Sunday, December 21, 2014

Steve McLean's favourite music of 2014

The top 10
 

1. Old 97's - Most Messed Up
2. Ex Hex - Rips
3. The Rich Hands - Out of My Head
4. Dex Romweber Duo - Images 13
5. Archie Powell & The Exports - Back in Black
6. The Growlers - Chinese Fountain
7. Cousins - The Halls of Wickwire
8. Chuck Prophet - Night Surfer
9. Brian Setzer - Rockabilly Riot! All Original
10. Los Straitjackets - Deke Dickerson Sings the Instrumental Hits

The next 10
 


11. Stella Ella Ola - We Should Hang Out All The Time
12. The Strypes - Snapshot
13. Shovels & Rope - Swimmin' Time
14. The Baseball Project - 3rd
15. Imelda May - Tribal
16. Rodney Crowell - Tarpaper Sky
17. Reigning Sound - Shattered
18. The Orwells - Disgraceland
19. Pink Mountaintops - Get Back
20. Shivery Shakes - Three Waves & a Shake


 

Honourable mention
Rancid - Honor Is All We Know
Skaters - Manhattan
The Wet Secrets - Free Candy
Alvvays - Alvvays
Lydia Loveless - Somewhere Else
Nick Waterhouse - Holly

Reissues, compilations and box sets (alphabetical order)
 

Stompin' Tom Connors - A Truly Proud Canadian - The Hits The Country
The Gaslight Anthem - The B-Sides
Corb Lund - Counterfeit Blues
The Tragically Hip - Fully Completely Deluxe Edition
Various artists - While No One Was Looking: Toasting 20 Years of Bloodshot Records
Paul Weller - More Modern Classics
The Who - The Who Hits 50! Deluxe Edition
Wilco - Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracks 1994-2014

 

EP
The She's - Dreamers EP

Concerts (chronological order)
 

Violent Femmes at Toronto Urban Roots Fest
The Millwinders, Jim Jones Revue - Jan. 17, Horseshoe, Toronto
The Millwinders, Deke Dickerson with James Henry and Teddy Fury - Jan. 21, Cameron House, Toronto
The Dream Syndicate - Feb. 8, The Garrison, Toronto
The B.B. Guns, Nick Waterhouse - Feb. 22, Horseshoe, Toronto
The Royal Crowns, The Fleshtones - April 18, Horseshoe, Toronto
Stompin' Tom Connors tribute - April 19, Horseshoe, Toronto
Holly Golightly - April 23, Horseshoe, Toronto
Bloodshot Bill, Catl - April 24, Horseshoe, Toronto
Ablebody, Fear of Men, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - April 26, Horseshoe, Toronto
Various artists at various venues for Canadian Music Festival - May 6-10, Toronto
The Slackers - May 9, Lee's Palace, Toronto
Ray Condo tribute - May 16, 3030, Toronto
The Toasters - June 5, Horseshoe, Toronto
Various artists at various venues for North by Northeast Music Festival - June 18-21, Toronto
Various artists at Toronto Urban Roots Fest - July 4-6, Fort York, Toronto
Hands & Teeth, Beliefs, Cousins - Aug. 8, Silver Dollar, Toronto
Daddy Long Legs, The Ding-Dongs, Miriam - Aug. 31, Horseshoe, Toronto
Paul Weller, The Flaming Lips, The Cure - Sept. 6, Riot Fest, Downsview Park, Toronto
The Blasters - Sept. 6, Horseshoe, Toronto
Robyn Hitchcock - Sept. 12 and 13, The Drake Underground, Toronto
Stiff Little Fingers - Sept. 14, Lee's Palace, Toronto
La La Brooks - Sept. 27, Horseshoe, Toronto
Catl, The Undead Telly Savalas, The Reigning Sound - Oct. 26, Horseshoe, Toronto
Ex Hex - Oct. 27, Horseshoe, Toronto
Chuck Prophet and The Mission Express - Nov. 9, Horseshoe, Toronto
Allah-Las - Nov. 27, Horseshoe, Toronto
The Hold Steady - Dec. 11, Horseshoe, Toronto
Skydiggers - Dec. 20, Horseshoe, Toronto
The Sadies - Dec. 31, Horseshoe, Toronto

Monday, November 24, 2014

Favourite and notable wines from Gourmet Food & Wine Expo

I drank more wine than ever before at this year's Gourmet Food & Wine Expo, held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre from Nov. 20 to 23. My focus was on white, rose, sparkling and fruit wines, and here are the glasses that stood out from the dozens I sampled.

Red Tractor Riesling, a Niagara wine which presents crisp apple aromas and flavours with a bit of citrus and provides a bit of sweetness in the finish, is available through Sideroad Twenty Cellars.

Mike Weir Wine Sauvignon Blanc VQA is a very pale-coloured, subtle wine from Beamsville, Ont. that has some tropical fruit elements. It's better than his golf game has been (outside of one tournament) over the past few years.

Brumont Gros Manseng Sauvignon is an aromatic and flavourful French wine that includes the Gros Manseng grape that I wasn't familiar with before. It's quite pale and the blend combines dryness with a rich fruitiness. At $12.95, it's a very good value and was one of best discoveries of the show.

Santa Rita Reserva Chardonnay is an unoaked Chardonnay made about 15 kilometres from the Chilean coast. It has a rich, complex bouquet, a full-bodied flavour and sells for $13.95.

Cornerstone Estate Winery 2013 Strawberry Festival is a beautifully sweet dessert wine bursting with strawberry flavours. It's a four on the sweetness scale and has an alcohol content of 12 per cent.

The Dreaming Tree is a Californian Chardonnay created as a collaboration between winemaker Steve Reeder and musician Dave Matthews. Just like Matthews' music, there's little distinctiveness to it and I don't need to sample it again.

Babich Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2014 is an excellent, rich, full-bodied New Zealand wine with a tropical aspect and very pleasing finish. It's available from the LCBO for $14.95.

Oyster Bay Rose Cuvee is a New Zealand sparkling rose made with 80 per cent Pinot Noir and 20 per cent Chardonnay grapes that wouldn't be a bad choice for December holiday celebrations.

Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi White Zinfandel 2013 is a subtly sweet Californian wine that nicely blends crispness with fruitiness. It's quite nice and its 9.5 per cent alcohol content is light for those occasions when you want a wine but don't desire much of a buzz from it.

I was told that Mayor de Castilla Verdejo 2013 is the top-selling Spanish white wine and, at $10.95, it comes in at a nice price point. It's made with 100 per cent Verdejo grapes and is a bright, easy-drinking wine with a rich bouquet and bold flavour.

Codorniu Selección Raventos Brut Rose is a pink Spanish sparkling wine with persistent bubbles and a rich, fruity bouquet of berries and flowers. It finishes dry.

