Friday, March 30, 2012

Beau's All Natural Brewing makes a new fan

I'm not all that big on Beau's All Natural Brewing Company's flagship beer, Lug Tread Lagered Ale. And I wasn't particularly enamoured with its Night Marzen Oktoberfest Lager when I tried it last fall.

But I was still excited when I found out about Beaulo, a Beau's total takeover of one of Toronto's top beer bars, Bar Volo, on Thursday evening. The problem was, a lot of other people were excited, too. That, combined with Bar Volo's small size and a much stricter adherence to legal fire code capacities than most music venues I find myself in, meant I waited two-and-a-half hours to get in despite arriving 15 minutes before the 7 p.m. start time.

The temperature dropped and I wasn't dressed as warmly as I should have been, but I read a newspaper and met some nice people who were also shivering in the cold. I normally don't stand in lines for more than a few minutes, but I had no other plans, so I stuck it out as bottles and casks were tantalizingly close a mere metre away over the patio fence.

By the time I got in, some of the 27 different beers that were available at the beginning of the night were gone. I was most disappointed not to try the May Contain Traces of My Nuts Peanut Butter Stout (an exclusive Beaulo one-off), but was also shut out from the Smokin' Banana Peel Smoked Hefeweizen, Collabrrrewator Coffee Doppelbock, Dunkel Buck Dunkel Weizenbock and Doble de Accion Agave Pale Ale, which was aged with tequila-soaked oak chips.

Tokens were three dollars each, and 10-ounce plastic cups of beer cost either two or three tokens. I bought nine tokens and made my way to the main bar.

First up on my hit list was Weiss O'Lantern Pumpkinweiss, a white beer brewed with pumpkin that had a dark orange colour, slightly spicy bouquet and a lively flavour. The 4.6-per cent alcohol brew may be the best pumpkin beer I've ever had, and I look forward to its return next fall.

Doublewide Double IPA was created by my friend Brad Clifford, the 2011 Great Canadian Homebrew Competition winner, but brewed at Beau's. It was available in both cask and keg, and I went for the cask as I always do when given a choice.

I'm happy to report that this eight-per cent alcohol India Pale Ale was well worth the third token. The dark amber brew had a spicy, hoppy aroma and was very nicely hopped without being excessive, and had just the right amount of bitterness. It uses a variety of malts and hops, is delicious and goes down surprisingly easy for such a high alcohol beer. Unfortunately, the last of it was consumed at Beaulo. It will be missed.

I stayed in the IPA family and dropped two tokens on a cup of Beaver River I.P.Eh? from the cask. It was a similar colour to the Doublewide, but had a milder bouquet. There was a nice blend of fruitiness and caramel in the flavour combined with a well-balanced hoppiness. This 5.6-per cent alcohol seasonal IPA is available now in 600-millilitre bottles in select Liquor Control Board of Ontario stores and on tap at some bars and restaurants.

I wanted to end my night with something dark and went with the two-token Ryes Above Rye Porter. The bar was out of the cask version, so I went with the keg. It was quite dark, had a decent head and had a semi-sweet bouquet and chocolatey flavour that wasn't too heavy on the rye, which I was happy about. I would have appreciated a little more body to it and, while it was my least favourite of the evening, it was still pleasing.

Was it worth waiting in line for two-and-a-half hours? Probably not. But I was happy with what I tasted and Beau's now has a convert who's eagerly awaiting the release of its 5.9-per cent alcohol Patio Saison in the next week or two. I always appreciate a good saison.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Wedding Present end Canadian Music Fest on a high

Sunday is generally a relatively quiet night during Canadian Music Fest, with only a small fraction of the participating venues featuring acts, and the best choice of them all seemed to be the Horseshoe Tavern.

I arrived in time to hear one song by Pinky Piglets, and that was enough. But the singer walked up to me after her performance and said "Thank you," so the female Japanese quartet gets points for politeness -- and for being the shortest band in the festival.
The Jet Age

The Jet Age was a late addition to the bill, and I confess to not knowing anything about the Washington, D.C. trio. One song had cowbell and of course my immediate response upon hearing it was: "More cowbell." Singer/guitarist Eric Tischler is a skilled player, and certain members of the audience seemed to appreciate the indie rock band, but no songs grabbed me during the 35-minute set.

The Wedding Present is a veteran Leeds, England outfit wherein singer/guitarist David Gedge has been the only constant. It's a band that I've always felt that I should like more than I do, but I've only seen it once before years ago, so I thought I should give it another shot.
The Wedding Present

The set opened with "Back a Bit … Stop" from the group's new Valentina album, and then went back 25 years for "My Favourite Dress." Gedge has always been recognized for strumming very fast chords and being a bit of a wordsmith, and that was further illustrated through a performance of "Quick, Before It Melts" from Cinerama, the band Gedge led while The Wedding Present was on hiatus from 1998 to 2003.

I'd estimate a crowd of about 300 in attendance, and the bar remained virtually empty during The Wedding Present's performance, so obviously there were dedicated followers on hand and not just folks out to extend their weekend with several Sunday night drinks. The first part of the set ended about 30 minutes in with "Perfect Blue," and then came the section which was the main draw for many people.

Seamonsters came out in 1991 and was The Wedding Present's third album -- and the first full-length recorded for the group by Steve Albini (Nirvana, Pixies). Many feel it remains the band's best album, though some might lobby for 1989's Bizarro or 1987's George Best, which was named after the legendary Northern Irish soccer player who I became friends with that year when he used to buy me drinks almost every night as a regular at the London, England pub I bartended at that summer.

But this portion of the show was all about performing Seamonsters in its entirety, and the 10 one-word-titled songs really showed Gedge and his latest bandmates at their post-punk best. "Rotterdam," "Lovenest," "Corduroy" and "Heather" stood out as my favourites, though there weren't really any weak ones in the bunch.

The Wedding Present doesn't do encores, so at the conclusion of Seamonsters Gedge announced that the band would perform two more songs to end the night before leaving the stage for a final time. The first number was "Kansas" and closer "Don't Talk, Just Kiss" got people dancing and wanting more just before it was time to head out the door.

I thought that Canadian Music Fest would be a bit of a downer after spending the previous week in Austin, Texas for the South By Southwest Music Festival, but there were enough good acts and performances to keep me  entertained over five straight nights.

