Saturday, December 31, 2011

Steve McLean's Favourite Music of 2011

Albums
The Top 10
1. Dropkick Murphys - Going Out in Style
This album is the Boston Celtic punk band's best yet, and a great place to start if you need an introduction.
Going Out In Style is somewhat of a concept album that borrows from the experiences of the band members and their relatives to "celebrate the successes and failures, challenges and milestones" of a fictional character named Cornelius Larkin. There's a retrospective narrative of Larkin's life in the liner notes, and you can read more about his saga on Boston author Michael Patrick MacDonald's website.
The album is full of working class lyrics that sometimes owe a nod to history. There's militancy, poignancy, drunkenness and more. There are acoustic numbers, songs that rock harder than a Zdeno Chara bodycheck and others that fall somewhere between the two extremes. You'll hear the normal rock and roll instrumentation, but also be treated to accordion, banjo, bouzouki, mandolin, whistles and bagpipes.
"Take 'Em Down" is dedicated to the thousands of union workers in Wisconsin who are fighting for their jobs. "Sunday Hardcore Matinee" recounts fond memories from the notorious Boston live music club, The Rathskeller, which closed its doors in 1997 and has been sorely missed ever since.
The exuberant title track features vocals from NOFX's Fat Mike, The Living End's Chris Cheney and actor/comedian Lenny Clarke. It also mentions Bruins great Bobby Orr, and the Hall of Fame defenceman appears in the song's video.
Bruce Springsteen shares lead vocals on a roots-punk version of the traditional "Peg O' My Heart." Dropkick Murphys guitarist/vocalist James Lynch's father, Pat Lynch, adds his voice to an infectiously energetic take of another traditional tune, "The Irish Rover."

2. The Feelies - Here Before
Here Before is the first new album from The Feelies in 20 years. Band founders Glenn Mercer and Bill Million wrote, produced, sang and played guitar on the record's 13 tracks, and were joined by bassist/vocalist Brenda Sauter, drummer Stanley Demeski and percussionist Dave Weckerman.
The sonic interplay between Mercer and Million's guitars that became the signature of The Feelies' sound still permeates through Here Before. While it may be a bit more understated overall than earlier albums, and songs may not immediately knock you over the head, it's full of subtle hooks and shows a maturity that's totally appropriate for this stage in the New Jersey group's career. And "When You Know" shows The Feelies can still push hard when the mood strikes.

3. Peter Bjorn and John - Gimme Some
The Swedish trio wanted to strip their sound down and go back to basics by using just guitar, bass and drums and recording some of the material live in the studio, so they worked with an outside producer (Per Sunding) for the first time on this sixth album. They captured the “rock-and-roll and garage rock” essence they were going for wonderfully.

4. The Black Keys - El Camino
I've liked The Black Keys, but have never been a huge fan of the duo's mix of blues, garage and indie rock. I was surprised by the breakthrough success of last year's Brothers, but was happy for the band and thought the Grammy Award-winning "Tighten Up" was a great single. Big things were then expected for El Camino, and the Akron, Ohio group didn't disappoint. The Black Keys co-produced the album with Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley, Gorillaz, Beck), and he added a sheen which effectively accents without overpowering the material. There's less of an emphasis on blues and more on soul, vintage R&B and earlier rock-and-roll, and that's a move in the right direction as far as I'm concerned.

5. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Belong
I liked what I heard from 2009's self-titled debut album and there seemed to be a growing buzz around the New York City's brand of fuzz pop -- which included attracting Flood (U2, Erasure) to produce and Alan Moulder (The Jesus and Mary Chain, Elastica) to mix the follow-up. The attention was warranted, as Belong takes influences from the '80s and '90s but still sounds like a record that belongs in the second decade of the new millennium.

6. Library Voices - Summer of Lust
This large and literate indie pop group from Regina, Sask. released an excellent debut album titled Denim on Denim last year, and this follow-up is probably even a little better. If you like The New Pornographers, you should like Library Voices.

7. Hooded Fang - Tosta Mista
This Toronto sextet's 2010 debut, Album, showed a lot of potential. It's all fulfilled here. Sixties garage rock grazes with strains of exotica lounge and throws a bit of '50s pop and doo-wop into a 21st century context to create a short record that you wish would last longer.

8. Jon Langford - Skull Orchard Revisited
I'd heard Langford perform these songs on his own and with the Burlington Welsh Male Chorus several times over the past few years, and always loved them, but just discovered with this release that they originally came from a long unavailable 1998 album titled Skull Orchard. He re-recorded the songs with the choir to come up with a very Welsh-inspired CD that comes packaged in a book that includes: Langford's lyrics and paintings; the tale of Moby Dick told from the perspective of the great white wale and a dolphin companion; vintage family photos taken by his late father Denis; and "A South Wales Alphabet" with amusing A to Z stories of growing up in south Wales, which were written by his brother David, a noted science-fiction writer.
If an album with a choir on it might make you think it's soft, fear not. Skull Orchard Revisited still rocks and showcases some great songwriting from the charismatic Waco Brothers and Mekons member.

9. Imelda May - Mayhem (International Version)
I first learned of this Irish singer through her performance with guitar legend Jeff Beck when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009 and more fully appreciated her on this year's Jeff Beck: Rock 'n' Roll Party Honoring Les Paul DVD. I haven't heard her debut album, but this sophomore album shows a gifted singer with attitude and a voice that suits her updated rockabilly and occasional smoky jazz material perfectly. I'm kicking myself that I missed her gig, which drew raves from my friends, earlier this year.