Kim Crawford Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc was another favourite New Zealand wine. It's quite fruit-forward with a rich bouquet of grapefruit, flavours including pineapple and stonefruit, and a nice, lingering finish.

Muskoka Lakes Cranberry Blueberry Wine 2013 is a rich, dark red, 10-per cent alcohol blend that's relatively sweet, but with some tartness. I preferred it to the Muskoka Lakes Cranberry Wine 2013, which was more tart and essentially tastes like a 9.5-per cent alcohol cranberry juice.

Robert Mondavi Private Selection Sauvignon Blanc 2012 is a California central coast wine with complex floral aromas, rich, concentrated flavour and an easy finish.

I've always wanted to visit Pelee Island and after enjoying six wines at the Pelee Island Winery booth, that notion of spending a day or two at Canada's southernmost community has been reinforced. I started with its sweetest wine, Island Time Semi Sweet Riesling Vidal, made with a 90 per cent Riesling/10 per cent Vidal blend, which had notes of apple and apricot and an easy finish. The 12.5-per cent alcohol Sauvignon Blanc is mellow and medium-bodied. I'd certainly have the pale, straw-coloured Gewurztraminer Riesling 2013 again, especially with spicy food. The Pinot Grigio has a slight bronze hue and a hint of peach in the aroma that delivers a nice fruitiness. The Eco Trail Chardonnay Auxerrois 2012 has a floral bouquet with a crisp and clean finish. The bubbly Secco has green apple and pear flavour elements that I wouldn't mind celebrating with come Dec. 31.

J.P. Chenet Chardonnay du Monde 2013 provides a hint of vanilla in the aroma and a slight nuttiness in the flavour. The French winery also produces an interesting Ice Edition which isn't an ice wine but is meant to be served over ice. It's bubbly and pale yellow with a tropical citrus fruit nose and a taste that's creamy and smooth on the palate.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Liqueurs and cocktails at Gourmet Food & Wine Expo

I drank fewer liqueurs and cocktails at this year's Gourmet Food & Wine Expo than I did in the past couple of years, but here's what I sampled at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre from Nov. 20 to 23.

Amaro Lucano is an Italian aperitif made with a blend of more than 30 herbs that can be enjoyed on its own or as part of a cocktail. I tried an Amore Amaro cocktail made with the aperitif, elderflower liqueur and grapefruit juice, and garnished with an orange slice. It had a pleasing orange-red colour and its mix of herb and citrus was quite refreshing.

Jack Daniels' Winter Jack Apple Whiskey Punch is a 15-per cent alcohol liqueur with a lovely mix of apple, cinnamon and clove in its aroma and flavour. I first tried it over ice and then heated. I preferred the former, but either way it makes a comforting winter sipper.

Forty Creek Cream Liquor blends fresh dairy cream with Forty Creek Whisky to create a rich and smooth drink with just the right amount of sweetness when served over ice. I would definitely enjoy this 17-per cent alcohol liqueur with coffee as well. Be patriotic and give this to a Baileys drinker, knowing that you're supporting a Canadian distillery while you're doing it.

Dr. McGillicuddy's Apple Pie is extremely sweet, but with a cinnamon zing. This is too sweet for me on its own, but I think I might like it if it was paired with the same company's Fireball Cinnamon Whisky.

I can't really classify MerloCola as a cocktail, but I'll include it anyway because it will have a segment of the market to itself when it hits LCBO shelves for $9.95 a bottle in February. It's comprised of 70 per cent Merlot wine combined with cola and is inspired by a Spanish cocktail called the Calimocho. There's a balance between the bitterness of the wine and the sweetness of the cola, but I had no desire to have another one after being given a glass of it.

Beer time at Gourmet Food & Wine Expo

Perhaps my biggest revelation after spending three days and sampling 90 drinks at the 20th annual Gourmet Food & Wine Expo at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre was finally finding a few gluten-free beers that didn't suck.

Gluten is part of my diet, so I'll never have a need to drink these four beers, but it's good to have some that I can confidently recommend to those who have issues with it.

Belgium's Brunehaut Brewery grows organic barley on its own farm, and sources its other ingredients locally. It's also developed a unique way to filter out the gluten during the brewing process.

My favourite of its three beers -- which I signed a petition to get into LCBO stores -- was the Organic Blond. There's a hint banana in this 6.5-per cent, cloudy gold beer with a mildly bitter finish. The top-fermented Organic Amber is also 6.5 per cent and uses two types of malt. There's a caramel flavour, but with little sweetness. The third beer is the eight-per cent alcohol Organic Tripel that pours with a nice head over a cloudy gold base. There's a slightly yeasty aroma and the malt is definitely evident, if not overpowering.

The other organic and gluten-free beer I enjoyed was Mongozo Premium Pilsener, which also comes from Belgium. It's a gold, five-per-cent alcohol beer with a classic crisp and clean pilsner flavour that's brewed with organic barley malt, organic hops and Fairtrade-certified organic rice.

Collective Arts' Rhyme and Reason has become one of my favourite Canadian IPAs over the last year, and the brewery's new State of Mind Session IPA is a nice, lighter counterpart. There's a citrus and hop aroma and a very good grapefruit flavour infused through the gold beer.

Nickel Brook Maple Porter is made with maple syrup that blends nicely with roasted malts so the maple isn't overpowering. The six-per cent alcohol beer has a clean finish.

Innis and Gunn Limited Edition is an ale matured in casks from the five malt whiskey regions of Scotland. I've never been that big on Scottish ales, but this amber 7.4-per cent beer has a slightly spicy aroma and flavour in combination with vanilla that gives it a smooth character. I would like this in small amounts.

Asahi Super Dry is a decent but unexceptional Japanese lager that's a staple of sushi restaurants, but I was more impressed with Asahi Kuronoma Premium Black Lager. It's made with roasted barley malt, rice and maize, and you can definitely taste the roasted malt after taking in the biscuit aroma.

Beau's Monkey's Paw is a 5.2-per cent wheat beer that pours cloudy gold with a nice, rich head. It has a classic Belgian wheat beer flavour with a touch of bubblegum, and I'm happy that I got to taste it since the last keg of it was served at the Gourmet Food & Wine Expo.

Beau's St. Luke's Verse Gruit Ale is made with lavender, thyme and rosemary, and it has a large lavender bouquet and flavour. It's light copper in colour and pours with a rich, white head. This 5.7-per cent beer is very unique and, although I don't know if I could drink a lot of it, I liked it.

Samuel Adams Fat Jack is an 8.5-per cent double pumpkin ale. It's coloured appropriately but disappoints with its aroma. The pumpkin flavour breaks through in the finish along with some spiciness, but so does the relatively high alcohol content, which deters from the appeal.

I'm generally not a fan of Octoberfest beers, and Samuel Adams Octoberfest didn't change my opinion. The copper-coloured beer has a biscuity maltiness and a 5.5 per cent alcohol content.