I've decided to pass on JunoFest later this week in Ottawa, however, since I'm a bit festivalled out at this point.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Three great bands made me happy on CMF's Saturday

Saturday's Canadian Music Fest began for me when I arrived at the El Mocambo for the Aussie BBQ at 4 p.m., which gave me just enough time to eat a free sausage on white bread with barbecue sauce and caramelized onions before Oh Mercy began playing a few minutes later.
Oh Mercy

The first song reminded me of a cross between Wilco and Velvet Underground, and the band didn't top it during the rest of its 25-minute set. The lead singer is a lefty who plays a right-handed guitar upside down and has a good vocal range, and the rest of the band plays guitar-driven but rhythmic indie rock. It was okay.

I went upstairs to hear a couple of songs from Melbourne duo Big Scary, but it didn't do much for me either so I returned downstairs for DZ Deathrays. The Melbourne guitar and drums duo was noisy and not particularly entertaining, so I left.

The Screwed was playing three sets of classic punk rock covers at Graffiti's, but unfortunately the band was taking a break when I dropped in, so I carried on to the Music Nova Scotia party at The Rivoli.

I talked to some people who I probably haven't spoken to since this party last year and had two bowls of delicious chowder and some sauteed scallops before singer/songwriter Mo Kenney began her solo acoustic set. Joel Plaskett is producing her upcoming record and she has talents as both a singer and a whistler, but I preferred her final number -- a cover of David Bowie's "Five Years" -- over her originals.

Ben Caplan, a bushy bearded artist with a deep voice and delivery that was occasionally reminiscent of Tom Waits, delivered a solo acoustic performance and engaging between-song banter. I most enjoyed his final song, "Stranger," which had an eastern European folk element.

I'd never heard of Ria Mae, but she played a hollow body electric guitar and had another woman named Margot singing back-up and showed me a lot of talent. She writes depressing songs, but displayed a good sense of humour and humility between them and after her set when I spoke to her at the bar.

Jon Janes is The Mountains & The Trees, and the Newfoundland native who now lives in Nova Scotia sang and played electric guitar -- most impressively when he used a bow on his final song.
Mike O'Neill

Former Inbreds member Mike O'Neill took the stage on his own with an electric guitar at 8 p.m. and played a longer set, which included my favourite Inbreds song, "Any Sense of Time." He also performed material from his new solo album, Wild Lines, including "Don't Forget To Breathe," and older songs like "Camera Shy." He also performed "Andy," which Neko Case covered on her 2001 Canadian Amp EP. O'Neill writes good songs.

Ron Sexsmith, Damhnait Doyle, The Pursuit of Happiness' Moe Berg and Sloan's Chris Murphy and Patrick Pentland were among the non-performing performers at the party over the almost four hours that I was there. Murphy was standing behind me during O'Neill's set and, when he saw me taking notes, he suggested including "Lose the moustache" in my review.
Chains of Love

It was time to head a wee bit west from The Rivoli for the Horseshoe and the band I was most looking forward to: Chains of Love. The Vancouver sextet is fronted by Nathalia Pizzaro and singer/guitarist Rebecca Marie Law Gray, and they both downed a shot before beginning their impressive set. If you took a Phil Spector-produced '60s girl group and a band from the Nuggets compilations of garage rock from that era and then added a dose of soul, you'd get Chains of Love. But you don't have to, since Chains of Love already and thankfully exists. In addition to loving their music, Pizzaro and Law Gray seem like the kind of women that would be fun to party with, so I hope they return to Toronto soon.
Katalina Kicks

I'd never been to Underground Garage before, and was surprised to find that I had to go up stairs to get there. England's Katalina Kicks was supposed to start at 9:45 p.m., so I thought I'd catch its last few songs, but things were delayed until 10:10, which allowed me to order a Strongbow for myself and a friend who asked to remain nameless but had previously seen the band in its homeland and liked it.

The trio is equally influenced by '60s rock by The Who and The Kinks, '70s punk and 21st century alternative rock. It also has a Strummerville connection, which further piqued my interest. I liked it, but it seems to be missing something that would take it to the next level.

The rain and wind had let up a bit so I decided to take a bit of a hike to C'est What, where I figured I could find a seat, enjoy a few pints of craft beer (which I hadn't had all festival, unless you count the Blanche de Chambly at The Hideout on Friday night) and hear some good music.
French Wives

I'd seen the last two songs of Scottish band French Wives at the Easy Tiger Patio in Austin, Texas during last week's South By Southwest Music Festival, and liked them enough to see a full set. I wasn't disappointed. The single "Numbers" ranks among the best songs I've heard this year, with Siobhan Anderson's violin adding an element of class to the indie pop number and singer/guitarist Stuart Dougan's understandable lyric delivery which belies his Glaswegian roots. It went down well with a Granite Hopping Mad from the cask.

The excellent set also included "Halloween," which was a hit in the group's homeland three years ago, "Sleep Tight," and the closing number, "Younger."  There's an epic quality to the music, but it stays away from the pretension that can creep into the repertoire of lesser acts who aspire to have that word used in concert with its work. French Wives' debut album, Dream of the In Between, is scheduled to be released in May.

I ordered a cask-conditioned 8.5-per-cent alcohol Wellington Imperial Stout, and I enjoyed the nutty chocolate flavour and the punch it packed as I sat down at a table in front of the stage while Nash set up.

I wrote the bio for Nash and his debut solo album, The Death of Reason, last year. But I'd only spoken to the multi-talented artist via phone and email and had never seen him perform, so I introduced myself before the set. Nash has a colourful history and he sang, played bass, guitar, keyboards, programming, omnichord and glockenspiel -— pretty much everything but drums —- on The Death of Reason, which he also recorded, engineered and produced. He played both guitar and keyboards for this performance and the backing by another keyboardist and guitarist, along with bass and drums, added a more muscular quality to the pop music that wasn't as evident on the record.

I appreciated the rawness of "Broken Down Satellites," "Sad Robot Harmonies" was excellent, a trumpet came out for "In a State of Mind" and the set ended with "Suit Up." I'm always pleased when people I work with and like turn out to be even better than I originally expected when I entered the relationship, and Nash certainly proved himself with this performance.

