Sunday, August 26, 2012

Crossing Canada by train: Part 3

We passed the continental divide and entered British Columbia about 25 kilometres west of Jasper at Yellowhead Lake. We saw Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, and two black bears as we followed along the path of the North Thompson River. The train slowed to allow us a longer look at the high and beautiful Pyramid Falls. A lot of the trees surrounding the tracks, both coniferous and deciduous, are tall but don't have wide trunks.
Pyramid Falls

People talk about gaining weight on cruise ships, but I think the chances of doing so are better on the Canadian since you're fed so well and there are fewer opportunities to exercise. And the food for breakfast, lunch and dinner isn't just plentiful, it's delicious. Dinner tonight consisted of tomato florentine soup, salad, duck breast, mashed potatoes and broccoli, with chocolate torte and cheesecake for dessert.

We passed a few small towns and lumber mills and had a half-hour stop in Kamloops to refuel and change engineers at 11:30 p.m. I got up at 6:45 a.m., but missed some apparently spectacular scenery going through deep gorges, tunnels and over trestle bridges. VIA used to go through this area during daylight because it can be so breathtaking, but a company representative told me it stopped about 15 years ago because some passengers were nervous and frightened while crossing some of the bridges. It's a shame.

We followed along the Fraser River and then crossed it in Surrey via the Patella Bridge into New Westminster and then on through Coquitlam and Burnaby to Vancouver. We had the transcontinental breakfast (eggs, toast, potato pancakes, fruit and choice of ham, bacon or sausage) with coffee before we backed into Vancouver's Pacific Central Station at 9:15 a.m. -- a half-hour ahead of schedule.

A city bus ride and short walk took us to the $145 a night Quality Hotel Downtown, where we dropped off our luggage and took two city buses to expansive Stanley Park. We'd visited it in 2003, but didn't go to its aquarium, so that was today's destination. It cost $27 for adults and $21 for seniors. We started with the beluga whale show and also saw otters, harbour seals, sea lions and African penguins outside before moving to the inside exhibits. The Strait of Georgia featured giant sturgeons and other fish; B.C. Coast had wolf eels and more; Tropic Zone was highlighted by small sharks and other coral and reef creatures; and Amazon Rainforest included caiman, exotic birds and butterflies.

We returned outside for the dolphin show and our last stop was the 4D Theatre, where we were given glasses to watch a 3D film that was augmented by sensory effects, including wind, mist, scents and a poke in the back. We  walked back through the park and took the same buses on the return trip to the hotel, where my mother decided she'd had enough after grabbing a tuna submarine at Subway.

I headed to The Railway Club, one of the city's hot spots for live music and microbrews, to meet a friend. We drank pints of Tree Cutthroat Pale Ale, Driftwood Fat Tug IPA, Phillips Hop Circle IPA and Howe Sound King Heffy Imperial Hefeweizen. We eventually moved on to the Cambie Pub, where the selection wasn't nearly as good but the prices were cheap, for two pints. We went to a classier pub, which I don't remember the name of since I guess some of the high-octane brews from The Railway Club caught up with me, for nightcaps before I made my way back to the hotel.

We had enjoyed Granville Island on our previous visit and our hotel was just a short walk and mini ferry ride across False Creek, so we returned to walk around the market, shops, boutiques and park areas before settling in on the patio of the Dockside Restaurant, which offered a lovely view of False Creek and the eastern part of Vancouver. I ordered a flight of six six-ounce glasses of beer and mom got a pint of Jamaican Lager. None of the brew pub's Marina Light Lager, Johnston Street Pilsner, Railspur IPA, Cartwright Pale Ale, Old Bridge Dark Lager, Pelican Bay Brown Ale or Jamaican Lager were particularly good, but the beautiful weather and surroundings made it a nice way to spend an hour.

We caught the ferry back, grabbed our luggage at the hotel and walked eight blocks to the Yaletown Roundhouse Station to catch the Skytrain to the airport. It cost $3.75 and $2.50 for seniors and is one of the major positive spinoffs of the Vancouver Olympics.

The flight back to Toronto wasn't nearly as interesting as the train ride that got us to Vancouver, but the entire journey fulfilled my mother's dream and provided an enjoyable nine-day respite from my job.