Vedett Extra White is an unfiltered wheat beer made with lemon zest and coriander that comes from the same Belgian brewery as Duvel. It's a good summertime beer that's just fine on its own or mixed with Liefmans Fruitesse, a unique beer blend of black cherry, raspberry, blueberry, strawberry and elderberry juices that's easy-drinking, sweet and very fruit-forward.

Moosehead Boundary Ale is made with Cascade, Chinook, East Kent Goldings and Fuggles hops and seven types of malt that combine to make this a much more complex beer than Moosehead or the light Cracked Canoe. You can taste the caramel malt and there's a decent bitterness to this 5.3-per cent alcohol beer.

Innocente Brewing Company is a relatively new Waterloo, Ont. brewery that had six beers at the expo. I started with the high-quality Pilsner, which has a nice gold colour, decent white head and a crisp finish. The Rye Pale Ale was next, and the rye isn't overpowering like it can be in some of these beers, so I enjoyed it more than most. Innocente Golden Ale has a nice gold colour that pours with a rich white head. It's smooth but more generic than the brewery's other products.

The 7.4-per cent Innocente Double IPA is made with a variety of hops and had a hint of bosc pear with a grapefruit finish. It presented complementary bitterness and hoppiness and has me eager to try the promised Triple IPA that will be coming shortly. I finished my time at Innocente with its 11.9-per cent Russian Imperial Stout that was very dark beneath its grey head. The beer wasn't as rich as I expected and a molasses taste competed with a strong alcohol presence that wasn't pleasant.

Lake of Bays' Jake The Snake Imperial Pilsner isn't named after the '80s wrestler, but Hall of Fame hockey goalie Jacques Plante. It has a citrus aroma and a fruit-infused flavour with a bit of honey sweetness. The 7.5-per cent beer will be discontinued. Lake of Bays' Cujo is an eight-per cent imperial golden ale dedicated to NHL goalie Curtis Joseph. The rich colour of this malty beer is its most distinctive feature.

Spearhead Brewing Company's Sam Roberts Band Session Ale is unfiltered and naturally carbonated, featuring a dry finish to its caramel and biscuit flavour. It's won awards, but I don't think it's exceptional.

Wychwood Scarecrow Organic comes from the same brewery that makes Hobgoblin, and I generally appreciate its distinctive bottles and labels more than its beer. That was the case with this 4.7-per cent golden ale that balances citrus fruit flavours with a rich maltiness and a bitter finish.

Oast House Pitchfork Porter is dark brown with a small beige head that has a nice roasty aroma with a bit of coffee and dark chocolate in the flavour. This is another winner from the Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. brewery.

Molson Canadian is one of my least favourite beers, and its Apple Cider doesn't rank anywhere on my list of favourites either, but I was impressed by its Stone Fruit Cider that's made with peaches and apricots. It has a very fruity bouquet and flavour and is more distinctive than Canadian's Apple Cider. I can finally recommend something from the Canadian family.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Cruising through Chicago

One of the best ways to gain an appreciation of Chicago's past, and its more recent history, is seeing the city from the deck of a Shoreline Sightseeing tour boat on the Chicago River.

And on a bright July afternoon, it's a great way to get some sun while getting an education in architecture -- as the men responsible for designing some of Chicago's most notable buildings have reputations that resonate worldwide. Miles van deer Roge, Helmut Jahn, Adrian Smith, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and others are all represented, and knowledgeable and entertaining guides tell their stories along with those of the city.

You'll pass by some breathtaking structures that have made major contributions to Chicago's status as a financial, retail and cultural hub as well as a desirable place to reside. Aon Center, Trump International Hotel & Tower, Wrigley Building, Marina City, Merchandise Mart, Boeing International Headquarters, River City, Union Station Power Plant, Civic Opera Building, Jewelers Building, Willis Tower, Tribune Tower, Lake Point Tower and Navy Pier are just some of the inspiring buildings you'll see and learn about.

The Chicago River used to be toxic and, while it's still mildly polluted and not suitable for swimming, it's a scenic gateway to the city that provides perspectives that are unattainable from terra firma.

Here are some of the things you can expect to see on a 75-minute tour that's well worth the $35 adult admission charge:


Wrigley Building

Trump International Hotel & Tower
Tribune Tower
Marina City
Merchandise Mart

Lake Point Tower










Sunday, October 05, 2014

Nuit Blanche Thoughts and Photos

Over the past few years, Scotiabank Nuit Blanche seems to have fallen into a malaise of being less inspiring and entertaining with each succeeding event. The novelty of looking at shiny, illuminated objects in different locations doesn't last long.

I left my house at 9:45 p.m., walked all over downtown Toronto and got home just past 6 a.m. after taking in almost all of the art installations that were part of the four major exhibitions as well as several independent and special projects, and can honestly say that nothing truly thrilled me or produced deep thoughts (not that I have many of those anyway). Holoscenes, where a man was immersed in a tank of water and continued to drink his coffee and read his newspaper while rarely coming up for air, held my attention the longest. 

I didn't take part in many of the interactive installations since I'm not the type who likes waiting in line for something I'm pretty sure isn't going to be worth the time spent trying to get into see it. But I did drop into one of the three "Screaming Booths" set up on Spadina Avenue and Queen Street and yelled "Biscuits!" just for the hell of it. A young woman who went in after me put a fancy rope with a frilly sash over my head like a necklace. It either looked regal or ridiculous, but I wore it -- thought I should have donated it to the folks who were putting on a bondage display at The Great Hall. They would have made much better use of it than I could.

The highlight of my night was going to the TIFF Bell Lightbox and watching The Unauthorized Hagiography of Vincent Price, a "faux-ography" that strung together clips from the actor's films and television appearances, threw in some fake facts and added the occasional song to act as a soundtrack. I laughed, I smiled, I sung along to Mungo Jerry's "In The Summertime," I sat down in a comfortable seat and ate popcorn for 45 minutes.

Here are some photos from my Nuit Blanche wandering:


















Balloons at Fort York.


















A Charles Pachter painting at Fort York's new visitor centre.


















Please Come In Please at Victoria Memorial Park. An artist works and lives in this small trailer.























Big Top Grand Stand at Clarence Square Park.


















Holoscenes at Roundhouse Park.


















Icebreaker at 18 York St.























Gap Ecology (Still Lives with Cherry Pickers and Palms) at John Street and Queen Street West.


















Monument to North American Energy Security at Nathan Phillips Square Reflecting Pool.


















The Garden of Renova at Osgoode Rotunda.


















A bust at the Art Gallery of Ontario.























This one is self-explanatory.


















Walk Among Worlds at Ogden Junior Public School.























It All Falls Down at 37 Bulwer St.























It All Falls Down, from the other side, at 37 Bulwer St.


















Incandescent Community Mural at Artscape Youngplace.


















Bondage demonstrations at The Great Hall.


