I headed back out into the elements and ducked my head into the Horseshoe to say hello to a few friends before moving on for The Stanfields' 2 a.m. set at The Hideout. I've become a big fan of this Halifax Celtic rock group over the past few years and was happy to see that the place was packed and people were dancing in front of the stage. Band manager Ian McKinnon, who I'd spoken to at the Music Nova Scotia party earlier in the evening, was also pleased by the raucous performance and the rabid response.

The Stanfields have started recording a new album that I'm looking forward to. But in the meantime, I recommend you see the band and listen to its Vanguard of the Young and Reckless debut album.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Canadian Music Fest Friday: Good but not great

I'd liked St. Catharines, Ont. street punk band The Lucky Ones when it opened for Stiff Little Fingers at Lee's Palace last August, so I was looking forward to seeing the quartet on Friday night at the recently renovated Bovine Sex Club.
The Lucky Ones

There weren't a lot of people in the club when The Lucky Ones kicked off the 9 p.m. slot with "No Fear, More Beer," the opening track from the recently released The Booze Sessions. There seemed to be a slightly harder edge to the band than what I recalled, but that could just be my faulty memory. "Ten Pints Goodlookin', "Punks R Drunk" and "Raise A Glass" give you a good idea of what many of the songs are about. I was hoping for more, but I'd give The Lucky Ones another shot.

I was cutting through Kensington Market when I heard a band playing Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up." As I walked toward the open door of the small venue, a street person charged past me and went inside, grabbed a tambourine and started what I guess she considered dancing. "I'll go get the water," she exclaimed repeatedly as management escorted her outside after the song and I continued on my way.

I arrived at the El Mocambo early for Apache Relay's 10:30 p.m. set and was very pleasantly surprised that D.A. Foods was serving free mini pulled pork sandwiches and hamburgers. That eliminated the need to buy dinner.

I didn't know much about Apache Relay, but had received a couple of recommendations, so I found myself near the stage as the Nashville, Tenn. sextet walked on to it. The group plays loud indie rock, but with mandolin and fiddle added into the mix. Lots of movement and energy permeated through visceral numbers like "State Trooper," "Set Me Free" and "Watering Hole." I didn't dislike it, but I wasn't knocked out, so I left mid-set for the Silver Dollar.
Last Year's Men

Promoter Dan Burke's latest garage rock find is Last Year's Men, a young quartet from Chapel Hill, N.C. that's doing a three-night residency at the Silver Dollar during Canadian Music Fest. I got a Black Lips vibe from "Paralyzed" and the other songs in the short set, including the more '60s-influenced "Spilled." Singer/guitarist Ben Carr kept breaking strings and, during one break in the action, bassist Montgomery recited a list of things he's thankful for, which included "Molson M, tobacco, Tim Horton's and Dairy Queen."

Carr jumped into the crowd and did a headstand to end the abbreviated set, which I enjoyed but expected more from. But a friend who saw the band on Thursday night said it was better then and that I should think about giving it another chance, so there's a possibility I'll be back at the Silver Dollar tonight to do just that.

I just caught one song from Chains of Love back at the El Mocambo, but heard enough that I liked that I'll try to see the band at the Horseshoe tonight.
Johnny Dowd

Johnny Dowd was rocking his Stratocaster and spinning his gothic yarns along with a drummer and keyboardist when I entered Comfort Zone. It's been a few years since I've seen the soon-to-be 64-year-old, but he seemed to be exhibiting more energy than I remember from the past. He's aging gracefully and craggily, just as he should. The surprisingly young and appreciative crowd picked up on it, and some were even dancing.

Dowd's blend of and experimental bluesy rock is hard to pigeonhole, but he's received comparisons to Tom Waits and Nick Cave. He was using a music stand to read the lyrics, which came in handy on "Hot Pants" and the disturbing "Betty" from his forthcoming No Regrets album that includes 13 songs that all bear the names of women.

Comfort Zone rivals Mod Club and Revival for worst beer selection of any music club in Toronto. I was reduced to ordering a Molson M, perhaps because of Montgomery being thankful for it less than an hour earlier and the fact that the other choices weren't any more appealing.
Thee Attacks

I headed back down to Queen Street for Danish band Thee Attacks, who I missed out on seeing in Austin, Texas last week but heard rave reviews of. The quartet played an 11-song set of straight-ahead rock-and-roll for its first Canadian performance that was largely comprised of material from its debut album with a few new ones from the impending follow-up.

Frontman Jimmy Attack wore tight leather pants and stalked the stage when he wasn't playing guitar. He stood and sat on monitors, pulled down a film screen to briefly hide the band from view and got down into the audience. He knows all the microphone and tambourine tricks and is a pure entertainer who I'm sure has no problem getting laid after shows, while guitarist Terry Attack actually does attack his instrument with abandon like Pete Townshend 45 years ago. He's good enough that Jimmy doesn't need to play rhythm, as the group loses a bit of momentum when he's not prowling around unencumbered.

Thee Attacks' songs aren't as consistently good as the showmanship, but there's a lot of potential with this young band, which recorded its debut album with producer Liam Watson (The White Stripes' Elephant). And I usually like bands that put Thee instead of The in front of their names despite the pretension of it.

I saw people in wheelchairs who appeared to have long-term disabilities at three different clubs, and it was great to see them out enjoying themselves.

I thought I'd drop by the Horseshoe to see who was hanging out and, when I arrived, was told that Dan Mangan was the surprise 2 a.m. guest. As much as I think he's one of the nicest guys around and I wish him all the success in the world, I elected not to fight through the large crowd and was content to stand at the back of the bar talking to friends while he played before moving to the front bar for one more pint before calling it a night.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Shotgun + Samson = success at CMF

Sackville, N.B. indie rock band Shotgun & Jaybird never did a lot for me, so I paid little attention to Jim "Shotgun Jimmie" Kilpatrick's solo albums until Transistor Sister made the Polaris Music Prize long list last year. I had a listen, really liked the record and, since nothing from my first ballot made the long list, I placed it first on my second Polaris ballot.

