Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Maple Leafs practice at Trinity Bellwoods Park
The Toronto Maple Leafs held their annual outdoor practice this morning, this time in my neighbourhood at Trinity Bellwoods Park.
Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment and Rona Canada put $125,000 into refurbishing the park's rink, including installing new boards, and clubhouse renovations. Hopefully the washroom won't be as disgusting as it's been in the past when I start playing softball again there (on the diamond that was used as a parking lot for cars of fans who came to see the practice) in the spring.

There was a healthy-sized crowd in attendance, and it looked like a lot of young kids took the morning off from school to attend.

The Leafs were on the ice for less than 45 minutes in a practice that consisted of light skating, a shootout drill and a three-on-three scrimmage with no hitting. I hope this was just for the benefit of the children watching, because if the team normally doesn't practice any harder than this for coach Ron Wilson, it's no surprise that it's so bad. Well, that and the distinct lack of quality talent that Brian Burke has assembled.

I went to Tim Horton's beforehand to get a coffee to keep me warm while I was watching the practice. Luckily for the Leafs, Tim's doesn't sell waffles.

The city councillor for my ward, Mike Layton, was on hand and spoke over the public address system. His voice sounds a lot like that of his father, federal NDP leader Jack Layton.

Rob Ford also attended and addressed the crowd. Considering how little electoral support he received in this ward — which has long been Joe Pantalone's turf — I was surprised that I seemed to be the only person booing our 300-and-some-pound mayor.

I was given a Leafs toque, which I can now accessorize with the Leafs scarf I've had for years. I don't lose toques as often as the Leafs lose games, but I misplace them often enough that it will come in handy.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to everyone who reads this.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Suckerpunch, Dodge Fiasco frontman goes solo
"The Kid" has grown up.

Christopher Dignan was still in high school when he formed Suckerpunch more than 20 years ago. The singer/guitarist was a sexy and swaggering frontman for the Toronto group that played a swampy, punky version of rockabilly that made it a hit in local clubs — even if it didn't receive the widespread recognition I thought it deserved.

The band broke up in 1996 and I can still remember its last show (or at least one of its last shows) in the basement of a friend's house. Suckerpunch was missed, but Dignan soon formed Dodge Fiasco. Like his previous band, it included his older brother Sean on drums. And also like Suckerpunch, it rocked.

Dodge Fiasco is still around, but Dignan is now independently releasing his first solo record: the excellent Let The Sparks Fly. The multi-talented singer, songwriter and musician shows just how far he's come musically on this 14-song, 42-minute disc.

Dignan wrote and mixed all the songs and played all of the instruments on it, with the exception of saxophone and organ on two tracks. Dignan honed his chops on bass with The Kensington Hillbillies and on drums with The Midways, whose ultra-fun and garage-based Pay More And Get A Good Seat was one of my favourite albums of 2003.

The maturing that Dignan has done over the years shines brightly through on Let The Sparks Fly, which showcases more variations in style and substance than the two bands he's most closely associated with.

Opener "Gonna Move" is a rocker that cooks with gas, and it's followed by the more rockabilly-oriented "My Time Will Come." "I'm Feeling Good Now" follows a similar path.

There's a classic '60s pop vibe running through "Too Long Without You," "Certain Kind Of Girl" and "Tap On Your Window," which features pleasant harmonies. "My Back Pocket" could have been a new wave song from 30 years ago.

Dignan shows his guitar prowess on "Move Them Bones" and proves he's no slouch on the skins with the drum rolls on "Hurtful." The organ will prick up your ears on "It's You."

The guest saxophones add a nice touch on the sexy, mid-tempo love song "Say There Beautiful," and there's a rootsy edge to "Black Barn."

The album ends with the title track, which starts slowly but builds in intensity as the song progresses.

As much as I liked Suckerpunch and Dodge Fiasco, Let The Sparks Fly is the crowning achievement of Dignan's career so far.
I can't see Let The Sparks Fly not being on my ballot when I submit it for next year's Polaris Music Prize, which will recognize the top album released in Canada over the last half of 2010 and first half of 2011.

You can hear "Gonna Move," "My Back Pocket" and "It's You" here.

Let The Sparks Fly will officially be launched on Dec. 1 at Toronto's Lula Lounge. This special performance will see Dignan joined by a band featuring Glenn Milchem (Blue Rodeo), John Borra (The Screwed) and Derrick Brady (Dodge Fiasco, Hawksley Workman).
The Best of Kimberley Rew
I've been a fan of singer, songwriter and guitarist Kimberley Rew for more than 25 years, but I've only just now heard more than a couple of songs from his solo recording career.