A painting on the lawn at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Baseball Project rounds 3rd and scores


Major League Baseball's all-star break is upon us, and most players were able to take some time away from the game if they weren't in Minneapolis for Monday's home run derby and last night's game. Five very talented players of a different kind from The Baseball Project also took a few days off, but will step back up to the plate with a July 17 show in Washington, D.C. as part of the band's five-week tour of the United States.

Baseball junkies and singer/guitarists Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, The Minus 5, R.E.M.) and Steve Wynn (The Dream Syndicate, Gutterball) formed The Baseball Project in 2007 as a means to pay tribute to their favourite sport through song. Drummer Linda Pitmon (Steve Wynn and the Miracle 3, Zuzu's Petals) and R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills have since come on board, and the five of them are on the road supporting their appropriately titled third album, 3rd, which follows 2008's highly enjoyable Volume 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails and 2011's Volume 2: High and Inside.

The latest record picks up where its predecessors left off and features 17 original songs before concluding with the time-honoured classic, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." With the rock and pop pedigrees of this musical lineup, it should come as no surprise that 3rd swings and features few misses.

"From Nails to Thumbtacks" chronicles the rise and fall of Lenny Dykstra. "Hola America!" honours the personal sacrifices made by Cuban ball players forced to leave their families behind to pursue their MLB dreams. "13" provides a harsher look at Alex Rodriguez, an all-world talent who enhanced what he already had through steroids. Dock Ellis is best known for throwing a no-hitter while on LSD, but "The Day Dock Went Hunting Heads" tells a lesser known tale about when he tried to hit all of the members of the Cincinnati Reds. Perhaps my favourite song on the LP, "To The Veteran's Committee," makes a short, sharp power pop-filled appeal to have former Atlanta Braves slugger Dale Murphy inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

"They Don't Know Henry" delves into what Hank Aaron had to overcome on his way to becoming baseball's home run king. The Oakland A's have had their ups and downs as a franchise, but have usually had their share of colourful players, and you'll hear about a few of them in "They Are the Oakland A's."  Robin Yount gained fame and fortune with the Milwaukee Brewers while his brother wasn't so fortunate, as you'll find out in "Larry Yount." "A Boy Named Cy" focuses on the man that had pitching's greatest award named after him. "They Played Baseball" provides glimpses of a range of (often unsavoury) characters from the annals of the sport who had a lot of different traits but shared the quality expressed in the title.

"Box Scores" and "The Baseball Card Song" may not deal with specific players, but they show how obsessive fans can become about things related to the grand old game.

The Baseball Project puts on great shows, and the folks making that music are genuine. If you need more convincing to pick up 3rd or see a show on the tour, I've included reviews and interviews I originally wrote for MSN that are no longer accessible online below. You'll likely relate to the songs more if you're a baseball fan, but you can still enjoy them if you know little about the sport.



Watching a game with The Baseball Project (from 2011)

Perhaps my biggest regret in skipping March's South By Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas after attending for the previous seven years was the opportunity to see more than a dozen performances by The Baseball Project.

The sporting supergroup composed of Steve Wynn, Scott McCaughey, Peter Buck and Linda Pitmon released one of my five favourite albums of 2008: its "Volume 1: Frozen Ropes And Dying Quails" debut. This year's "Volume 2: High And Inside" hasn't struck me quite as hard, but I'll take it over peanuts and Cracker Jacks any day.

The quartet's September 2009 performance at Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern was one of the top shows of my year, and I've been looking forward to its return to my hometown ever since. That moment arrived on Wednesday, with Buck's R.E.M. bandmate Mike Mills coming off the bench to replace him on bass.

The Baseball Project played such favourites as "Past Time," "Ted F*cking Williams," "Jackie's Lament," "The Death of Big Ed Delahanty" and "Harvey Haddix" from the first album and "1976," "Panda And The Freak," "Don't Call Them Twinkies," "Ichiro Goes To The Moon" and "The Straw That Stirs The Drink" from the new one.

The group members also reached into the catalogues of their other bands and delivered The Minus 5's "Aw Sh*t Man" and "Lies Of The Living Dead," a scathing rendition of Dream Syndicate's "That's What You Always Say" and a performance-closing run through that group's "The Days Of Wine And Roses." The most pleasant surprise, however, was when Mills stepped to the microphone and delivered R.E.M.'s "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville" to a small but enthusiastic crowd that eagerly joined in on the chorus.

As good as the show was, however, I may have got more of a thrill from attending the Blue Jays-Cleveland Indians game at the Rogers Centre with the group beforehand. The ever-gracious Dave Hodge had invited us to view it from the TSN box, and it doesn't get much better for me than spending time among friends, watching baseball and eating and drinking for free.

I'd talked to McCaughey, Wynn and Pitmon after shows before and found them to be among the friendliest musicians around. I hadn't met Mills before, but he seems to be cut from the same cloth.

So while the Jays were getting pounded and were down 12-0 after three innings of the sparsely attended game, I figured I'd turn on my recorder to capture some of our conversations since there was no risk of them being drowned out by crowd noise. The only time this wasn't the case was when the Jays hit three consecutive triples (making it the first time to do so since the Montreal Expos in 1981) when I was chatting with Mills.

Here are some excerpts from our baseball banter:

Me: What's wrong with the Twins this year?
Linda Pitmon: I couldn't give you any more insight than what the DL will tell you. If you look at the disabled list, that will tell you most of it. But as far as Justin Morneau and Delmon Young and why they're not hitting, it will be interesting to see if Morneau's concussion problem is a long-lasting thing throughout his career or if he's just got to get back into playing shape.

Me: Why do you like the Rogers Centre?
Pitmon: It's close to the water, which is always a plus. It's a nice location. I like the fact that you can walk up and buy a ticket at the last minute. That's never an issue. It's cheap if you decide you want to catch a game at the last minute. And you have to love the retractable roof and all of that. Anytime I've been here, there's been beautiful weather, so that wasn't an issue. But in Minnesota, where I'm from, Target Field for some inexplicable reason was built without a retractable roof. There are going to be years when that's a disaster. You guys have a great park. You should be happy to have it. The Jays are a solid team, so come on out and support them. We need more of you here. The seats are empty.

Me: The Giants won the World Series last year with probably one of the least potent offences to do it, and now Buster Posey's probably gone for the whole season. What are the team's prospects?
Scott McCaughey: Not very good. Even if Posey hadn't got hurt, I still wouldn't see their prospects as being very good simply because it's hard to repeat. The Giants simply don't have a lot of run-scoring power. The pitching is great, but you never know when one of those guys is going to go down during the year. They've been pretty lucky with keeping their starters healthy. I think they can still win the division, but it's going to be tough, and losing Buster was really rough. But now that they've brought Brandon Belt back up again, maybe he'll suddenly be the rookie who takes off like Buster did last year.