Joel Plaskett, who opened Canadian Music Fest with an electrifying performance way up in the CN Tower on Wednesday evening, told me last summer that Transistor Sister was one of his favourite records of 2011. And now Shotgun Jimmie is both opening for Weakerthans main man John K. Samson and playing guitar in his band on Samson's tour in support of his Provincial solo album.
Shotgun Jimmie

I can see why Plaskett and Samson are Shotgun Jimmie fans, as he's a fellow clever wordsmith and an eclectic artist with a knack for catchy pop/rock melodies. That was fully on display Thursday night at The Great Hall when Shotgun Jimmie played a 14-song, 40-minute solo set on electric guitar with occasional foot pedal percussion.

He's not the greatest guitarist, by any means, but his songs and friendly demeanour make me overlook that. And it obviously had no impact on the three young hosers standing at the base of the stage wearing homemade Shotgun Jimmie T-shirts.

I liked almost every number, but I'd call "Late Last Year," the new "Standing In A Line," "Too Many Flowers," "Stereo and the Stove" and "Bar's Closed" my favourites.

I stepped out for a bite to eat and missed the 10 p.m. band, but returned in time to listen to some fine tunes -- led by the Buzzcocks' "What Do I Get?" -- while Samson and company set up before starting in earnest at 11 p.m. when the set began the same way as Provincial does: with "Highway 1 East." Samson then switched from acoustic to electric guitar on another song about Winnipeg, "Cruise Night."
John K. Samson

That was followed by the excellent "When I Write My Master's Thesis" and the slow and sombre "Letter in Icelandic from the Ninette San" before we got our first Weakerthans song of the night, a solo version of "One Great City." Shotgun Jimmie and the bassist returned for the mellow "Bigfoot" and then Samson asked everyone to raise a toast to his favourite deceased goalie before reciting "Elegy for Gump Worsley."

An acoustic "Pamphleteer" was more than solid and Samson reached back to his youthful hockey memories again as the band returned for "," the site of an online petition Samson is championing to get former Philadelphia Flyers sniper inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. About 1,350 people have signed since Samson got the ball rolling on June 19, 2010.

"Longitudinal Centre" rocked out as did a cover of Jawbreaker's "The Boat Dreams From The Hill." Things quieted down on the moving "The Last And," but that didn't last for long once "Highway 1 West" was cranked out. "Stop Error" provided a quiet conclusion to the set, but the obligatory encore brought three more songs.

Samson returned to the stage and asked the crowd for requests before playing The Weakerthans' "My Favourite Chords" and reaching further into his past with Propagandhi's "Gifts." Samson's bandmates departed again and he was left alone in the centre of the stage with his acoustic guitar as the audience hushed except for those who gently sang along to another Weakerthans song, Reunion Tour's "Virtute The Cat Explains Her Departure."

Just like the previous night when I'd seen two artists who left me satisfied enough to go home without hitting more clubs, I was pleased with how this evening unfolded and was home at a civilized 12:30 a.m.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Joel Plaskett and Michael Rault get Canadian Music Fest off to a flying start

There wasn't a lot of quantity in what I took in on the opening night of Canadian Music Fest, but there was a metric tonne of quality.

Joel Plaskett Emergency played the opening night party in the Horizons Lounge in the CN Tower, 346 metres above the ground, and his 10-song set took us even higher. Plaskett's Scrappy Happiness comes out March 27, so he showcased a few tunes from it along with some should-have-been hits from his catalogue along with drummer Dave Marsh and bassist Chris Pennell.

Plaskett jumped right into the new material with "You're Mine," which name-checks and praises Husker Du, and followed it with one of the top tracks from 2009's Three, "Deny, Deny, Deny." Another new one, "North Star," showed that Plaskett hasn't lost his knack for literate and eminently listenable songs with clever phrases.

Plaskett returned to 2007's Ashtray Rock and "Snowed In," and the irony didn't escape the artist considering the record-breaking high March temperatures Toronto has experienced this week. "Nothing More To Say" from the same album continued the roll the band was on before Frost and Pennell took a break while Plaskett played new song "Harbour Boys" solo on 12-string acoustic guitar.

The rhythm section returned for Scrappy Happiness opener "Lightning Bolt," which featured some fuzzed-out guitar and Plaskett getting more animated than I've seen him for quite a while. That manic energy continued through "Work Out Fine" and what was supposed to be his final number, "Nowhere With You." That one got the primarily music industry member crowd so riled up, however, that it demanded an encore. Plaskett didn't disappoint and delivered a killer "Come On Teacher," which earned a well-earned rousing round of claps and hollers as the group left the stage.

I look forward to seeing Plaskett again when he returns to Toronto for two nights in May as part of his cross-country tour with Frank Turner. That's a double bill you won't want to miss if it rolls through your city.

I returned home to drop off my car and take care of a few things before venturing a few blocks west to the basement of The Great Hall for a 9:30 set by Michael Rault, an Edmontonian who now lives in Toronto but doesn't perform locally as much as I'd like him to.
Michael Rault

Rault's Ma-Me-O debut album came out of nowhere to finish at #7 on my favourite albums of 2010 list, but I'd never seen him until tonight. The album is full of great hooks, '60s-influenced pop and garage rock that's uncomplicated but engrossing. I'm happy to report that the singer/guitarist's performance -- augmented by a rhythm section and a female tambourine player and backing singer who was largely inaudible -- bears those same qualities.

Like Ma-Me-O, the set opened with "Let Me Go Out" and "The Things You Said," which drew some impressive dancefloor action. Other favourites from the album included "Call Me On The Phone," "You Can Leave If You Want To" and "She'll Cut You Down." Also like Ma-Me-0, the 30-minute set left me wanting to hear more.

Hopefully Rault's association with the Pirates Blend label and management team and the Paquin Entertainment booking agency can raise his profile because I'm convinced that others will fall for his charms just like I have.

It was just 10 p.m. and there was lots of music left to be heard, but I'm still recovering from a hectic South By Southwest Music Festival and just returned home from Texas on Tuesday evening and immediately returned to the 9 to 5 world. I also knew that it wouldn't be possible to hear anything better than Plaskett and Rault, so I called it a night and went home to catch up on a few things that had been neglected during my 10 days in Texas.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

SXSW day six: It starts with softball and ends with star power

It's been my custom to play shortstop for the Mixed Media Mongrels in the SXSW Softball Tournament under coach Stephen Easley since 2004. I had to miss SXSW last year, so it was good to catch up with the friends I've made on the team, and we've had some good runs in past years.

