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.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Festival Season Is Coming To Edinburgh
A range of hotels in Edinburgh city centre offer easy access to its popular summer music, theatre, comedy, art and film festivals, but also the Scottish capital's year-round attractions.

Edinburgh Castle, Scotland's top tourist attraction, sits on volcanic rock at the top of what's known as the Royal Mile — where you can stop at a variety of pubs and restaurants as you make your way up or down. The site houses the Scottish Crown Jewels and the "Stone of Destiny" (where Scottish monarchs were crowned) among its historic buildings, and also offers a great vantage point from which to view the rest of the city.

The Royal Mile links Edinburgh Castle to the Palace Of Holyroodhouse, which acts as Queen Elizabeth's official Scottish residence. But even commoners can tour Holyrood's royal apartments, throne room and portrait galleries when Liz isn't in town — and she usually isn't.

Sticking with the monarchy theme, the decommissioned Royal Yacht Britannia is permanently berthed at the Ocean Terminal leisure and retail complex in the city's charming northern neighbourhood of Leith. The five-deck yacht can be toured with an audio headset that's available in 17 languages.

Edinburgh is a pretty walkable city, but tours are also available via bicycle, bus and even chauffeur-driven motor trikes. But no matter your means of transportation, it's not hard to soak in the elegance and history of Scotland's second largest city (after Glasgow) and the second most visited tourist destination in the U.K. (after London).
Boston's Fenway Park Keeps Baseball Tradition Alive
Summertime holidays to Boston, even for non-baseball fans, should always include a visit to historic Fenway Park.

The stadium near Kenmore Square opened in 1912 after costing $650,000 to build and, even though it's gone through several renovations, it still retains its old-time charm and intimacy. It held 35,000 people in the beginning and now can accommodate 38,805, That capacity is one of the smallest in the majors, but the perennially contending Red Sox sell out every game — allowing it to have a player payroll second only to the arch-rival New York Yankees.

The 37-foot left field wall, affectionately known as "The Green Monster," is the most notable part of the stadium and includes a manually operated scoreboard within it. But Fenway's other odd outfield dimensions also add to its character.

A seat in the right field bleachers is painted red to designate the longest measurable home run ever hit in the park, a 502-foot shot by "The Splendid Splinter" Ted Williams in 1946. The left field foul pole has been renamed "Fisk Pole" in honour of the memorable home run hit by Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk that landed just inside it to win game six of the 1975 World Series, which the team eventually lost to the Cincinnati Reds.

The numbers of eight retired players — Bobby Doerr (#1), Joe Cronin (#4), Johnny Pesky (#6), Carl Yastrzemski (#8), Williams (#9), Jim Rice (#14), Fisk (#27) and Jackie Robinson (#42) — are located above the right field grandstand.

Fenway Park is the oldest venue used by any professional sports team in the U.S. and, while it may lack some of the comforts and amenities of recently built stadiums, it's still one of the best places that you'll ever see a ball game at.
Cruising Through The Southern Caribbean
One of the best ways to escape cold Canadian winters is via Caribbean cruises.

Today's cruise ships offer as many amenities as most land-based resorts, and you get to sample a variety of islands instead of staying put on one. My most recent cruise in February took me to the dual Dutch/French island of St. Maarten/St. Martin, Dominica, Grenada, Tobago, Barbados and Puerto Rico.

I'm not a shopper, but duty-free bargains in Philipsburg in Dutch St. Maarten seem to be the biggest attraction for many shoppers. There are lots of beachfront bars and restaurants to relax at in town, but better beaches can be found on the French part of the island, which are easily accessible by government-regulated taxis.

Beaches aren't the main attraction in Dominica, and there's not much to see in the main port of Roseau outside of a great reggae bar with a wide variety of unusual rums that I discovered a couple of blocks from where our ship docked. There's lots of lush greenery and scenery all over the rest of the hilly island, however, and you can see much of it on the four-hour van tours offered from Roseau. Trafalgar Falls is one of the highlights of the tours, but those with more time on their hands should consider taking on some of the many inland hiking trails. Whale-watching tours are recommended for those who prefer spending more time on the water.

The spice island of Grenada offers the best of the Caribbean, with beautiful vegetation and sights inland that can be seen on a half-day van tour with government-approved guides. Grand Etang National Park is the island's largest forest reserve and contains excellent hiking trails that range from easy 15-minute strolls to rigorous expeditions of several hours. Trails wind past cascading waterfalls with inviting swimming holes and lead up to a volcanic crater lake. Fort George offers great views over the city of St. George's and its harbour. World-renowned Grand Anse Beach is just a 10-minute cab ride from downtown St. George's.

Tobago's capital of Scarborough doesn't offer much aside from the 230-year-old Fort King George, which sits about 150 metres above the town. It's a vigorous, though not over-taxing, walk to the top and offers fine views of the coastline. A small museum tells of the fort's history and includes many artifacts from the region. Pigeon Point Beach is accessible by taxi and offers a relaxing way to spend the rest of your day.

A walk around Bridgetown, Barbados will let you see the parliament buildings, National Heroes Square, Queens Park and some historic churches and synagogues. You can cap your city jaunt with a 45-minute multimedia tour and tastings at the Mount Gay Rum Visitors Centre. Three-to-four-hour van tours will let you see much of the rest of the picturesque island, and you'll likely see and maybe even get to feed some of its green monkeys.