I fell in love with The Soft Boys' Underwater Moonlight album a few years after hearing it following its 1980 release. YepRoc Records has just issued a 30th anniversary version of the album and if you've ever wanted to hear a record that masterfully mixed pop, rock, punk, psychedelic and folk elements, you should pick it up.

The Soft Boys may not be famous, but they were definitely influential. Just ask R.E.M.

Underwater Moonlight was The Soft Boys' second and last studio album until the band reformed to release Nextdoorland in 2002. I was lucky enough to catch a performance on the group's tour in support of it.

Robyn Hitchcock was the focal point of The Soft Boys, and I've continued to follow him through a productive and eclectic career as a solo artist and with The Egyptians and The Venus 3. He's an off-kilter musical genius who's a joy to behold on stage, as you never know what might come out of his mouth.

When Hitchcock left to pursue a solo career, Rew had a stash of songs begging to be heard. He joined Katrina & The Waves in 1981, but it took four years for the band to release its self-titled major label debut LP featuring 10 re-recorded versions of earlier songs. The album included "Going Down To Liverpool," a Rew composition that had been a hit for The Bangles two years earlier, and what would become the group's biggest hit and signature song: "Walking on Sunshine."

That was the band's commercial peak in North America, although it continued to record and won the Eurovision song contest in 1997 with the Rew-composed "Love Shine A Light," which reached #2 in Britain.

I still prefer Katrina & The Waves' earliest material, before their work was given a major label sheen, and heartily recommend obtaining 2003's The Original Recordings 1983-1984.

Rew released a 1982 solo effort called The Bible of Bop that saw him backed by members of The Soft Boys, Katrina & The Waves and another underrated act, the dB's. That was it until 2000, when Rew issued Tunnel Into Summer. Great Central Revisited followed two years later and Essex Hideaway came out in 2005. I admit to being oblivious to all of them.

The Best of Kimberley Rew was released earlier this month, and it opened my eyes to how good many of his songs I was unaware of are.

One of the earliest tracks, a great power pop number titled "Stomping All Over The World," features guitar interplay between Rew and Hitchcock and you can hear vague strains of perhaps The Soft Boys' best song, "I Wanna Destroy You," in it.

Another early number, "Hey, War Pig!," features backing from Katrina & The Waves. The title is repeated frequently throughout and, had I heard it a few weeks earlier, I definitely would have included it in my Remembrance Day "Songs of peace and remembrance" post for

"A Girl Called String" has a pleasant reggae rhythm, but without the big bottom end usually associated with the genre. Reggae progenitor rock steady similarly infuses "The End Of Our Rainbow," which also features nice female harmonies.

"English Road" is an up-tempo, jangly, power pop number of the sort that's more normally associated with Rew. So is "Simple Pleasures."

"Old Straight Track" is a rootsy pop number with female harmonies and the country-leaning "The Radio Played Good Vibrations" wouldn't have sounded out of place on The Rolling Stones' "Exile On Main St."

There are also some slower songs, a couple with spoken-word vocals ("Jerome K Jerome" and "Your Mother Was Born In That House") and "Screaming Lord Sutch," a melancholy acoustic ballad about the British music artist and Official Monster Raving Loony Party founder who hung himself in 1999.

With the publishing royalties that I hope Rew has earned from "Going Down To Liverpool," "Walking On Sunshine," "Love Shine A Light" and Celine Dion's cover of his "That's Just The Woman In Me," he may be content to live comfortably and play small pubs on weekends in his native Cambridgeshire. But knowing his pedigree, and especially after hearing this new compilation, it would be a shame if Rew didn't share his talents on a larger scale with more recording and touring.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

A look at the Evergreen Brick Works
I wrote an article on Toronto's Evergreen Brick Works for, which you can read at
All of the photos I took of the beautiful site couldn't be used with the article, so I've included them below.
The Evergreen Brick Works is definitely worth a visit. Check it out.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

No breakdowns with Slim Cessna's Auto Club
Alternative Tentacles is reissuing Slim Cessna's Auto Club's Jesus Let Me Down on vinyl, but Toronto fans had the band in person on Friday night at Mitzi's Sister.

The Denver, Colo. sextet — which plays an energetic blend of gothic country, punk, gospel and roots music with drums, upright bass, pedal steel, banjos, piano and guitar — crowded on to Mitzi's small stage and let things fly for 70 minutes.