This wasn't one of them, however. We were okay defensively, but couldn't get the bats going. I batted first and hit two singles before flying out to right field in the last inning, but never made it past second base. It was a single loss elimination tournament, and we went down 8-3. But troubles were drowned with a can of free beer and lots of free food, including cole slaw, potato salad, beans, sausage, chicken, chipped beef, ribs and brisket.

I got back to the condo, washed up and changed, grabbed a tin of Guinness for the walk and made my way to the Continental Club to meet Craig Laskey, who had gone earlier and picked me up a $20 ticket for a very special edition of Alejandro Escovedo's annual Sunday concert with a number of his friends. It's not an official SXSW event, but it's a tradition that I finally took part in for the first time.

Things got underway at 1:30 p.m. with sets by Frank Mustard Project, Krayolas, Triple Cobra, Kris Gruen and The Bombettes before I arrived just before 5 p.m. The adrenaline from earlier in the day had disappeared, and Craig and I commandeered two bar stools behind the club where we could still hear things but could rest our weary bones for a while since we had a long night ahead of us. But Maren Parusen and John Velghe sounded okay from a distance.

We moved inside and propped ourselves against the bar for Miss Melvis, and then I started paying more attention once Jesse Malin hit the stage at 7 p.m. The performance was highlighted by "San Francisco," "Burning The Bowery," "Black Haired Girl" (which has similarities to Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl") and "Revelations." He ended with a cover of The Clash's "Death Or Glory" that was nowhere near as good as the original, but an excellent choice nevertheless.

The male/female guitar and drums duo The Ghost Wolves was up next and the first song was an alternative blues number that I didn't mind, but the woman's high-pitched voice quickly got on my nerves and the end of the set didn't come soon enough for almost everyone in the rapidly filling club.

Garland Jeffreys played one of my favourite sets of the week when I saw him earlier in the week, and the repertoire was pretty similar in this one with the same sharp Austin musicians, but it lacked a bit of vibrancy. But he's almost 25 years older than me, so I can understand why, considering I was feeling pretty wiped out. But he walked up and introduced himself before his set, and we had a brief conversation after it, and was pleased he was so nice since I've always respected him and his music.
Tommy Stinson

Former Replacements and current Guns N' Roses bassist Tommy Stinson (who's also had shorter runs with Bash and Pop, Perfect and as a solo artist) was up next and opened with new solo album title track "One Man Mutiny" with just him on acoustic guitar accompanied by a slide player. They were then joined by a guitarist, bassist, drummer and Stinson's wife, who looked much better than she sang.

"Zero to Stupid" featured impressive lap steel and was followed by "Match Made in Hell." Stinson switched to bass partway through the set for more rocking tunes. It was good, but I'd still to prefer to see him with The Replacements one more time.
Mike Barfield

I'd never heard of Barfield, The Tyrant of Texas Funk, so took a brief respite on a padded bench by the mercy table, but went out to our perch beside the stage once I realized how good the group sounded. Mike Barfield is an entertaining frontman and his bandmates were all fine players. These guys combine to make a great party band, but I doubt they'll ever venture up to Canada.

Kid Congo Powers -- who cut his teeth as a guitarist with The Gun Club, The Cramps and Nick Cave's Bad Seeds before fronting The Pink Monkey Birds -- played a completely entertaining set that showcased his guitar skills and quirky lyrics. The frontman was justifiably smiling throughout songs including "I Found A Peanut," "Rare As The Yeti," "Golden Brown" (which he stressed wasn't The Stranglers number of the same name), "Black Santa," "Bubble Trouble" "LSDC" and covers of The Cramps' "I'm Cramped" and The Gun Club's "For The Love of Ivy." The club was packed with about 200 people, but some still managed to dance despite the tight quarters.
Kid Congo Powers

The main attraction, Escovedo and lots of guest stars, took the stage at 12:30 a.m. You can read about that amazing set in my Spinner review.

Money spent on food during six days and nights of SXSW: $8.

SXSW day five: old and new acts make for a great night

I had work to do through the morning and early afternoon, but planned on heading to the South Congress and South First area of Austin for some bands I'd already seen this week but would be happy to enjoy again -- as well as Glossary, who I've seen in years past, and Howler.

But I ran into The Agency Group's Adam Countryman outside his company's party at Lambert's and figured I could drop in for some lunch and a drink before being on my way. Ironically, for an event hosted by a booking agency, no bands played at it. But I dined amply, deliciously and freely on cole slaw, potato salad, devilled eggs, boar ribs and barbecued brisket and chicken. There were also margaritas, mojitos and other cocktails I'd never tried before and, since there were nice people to talk to at the party, I elected to stick around and enjoy most of them.

The back-up plan, once 4 p.m. rolled around, was to return to my favourite hangout of this SXSW: The Ginger Man. The Wedding Present was playing at 4 p.m., Tommy Stinson was at 5 p.m. and John Doe was on at 6 p.m. That sounded like a good way to spend three hours. But unfortunately, a lot of other people thought so too -- which was compounded by The Ginger Man having one of the best beer selections in the city and it being St. Patrick's Day. My SXSW badge didn't give me priority access and, since I'd also seen those three acts before and hate waiting in lines, I returned to my condo to get some more work done and have a few beers on my own.
The Standells

I try to avoid Sixth Street as much as possible on the Saturday of SXSW, especially when it's St. Patrick's Day, but I took a chance on fighting through the drunken masses to go to Buffalo Billiards to see some '60s garage rock heroes, The Standells. It was a group I'd always thought was from Boston, until I got to Austin, because its biggest hit was about Beantown's Charles River.