Me: Does the McCourt divorce help their chances?
McCaughey: I never mind when things are going badly for the Dodgers, let me say that. I'm not a big L.A. fan in general, growing up in San Francisco like I did. I hate the Lakers and hate the Dodgers. I feel a little bit badly for those players, but they'll still get paid.
But less competition for the Giants is great. I love that the Rockies are stumbling right now, too, but they could get hot in August and September like they often do. I don't think the Diamondbacks will stay up there. It's not a powerhouse division, so the Giants could still do it.
In all of baseball, most of the teams are a little bit mediocre. I've been looking at Cleveland's lineup and wondering how they could have the best record, because their pitching isn't that great. It's hard to figure, but that's parity, and that's what we want.
I was filling out an all-star ballot last night at Comerica Park and I was amazed at how many positions I was saying, "I don't want to vote for any of these guys. None of them are having good years." There are a few positions like National League first base where you could easily vote for three or four, but there aren't a lot of obvious choices at other positions where you would say that this guy deserves to be an all-star this year. It's kind of weird.

Me: What are your favourite ball parks?
McCaughey: As much as I like a lot of the new ball parks, I hate the destructiveness of saying, "That one served its purpose, let's get rid of it and build a new one. We'll blackmail the public into paying for a new stadium." I really, really despise that.
This stadium is perfectly serviceable on a night like this. When the roof is open, it's really pleasant. I don't have any great problem with it. I went to so many games at the Kingdome when I lived in Seattle, and this is much better.
Of the newer ball parks, I really like AT&T in San Francisco. It's amazing. Old parks that I loved that are no longer with us are the original Comiskey Park. It was fantastic. Tiger Stadium was great. I loved Comerica last night. It's really, really nice. Dodger Stadium is beautiful, as much as I hate to say it. I've never been to Camden Yards, but I've heard it's great. The new one in Philly is really nice. Coors Field is actually really nice when it's not 38 degrees.
I haven't seen a game in the Pittsburgh park, but I've walked around it and it looked absolutely phenomenal. I'm dying to go to a game there. I haven't had the opportunity yet, but I've looked at the stadium really closely.
The new one in Chicago for the White Sox is not great, unfortunately. Wrigley and Fenway, of course, have their own thing. They're both a lot of fun to go to.
Citi Field is nice. I wouldn't put it up there with AT&T or some of the newer ones that I like. Out of all the newer ones that I've been to, I can happily say that I like the Giants' stadium the most.

Me: What do you know about the Blue Jays this year?
McCaughey: I follow baseball in general. I don't just follow my team. I play fantasy baseball, which helps me keep up with a lot of things. The Jays are a team that's capable of scoring a lot of runs.
The year Jose Bautista is having is incredible. I don't think I'm alone in saying that I'm surprised at how good he's been this year. I think a lot of people thought that after he hit 54 homers last year that it was just a fluke, but he's a much better hitter this year. I'm absolutely stunned by how good he's been this year.
I thought their pitching was going to be a little better this year, but I know they're going to score runs. I thought that Kyle Drabek might really step up this year, but he wasn't too good tonight.
I liked the game that Brandon Morrow pitched last year, a one-hitter with more than 15 strikeouts, but he hasn't had a really great game yet this year. He strikes out a lot of guys, but he's giving up a lot of runs. He obviously needs to learn how to pitch a little better. I want him to do well. He was on the Mariners for a while and I followed him before he got traded to Toronto for Brandon League. Brandon League is doing well. He had one really rough patch a few weeks ago where he blew like four saves in a week and got rocked, but since then and before then he's been spotless. So he's done well. I think it was a fair trade.

Me: The Yankees are getting old and the pitching's questionable. Can they win the World Series this year?
Steve Wynn: At the beginning of the season I picked the Red Sox like everyone else. But the Yankees right now remind me of the Yankees in the late '90s, where they had some over the hill veterans getting one last chance to win. I like that. As a guy who's been playing music for 30 years, I like when a guy like Bartolo Colon comes along after people have written him off and he surprises everyone. So I think they could do it.

Me: Do you think Colon's secret surgery in the Dominican Republic might become like the new steroids to improve performance?
Wynn: People are talking about that, but it was some sort of stem cell thing, and whatever it takes to get healthy isn't the same as steroids. So I think it's okay.

Me: Have you been following the Blue Jays at all this year?
Wynn: The whole division's been see-saw the whole year. But they're a good team and I have Brandon Morrow on my fantasy team. He'll get me a lot of strikeouts, but he's pretty bad on the WHIP.
This is the second time I've been to a game here and I've had a great time. People knock the stadium as being the last of the '70s and '80s type of stadiums, but I came here on a Sunday when I was in town about three years ago and I loved that I could walk up and buy a ticket 10 minutes before the game and be in my seat before the national anthem. I grew up as a Dodger fan, and you had to drive to all of those games. And now I'm a Yankees fan and take the subway to games. But I love a city where you can walk down the street in the heart of downtown to see a ball game.

Me: Are there any players or moments that you haven't got around to writing a song about yet, but you'd like to?
Wynn: There are so many that it's endless. We have so many songs that we can write that we'll never run out. We have hit a lot of our favourites. From the get go, I knew I wanted to write about Sandy Koufax, Fernando Valenzuela, Reggie Jackson and Curt Flood. Scott knew that he wanted to write about Willie Mays and his favourites. We've managed to do those, but there are so many more. There's no Hank Aaron song. There's no Joe DiMaggio song yet.

Me: Do you rely mostly on your own knowledge or do you go back and read books and do research? Can you fudge the truth a little bit in the songs?
Wynn: We're pretty accurate. I've always been a baseball fan and I love the game, and I know my baseball. But when you're in a band that sings about baseball, people want to challenge you, and there are people who know a lot more than I do. So if we write a song, we will check our facts. The hardest one was "Harvey Haddix" because we had to get the names of all the pitchers who'd thrown perfect games in there and couldn't leave any out. But I'm really keen to keep on making records and finding more out about players. We're playing shows, seeing ball games, singing about baseball and having a blast.

Me: How often do you get invited to throw out an opening pitch or sing before or after a game or during the seventh-inning stretch at games?
Wynn: A lot this year. When the first record came out, we barely made our way into the baseball world. Now the all-star program has written about us along with others, so with this record it's been happening a lot. We spent a week in Arizona during spring training and played at a bunch of games out there. We met a lot of the players and it was a lot of fun.
This season we've done things with the Twins, the Brewers, the Cubs, the Tigers, here, and with the Red Sox and Phillies still ahead — although tonight we're just hanging out and having a good time. But we've sung "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," and I'd love to do more of that. I really enjoy that. Of all the gigs and interviews I've done over the years, and all the other things that are part of my job, throwing out the first pitch at Miller Park the other day made me more nervous than anything. I was more nervous than I've ever been on any stage.