10. Arkells - Michigan Left
I was a bit slow to come around to this Hamilton, Ont. band after the first time I saw it a few years back. But the group's Jackson Square debut album grew on me and its party sets consisting of Motown classics won me over completely. Michigan Left follows those Motown leanings to become a melodic, soul-filled rock record that should get the 2010 Juno Award winner for best new group recognized well beyond Canada.

Just Missed The Cut
Sun Wizard - Positively 4th Avenue
San Sebastian - Relations

Honourable Mention
Lydia Loveless - Indestructible Machine
Shotgun Jimmie - Transistor Sister
Hayes Carll - KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories)
Telekinesis - 12 Desperate Straight Lines
Jack Oblivian - Rat City
Mannequin Men - Mannequin Men
Wanda Jackson - The Party Ain't Over
Aggrolites - Rugged Road
The Warped 45's - Matador Sunset
Imaginary Cities - Temporary Resident
The Decemberists - The King is Dead
The Rural Alberta Advantage - Departing

Still Solid
Slim Cessna's Auto Club - Unentitled
54-40 - Lost in the City
The Baseball Project - Volume 2: High and Inside
British Seapower - Valhalla Dancehall
Ron Sexsmith - Long Player Late Bloomer
Social Distortion - Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes
Frank Turner - England Keep My Bones
Ohbijou - Metal Meets
Gang of Four - Content
The Fall - Ersatz GB
Gillian Welch - The Harrow & The Harvest
Acres of Lions - Collections

Hit Single
Foster The People - "Pumped Up Kicks"

Live Album
Rockpile - Live at Montreux 1980

Reissues, Compilations and Box Sets (alphabetical order)
Johnny Cash - Bootleg Vol. II, Bootleg Vol. III
Leonard Cohen - The Complete Columbia Albums Collection
Neil Diamond - The Bang Years 1966-1968
The Jayhawks - Hollywood Town Hall, Tomorrow The Green Grass
Roy Orbison - The Monument Singles Collection (1960-1964)
Paul Revere & The Raiders - The Essential Paul Revere & The Raiders
Joel Plaskett - EMERGENCYs, false alarms, shipwrecks, castaways, fragile creatures, special features, demons and demonstrations
Iggy Pop - Roadkill Rising … The Bootleg Collection: 1977-2009
Elvis Presley - Elvis Is Back!
R.E.M. - Part Lies Part Heart Part Truth Part Garbage: 1982-2011
Paul Simon - Graceland, Songwriter
Simon and Garfunkel - Bridge Over Troubled Water
Patti Smith - Outside Society
Phil Spector - Wall of Sound: The Very Best of Phil Spector 1961-1966, Phil Spector Presents the Philles Album Collection
Peter Tosh - Equal Rights, Legalize It
Various artists - Rave On Buddy Holly

Music DVDs (alphabetical order)
The B-52s - With The Wild Crowd! Live in Athens, Ga.
Jeff Beck - Jeff Beck: Rock 'n' Roll Party Honoring Les Paul
New York Dolls - Lookin' Fine on Television
The Rolling Stones - Some Girls Live in Texas '78
Talking Heads - Chronology
Various artists - A Musicares Tribute to Neil Young
X - The Unheard Music (The Silver Edition)

Book/CD Combination
Jon Langford - Skull Orchard Revisited

Concerts (chronological order)
Hollerado, Gang of Four - Feb. 4, Phoenix, Toronto
Nicole Atkins - Feb. 27, Horseshoe, Toronto
Sun Wizard - March 10, Supermarket, Toronto
The Sadies - March 11, Mod Club, Toronto
Buddy McNeil & The Magic Mirrors - March 11, El Mocambo, Toronto
Les Breastfeeders - March 11, El Mocambo, Toronto
Catl - March 12, Comfort Zone, Toronto
The Resignators - March 12, Hideout, Toronto
British Sea Power - March 24, Lee's Palace, Toronto
Saint Alvia, Johnstones, Planet Smashers - March 25, Phoenix, Toronto
The Grapes of Wrath - March 25, El Mocambo, Toronto
The Real McKenzies - April 2, Lee's Palace, Toronto
Old 97's - April 6, Horseshoe, Toronto
Hayes Carll - April 10, Horseshoe, Toronto
Good Family, The Sadies, Jon Langford, Deano Waco, Skull Orchard - April 15, Horseshoe, Toronto
Jon Langford and Burlngton Welsh Male Choir, Waco Brothers - April 16, Horseshoe, Toronto
Frank Turner - April 26, El Mocambo, Toronto
Mick Thomas, The Lowest of the Low - May 7, Massey Hall, Toronto
Bad Manners - May 7, Lee's Palace, Toronto
The Cars - May 20, Sound Academy, Toronto
Scotty Campbell and The Wardenaires - May 28, Not My Dog, Toronto
The Baseball Project - June 1, Horseshoe, Toronto
Descendents - June 16, Yonge Dundas Square, Toronto
Crocodiles - June 16, Silver Dollar, Toronto
C.J. Ramone - June 16, Bovine Sex Club, Toronto
Archie Powell & The Exports - June 17, Rancho Relaxo, Toronto
Cults - June 18, Yonge Dundas Square, Toronto
Men Without Hats - June 18, Yonge Dundas Square, Toronto
Devo - June 18, Yonge Dundas Square, Toronto
The Lucky Ones, Stiff Little Fingers - Aug. 16, Lee's Palace, Toronto
Aggrolites - Oct. 15, Lee's Palace, Toronto
Colleen Green, Crocodiles, Dum Dum Girls - Oct. 16, Lee's Palace, Toronto
Shonen Knife - Oct. 20, Horseshoe, Toronto
Davila 666 - Oct. 22, Silver Dollar, Toronto
Kepi, Chixdiggit - Oct. 27, Sneaky Dee's, Toronto
Frank Turner - Oct. 28, Phoenix, Toronto
Lyres - Nov. 19, Horseshoe, Toronto
Legendary Dirtbikers, Ultimatemost High, Tres Bien Ensemble - Dec. 16, The Sister, Toronto
Skydiggers - Dec. 17, Horseshoe, Toronto
The Sadies - Dec. 31, Horseshoe, Toronto

Friday, December 30, 2011

New Orleans 2011 vacation: part five

The Inn on Bourbon Ramada Plaza Hotel

Our last morning in New Orleans began with more coffee and beignets at Cafe du Monde, and another walk to Riverwalk Marketplace, where we visited the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.