I've heard The Baseball Project cover The Standells' "Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White," but it was great to hear the original. The band also played some new material that wasn't exceptional, a fast cover of "Hey Joe" and another old gem in "Try It," which was banned from some radio stations for what were deemed to be obscene lyrics but which seem pretty tame by today's standards. The moment I'd been waiting for was saved until the end and while it didn't sound nearly as menacing as it did 46 years ago, "Dirty Water" had me exiting the club on a high note -- and just in time to see R.E.M.'s Peter Buck walking down the street.
Sugar & The Hi-Lows

I've discovered Sugar & The Hi-Lows over the past month and wanted to see if I'd like the group live as much as on record. Being given a ticket for a free drink on the way in didn't hurt those chances. The guitarist, bassist and drummer were attired in suits and Sugar lived up to her name. The Nashville band deserved a bigger audience and "See It For Yourself" deserves to be a hit. The quartet bridges '60s and 21st century pop, rock and soul sounds, and sucked me in further with "Stubborn Lover," the soulful "I've Got You Covered," "Show and Tell," "This Can't Be The Last Time" and an extended "I Think I Said Too Much." While the group's "Proud Mary" cover didn't live up to Ike and Tina Turner or Creedence Clearwater Revival standards, I like that the band tackled it.

Squarehead, a Dublin indie pop/rock guitar, bass and drums trio with a roots edge, displayed both lots of energy and some songwriting chops at Friends. And I guess that it was appropriate that I see an Irish band on St. Patrick's Day. The bassist jumped into the decently sized crowd during the last song to add a bit more excitement to what was already a set that surpassed my expectations.

I'd run into my friend Lauree at Friends and since we had a good vantage point at the front of the stage and both had Belfast's Cashier No. 9 near the top of our 11 p.m. to-see lists, I bought us a couple of more beers and stuck around. The sextet plays songs that you'd like to sing along to, but we didn't know them well enough. That should change. This was another strong discovery.

The midnight hour rolled around and it was time to go back to more familiar territory with Peter Case and Paul Collins backed by a rhythm section at Easy Tiger Patio. These guys go way back to the '70s with power pop kings The Nerves and then formed The Breakaways, but their material was never released until a 2009 compilation that I now feel I need to have after hearing some of the songs at this gig. Case was also in The Plimsouls and has had an underrated solo career, while Collins fronted The Beat and has released solo records, and their set offered an overview of their careers.

I was too busy bopping to take comprehensive notes, but "Don't Wait Up For Me Tonight," "I Don't Fit In" and "Great Big World" were just a few of the highlights. Collins said they would have been happy to play for two hours, but were limited by the festival's 40-minute set format. Two hours would have been great, but what I heard was pure power pop bliss and it would have been a great way to end SXSW on a total high.

But it was only 1 a.m. and not time to go home yet, so instead of taking a chance on something I may not like I joined my friends at Red Eyed Fly for a few more drinks and a set by JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound, who I'd already enjoyed on Friday afternoon and liked at least as much tonight.

We returned to our condo for our nightly beers until 4:30 a.m. routine, but this time we brought friends (including the Waco Brothers) so things might have gone a bit later -- but it remained civilized and no-one got hurt.

Money spent on food during five days and nights of SXSW: $8.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

SXSW day four: Chuck Prophet, Wacos, Big Star and more

After a morning and early afternoon of work, music began for me at 2 p.m. with Chuck Prophet at The Ginger Man -- of course that was after a naked guy rode past me on a bike during my two-block walk to the club.
Chuck Prophet and Peter Buck

I've loved Prophet's last two albums, 2009's Let Freedom Ring! and this year's Temple Beautiful, and the former Green On Red member was high on my 2012 South By Southwest Music Festival priority list. He didn't disappoint in a set that included "Castro Halloween," "Left Hand and the Right Hand," an extended "Willie Mays Is Up To Bat," "Doubter Of Jesus (All Over You)," "White Night Big City" and "Little Girl Little Boy."

I'd seen R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck standing at the side of the stage and wasn't surprised when he came on to join in on "You Did / Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp" to end the set. It became an exhibition of guitar prowess with Prophet, Buck and band member James Deprato, and Prophet briefly bowed before Buck. Prophet received a deserving standing ovation, and any discerning adult who enjoys rock and roll and storytelling should definitely investigate this man.

I wanted to stick around for The dB's, and figured that Buck would also play with them, but I had obligations on South Congress and walked 25 minutes south to the Yard Dog Gallery to see Lydia Loveless. Last year's Indestuctible Machine was one of my 15 favourite albums of that period, and  although I spent the time wisely chatting with Bloodshot Records publicist Josh Zanger, I would have liked to have heard more and am hoping the young artist makes it to Toronto soon.
J. Roddy Walston

I walked a few blocks north to Jo's Coffee for J. Roddy Walston and The Business and arrived just in time to hear the rocking "Don't Break The Needle." Walston was sitting behind a piano at the front of the stage with his band members surrounding him and his cover of Little Richard's "Lucille" outrocked the original. A new song called "Marigold" has me looking forward to a new album, while '70s rock throwback "I Don't Want To Hear It" reinforced why I went to this showcase in the first place. This is throwback rock and roll with soul that wins more than Charlie Sheen.

I returned to the Yard Dog to add some notes to my Waco Brothers article for Spinner, but first saw JC Brooks and The Uptown Sound. He's one of the young entries in the soul revival and looks like he could be around for a while as he reinvigorates the genre along with more seasoned artists like Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley and Lee Fields. I would have appreciated some  horns, but the band was rock solid even without them, and his soulful cover or Wilco's "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" elevated his coolness to another level.
The Waco Brothers

The Waco Brothers pulled off another terrific show that included "Fox River," "Walking On Hell's Roof Looking At The Flowers," "Too Sweet To Die" and "Red Brick Wall" before singer/songwriter Paul Burch came on stage to play songs from the group's forthcoming The Great Chicago Fire album.

"It combines the brute sexuality of the Waco Brothers with the songwriting virtuosity of Paul Burch," said the irascible Langford. The lovely Tawny Newsome, who Langford introduced himself to during the title track even though she's a member of his Skull Orchard band, also came on stage to sing harmonies with violinist Jean Cook.

The Tex-Mex "Monterey" was next, but Langford paid tribute to the Canadians in the crowd instead of any residents of the California city who may have been in attendance. Perhaps that had something to do with us getting him drinks and having Diana Aubrecht as his songwriting muse. Other songs from the excellent new album included "Wrong Side of Love" and "Cannonball" before a return to the Wacos' "Plenty Tough Union Made" and covers of The Small Faces' "All Or Nothing" and Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" and a by-demand encore cover of T. Rex's "20th Century Boy."