Crossing Canada by train: Part 2

We caught the next westward bound Canadian train just before noon and passed numerous green and yellow fields and the odd small town -- including Portage La Prairie, where an old water tower is painted like the world's biggest Coke can. The picturesque Qu'Appelle River Valley made western Manitoba more visually appealing than I thought it would be.
Portage La Prairie's giant Coke can

Potash drives Saskatchewan's economy and we passed two huge mines and plants shortly after we crossed into the province. We made a 20-minute stop in Melville, and my first step down from the train there meant that I've now been in all 10 Canadian provinces (and the Yukon). There wasn't much to see, so I was happy to reboard and keep heading west past more grain elevators and a herd of bison before darkness came down and we made a 30-minute, post-dinner stop in Saskatoon at 11:30 p.m.

The train rolled into Edmonton around 7 a.m. and we stayed there for about 75 minutes, but there was nothing to do or see around the station, so we returned to the train for breakfast and continued the journey -- particularly enjoying the view as we passed Wabamun Lake, one of the most heavily used recreational lakes in Alberta.

It was July 1, and a Canada Day cake was served at 12:40 p.m. The Rockies came into view less than 30 minutes later as the tracks followed the course of the Athabasca River, but the mountains lived up to their name in what was probably the most spectacular and breathtaking section of the train ride. The snow-capped peaks confirmed that I'd made the right choice in deciding to get off the train and stay in Jasper for two days.

We arrived at 2 p.m., walked to the end of town to the Tonquin Inn to drop off our bags and then returned to browse through the numerous souvenir shops that abound in the tourist-oriented town of 4,000. After booking a wildlife bus trip for the next day, we had a casual dinner of bison burgers at Olive Bistro & Lounge.

Centennial Park was hosting Jasper's Canada Day celebrations, so I walked down to hear a nifty bluegrass combo called Fiddle River Band and make proper use of the beer garden before deciding I needed better beer and went to the Jasper Brewing Co. brew pub for a sampler tray of six of their products, the best of which were the Rockhopper India pale ale and the blueberry and vanilla-infused seasonal beer. It was nearing fireworks time, so I returned to the park to witness an impressive 10-minute display of pyrotechnics. After a nightcap at Whistle Stop, it was time to walk home.

The next morning began with a walk to the outskirts of Jasper to the Red Squirrel Trail, which went through a forest, past a small lake and then crossed a bridge over the Athabasca River to begin the Old Fort Point Loop. This trail began in a forested area and gradually began sloping upward alongside occasional patches of moss that were a brilliant green. There were gentle slopes and then a steep climb to an area that provided a great view to the north of the mountains, Lac Beauvert, the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge and its golf course. I continued on the trail through more forested areas before arriving at a clearing that provided outstanding views of the mountains to the east and south. I had the trails pretty much to myself up to this point, but there were large animal droppings along the way and an adjoining trail was closed because of recent bear sightings, so I rattled my metal cooler bottle to make creatures aware that I was in the vicinity.

I arrived at Old Fort Point, where there never was an old fort. A lot of people just climbed up here from the nearby parking lot and didn't hike the trail. It provided a good vista of Jasper and the surrounding area.

I climbed back down to ground level. It was just past noon and I was feeling energetic, so I decided to take on a longer trail that went along the east side of the Athabasca, which has a steady current flowing north. Two white-tailed deer scampered past about 15 metres from me. The trail alternated between open and forested sections until I came to a short trail that branched east to Lac Beauvert. I walked around the beautiful Jasper Park Lodge, where I'd love to stay if I return and have lots of money.

I returned to the trail along the Athabasca and, while I again spotted lots of recently deposited poop, I didn't see any animals. After reaching where Lodge and Maligne roads meet, I crossed a bridge to the west side of the Athabasca and got on the Bighorn Trail that goes above the highway and railway tracks and heads back south into Jasper. It was more open than forested and was the least interesting part of the hike. I got back into town after hiking more than 17 kilometres in five hours, picked up a ham, egg and cheese sandwich for $3.50 from the Bear Paw Bakery and returned to the Tonquin for a soak in the indoor hot tub.