Many of the favourites from Jesus Let Me Down, which was recorded at the August 2004 release show for the band's The Bloudy Tenent Truth Peace album, were brought to life for the enthusiastic fans who pushed their way to the front. Newer tracks from 2008's Cipher and this year's Buried Behind the Barn collection of out-takes, compilation tracks and alternate recordings were also part of the set, which ended with Cessna and Jay Munly going into the audience and climbing on tables.

Slim Cessna's Auto Club knows how to light up a room, and the group will be doing it again at Ottawa's Babylon tonight (Nov. 6) and at Montreal's Le Divan Orange on Nov. 8 before heading back to the U.S. for dates next week in Allston, Mass., New York City, Long Branch, N.J., Baltimore, Md. and Pittsburgh, Pa.

A new studio album is expected in March.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Searching For Celebrities At Pere Lachaise Cemetery
Pere Lachaise Cemetery is the largest in Paris and one of the French capital's most popular tourist attractions.

The 48-hectare (119-acre) site is located on the Right Bank of the Seine River in the 20th arrondissement and is easily accessible by subway or bus from hotels in Paris city centre.

Members of the Paris elite have been buried in Pere Lachaise since it was established in 1804, and visitors have been coming to see their grave sites in increasing numbers ever since. There are now more than 300,000 bodies buried in Pere Lachaise, and the remains of many more who chose to be cremated can be found in the columbarium.

One of most moving places in Pere Lachaise is the Communards' Wall. The Communards were more than a mid-'80s British pop music act fronted by Jimmy Somerville. The original Communards were a group of leftists that briefly took control of the city in the spring of 1871 before meeting a violent end. The  bodies of 147 dead combatants were thrown in an open trench at the base of a wall, which is now named in their honour.

Wear comfortable shoes, as there's a lot of walking involved if you want to take in the entire site. While strolling through the tree-filled cemetery, you're likely to come across the final resting places of many prominent people, including:

• 19th century French writer Honore de Balzac

• French actress Sarah Bernhardt
• Georges Bizet, a 19th century French composer best known for his opera Carmen

• American opera star Maria Callas (her ashes were stolen and only her empty urn remains)
• 19th century Polish composer Frederic Chopin

• American dancer Isadora Duncan
• French surrealist poet Paul Eluard
• German surrealist artist Max Ernst, one of the early pioneers of the Dada movement
• French jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli
• 12th century French scholar and nun Heloise
• French mime artist Marcel Marcequ
• 17th century French playwright Moliere

• Italian actor and singer Yves Montand
• American singer, poet and Doors frontman Jim Morrison

• French singer Edith Piaf
• St. Thomas-born French impressionist painter Camille Pissarro
• French novelist and critic Marcel Proust

• Italian composer Gioachino Rossini, best known for his opera The Barber of Seville (his remains were moved to Florence, Italy, but his crypt is still in place)

• American author Gertrude Stein
• Alice B. Toklas, Stein's life partner and fellow writer
• Former Dominican Republic president and dictator Rafael Trujillo
• 19th century Irish writer Oscar Wilde

Pere Lachaise's hours vary slightly according to season, but the cemetery is open seven days a week throughout the year from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Free maps are available at the main entrances and guided tours are available for a small fee if advance reservations are made.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Specials At The Sound Academy
Most of the original lineup of Coventry's finest, The Specials, made their first Canadian appearances in almost 30 years this weekend with two shows at Toronto's Sound Academy.
I'm a huge fan, but Saturday night's show surpassed my expectations and the band provided a sweaty, skanking good time. Here are a few photos of The Specials in action:

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Have A Pint And Learn Some History At Guinness Storehouse
I wasn't much of a fan of dark and heavy beers until I visited Dublin, Ireland in 1991 and went straight to the source of where the world's most famous stout, Guinness, was brewed.

It tasted fresher and had more flavour than what we got at home in Canada and impressed me so much that I'm now eager to sample as many stouts as I can.

The same thing could happen to you today when you venture out from one of the many hotels in Dublin and make your way to the Guinness Storehouse. It was originally built in 1904 to house the Guinness fermentation process and served that purpose until 1988.

It's now a tourist attraction in which the core is modelled on a giant pint glass that stretches from the ground floor reception area to the seventh floor Gravity Bar. If filled, the glass would hold about 14.3 million pints. Even for most Irishmen, that would qualify as a big night out.