I made my back up north to see Posies and modern Big Star member Ken Stringfellow (and Indigo Girl Amy Ray, who came up for a duet) at The Ginger Man for a bit before I had to return to the condo for a few hours to get some work done.

I hit Frank at 10:15 to see The Love Language, who were harder-edged than I expected. I enjoyed it, but prefer the recorded versions of their songs over their live ones and look forward to a new album in July.

I ducked into the Cedar Street Courtyard for two songs from The Scoundrels, a British roots hybrid band that sounds like it could have been from Louisiana. "Sexy Weekend" was great and I want to hear an EP that's coming out on April 24.
Ken Stringfellow and Peter Buck

I returned to The Ginger Man for a Big Star tribute led by Stringfellow, fellow Posies member Jon Auer, Big Star drummer Jody Stephens and a number of guests that extended things well past the normal 35-minute showcase duration. Blitzen Trapper's Eric Earley was the first guest for "Feel," and then Buck and Latebirds guitarist Markus Nordenstreng came up for a totally rousing "In The Street."

Stringfellow and Auer shared vocals on "Back Of A Car" and Nordenstreng returned for "When My Baby's Beside Me." Two members of Cotton Mather did "The Ballad of El Goodo" and then X's John Doe moved from standing behind me with a beer to the stage to sing "I'm In Love With A Girl." The dB's' Peter Holsapple was supposed to come up for "Way Out West" but couldn't be found, but Stephens singing the song was enough magic to replace the disappointment of not seeing him.

Members of Star & Micey, a group I want to see, came up for "Thirteen" and then a female singer who I didn't recognize killed on a cover of Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale." Auer took lead on "Don't Lie To Me" with Doe on harmonies before Buck and others came on stage for an amazing "September Gurls" to end the 75-minute set.

That left enough time to go around the corner to Frank and the Merge Records showcase to see the label's latest signing, Bob Mould. I've seen him a number of times in various incarnations with Husker Du, Sugar and on his own over the past 25 years, and this didn't rank among the best of them, but an encore of "If I Can't Change Your Mind" left me very happy.

Money spent on food during first four days and nights of SXSW: $8.

My morning work obligations, 1 p.m. interview with The Cult's Ian Astbury and my eagerness to get to the Yard Dog made me miss my early afternoon free food parties and realize that I hadn't yet eaten by 10 p.m., so I stopped at one of the dozens of delicious food trucks that have taken Austin by storm. I feel so guilty and ashamed.

Friday, March 16, 2012

SXSW day three: Garland Jeffreys hasn't lost a thing

My Thursday began at the Austin Convention Center with a keynote address by Bruce Springsteen (you can read my coverage on Spinner for more details), filing my article and two free lunches: fish and chips at Latitude 30's East of England party; and steak, beef, pasta and salad with the Germans at Parkside Restaurant.
Archie Powell & The Exports

Music began at 3:15 p.m. with Archie Powell & The Exports, which has become one of my favourite bands over the course of 2010's Skip Work and Great Ideas In Action, which will be available to the rest of you on May 1. The four members were cramped on the small stage at 512, but Powell still managed to jump around. The room isn't conducive to a loud band, but the quartet's crunchy and delicious pop hooks still shone through.

Joe Pug was playing his final two songs, accompanied by an electric guitarist and upright bassist, when I arrived at the Ginger Man back patio. I'm not familiar with the singer/songwriter, but was told by friends that it was an enjoyable set.
Jon Langford and Skull Orchard

Sunshine and cold beer were a fine accompaniment to Jon Langford (who curated the day's entertainment at Ginger Man) and Skull Orchard. Jean Cook's violin was a welcomed accompaniment and Tawny Newsome made a fine vocal and visual foil to Langford. The set was highlighted early by "Strange Ways to Win Wars" before the twin guitar attack was unleashed on "Tubby Brothers." "Pill Sailor," "I Am The Law" and an extended "Sentimental Marching Song" showcased Langford's songwriting mastery, but I've heard those songs numerous times and was really looking forward to a man I've been waiting to see for 30 years.
Garland Jeffreys

Garland Jeffreys didn't disappoint and started his 5:20 p.m. set on a huge high note with "I'm Alive." The 68-year-old hasn't been particularly prolific on the recording front this century, but "Coney Island Winter" from last year's The King of In Between showed he still has what it takes. He followed it with "35 Millimeter Dreams" and climbed on a table to sing part of it. Another new song, "The Contortionist," was also strong and his band members had the material down solidly.

"Modern Lovers" was followed by another new one titled "Til John Lee Hooker Calls Me" that featured Jeffreys singing down on one knee and then on his back. That set the tone for perhaps his biggest song, "Wild In The Streets," which had many in the audience singing along.

That was cranked up considerably with his brilliant cover of ? and The Mysterians' "96 Tears," one of the best songs ever and which I also heard on Tuesday night from Joe "King" Carrasco & The Crowns. Langford got up on stage to dance and sing along, and Jeffreys and the band effortlessly slipped in parts of Velvet Underground's "Waiting For The Man" and Rosie Flores was called up for a bit of the Ernie K. Doe hit "Mother-in-Law." It was over the top.
Los Headaches

I had to return to my condo to write up my Nardwuar interview for Spinner, but was in Flamingo Cantina by 8:25 p.m. to hear lo-fi Mexican garage rock band Los Headaches. I enjoyed it more than similar bands I saw on Wednesday night because of its rootsy edge and sense of melody, and it deserved a bigger turnout than this sparsely attended showcase received.

Viva Viva's set time was moved up by 30 minutes and was almost over at Bar 96, so I headed back up Red River Street to Valhalla to see Denver, Colo. quartet Bad Weather California. I was hit by a loud and raunchy wave of sound when I walked in, but the tempo and aggression was toned down a bit on the succeeding songs, and I preferred when the guitar-driven indie rock went in more of a pop direction.

I would have preferred to have seen Bruce Springsteen, The Jesus and Mary Chain or the Big Star tribute, but Spinner assigned me to cover its showcase at Stubb's with Girls, Kaiser Chiefs and The Temper Trap. You can read that coverage here.
Cannon Bros.