I'm glad the Power Pass got us in for free, since it wasn't worth the $10 it would have cost to get in. But we learned about local cuisine and I appreciated the section on the development of the cocktail.

We made a brief stop at The Historic New Orleans Collection, but elected not to go through it all. Instead, we went to the Presbytere, a museum at the north end of Jackson Square featuring two exhibits.

The first was "Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond," which told the story of the devastating hurricane and its accompanying flooding from a number of different perspectives. The personal recollections were a lot more moving than the more scientific information, but together they made for a powerful combination.

The other Presbytere exhibit showed the history, costumes and traditions of Mardi Gras, New Orleans' most famous festival that draws thousands to the streets for its lavish parades each February.

We went for our last Po Boy and then went to the other Beerfest location on Bourbon Street. They had a two for one special, but the friendly bartender went two better than that and brought me four beers that I'd never had before: Voodoo Bengal, a 7.5 per cent alcohol pale ale with a hint of ginger; Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan, which is made with whole roasted pecans; Lazy Magnolia Jefferson Stout, which is brewed with sweet potatoes; and NOLA Brewing Hopitoulas, which had a nice citrus and pine bouquet.

We returned to our hotel, picked up our bags and caught the shuttle to the airport. We had a stopover at Washington Dulles International Airport, where we had time for a burger and a pint of Hefeweizen at the Gordon Biersch Brewing Company restaurant, before returning to Buffalo.

It was back to the Econo Lodge, where we stayed before we left, and then a trip down Main Street to the heart of Buffalo the next morning. We stopped at a river that had a small waterfall and then drove around downtown for a while before crossing the Peace Bridge back to Ontario. I took the scenic route along Lake Erie and the Grand River, and detoured through the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve. 
 
I hadn't been to the reserve since working as a reporter for the Brantford Expositor in 1989, and almost every store we passed was selling discounted cigarettes -- and sometimes nothing else. While there are still some run-down-looking houses, many others are newer or in better condition than back then, which was good to see.

Brantford's downtown is still in rough shape, however. After a drive around the city, it was homeward bound to Stratford and the end of the trip.

New Orleans 2011 vacation: part four


There was a brief but violent downpour on Wednesday morning, the only time it rained any noticeable volume during our time in New Orleans, but luckily we were in a coffee shop fuelling up when it started and ended.
The house of Archie Manning, the former NFL quarterback and father of fellow quarterbacks Peyton and Eli.

Things had cleared up by the time we got on a Gray Line bus to take us to the Garden District, where we began a two-and-a-half-hour walking tour of what was formerly the "American" part of the city in the 1800s. The houses were different, but just as impressive, and embraced more Greek Revival and Italianate stylistic flourishes than the French Quarter. We passed the former and/or current homes of Anne Rice, Trent Reznor, Archie Manning, Nicolas Cage, John Goodman and others, as well as the house where Jefferson Davis died in 1889. We also explored the Lafayette Cemetery and learned about New Orleans burial practices in the above ground cities of the dead.
Lafayette Cemetery

The guide and the rest of the people on the tour took the Gray Line bus back to our starting point, while mom and I ordered a tasty Po Boy at a nice little restaurant on Magazine Street before catching a city bus to the end of the line at the Audobon Zoo.

It's billed as one of the top five zoos in the United States, and we were definitely impressed by everything it had to offer. We spent the afternoon walking around the different themed areas of the complex, including the Asian domain, the aviary, the South America pampas, the Louisiana swamp, the African savanna, the sea lions and the reptile house. There was an extensive variety of animals, and they seemed to have room to move around in their environments.
Audobon Zoo alligators

Audobon Zoo white tigers
We took the bus back to Canal Street, stopped at Quarter House (the five-star suite resort I spent a week in during my previous stay in New Orleans in 1998) on Chartres Street, and then went to the nearby Jimanji, a cozy little bar with an extensive beer selection. I had a refreshing Sierra Nevada Kellerweiss Hefeweizen and Brooklyn Brewery's Post Road Pumpkin Ale, which was slightly spicy, a bit hoppy and redolent with cloves.

For our final dinner in New Orleans, we stayed on Chartres in a building from the 1700s that now houses Pierre Maspero's Food and Spirits -- which I found out later has the same ownership as La Bayou, where we dined earlier in the week. The blackened redfish I had the night before was so good that I ordered it again, and was just as pleased. And the Abita Christmas Ale that I had with it kept me festive for later in the evening.

I decided to check out Frenchman Street again, and dropped into a few clubs to see what was happening. I stayed at Apple to see Andre Bouvier and his band play a solid mix of blues, rock and Cajun music. Checkpoint Charlie's (a bar and laundromat combination) was full of local punks and old drinkers and an act from Charleston, S.C. called Megan Jean and The KFB, which played roots music with occasional rockabilly and old jazz influences.