The first floor houses a retail store, information on master brewer Arthur Guinness (who founded Guinness at the St. James's Gate location in 1759) and an exhibit focused on the four ingredients found in Guinness: water, barley, hops and yeast. 

You'll learn about the brewing process, see a tasting laboratory, find out about the transportation of Guinness and discover the craftsmanship involved in coopering (the making of wooden casks) one floor up.

Guinness has used a variety of interesting advertising over the years, and a wide selection of its marketing tools can be viewed on the second floor. The third floor Choice Zone is an interactive exhibit that challenges visitors to look at their drinking habits and recognize the fine line between drinking to enjoy yourself and drinking to excess.

The fourth floor tells the story of the storehouse, while you can learn how to pour a pint of perfect Guinness on the fifth floor. It's also home to the Source Bar and Brewery Bar, where you can eat, drink and relax. There's also an exhibition of work by John Gilroy, the artist responsible for much of the famous Guinness advertising from the 1930s to the '60s.

Your last stop (unless you want to shop at the store on your way out) on your tour will be the seventh floor Gravity Bar, where you'll be given a pint of Guinness and can enjoy a great view of Dublin.

Guinness Storehouse is open seven days a week from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., but  extends its hours by two in July and August. The admission price has increased from two Irish pounds when I first visited (and took a less elaborate tour, but was given three half-pints) almost 20 years ago to 15 Euros today. I guess that's the price of progress.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Pop Montreal Is Six Weeks Away
Hockey, beautiful women, historic buildings, smoked meat, the 1976 Summer Olympics and its debt … these are some of the things that come to mind first when people think of Montreal.

But this century has also put the city on the map for music, particularly indie rock, with bands like Arcade Fire, Simple Plan, Sam Roberts, The Dears (pictured), Wolf Parade, The Stills, Handsome Furs, Patrick Watson and Malajube all building big followings.

There's more to discover beyond those names, however, and music fans should consider booking flights to Montreal this fall for the Pop Montreal International Music Festival. The eighth annual event will run this year from Sept. 29 to Oct. 3 and feature a variety of local, national and international acts playing 75 venues around the world's second largest French-speaking city.

Among the artists confirmed for Pop Montreal 2010 are 222s, Asexuals, Atari Teenage Riot, Carole Pope, Danielson, Deerhoof, Diamond Rings, Dinosaur Bones, Dog Day, Drag The River, Glen Matlock, Hollerado, Holy Fuck, Karkwa,  Les Savy Fav, Liars, Library Voices, Macy Gray, Marnie Stern, Mary Margaret O'Hara, Murder By Death, Priestess, Scout Niblett, Serena Maneesh, Shonen Knife, Swans, The Budos Band, The Danks, The Dears, The Golden Dogs, The Postelles, The Watson Twins, Timber Timbre, Toasters, Tom Tom Club, Van Dyke Parks, Women and XX.

More than 400 artists will perform over the five-day fest, which also encompasses symposium discussions, artisan and visual art exhibitions, vendors, fashion shows, film screenings, children's activities and late night parties.

Tickets to individual shows, ticket packages, industry passes and $10 day pass upgrades are all available, so you can look at your schedule and budget to see what serves your needs the best.

More information can be found on the Pop Montreal web site.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Double Down Saloon Showcases Las Vegas Without The Glitz
Like almost all tourists, I spend much of my time during Las Vegas holidays on the famed strip with all of its incredible hotels.

I'm not much of a gambler, but I enjoy soaking in the atmosphere and people-watching as I pound the pavement between the hotels before checking out what new attractions they have to offer inside. But the opulence really doesn't suit my style or budget, so I always make a late night/early morning trip to the underbelly of Vegas where I feel much more at home: the Double Down Saloon.

The Double Down has been located off the strip at 4640 Paradise Rd. since 1992, and bills itself as the "Anti-Vegas," "a clubhouse for the lunatic fringe" and "the happiest place on earth." It's just a block south of the Hard Rock Hotel, but its atmosphere  is a world away from the relatively sterile environment presented by the Hard Rock chain.

There are crazy, psychedelic murals covering the walls and ceilings and, if that's not enough visual overload for you, a variety of crazy videos are shown on screens around the relatively small club.

You can play pool, pinball, video poker or slot machines, and the jukebox has one of the coolest selections of music I've seen, with tunes by the likes of The Cramps, The Creepshow, Andre Williams, The Sonics, The Blasters, The Raveonettes, Ramones, The Stray Cats, Link Wray, NOFX, The Dropkick Murphys and The New York Dolls.

