by Northeast Music Festival returned again last week, which meant a lot of running around Toronto trying to catch as many bands as possible.

Here's what I caught on day four:

M for Montreal's "Bruise Cruise" has become an NXNE tradition for me over the past two years and, since Saturday was shaping up to be warm and sunny and the talent lineup interested me, I saw no reason not to extend it to a third year.


Captain Matthew Flinders didn't pull out from the dock until about an hour after its scheduled 12:30 p.m. departure time, but there were people to meet, beers to drink and sunshine to enjoy on deck before the music started down below.
Fat Tony

Fat Tony, a Houston rapper who performed with a vocal partner but no musicians, sounded okay and could put together decent rhymes. But it wasn't my thing so I went back up top to take in some views as the 575-passenger ship moved east from Harbourfront past residential islands to the north and Leslie Spit to the south. A military plane flew low overhead and I later saw it land at nearby Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, which I didn't know hosted such aircraft.
We Are Wolves

Odonis Odonis
We Are Wolves, a Montreal trio that made my personal Polaris Music Prize long list for its 2013 album La Mort Pop Club, came on at 2:20 p.m. Lead singer/guitarist Alexander Ortiz, keyboardist Vincent Levesque and stand-up drummer Antonin Marquis' post-punk, primitive electro-rock has both crunch and texture in its minimalist approach. Some songs are more aggressive, while others are more danceable and keyboard-focussed. There was no doubt what end of the spectrum the group's final number, a largely faithful cover of Black Sabbath's "Paranoid," fell on.
 

Captain Matthew Flinders sailed around the Toronto islands and continued about as far west as the Boulevard Club before circling back east and, while it was beautiful on deck, it was time to head back inside at 3 p.m. for Odonis Odonis. The Toronto trio's lo-fi punk rock set didn't hold a lot back and, though I didn't know anything about the band going in, I liked it. So did other cruisers, as Odonis Odonis prompted the most dancing of anyone so far -- including some mild moshing.

We were just docking when Mikal Cronin hit the stage at 3:50 p.m. I'd seen the guitarist and his three bandmates on Thursday night at Silver Dollar Room but, since this was one of the most hyped acts of the festival and friends are totally into it, I had no issues with trying these rockers on for size again. "Situation," a fine piece of power pop, got things started. "Am I Wrong" and "Apathy" kept the momentum going and inspired moshing and one brave (or stupid) crowd-surfer who was repeatedly battered against the low ceiling.
 

NXNE staff told Cronin to shut things down, but the band gave the crowd one more song: a cover of Wreckless Eric's "Whole Wide World" that was sped up considerably in places and featured a lot more guitar-jamming than the original. I hope Eric Goulden is making some decent royalties from all the interpretations of his 1977 classic that seem to have emerged over the past few years. He deserves them.
Mikal Cronin

I disembarked and walked home along the shore of Lake Ontario, stopping to buy two beers from Keith's new hops series of beers along the way. The first one made the jaunt more pleasant and the second provided fuel for hitting the clubs later in the evening after taking a break to make dinner.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Danks, Blowfly and that's all on NXNE night three

The Danks
The North by Northeast Music Festival returned again last week, which meant a lot of running around Toronto trying to catch as many bands as possible.

Here's what I caught on night three:

Playing baseball kept me out of the clubs until midnight and, just as I had the night before with Invasions, I elected to give a band that didn't knock me out three months earlier at the Canadian Music Festival a second chance.
 

The Danks were plagued by lead singer/guitarist Brohan Moore's voice problems in March and, while it still seemed a bit scratchy at certain moments, it was much improved this time. The Charlottetown, P.E.I. pop-rock quartet just released its sophomore album, Gank, and its set was logically heavy with new material, including "Sycamore," "Summer Lovin'" and "Not News." "Die Young" and "What We're Doing" represented 2009's fine Are You Afraid of The Danks well, and the group again covered the Pixies' "Alec Eiffel."