A $5.25 Hurricane got me back to Tropical Isle, where I finished its trifecta of strong cocktails by having a Horny Gator and a Tropical Itch. They also came in novelty glasses like the earlier Hand Grenade, and all three are now sitting in my kitchen window acting as a beacon.

New Orleans 2011 vacation: part three

Cafe du Monde

A trip to New Orleans isn't complete without coffee and beignets at Cafe du Monde, so we began our Tuesday with chicory-infused java and fried dough covered in icing sugar across the street from Jackson Square.

We finished the coffees while strolling through the Riverwalk Marketplace, an impressive mall where we stopped in a store to sample some fruit wines, while waiting for the nearby Audobon Aquarium of the Americas to open at 10 a.m.
Audobon Aquarium of the Americas

The aquarium is well-designed and separated into distinct areas that allows you to explore the aquatic habitats of the Caribbean, Amazon, Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. There were creatures big and small -- from sharks to seahorses -- along with stingrays we could pet in a shallow pool, sea otters, penguins and many others. There was at least one school group visiting and a lot of the exhibits are informative and hands-on, so both children and adults can appreciate them.
Audobon Insectarium

Our Power Pass also got us into the affiliated Audobon Insectarium, so we walked north up Canal Street to the former U.S. Custom House to get up close and learn more about creepy crawly and flying things. A lot of them were surprisingly beautiful and not annoying at all when they're behind glass. Butterflies flew freely in an area replicating an Asian garden, but the highlight was a short animated film in the immersion theatre that offers a multi-sensory experience. We drew the line at eating insects, though I sampled some crickets in Thailand seven years ago and thought they were pretty bland.
Jackson Square

French Quarter
French Quarter
We'd already explored much of the French Quarter on our own, but took advantage of our Power Passes to get some more insights from a guide on a two-hour walking tour of the area. We learned about people I wasn't previously familiar with who played a major part in New Orleans' development, Creole culture and more, including the role of religion at the Ursuline Convent -- the oldest building in the Mississippi River Valley. The architecture in the French Quarter is beautiful, but hearing the stories behind some of the 18th and 19th century buildings added to the experience.

We still had an hour before the Cabildo closed, so it was next on the agenda. The site of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase transfer in 1803 now houses exhibits on New Orleans history. It's informative, if a bit dry, but a pleasant surprise was the "Unsung Heroes: The Secret History of Louisiana Rock 'n' Roll" exhibit curated by the Ponderosa Stomp Foundation. There were familiar and unfamiliar names and songs, but I was enthralled and it should definitely be sought out by all music lovers visiting the city.

We'd worked up a thirst, so we dropped into Turtle Bay on Bourbon Street. The beer selection wasn't nearly as good as the Decatur Street location, but I managed to find a Covington Bayou Bock that I hadn't tried before.

It was time for dinner, so we tried Cajun Cabin on Bourbon and began with alligator bites. I've always liked gator, but mom was reluctant when I ordered them. She soon came around, however. The blackened redfish ($19.95) was delicious and a pint of LA31 Biere Pale from Bayou Teche Brewing was a nice accompaniment.

My favourite music venue on Bourbon is Tropical Isle Bayou Club & Music Bar, which features solid Cajun bands each night. It also sells the Hand Grenade, a melon-tasting concoction which it claims is the strongest drink in New Orleans. It comes in a large novelty plastic cup shaped like a hand grenade at the base, and refills are a dollar cheaper, so I took advantage of that deal. When bands weren't playing, I walked through the French Quarter people-watching and sipping Hand Grenades until the bars started shutting down.

American Idiot makes the most of what it is


I left on a five-month around-the-world trip in which I didn't listen to much music just before Green Day's American Idiot came out in September 2004, and I didn't appreciate how big an impact the album had on people after I returned home.

But it was enough to turn it into a stage musical, and it inspired me to write an MSN.ca column in October 2009 on the rock musicals I'd seen. I'll say up front that I'm generally not a fan of musicals and would prefer to keep my live music experiences in clubs and my drama and comedy in live or movie theatres where singing and dancing don't distract me from the dialogue, plot and character development.

American Idiot, coming off a successful Broadway run, launched its North American tour last night at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. Like Tommy, it has an advantage with me in that I'm already familiar with the songs -- and I was already a fan of the title track, "Holiday," "Know Your Enemy" and "Wake Me Up When September Ends." The band (no, it wasn't Green Day), which was on stage throughout the 90-minute performance, had the musical chops to deliver the numbers.

But I found that with all of the dancing, movement and video screens that form part of the effective stage design (which won a 2010 Tony Award), I was often distracted and didn't know where to focus my attention -- except for when sexy Gabrielle McClinton (who plays Whatsername) was on stage.
The female cast members of American Idiot.



The rest of the cast is all very talented, and Van Hughes as lead character Johnny also stood out. But the character and plot and development revolving around three young suburban friends whose lives go in different directions are a little thin and left me wanting to know more.

The aerial acrobatics of Nicci Claspell (as The Extraordinary Girl) and Scott J. Campbell (as Tunny) added a lot visually as they flew through the air on harnesses, but it didn't really push the narrative along in an effective manner. The energy and enthusiasm of the performers can only take the material so far, and it sometimes seemed that they were trying too hard to take it farther.

I'm glad I got the chance to see American Idiot (even if I couldn't find anyone to take my second ticket and accompany me), as it's the type of performance that may draw a different type of fan to the theatre. And there's a lot to like if you're a Green Day fan. But as much as I was entertained, I suppose my inherent bias will probably never allow me to fully gush over a musical (and I've seen The Man in Black: A Tribute to Johnny Cash, Camelot, Sister Act and Hair this year).

