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."