Me: Did you throw a strike?
Wynn: I threw a strike. Both Scott and I stood on the mound and on the rubber. We went all the way. They said that if we wanted we could go to the front of the mound, but we said, "No way. We want to be on the mound."
That was a great feeling and so exciting. I think we were both terrified of bouncing the ball. No matter what I did, I didn't want to bounce it. But we both did well. I wanted to really gun it in, but I was timid the first time. I've gone to carnivals where you throw a pitch and they tell you how fast it was, and I gave it everything I had just to hit 55. It's very humbling.

Me: That's Tim Wakefield's style.
Wynn: Yeah, that's right.

Me: How much bigger of a baseball fan are you than Peter Buck?
Mike Mills: It's not a comparative thing, but certainly it's a bigger part of my life than his. I've been a Braves fan since '66, when they moved to Atlanta. I don't think Peter ever played competitive sports, but I played a lot of things as a kid, but baseball was always my favourite. I played Little League when I was 10 or 11 years old. I was pretty good for a kid.

Me: When you go to games, do you always bring your glove?
Mills: Not always, but when I remember to I like to bring a glove if I think there's any shot at catching a foul ball. But it almost never happens. I just like having it with me. I think it's more out of self-preservation than anything else."

Me: What do you think of the Braves this year?
Mills: They're a good team. Hitting has been their problem forever, basically. They haven't had good hitting since Torre and Murphy back in the '80s, but you got to figure that they'll put it together at some point. They've had good pitching and that's sort of been their trademark for the past 15 or 20 years, but they've got to find a hitting coach if they're going to get it done.
I thought they had a shot to beat the Phillies at the beginning of the year, but I don't think they have the hitting to do it. I really thought they had a chance to win the division before the season started, but they don't seem to be getting it done on the field.
Heyward's hurt, but even if he wasn't I don't know if they'd have enough juice to get it done. But maybe Jordan Schafer will come on in centre field. He's got a lot of talent. And if Heyward comes back, anything can happen.

Me: How has Chipper Jones been looking after his major injury last year?
Mills: He's doing well. He should be a first ballot Hall of Famer, no question. He's still a very consistent player. When you consider what he's been through physically, it's good that he plays as much as he does. I'm happy that he stuck around for another year. He's a big part of the team and I love the way he plays. But he's getting up there and it's tough on the body.



Scott McCaughey, Steve Wynn, Peter Buck and Linda Pitmon rock my world (from 2009)

While most Toronto music fans were probably sitting at home watching Kanye West make an ass of himself yet again by stealing Taylor Swift's moment in the spotlight on the MTV Video Music Awards, I was joined by about 100 people at the Horseshoe Tavern for one of the best shows of the year.

Considering that a founding member of R.E.M., which can probably be considered one of the world's biggest bands, was one of the four musicians on stage, it's surprising that the crowd was so small. And considering that bassist/guitarist Peter Buck was joined by well-known and respected artists Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate, Gutterball, Danny And Dusty and an enviable solo career), Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, R.E.M., The Venus 3, Tuatara) and Linda Pitmon (Zu Zu's Petals, Amy Rigby) were the other three, the lack of turnout almost seems criminal.

The show was billed as The Minus 5, The Baseball Project and Steve Wynn IV, but the repertoire featured a mixture of material from those groups as well as Dream Syndicate, Gutterball and some great covers. Unlike the ego run amok almost constantly displayed by West, this was a show featuring four very talented friends who were interested in making new ones by playing music they love and having fun on stage — no matter if there were 100 or 100,000 people in the audience.

Baseball ranks very closely with music as one of my favourite things, so to hear The Baseball Project's songs about "Ted F*cking Williams," Curt Flood,  Big Ed Delahanty, Harvey Haddix and many other players is just about as good as it gets for me. Anyone reading this column who has an interest in the history of the grand old game should buy "Volume 1: Frozen Ropes And Dying Quails" as quickly as possible. I can hardly wait for the recently recorded "Volume 2."

The Minus 5 is a musical collective started by McCaughey 16 years ago. Over the years, it has included contributions from members of The Posies, Wilco, R.E.M. and many others. "Tonight You're Buying Me A Drink, Bub," "Ambulance Dancehall" and "The Lurking Barrister" were played from the recently released Killingsworth, while the band reached deeper into the catalogue for "Out There On The Maroon," "Cigarettes, Coffee And Booze," "Days Of Wine And Booze" and "Aw Sh*t Man."

Wynn was represented by newer songs "Love Me Anyway" and "Wait Until You Get To Know Me," Gutterball's "Trial Separation Blues" and Dream Syndicate's "Tell Me When It's Over," "Medicine Show," "The Days Of Wine And Roses" and the brilliant "That's What You Always Say."

The immaculate choice of covers included The Standells' "Dirty Water," Neil Young's "Revolution Blues" and a five-song encore of The Sonics' "Strychnine," The McCoys' "Hang On Sloopy," Flamin' Groovies' "Teenage Head," The Beatles' "The Ballad Of John And Yoko" and The Standells' "Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White."

I got to spend a few hours with McCaughey (who was rightly called "a lively force of nature" by a representative of his record label's distributor) at a friend's house after the show, and his knowledge of and passion for music shone through brightly. The man just loves music. And from talking with Wynn, Pitmon and Buck both on Sunday and in the past, it was clear that they're the same way.

It's nights like this that reaffirm my faith in rock and roll. It's just too bad that more people couldn't have shared in the experience like Dave Hodge did. The sportscaster is now well into his sixties and still regularly gets his music fix at clubs, arenas and amphitheatres. He inspires me too.

Okay, that's enough gushing.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Toronto Urban Roots Fest finished with a flourish on Sunday

Jean Cook and The Burlington Welsh Male Chorus

I got my earliest start (after my latest night) for the third and final day of the Toronto Urban Roots Fest, and it was worth it.

Jon Langford, backed by members of The Waco Brothers and frequent contributor Jean Cook on violin, came on stage at 1 p.m. to perform songs about southern Wales from his 1998 Skull Orchard album and this year's follow-up, Here Be Monsters. The early focus was on three newer songs ("Drone Operator," "Mars" and "Lil' Ray O' Light") and the vintage "Tubby Brothers" before the musicians were joined by a few dozen members of The Burlington Welsh Male Chorus to sing material they recorded on the Skull Orchard Revisited re-do of that 1998 album as well as a few other tunes.

It's quite an amusing collection of songs in its own right, especially with Langford's witty introductions of them, but the choir adds another entertaining element. The addition of vocalist and longtime Langford musical foil Sally Timms was the icing on the cake as the small but appreciative audience of fans and choir family members were treated to "Pill Sailor," "Butter Song," "Youghal," "Inside the Whale," "Deep Sea Diver," "Come Home Tom Jones," "Tom Jones Levitation" and "Are You an Entertainer?" The choir then sang a Welsh folk song that none of us could understand, but it's apparently about how angry the Welsh still are with the Romans, according to Langford. The set ended, fittingly, with a sing-along rendition of one of the frequently-referred-to-in-the-set Welsh superstar's signature hits, "Delilah."