These guys have a definite knack for incorporating catchy hooks into short, snappy songs. And this set was much more energetic than the last one I saw, which was probably helped by a larger and more receptive audience. Don't be afraid of The Danks. Their music is well worth checking out.


Blowfly

A cult legend who I'd heard of but never heard before drew me to the Horseshoe at 1 a.m. for a performance that's still leaving me a bit puzzled. Clarence Reid was a straight-ahead soul singer/songwriter who had some success in the '60s before he adapted his Blowfly alter-ego in 1971. He started wearing bizarre costumes, performing sexually explicit songs and laid a legitimate claim to being the first rapper.

On this night Blowfly strolled on to the stage in a sparkly gold outfit with a BF insignia on the front similar to a Superman get-up, complete with a blue cape. A matching gold and blue mask was soon thrown aside as his six-piece band (complete with saxophone, trumpet and trombone) fired him up for "Funky Party." That turned out to be his cleanest number, as he followed up with songs that included the lyrics "doing it like a dog," "you've got to fuck the boss" and "I fuck everything because everything is you," as well as song titles including "Rapp Dirty," "Pussy Hell" and "Incredible Fulk."

Blowfly's original songs were augmented by parodies of Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang" ("that's the sound of the men butt-fucking on the chain gang"), Sam & Dave's "Soul Man" (which became "Hole Man"), Michael Jackson's "Ben" (with lyrics about the sexual misadventures of members of the Jackson family) and "Beat It," and The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" ("you've got to let me know, should I fuck that big fat ho?").

I admit that I chuckled along to a lot of the songs before realizing that, if Blowfly wasn't 74 years old, I'd be criticizing him as a homophobic, misogynistic pig with freakily long fingers and fingernails instead of cutting him some slack and writing his schtick off to being a dirty old man. I've probably seen Andre Williams a dozen times and, while he's another septuagenarian who still fancies himself a ladies man, he does it with more class and his innuendos don't beat you over the head like Blowfly's blunt words do.

The other thing that I felt was a bit strange was that I had passed several black people standing outside various showcase venues while on my way to the Horseshoe, but I didn't spot any at all in the crowd of approximately 300 people who came to see a performer who plays soul, funk and rap.

Another act followed Blowfly on to the stage at 2 a.m., but I couldn't pay attention as I talked to friends about what we'd just witnessed.

Social Distortion and Mikal Cronin dominate night two of NXNE

Invasions
The North by Northeast Music Festival returned again last week, which meant a lot of running around Toronto trying to catch as many bands as possible.

Here's what I caught on night two:

A streetcar delay made me arrive late at Yonge Dundas Square for Social Distortion's 9 p.m. set, but luckily I got there just in time to hear "Story of My Life," which has always been one of my favourites from the band. I was pleasantly surprised by the large size of the crowd, considering it was cool and raining, and the performance didn't seem to be dampened -- even though Social D isn't what it was when I first saw the band about 20 years ago. Lead singer/guitarist Mike Ness was dressed all in black except for red suspenders and I realized, with a Citytv video screen behind the stage offering the cue to get me thinking, that Ness is starting to resemble Moses Znaimer -- if the television pioneer was covered in tattoos.

Social Distortion continued to mine its rich catalogue of roots-influenced punk rock with songs including "Cold Feelings," "Crown of Thorns" and the always great "Ball and Chain" before ending the set with "Misery Loves Company" from Ness' 1999 solo debut, Cheating At Solitaire.

The group emerged back on stage after a short break with Ness wearing a fedora as he launched into "Reach For The Sky," "It Coulda Been Me" and "Winners and Losers" before concluding -- as Social Distortion has every time I've seen it -- with a scorching cover of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire."

Mikal Cronin
I walked west on Dundas Street West and scored a bargain by snagging four pizza slices for a buck each, which I ate en route to The Silver Dollar Room, where I arrived for the second half of Invasions' 11 p.m. set. I saw this Toronto surf-garage rock band during Canadian Music Festival in March and, while I wasn't completely sold, I said I'd give it another chance. There seemed to be more energy, from both the band and the audience, this time. The trumpet also stood out more, which was a plus. But the group's cover of The Kinks' "Dead End Street" left me lukewarm once again. My friend Matzoh Ball described Invasions as "Glee doing a tribute to Calexico," which I laughed at but can't verify since I've never watched Glee.