That said, Tommy is still at the head of the class.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

New Orleans 2011 vacation: part two

Musee Conti Historical Wax Museum
 Monday morning began with more strolling through New Orleans' French Quarter up to Musee Conti Historical Wax Museum, which presented more than 300 years of the city's history and tidbits of information I was previously unaware of. A "haunted dungeon" with wax figures of Dracula, Frankenstein and other fictional monsters was inexplicably added at the end. The figures were generally well-crafted, it was a good learning experience, and it made for a well-spent hour. 


Louis Armstrong Park

We walked north out of the French Quarter to Congo Square and were going to go through Louis Armstrong Park, but it was closed for some type of renovations. We visited the Saint Louis Cathedral and walked around Jackson Square before grabbing a Po Boy (a New Orleans submarine sandwich) for lunch and waiting for our three-hour Hurricane Katrina bus tour to begin.
Saint Louis Cathedral

Aside from driving in and out of New Orleans, I'd never ventured beyond the French Quarter, Garden District and area around the Superdome before, so this tour allowed me to see more of the city. We learned about the levee system as we drove by them, and were also informed about the disappearing coastal wetlands in the area.

We visited a number of neighbourhoods affected by flooding from Katrina -- including Lakeview, Gentilly, New Orleans East and the Ninth Ward -- and saw both where progress has been made in rebuilding and places that haven't changed much since disaster struck in the summer of August 2005. The tour also included a brief stop at a nice park with a sculpture garden that I would have liked to have spent more time at.

After the tour, we walked along Decatur Street and stopped at Turtle Bay for a couple of happy hour pints from the 25 the bar had on tap. Mom likes fruit beers, so I went with a raspberry-based Abita Purple Haze and a Covingtons Strawberry and was quite pleased with both of them.

We walked to the end of Decatur and up Frenchman Street, which is filled with clubs and is apparently where the locals go to hear music. But it was too early for anything to be happening, so we walked back to the French Quarter.

I recalled the famous Hurricane served at Pat O'Brien's (I was with former Who bassist John Entwistle the last time I was there in 1998) was pretty fruity, so I thought mom would enjoy one. But the four ounces of rum in it was too much for her, so I ended up drinking both of ours -- which I had no problem with.
Pat O'Brien's

We went for dinner at La Bayou, a Cajun Creole restaurant where I enjoyed the "Taste of New Orleans" combo of jambalaya, crawfish etouffee and chicken and andouille sausage gumbo for $17.95 and mom had a half rack of barbecue ribs for a dollar less. I washed mine down with a pint of Abita Pecan, which didn't have a strong pecan taste.

We returned to the hotel and then I went to Beerfest to watch Monday Night Football and try an Abita Andygator (slightly sweet and the eight per cent alcohol content wasn't noticeable) and an Abita Jockamo (a complex but pleasant 6.5-per cent beer made from pine needles, brown sugar, tropical fruit rind and black tea leaves).

I wandered up and down Bourbon Street and was enticed into one of its many strip clubs with the promise of beautiful women, a five-dollar cover and three-dollar drinks. The ladies were definitely hot, and one of them repeatedly came over to try and get me to take her into a private room. She turned out to be the dirtiest girl of them all, judging by her stage act, so perhaps I should have taken her up on her offer. I made three rum and Cokes last quite a while before it was time to head back to the hotel at last call.

Monday, December 26, 2011

New Orleans 2011 vacation: part one

My friend Kirk and I took a road trip in 1998 that took in the legendary Highway 61 and included overnight stays in Cincinnati, Nashville, Memphis, Lafayette and a week in New Orleans. We had a lot of fun, but not all of the New Orleans memories are particularly vivid since we were partying pretty hard most of the time.

But my mom expressed an interest in seeing the Big Easy this year, so I figured a five-day stay would give her all she needed while allowing me to see new things and hopefully revive remembrances of things I did and saw 13 years earlier.

We had a 6:10 a.m. flight from Buffalo, a stopover in Charlotte and were in New Orleans by 10:30 a.m. The $326 (including taxes) return trip flight was about half the price we would have paid had we flown out of Toronto.

We caught a $78 return trip airport shuttle bus to our hotel, The Inn on Bourbon Ramada Plaza Hotel, and dropped off our bags before walking to the Superdome (with a traveller in hand, of course). The Saints game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was sold out and scalper prices were too rich for us, so we watched most of the first half outside the stadium in a large public square where hundreds of others had gathered to view the game on a large video screen.

Mom's not a big football fan, so we walked back toward the French Quarter and down to the shore of the Mississippi River where we visited a ticket booth and picked up a five-day Power Pass (which we got for the price of a three-day pass by buying it online through Expedia when I booked my flights and hotel) that gave us entry into 28 attractions and tours around the city for $125 each. The cost was well worth it, considering how much we took advantage of the Power Pass.

The Steamboat Natchez was right beside us and was about to embark on a 2:30 p.m. jazz cruise, so we listened to a woman play a calliope on top of the boat before we went aboard. We listened to the jazz band inside for a bit until the paddle wheeler's whistle blew and it pulled out from the Toulouse Street Wharf, at which time we found a good vantage point on deck and listened to the narration of what we were seeing as we made our way along.

The history, facts and figures offered are important, as there really isn't a lot of great scenery on the two-hour cruise. But the Natchez is the city's only authentic steamboat, and visitors are allowed into the engine room to see how things work. The cruise costs $25 on its own, or $36 with lunch. A couple of beers were enough of a lunch for me.