The Stubb's show ended by 1 a.m., which gave me time to make it to Maggie Mae's Gibson Room to see young Winnipeg guitar and drums duo Cannon Bros. There's a bit of a buzz growing about the group's Firecracker/Cloudglow album back in Canada and, while Cole Woods and Alannah Walker (who look similar with their horn rim glasses and flippy hairstyles) are still quite young, you can definitely hear the potential in their music. They trade off instruments and lead vocals, which is the weakest element in their less muscular than the White Stripes repertoire, but the small but enthusiastic group that gathered in front of the stage showed their heartfelt appreciation by leaping on stage to dance during the final song.

That still left time to catch the end of Austin band The Gourds set at Antone's, and I'm glad I did. I've liked and respected the group for years, but this was my first time seeing it along with an audience that seemed evenly split between locals and out-of-towners. There were also more young people in the crowd than I expected for this veteran roots band, which augments the basic guitar, bass and drums instrumentation with violin and accordion. The set featured a fitting tribute to the late Doug Sahm in "At The Crossroads," which includes the line "You just can't live in Texas if you don't have a lot of soul." The Gourds have more than enough soul to retain their residency.

Money spent on food during first three days and nights of SXSW: $0.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

SXSW day two: Most acts fall short of expectations

Much of Wednesday was spent working, so I didn't see as much music in the afternoon as I would have liked, but I made an appearance at the Canadian Blast party to see some friendly faces, eat some brisket and have a beer.
Library Voices

I also finally got to see Library Voices, a large and literate indie pop group from Regina, Sask. which released one of my 10 favourite albums of 2011: Summer of Lust. It's Denim on Denim predecessor was also excellent, so I'm not sure how I keep missing the septet when it comes through Toronto since it's been on my radar for a couple of years. The band plays pure pop music with jangly guitars, keyboards and an occasional saxophone fill, and it put on a higher energy show than I was expecting. The fine original material was complemented by a fun cover of The Box Tops' "The Letter."

Whitehorse, the husband and wife team of Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland had an interesting set-up with guitar, bass and a variety of effects, but I preferred what I heard on the self-titled debut album from last year to the two songs I heard live before I had to leave.

I returned to the rented condo I'm staying in for the week to wait for a phone call and get some things done and at 6 p.m. made my way to The Green Mesquite for the annual dinner hosted by the good folks at Collective Concerts. I caught up with a few people, enjoyed a three-meat plate with a couple of sides and a few Shiner Bocks, and was ready to start a night of music by 9 p.m.

Oklahoma's The Boom Bang was at Friends and the singer introduced the set by saying, "We're probably going to be the worst band tonight." Unfortunately he wasn't lying. The group's sloppy garage rock meets punk material made me finish my beer quickly and make it to Whiskey Room in time for the last few songs from Jerusalem and The Starbaskets. This two guitars and drums trio had a relatively deadpan vocalist and, while the wall of guitar sound didn't knock me out, it was definitely a step up from The Boom Bang.
The Pinstripes

A Cincinnati band called The Pinstripes was busking in the intersection of Sixth and San Jacinto and did a pretty good job of The Skatalites' "Guns of Navarone." A woman with a rub board randomly walked up and joined the group, which handed out download cards to people who'd stopped to watch after a couple of songs.

Taiwanese '60s pop throwback band Wonfu's set time changed at The Loft, which meant I missed it. So the back-up plan was Nashville's Turbo Fruits at the Beauty Bar Backyard. It was solid straight-ahead rock-and-roll until closer "Volcano" ended things with a sludgy stoner rock vibe.
Turbo Fruits

Thee Oh Sees and Tennis switched time slots at Red 7 Patio and, while I like Thee Oh Sees, I've seen them three times and this was reserved as a night for new discoveries. So I moved west to see the final two songs from Scotland's French Wives and quite enjoyed them. The first was pretty upbeat and catchy, but still rocked, while violin was used to good effect on the closing single, "Younger."

I returned to the Beauty Bar Backyard, which had now filled to capacity, for Bleached. I missed the group's recent Toronto show, so was happy I caught most of its set. The female-frontlined band plays melodic pop punk that's far superior to most groups that classify themselves as such these days. It ended up being my favourite performance of the night.

I shifted over a patio to Red 7 where I found a dozen friends waiting to see Lee Fields & The Expressions. Unfortunately the wait lasted 35 minutes before his well-dressed band played an instrumental before the star stepped out in a black pinstripe suit and silver shirt unbuttoned to reveal a gold chain. Fields initially made a minor name for himself as a funk artist in the '70s and then took a career hiatus before a recent revival in fortune as a younger generation has rediscovered vintage soul and funk of late through the likes of Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings and Charles Bradley. I'd rank Fields below them. The band was tight and he was able to sound relatively smooth and simultaneously raw, but it still seemed like there was a bit missing. But he had the audience on his side and got people waving their arms in the air and singing along at times.
Built To Spill

I've been trying to land a interview with Built To Spill, which hasn't been easy and cost me a few hours waiting by the phone on Wednesday afternoon -- and there's still a chance it might not happen later this week. The Idaho alt.rock band packed the IFC Crossroads House at Vice to the point where I couldn't see it after snapping a quick photo on my way in. A large arched brick wall that runs through the centre of the venue eliminated my sightline and, while the couple of songs I stayed for sounded good, I wanted to see as well as hear so I moved on.

Nick Waterhouse's set time had changed at The 512, so my back-up plan came into effect with Psychic Ills at Elysium. The group played a sometimes droning set of spacey rock for stoner hipsters that was accented by a black stage pierced by laser lights. It didn't impress me as much as I hoped for, but at least I found a padded bench where I could still see the group.

Technical problems delayed Bare Wires' start and plagued the part of their set I stayed for. But what the group lacked in execution, it made up for in energy. But the garage punk was below my expectations so I elected to make one last musical stop.
Bare Wires

Brooklyn, N.Y. indie pop band The Drums drew a large crowd to The Stage on Sixth Patio, and many of those in it were screaming women. The group comes across as a more pop-oriented Interpol or vintage British new wave act and sounded a bit too polished. My enjoyment level decreased as the set went on despite the enthusiasm of dancing frontman Jonathan Pierce and 2 a.m. meant the night was over.

Money spent on food during first two days and nights of SXSW: $0.