Mikal Cronin was the main reason I was at The Silver Dollar, however, as he launched a three-night residency at the club. The place was packed and the front of the stage was full of moshing and crowd-surfing by those excited to witness the San Francisco-based singer/guitarist's brand of lo-fi rock and roll. "Apathy" and "Change" were my personal highlights of the short but explosive set. I'd meant to see Cronin at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas in March, and friends who saw him there or elsewhere have raved about his performances. Perhaps that set my expectations too high because, as much as I enjoyed Cronin and his three bandmates, I didn't find it mind-blowing.

Toronto's Pow Wows had their work cut out for them to try and elicit the same response from the now much smaller Silver Dollar audience, and the trio's unexceptional garage-psych rock wasn't up to the task and sent me on my way home before it finished.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Star & Micey and Los Oxidados bookend first night of NXNE music

The North by Northeast Music Festival returned again last week, which meant a lot of running around Toronto trying to catch as many bands as possible.

Here's what I caught on night one:

Star & Micey

Star & Micey is an act I tried to see in Austin during the South by Southwest Music Festival in March but didn't, so I was happy to get another chance at NXNE. The Memphis, Tenn. quartet arrived late and didn't start until 25 minutes after its scheduled 8 p.m. start time, but made up for it with an effervescent performance of fun and easy-to-listen-to, guitar-driven pop-rock songs. The group topped things off by parading through the venue and standing on the bar while playing its final song. It was worth the short wait to hear.

S.M.

The Mouthbreathers
Star & Micey's late finish altered my scheduling, so I rerouted to Kensington Market and the small Detour Bar to see S.M. -- and it wasn't because we share the same initials. The Sarnia, Ont. trio had an audience four times its size when I arrived part-way through its set of lo-fi rock. The vocals were somewhat atonal and the musicianship wasn't exemplary, but I stayed for the duration because I had to finish my Stigl tallboy and there was nothing else in the neighbourhood that I had on my list to see for the time slot.

Samantha Martin
I moved around the corner to The Boat for The Mouthbreathers, a quartet from Sackville, N.B. fronted by a singer/guitarist who was celebrating her 23rd birthday. The performance was reminiscent of the slacker guitar rock you'd hear more commonly in the early '90s. It was far from exceptional, but pretty good, well-paced and improved as the set went on. An Eric's Trip song was thrown in for good measure as a nod to a musical influence from the band's home province.
 

The Normals
I had a small window to grab a bite to eat and still make it to Supermarket at 11 p.m. for Toronto's Samantha Martin and The Haggard. Martin plays guitar and was backed by an electric guitarist, bassist, drummer and two female harmony singers. I was pleasantly surprised that her brand of blues incorporated soul, rockabilly and even reggae, and Martin's powerful voice matched the repertoire well. That passionate delivery was in full effect for an energetic, set-closing performance of Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep - Mountain High."

Montreal's The Normals formed in 1977 and only lasted a year, but the old school punks are back together. While the trio's brand of punk may be a bit formulaic, I enjoyed what I heard and the set improved as the guys warmed up. "I Don't Want To Go To Work" was a sentiment that most people in attendance probably shared the next morning, and a cover of The Buzzcocks' "What Do I Get" ended my time at Cherry Cola's Rock n' Rolla Cabaret & Lounge on a high note.

The last stop of my night was at 1 a.m. at Hideout, where I was surprised to find that the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks were playing a third overtime of their National Hockey League final. But I was more interested in a group from Mexico City named Los Oxidados, which played a very fun set of instrumentals from the schools of surf, garage and spaghetti western. All three members wearing black eye masks was also a nice touch. While the music moved my feet, the sexy belly dancer who took centre stage throughout the set made something else move below my waist. It was a great way to cap off a good, if not great, night of music.

Los Oxidados