We docked, returned to our hotel and got settled in. The Inn on Bourbon Ramada Plaza Hotel is in the heart of the French Quarter at the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse, and stands on the site of the French Opera House, which was built in 1859. There were renovations taking place in the lobby restaurant, but we were quite pleased with everything else about the hotel, which we got at a good price in the neighbourhood of $100 a night. It was clean and modern, it featured a nice courtyard with a swimming pool, the employees were friendly and efficient, there was free wireless Internet and -- important for people who may like to go to bed early like my mom -- it was quiet. Our room overlooked the hustle and bustle and booziness of Bourbon Street, but we could hear very little of it. I have no problem recommending this hotel.
The Shops at Jax Brewery

I always try to hit as many brew pubs as I can in a city, so we had our first night dinner at the Crescent City Brewhouse. I had a sampler tray of its five beers and wasn't particularly impressed with any of them. Most entrees were above $20 and were well-presented and okay-tasting, but not exceptional. Mom had the New York strip, while I went for the grilled tuna Orleans, which was Ahi tuna topped with sauteed jumbo shrimp, Chinese long beans, beech mushrooms and tempura fried sweet potato crisp.

We returned to the hotel and I had the best intentions of going out again. But it had been a long work week and I was functioning on two hours of sleep, so I laid down on my bed and didn't leave it again until the next morning.

A day in Niagara

Niagara Falls has captivated me since I first saw the water hurtle over the rocks as a young child, and I loved the scenic drive along the Niagara Parkway from Niagara-on-the-Lake to the city that bears the name of the falls. But I don't make the trip often enough, considering it's just a 90-minute drive away.

It therefore made a lot of sense to make a day of it in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Niagara Falls before heading across the Rainbow Bridge on Nov. 5 to spend the night at the Econo Lodge in Williamsville, N.Y., near the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, where my mom and I were catching a flight to New Orleans early the next morning.

The quaint town of Niagara-on-the-Lake is the home of the Shaw Festival, a number of wineries, some high-end inns and several small shops and restaurants that largely cater to tourists. It was a nice autumn day, so we walked through the town and then down to Lake Ontario to look across to Old Fort Niagara and Youngstown, N.Y. We walked around Fort George before grabbing a sandwich at a reasonably priced diner and then carrying on to the Parkway.

The Niagara River and gorge were visible on the left and we stopped a couple of times to take in the views before arriving in Niagara Falls. The mist emanating from the Horseshoe Falls felt like rain as we walked along the main viewing promenade and back. No matter how many times I've seen them, I'm still left speechless by the power and majesty of millions of litres of water taking precipitous drops down the Horseshoe Falls, the American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls.

I used to like visiting the wax museums, miniature golf courses, amusement rides, arcades and other kitschy attractions of Clifton Hill and nearby Stanley Avenue as much as the falls themselves when I was a child. A number of them from my youth are still around (The House of Frankenstein, Dracula's Haunted Castle, Criminals Hall of Fame), or have relocated (Louis Tussaud's, Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum, Movieland Wax Museum of the Stars), but there are a lot of others that have arrived more recently. None of them lured us inside, however, so we had a hearty dinner at Montana's Cookhouse and then took in the illuminations along the waterfront before shuffling off to Buffalo.

If you're just sleeping for a few hours before catching a flight, the Econo Lodge is okay since it's reasonably priced and offers a free shuttle to the airport and $25 parking for a week while you're gone. But it's not the cleanest or most up-to-date place, so I don't recommend it for more than a night at a time.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Tres Bien night at The Sister

The Legendary Dirtbikers
The Ultimatemost High
Tres Bien Ensemble
I last saw The Legendary Dirtbikers two months ago, but jumped at the chance to spend time with some friends and watch the Toronto band again on Friday night within the welcoming confines of The Sister.

The set was similar to the last one, but the Dirtbikers didn't need any prompting to showcase their "First Dog in Space" single this time out. And the band's rendition of "Let's Get High and Fool Around" may have been the best that I've heard it do.

Guitarist/singer Fred Robinson (who last night was wearing a Hilarious House of Frightenstein T-shirt I was coveting) put it well on a Facebook post I read this morning: "I play in a band with some nice dudes..this makes me happy. We are not about to change the world but we will have a tonne of fun trying."

The only thing I knew about The Ultimatemost High was a YouTube video I checked out earlier this week to see if I'd like it. But what I witnessed in person from this Oshawa, Ont. quartet was much better.

The Ultimatemost High plays a blend of old school punk and vintage garage rock and at times I heard elements of The Damned, The Stooges, Dead Boys and very early Replacements. The group even threw in a Seeds cover for good measure.

Charismatic singer Ben Lee combines the moves and actions of some of rock and roll's great frontmen, but adds his own fresh spin to it. This included  lying on his back on the table in front of me and putting the microphone in my face so I had to sing the chorus along with him. Luckily, the lyrics weren't too hard to pick up.

Wayne Omaha was one of my favourite local bands through the late '90s and early into this century, but the band dissolved and its bass player moved away. The group has largely been resurrected, however, under a name borrowed from The Beatles' "Michelle" that I much prefer: Tres Bien Ensemble. The quintet has flown under my radar but when I read the concert listing with the bracketed notation "(formerly Wayne Omaha)," I figured I should see what the new incarnation was like.

I liked what I heard, but wasn't completely sold early on. But as the set of instrumental and vocal tracks evolved, I started appreciating the versatility, diversity and dynamics of what I was hearing from these very talented musicians more and more. It's art rock meets rawk and roll in places, and it draws you in further the more you hear it. I'm not usually a fan of extended jams, but I even liked when the second last song of the night morphed into one.