Local and visiting punk, rockabilly, psychobilly, surf, garage and lo-fi alternative rock bands play several nights a week at the intimate venue — and there's never a cover charge. Among the more notable acts to play the Double Down are The Riverboat Gamblers, The Dickies, The Supersuckers, TSOL, M.D.C., The Meatmen, The Vibrators, The Briggs, 5-6-7-8's, Cheetah Chrome and Boss Martians.

You'll also sometimes find DJs spinning a similar brand of music, burlesque performers and punk rock bingo.

If you're in a group and want to play at the Double Down, you should know that bands with midgets get extra consideration. I'm not kidding.

Beers are cheap, but more adventurous drinkers may be interested in the Double Down's signature cocktail: Ass Juice. Believe me, it tastes much better than it sounds. The bar also claims to be the birthplace of the Bacon Martini.

The Double Down never closes. But beyond that fact, always expect the unexpected.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

It's Almost Party Time For London's Notting Hill Carnival
London, England's Notting Hill Carnival was launched in 1959 and has since become the world's second largest street festival.

Last year's event drew an estimated 720,000 people. This year's Carnival will be held on Aug. 29 and 30, and there are a variety of hotels in London city centre offering rooms in locations that will give you easy public transportation access to the west London neighbourhood of Notting Hill.

The colourful celebration was originally instituted to cater to the influx of West Indian immigrants who moved into the area after World War II, and to give them a chance to celebrate the cultures of their various Caribbean countries. While it has evolved to become more inclusive and welcomes people of all ages and backgrounds, steel bands and calypso, soca and reggae music still play prominent roles as hundreds of thousands of people dance and parade through the streets.

Sunday is designated as Children's Day, with many activities geared toward youngsters, so those with little ones might want to visit then when crowds are normally smaller and there's more room to move.

There will also be ample opportunities to sample London's diverse ethnic cuisines at more than 300 food stalls lining the streets. Organizers claim the annual Caribbean-based food and drink consumption during the Carnival breaks down something like this:
• 30,000 corn cobs
• 15,000 fried plantains
• one ton of rice and peas
• one ton of Jamaican patties
• 12,000 mangoes
• 16,000 coconuts
• five million hot and cold drinks
• 10,000 litres of Jamaican stout
• 25,000 bottles of rum
• 70,000 litres of carrot juice

"The Notting Hill Carnival, for me, is a barometer of the journey of multiculturalism in England," filmmaker Don Letts, who made a documentary on the festival titled "Carnival!" last year, told me over the phone from his home in London earlier this year. "If you look at how and why it started, it was to unite the people and extend the hand of friendship when the racial climate was a lot more tense in the late '50s."

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Real McKenzies — Shine Not Burn
I've seen Vancouver's The Real McKenzies a number of times in various formats, incarnations and levels of inebriation over the years, and I've never left a show unimpressed or not soaked in beer.
The band's mix of rock, punk, folk and traditional Scottish music has found a following worldwide, and Shine Not Burn was recorded live at Wild At Heart in Berlin, Germany's Kreuzberg district over three nights last August. They were all-acoustic sets featuring a nine-piece band, with the expanded lineup including Magdalena Schmied on violin and Karl Alvarez (All, The Descendents) on mandolin, bass and backing vocals.
While everyone in the group likes to drink and party hard, this excellent 21-song collection from Fat Wreck Chords shows that they also know how to play their instruments. Matt MacNasty, in particular, gets an opportunity to show his bagpipe prowess on "Drink The Way I Do," "Auld Mrs. Hunt" and the instrumental "Taylor Made II."
But the real star of every Real McKenzies show is the band's founder, who was kind (or drunk) enough to lend his name to the group: lyricist, harmonica player and lead singer Paul McKenzie. He's one of the most entertaining frontmen around, whether he's singing or addressing band or audience members.
McKenzie is on top of his game on Shine And Burn, as he barks out favourites from the group's 18-year career. There's not a clunker among them, but some of the highlights include "Nessie," "Bastards," "Scots Wha' Ha'e," "Pour Decisions," "Bitch Off The Money," "Wild Mountain Thyme" and "King O' Glasgow."
The Real McKenzies will embark on a two-month European tour in August, but hopefully more North American dates will be in the works upon the band's return. As much as I enjoy Shine Not Burn, I'm ready for the real thing again.