Old San Juan has been well-preserved and features large walls, sprawling forts, brightly painted old buildings, colonial plazas and cobblestoned streets as its main attractions aside from its many fine restaurants and stores. It's pretty easily walkable, but a free trolley will also take you around the old part of the city and its forts. Small beaches and modern hotels are a short distance away in the newer part of the Puerto Rican capital.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Gories Are Back
The Gories were a major part of Detroit's garage rock scene from 1986 to '93 before the trio broke up and its members went on to other projects. They reformed for a European tour last year and are now making their way across North America, including a July 16 stop at Toronto's Lee's Palace that drew 350 enthusiastic fans.

But The Gories weren't the only attraction on Friday night.

Toronto's Youth Crime, which idolizes The Gories and has the same two singer/guitarists and a female drummer lineup, opened the show in support of its recently released five-song, self-titled EP. Neither of singers Bev and Adam have classic voices, but they somehow suit the material — a sparse, lo-fi indie rock sound that at times is reminiscent of The Fall and Joy Division.
The set included songs from the EP, highlighted by "Mean Moe Tucker," a cut about the former female drummer for The Velvet Underground. Young drumming sensation Daria Ludwiczak (who looked hot behind the kit) nailed that one and everything else performed, including a cover of The Professionals' under-appreciated "Join The Professionals." Youth Crime also brought out a zealous fan base of young women who held up signs and shouted encouragement throughout the group's time on stage.

Another Toronto trio, Catl, was next. The band plays raw, punked up Delta blues with occasional flourishes of vintage organ that takes things to another level. Catl has been one of my favourite local live bands for the past year and even if this year's With The Lord For Cowards You Will Find No Place can't match the intensity found on stage, it still rates a very solid 7/10.
Lead singer/guitarist Jamie Fleming may be the most energetic performer you'll ever see who uses a chair to perform, singer/organist/percussionist Sarah Kirkpatrick looks and sounds great, and drummer Johnny LaRue keeps a steady beat while resembling a young Fidel Castro behind his drum kit.

The room kept steadily filling up by the time The Gories took the stage at 12:15 a.m. Singer/guitarists Mick Collins (The Dirtbombs) and Dan Kroha (Demolition Doll Rods) and drummer Peggy O'Neill (looking a bit like mean Moe Tucker in her dark sunglasses) opened with a theme song of sorts, "Hey Hey, We're The Gories."

The raw, bluesy and typically greasy Detroit rock-and-roll (with a pretty heavy raunch factor) continued throughout The Gories' hour-long set, which also included "Queenie" and covers of fellow Motown bands MC5's "Sister Anne" and The Keggs' "To Find Out."

Kroha put down his guitar to play harmonica on the final song, which saw him and Collins lying on stage while still playing. A lot of people, especially the surprisingly large contingent of women (many of whom were heavily tattooed), seemed to be having trouble keeping things together on this last number and during the two encore cuts.
I had no idea that The Gories had a following as large or as intense as what I witnessed on Friday night, but I left impressed by what I saw on stage and in the audience.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Beatles Memories Rain Down At Canon Theatre
I can't recall whether I saw Beatlemania or Rain approximately 30 years ago in Toronto at what was then called the O'Keefe Centre, but witnessing Rain: A Tribute To The Beatles this week at the city's Canon Theatre brought back a lot of memories.
I was barely in my teens back then and hadn't yet seen the hundreds of concerts that are now in my past, but I remember leaving the theatre thinking that I'd just come the closest I'd ever be to seeing John, Paul, George and Ringo on stage together. While I'm more jaded now and Rain didn't seem quite as magical as the show I saw in my youth, it's still a lot of fun for folks of all ages.
There were kids, senior citizens and lots of people in between in the audience on Wednesday night, and all of them were getting into the production — especially during "Twist And Shout," when everyone got up to dance. That's only logical because I can't understand how anyone can't appreciate the classic catalogue of Beatles songs.  
Steve Landes (Lennon), Joey Curatolo (McCartney), Joe Bithorn (Harrison), Ralph Castelli (Starr) and background musician Mark Lewis sound like the Fab Four musically and vocally, with Castelli standing out as the one who most reminded me of his original predecessor. And with the various wigs, fake facial hair and costumes that the men wear at different parts of the performance, it's not too hard to imagine you're in the audience of The Ed Sullivan Show or at New York City's Shea Stadium seeing the real thing some 45 years ago.
I quibble with Curatolo being right-handed while McCartney is a lefty, but that's something the average patron probably wouldn't notice or care about.
In addition to the great songs and their presentation, video screens flank the stage showing a mix of vintage Beatles-era clips and current footage of Rain. See-through projection screens where lights and special effects can be shown add to the experience, and an unexpected treat was the showing of humorous '60s television commercials on the screens during the change-over to the Sgt. Pepper's set.
It's interesting to note that, aside from the brief 1969 set on the roof of Apple Corps' London, England headquarters, The Beatles didn't play any concerts after 1966. So many of the band's most beloved songs were never performed in front of an audience. With Rain, however, they are.
Rain will be at the Canon Theatre until Aug. 1. The production will then have short runs in several U.S. cities and will hit Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre in New York City from Oct. 19 to Jan. 2. You can find all of the dates on the Rain web site.