I've always liked the guys in the band and am pleased that I'll likely see them more often now that I know who Tres Bien Ensemble is. Beauty on.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

New York City vacation: part four

Gambrinus
I've never been to Coney Island before and, since I'd shown mom all of the sights that she was interested in and it was a hot day, we figured we might as well spend some of it at the beach. The water was a little cool, but refreshing. The Luna Park amusement park was just opening its gates, so we had a look around but didn't go on any rides.

We continued walking along the boardwalk and stopped at Winter Garden, a beachfront bar with an extensive beer menu for a couple of thirst quenchers: a Bavick Pilsner and and Ommegang Witte. We left the beach and walked through the Russian neighbourhood dubbed Little Odessa, where we stopped at a nautically themed restaurant/bar called Gambrinus that had a welcoming patio and a decent selection of draught beers. I had a satisfying  half-litre of Julius Echter unfiltered wheat beer before we made our way to the subway for the almost hour-long ride back to our hotel.

Since this was our last day in New York, we picked up our bags and took the subway near the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Mom decided she wanted more Thai food for her final meal of the trip, and we were pleased with our curries from Talent II Thai Kitchen at 925 9th Ave.

The ride home was uneventful and, while some people may not enjoy spending 10 hours on a bus, I'm happy to recommend it. You leave at night, sleep as well as you can, and arrive at the beginning of the day. And if you order your tickets two weeks in advance, a round trip costs just $90.

New York City vacation: part three

Yankee Stadium


A leisurely Sunday morning walk up Lafayette detoured into Chelsea for a visit to the hotel that bears the name of the neighbourhood and has a distinguished and notorious history associated with musicians and writers. Everything seemed normal, but I found out upon returning home that it was the last day that the Chelsea Hotel was open.

We took our final Gray Line bus tour on the uptown loop, which took in Central Park West, Lincoln Center, Dakota Apartments, American Museum of Natural History, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Columbia University, Grant's Tomb, Harlem and the Apollo Theater, the "Museum Mile," Fifth Avenue and back again.

There was an hour to spare before our Circle Line cruise around the entire island of Manhattan, so we took advantage of the beautiful weather and had a drink on a patio near our embarkation point at Pier 83. The three-hour cruise covered three rivers and five boroughs, while passing under seven major bridges and past several landmarks. It offers a different look at Manhattan and, while some parts are a little dull, it also offers some great photo opportunities.

I fell in love with the High Line, an elevated railway line that's been converted into a park and walkway combination along the western side of Manhattan when I visited it in the summer of 2009, and was eager to see the second section that's been added to make the High Line go from the Meatpacking District in the south to as far north as West 30th Street. It offers great views of the city and the Hudson River and is a great addition to Manhattan and makes it an even better walking city.

We continued our walk through the West Village and Greenwich Village, where we stopped to take in Washington Square Park before a late dinner at Boyd Thai Restaurant on Thompson Street, where mom again had steak while I went for some duck.

After a brief pitstop back at the hotel, I picked up a traveller beer at a convenience store to drink before arriving at Manitoba's on Avenue B in Alphabet City. The bar is owned by The Dictators' Handsome Dick Manitoba, and I decided to stay with the bars owned by musicians theme by hitting Niagara, which Jesse Malin has a piece of. I stayed until a hard rain subsided and walked back to the hotel.

New York City vacation: part two

Central Park
Central Park
We walked to the former World Trade Center site to see the new construction and visit St. Paul's Chapel, Manhattan's oldest public building in continuous use, on Saturday morning.

We then hopped on the Gray Line bus and made our way north through several neighbourhoods before getting off at Central Park. We ambled leisurely through the southern part of the park,  browsed a street fair and picked up some gifts at the M&M store before the Sister Act matinee at the Broadway Theatre. I'm not a big fan of musicals, but was entertained by this one -- and mom loved it, which is what really counts.

Post-show drinks were in order, so we went to the Heartland Chop House Brewery for a flight of seven five-ounce glasses of their house-brewed beer. None of them were exceptional.

We had a look through Grand Central Station before deciding upon dinner at an excellent Brazilian restaurant called Ipanema, where I enjoyed churrasco mist -- a combination of grilled beef, chicken, pork and Portuguese sausage and mom had a steak.

New York City has lots to look at during the day, but it can be just as enthralling by night with all of its bright lights. The two-hour Gray Line night tour took us south from midtown, across to Brooklyn and back again. We fought our way through the throngs around Times Square and elected to keep on walking down Broadway back to our hotel. We took a number of breaks so mom could rest her feet, but we completed the more than 50-block journey in three hours.

That was enough for mom, but I set out again for more late night drinks and made stops at The Magician, National Underground and Home Sweet Home.

New York City vacation: part one

New York City was a place my mother had always wanted to visit, so this summer I granted her wish and took her to the Big Apple for an extra long weekend.

I booked a room at the well-located Holiday Inn SoHo on Lafayette Street between Chinatown and Little Italy, and within easy walking distance of the Lower East Side and East Village for my late night dive bar visits. This was my sixth trip to NYC, so I know it reasonably well, but thought the best way to introduce my mom to the city was through a three-day, hop-on hop-off Gray Line double-decker tour bus pass.

Our first day began with a walk further downtown that took us past a number of captivating buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the South Street Seaport (where we stopped at the TKTS outlet and bought a pair of tickets for Sister Act for the next day) and the financial district before arriving at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal.