Twin Forks

I was much less familiar with Twin Forks, the Americana music project from Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carrabba. I arrived just in time at the west stage to hear a jaunty, acoustic-based cover of Talking Heads' "And She Was." That was my highlight of the country-folk-based set from the sextet, which I liked but certainly wasn't blown away by. The female harmonies were a nice counterpart to the frontman, and I got to hear "Blister In The Sun" for the third time during the festival (joining Violent Femmes on Saturday and a cover by Hollerado on Friday), which was okay by me.


July Talk

July Talk has been creating a buzz and playing to increasingly larger audiences, which was evident in the reaction it received on the east stage at 3:20 p.m. There's great chemistry and vocal counterbalancing going on between Tom Waits-like singer Peter Dreimanis and cohort Leah Fay, who definitely adds a degree of sex appeal. The quintet's self-titled debut album has a unique mix of indie rock and Americana, but it's taken to another level on stage and the group proved it can hold its own on a big one. "Guns + Ammunition" and "Paper Girl" may have been the standouts, but the entire set showed that July Talk is a band to continue to look for big things from.

I confess that I spent more time chatting with friends than paying attention to Jenny Lewis during her set on the west stage. There was nothing wrong with the performance; it just didn't make much of an impression.


Gogol Bordello

That certainly wasn't the case with Gogol Bordello, which was probably the most frenetic and eclectic act of the festival -- and that energy carried over to the healthy-sized crowd. "My Companjera," "Last One Goes" and "Start Wearing Purple" were standouts from the rotating cast of gypsy punk masters fronted by wine bottle-swilling Eugene Hutz. An encore was demanded and granted. Good times were had by all.

Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy will release his Sukierae solo debut album in September and he's assembled a new backing band that includes his 18-year-old son Spencer on drums. Much of the new material was on the mellow side, and the sometimes plodding delivery was, frankly, a comedown after Gogol Bordello. While the pacing didn't pick up much, and Tweedy banished the band to play solo towards the end of the set, my enjoyment heightened with such favourites from the Wilco catalogue as "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart," "Passenger Side," "Jesus, Etc." and "I'm The Man Who Loves You." Tweedy also performed: "You Are Not Alone," the title track he wrote for Mavis Staples' Grammy Award-winning 2010 album; Uncle Tupelo's warmly welcomed "Give Back The Key To My Heart;" and Woody Guthrie's brilliant "California Stars" from the 1998 collaborative Wilco-Billy Bragg Mermaid Avenue LP.

Neutral Milk Hotel is one of those bands that inexplicably flew below my radar when it was in its prime back in the '90s and I've never made a major effort to remedy that -- even after group member Julian Koster played his singing saw in my living room at a Christmas party I hosted a number of years ago. But I've appreciated everything I've heard and was happy to have the opportunity to see the influential band perform since it looked for so long like that would never happen again.

We ducked over to the south stage to catch a couple of songs by Hollerado and I was pleased to see that not everyone at TURF was watching Neutral Milk Hotel. The young Canadians had a large throng of folks eating out of their hands.



Waco Brothers

The TURF staff party was held at the Horseshoe Tavern, but open to the public, and the Waco Brothers performed for the fourth and final time to end the festival. There were no concerns with repeating songs from the first two nights, just with letting loose and having a great time. Mission accomplished.

TURF has made great progress in its two years and hopefully has established a strong enough foundation for it to become a staple of Toronto's busy summer schedule from now on.

Violent Femmes highlight excellent second day of Toronto Urban Roots Fest

Shovels & Rope

The momentum created on the first day of the Toronto Urban Roots Fest on July 4 had no problems continuing the next day with another slate of top talent and sunny and warm weather.

I began my day at 2:30 p.m. with Shovels & Rope, the Charleston, S.C. husband and wife duo of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst. The chemistry between the pair was obvious as they traded off instruments and vocals on almost every song but still made sweet music that never failed to flow. Laid-back folk, blues, mid-tempo toe-tappers and roots rock all formed part of the repertoire, which included a handful of songs from the forthcoming Swimmin' Time LP, their best known number, "Birmingham," and the set-closing "Hail Hail." Shovels & Rope are the perfect band for a festival like this.


Drive-By Truckers

I've always enjoyed the Drive-By Truckers' approach to southern rock and, while I still enjoyed this performance, it didn't seem to be as vibrant as past gigs. Perhaps it was partly attributable to seeing the band on a large stage in the great outdoors instead of a smaller club like in the past. But the group's latest album, English Oceans, has also left a very minimal impression on me. Still, there were moments of magic when the three guitarists cranked things up. "The Righetous Path," "A Ghost To Most" and "3 Dimes Down" left the biggest impressions before I moved on from the east to the south stage at 4:10 p.m.

The Stanfields

The Stanfields are one of the most dynamic and energetic bands to come out of eastern Canada in a long time and I've never seen a duff performance. The Celtic-influenced rock band didn't disappoint again, although, according to my hijacked notes, "I got to sit beside the wonderful Tanya, so that was my favourite part of the day." While that was certainly alright, hearing songs like "Blacktop Blues," "Don't Make Me Walk Away," "Mrs. McGrath," "Run on the Banks," "The Boston States" and "Money Changers" didn't hurt either.

I saw Violent Femmes at the 1990 Mariposa Folk Festival and again at Toronto's Massey Hall in 2006, but this was still the band I was most looking forward to seeing at TURF because its catalogue of songs means the most to me. It seemed I wasn't the only one with that opinion, as the large crowd was singing along, clapping and dancing throughout a great 80-minute set that began with the Milwaukee, Wisc. group's 1983 10-song debut album played from beginning to end. Almost every song on the record can be considered a classic of early '80s alternative music, with "Blister In The Sun," "Add It Up" and "Gone Daddy Gone" perhaps being the most familiar to those who don't own the self-titled effort.


Violent Femmes

Former Dresden Doll Brian Viglione has replaced Victor DeLorenzo on drums, but singer/guitarist Gordon Gano and bassist Brian Ritchie are still front and centre in the Femmes, who were augmented on certain songs by the Horns of Dilemma to add more depth to the often sparse material. The good times continued after the completion of Violent Femmes with an array of favourites from more recent albums, including "Jesus Walking On The Water,"  "Country Death Song," "Old Mother Reagan," "Freak Magnet," "Never Tell," "Black Girls," "I Held Her In My Arms" and the finisher, "American Music," which included some predictable pandering by inserting "I like Canadian music" into one part.