The free ride took us within easy viewing distance of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, which I've visited in the past but didn't on this trip. Upon disembarkation, we strolled past the Richmond County Bank Ballpark (the home of the Staten Island Yankees of the New York-Penn League) to the September 11 Memorial and then back to the terminal for the 25-minute return ride to Manhattan. This was my second time in Staten Island, but both have been short trips, and I'd like to explore more of it sometime.

The same can be said of Brooklyn, which I got my most comprehensive overview of on the Gray Line tour of New York City's most populous borough.  The two-hour tour was the of the day and our guide and driver made it entertaining and informative.

We decided to have dinner on Mulberry Street, the heart of Little Italy, and just made it inside Cafe Napoli before a massive downpour hit. My mom had an expensive but tasty stuffed veal dish, while I went with some fish. She called it an early night, I did some writing and then stepped out for drinks at Lower East Side watering holes Iggy's Keltic Lounge, The Cake Shop, Max Fish and Arlene's Grocery.
Max Fish

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Gourmet Food and Wine Expo keeps me in good spirits

I've attended each edition of the Toronto Festival of Beer over the past 17 years, but made it to my first Gourmet Food & Wine Expo on the weekend. I think it could be the beginning of a new tradition.

Upon arriving at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre's South Building on Saturday evening, we were informed that there could be a two-hour wait to get in. But with my media pass and my three friends' VIP tickets, we were able to walk right in. Paying the $40 for the VIP ticket as opposed to $20 for the regular pass may not be a bad idea next year for folks like me who hate standing in line.

I was told that 40 one-dollar sampling tickets was the average purchase, so that's what I bought to make sure that my wine glass was never empty for long. I'm much more of a beer snob than a wine connoisseur, and I found one that I'd never had before along with Australia's ever-reliable Cooper's Sparkling Ale and Germany's Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier Dunkel. The new one, to me at least, was England's Badger Golden Champion Ale. A hint of elderflower in the bouquet and a refreshing finish made it a worthwhile, if far from essential, discovery.

The place was packed and the clientele seemed to be skewed a bit younger than I might have expected, but perhaps it was just people getting a good start to their Saturday nights before hitting clubs after the expo closed at 10 p.m. I used it for that purpose, too, as we caught a great show by Boston garage rock band The Lyres at the Horseshoe Tavern at midnight.

I much prefer whites over reds, and Rieslings and sparkling wines are my favourites, so that's what I tried to focus on for the most part. The Alsace Riesling Willm Reserve was my favourite of those.

I quite enjoyed the Bassano Hard Sodas — a combination of vodka, spring water and natural flavours inspired by classic Italian sodas. Both the Lemon Sanguinelli and Raspberry Pomelo would appeal to those who aren't big drinkers and like some sweetness to go along with a 5.5 per cent alcohol content.

Some booths were offering spirits, so I was obliged to try a few. Khorytsa offered both a regular and a pepper vodka. The former was okay and the latter definitely had a spicy bite that seemed like it would go well in a Caesar.

I'd been intrigued by the bottle and label of The Kraken Black Spiced Rum when I'd seen it in stores, but had never tasted it. The Kraken was released and I got molasses and dark chocolate flavours from it, but I wasn't sold on this complex 47-per cent alcohol rum. A shot of Fireball cinnamon whiskey went down well, however, as it always does.

The crawfish etouffee from the Louisiana booth hit the spot and made me long for New Orleans, even though I'd just been there a week earlier.

I had more than half my tickets left at closing time, but luckily I had no major plans for Sunday afternoon and returned for another visit. There were fewer people, which made it more relaxed and easier to talk to the representatives at each booth about their product.

I found three new to me beers that I'd overlooked on Saturday. The Amsterdam 416 Urban Wheat has 4.16 per cent alcohol and came out this summer to mark the brewery's 25th anniversary. It lacked the fruit bouquet and flavours of my favourite wheat beers, and I have no need to drink it again. Slightly better, but unexceptional, was Theresianer — an  amber Viennese lager brewed in Italy. The best of the bunch was Beau's Nightmarzen, a dark amber fall seasonal from the organic Ontario brewery.

I was pleased with the light and fruity Riesling Moscato, Black Slate Riesling and 20 Bees Riesling, as well as the 6.5-per cent Sundance Pink Lemonade wine beverage that tasted more of grapefruit than anything else.

I balanced that with more of the hard stuff, starting with a lovely Caipirinha cocktail made with Leblon cachaca. A mixture of 360 Double Chocolate Vodka and Dooley's Toffee Cream Liqueur was certainly chocolatey — and good. Mathilde Creme Liqueur is an 18-per cent alcohol beverage from France that smells and tastes of raspberry, but there's no creme to be found. Cherry Heering cherry brandy liqueur tastes better in a Singapore Sling than on its own.

I visited the Mount Gay distillery in Barbados in 2010 and, while the booth at the expo lacked the same appeal, I still enjoyed the spicy sorrel cocktail made with its Eclipse brand. El Dorado is a Demerara rum from Guyana and was okay, but I'll stick with my Old Sam, thank you.

I sampled free veal, a few different types of pears and a variety of hot sauces, and soothingly sweet Panama Jack's French Vanilla Cream helped cool my mouth off after those. I paid a buck for a tasty San Danielle prosciutto slider, but it wasn't until the show was closing at 6 p.m. and I still found myself with tickets that I really turned my attention towards food. The friendly woman from Royal Elephant set me up with lots of spring rolls and chicken wings for my walk home.

Lots of people had left their wine glasses behind, so I put six of them in my bag, and then was given almost 20 cans of Clamato juice as I made my exit. I put that to quick use by making a couple of Caesars to sip on while watching Sunday night football on my couch.