The Gaslight Anthem

While the Femmes were definitely the high point of my day, there wasn't a huge let up when The Gaslight Anthem came on the east stage at 6:30 p.m. and began with what remains my favourite song from the Brunswick, N.J. group: "The '59 Sound." The band's blend of classic New Jersey rock and roll and melodic punk (let's call it Bruce Springsteen meets The Replacements) shone brighter than the last time I saw it as songs from the forthcoming Get Hurt album easily held their own with older stalwarts including "Miles Davis and the Cool," "Old White Lincoln," "Biloxi Parish," "We Came To Dance," "Old Haunts," "Film Noir," "High Lonesome," "Too Much Blood," "The Queen of Lower Chelsea," "American Slang," "The Backseat" and a cover of "House of the Rising Sun." Charismatic frontman Brian Fallon promised that The Gaslight Anthem would be back in Toronto soon to further promote Get Hurt, and the audience voiced its approval. This is a band that looked like it might have reached a plateau but now seems like it's back on an upward trajectory.

I moved to the south stage to see the last of The Strumbellas, who had attracted the biggest crowd yet to the hillside vantage point. The sextet won the Juno Award for best roots and traditional album by a group earlier this year and has built a deservingly large following in a relatively short period and apparently packed the Horseshoe Tavern the night before as part of TURF's club component. I know I'll be seeing The Strumbellas again.


Waco Brothers

The Waco Brothers
returned to the south stage, where it had played the night before, and the lads were more boisterous than 25.5 hours before. There were no repeats in an insurgent country set that rollicked on for an hour and included "Harm's Way," "Too Sweet to Die," "The Death of Country Music," "Nothing At All" and "Wreck on the Highway." Sally Timms joined her pals to sing "Old Flames Can't Hold A Candle To You," "Seminole Wind" and "Wild and Blue." The covers component of the concert was complete with playful dancing on stage and amped up interpretations of T-Rex's "20th Century Boy," Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," The Who's "Baba O'Riley" and The Undertones' "Teenage Kicks." Two shows down; two to go.

Sam Roberts
, unfortunately, hasn't done much for me since his first album came out in 2003. So when given the choice of watching his headlining set on the east stage or chatting over a few beers with friends in the artist compound, I opted for the latter. I'll give Roberts and his band credit, however. They made pretty decent background music.

We decided to continue the socializing at Lee's Palace for a reprise performance from Shovels & Rope at midnight. Since I'd just seen the cute couple 10 hours earlier, I didn't bother taking any notes but am pleased to point out that the late show included a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Johnny 99."

The music was over but the party continued with more conversation and beers on a friend's stoop until about 4 a.m. when it was decided it would be wise to break things up since Sunday's music would begin at 12:45 p.m. and two of my drinking companions were due to be playing it.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

TURF 2014 started strong out of the blocks on Friday

Lucius

The Toronto Urban Roots Fest showed a lot of promise in its inaugural year and followed it up with a bigger and better event in 2014.

A third and smaller stage was added to Toronto's Fort York location this year, and that's where I found myself sitting on a hill at 4:50 p.m. on July 4 to see Lucius, a Brooklyn, N.Y. band fronted by two sweetly harmonizing blonde women in matching yellow mini-dresses. The indie pop quintet had an interesting look and songs that sounded familiar yet different enough from each other to keep your attention from wandering. Guitars, drums and keyboards were augmented by additional percussion on some songs in a 40-minute set that included "How Loud Your Heart Gets," "Wildewoman" and my favourite, "Turn It Around," which closed things off and incorporated some of Whitney Houston's  "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)." If you like Rilo Kiley, you'll probably enjoy Lucius.


Willie Nile

Willie Nile has been making music for 40 years but has never received the acclaim he deserves for his rock and roll, and that wasn't likely to change judging by the exodus before he began his 55-minute set. Guitar, bass and drums played by black-clad musicians younger than Nile brought added life to his singing and playing in a performance that opened with "This Is Our Time" and also included "Heaven Help The Lonely," "Holy War," "Give Me Tomorrow," and covers of The Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane" and The Jim Carroll Band's "People Who Died" before finishing strong with another original, "One Guitar."

The Waco Brothers

The Waco Brothers have been one of my favourite live bands since I first saw them more than a decade ago, and they've now become friends, so that's added incentive to see them as much as possible. That wouldn't be difficult since the Chicago-based group was booked for three shows of their own and a fourth playing songs by Jon Langford along with a Welsh choir, and the goal was to avoid duplication.

The quintet began its south stage set at 7:20 p.m. and zipped through a performance that provided its usual share of roots, punk, rock and roll and humour -- with lead vocals shared by guitarists Langford and Dean Schlabowske as well as mandolin player Tracey Dear. "Fox River," "Walking On Hell's Roof Looking At The Flowers," "Do What I Say," "Red Brick Wall," "Plenty Tough, Union Made," "Do You Think About Me?," "Blink of and Eye" and covers of "I Fought The Law," "Small Faces' "All or Nothing," George Jones' "White Lightning" (with Jo Walston joining the band on harmonies), Johnny Cash's "Big River" and Bo Diddley's "Hey Bo Diddley" were all part of the fun.


Deer Tick

The south stage audience grew considerably for Deer Tick, a solid roots rock band I'd liked but never seen in person. Now I'm glad I have. They're talented players that form a tight unit and lead singer John McCauley's raw delivery suits the material well. The Rhode Island quintet had people in its hands from the beginning and didn't let up as it played "Main Street," "Houston, TX" and "Mr. Sticks" among others. The group also played "Shitty Music Festival," which certainly didn't apply to TURF, but was still good to hear.

Beirut

Beirut is another group that I've enjoyed only on record until I finally eased myself over from the south to the much larger east stage for its 9:30 p.m. slot. Zach Condon's project was unlike anything else I saw on day one,  full of horns and accordion and fusing Balkan folk with baroque indie pop to create a distinct sound that more than made up for a lack of magnetic stage presence. "Elephant Gun" and "Scenic World" were highlights.

I caught a couple of songs from Black Joe Lewis and The Honeybears from afar, and his crew sounded as soulful and tight as ever. This is definitely a band to catch if you haven't before.

Club shows at Lee's Palace and the Horseshoe Tavern awere also part of TURF, and a cab got us up to Bloor Street to that first venue to see the last couple of songs by Andrew Jackson Jihad -- which I'd previously seen open for Frank Turner. But with festivals like this, it can sometimes be pretty difficult to see all of everything you want to and I'm sure there will be other opportunities.


Hollerado

But we certainly got our money's worth with Hollerado, the only Canadian band I saw on Friday, and which was expanded from the usual four-piece lineup on occasion by three female backing singers. We've come to expect confetti canyons at Hollerado shows, which add to the party atmosphere that their music and good-natured approach to their fans engender, and several were fired off during the course of the gig. "Fresno Chunk (Digging With You)," "Juliette," "Fake Drugs," "Americanarama" and covers of The Count Five's "Psychotic Reaction," Violent Femmes' "Blister In The Sun," Blink 182's "Dammit" and Neil Young's night-closing "Rockin' in the Free World" drew deservedly fervent responses from those in the packed club.