My mom and I had signed up for an evening wildlife tour through Sundog Transportation and Tours, which cost $65 per person. The driver/guide of the small bus was a wildlife and nature expert who shared lots of her knowledge with us as she drove or stopped to let us observe some of the animals we spotted.

Part of the journey went along the Maligne River, which is at its highest in 20 years and has turned into rapids in many areas while flooding others, including some of the shoreline around beautiful Maligne Lake.

We got within six metres of a large bull elk and three black bears, which was a big treat. We also saw four female elk and four white-tailed deer from a farther distance. Unfortunately we didn't spot any big horn sheep, moose, caribou, wolves, coyote or mountain goats, but it was an educational and enjoyable way to spend three hours.

We arrived back at the hotel just after 9 p.m. and elected to dine at the adjoining Tonquin Prime Rib Village, which served excellent 10-ounce sirloins along with freshly baked bread, baked potatoes and steamed vegetables for $29.

The plan the next morning was to catch a shuttle to the Jasper Tramway outside of town, the longest and highest guided aerial tramway in Canada, which would whisk us almost a kilometre up Whistlers Mountain for great views of the surrounding area. But it was pouring rain, overcast and foggy, which would have made the trip useless. So we stayed at the hotel until the 11 a.m. check-out time, getting the most out of the $245 a night we paid for our room, and took a seven-dollar taxi ride to the train station to drop off our bags.

We walked to the Jasper-Yellowhead Museum and Archives, which cost $10 for the two of us. It's small, but features a lot of information and is well put together and was a worthwhile way to spend an hour.

Brunch at Smitty's Family Restaurant provided me with the Texas skillet (a combination of taco ground beef, three scrambled eggs, hash browns, diced tomatoes and green onions) for $12.99, and my mom with her typical bacon and eggs. We returned to the train station, which was late in arriving, but we finally pulled out at 4:20 p.m. Our two-bed berth was somehow double-booked, so we received an upgrade to a private cabin which has its own toilet and sink.

Crossing Canada by train: Part 1

Travelling across Canada by train. To some, it may sound romantic. To others, thinking of how vast the country is, it could seem daunting.

I didn't have any preconceptions before VIA Rail's Canadian pulled out of Toronto's Union Station at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night earlier this summer en route to Vancouver's Pacific Central Station. I just knew I was fulfilling my mother's dream to make the journey.

And VIA's half-price sale made it much more affordable. My mother's lower sleeping berth cost $1,084 while my upper berth went for $922.

From the moment we entered Union Station's recently renovated Panorama Lounge before boarding, to meeting our porter Ron who oversaw our Sleeper Plus class berths, to our host Vern who served free champagne to passengers in the skyline car as we departed, it was already a more civilized experience than flying.

The immensity of Northern Ontario came into clear focus the next morning at breakfast -- where I enjoyed pumpkin pancakes with cinnamon syrup, thick slices of ham and melon -- and realized we wouldn't cross into Manitoba until 5 a.m. the next day. There wasn't a lot to see from the skyline car where we spent almost all of our time when we weren't sleeping, being very well-fed in the dining car or playing Bingo or sampling free wines in the activity car.

Throughout the day we passed freight trains going in the opposite direction and were surrounded on both sides by forest, with the occasional rock outcropping, river or small lake intermittently coming into view. There were no animals, very few birds and just the occasional sign of potential human habitation via run-down hunting and fishing cabins before we made a 40-minute afternoon stop in the small town of Hornepayne, where we could get out and stretch our legs, smokers could get their fix and I could pay a quick visit to the liquor store for supplies.

We elected to get off for two days in Winnipeg before the next Canadian came to continue our journey, and we made the most of our time in the Manitoba capital. The Marlborough Hotel was built in 1914 and was once one of the city's classiest hotels. It still looks that way from the outside and in the lobby and dining room, but the guest rooms are a bit run-down and in need of refurbishment. But it's centrally located, reasonably priced at $95 a night (including tax) and comes with free wireless Internet and hot breakfast and features an indoor pool with a relatively large waterslide.

Museum of Human Rights

The Museum of Human Rights was supposed to open this summer but is over budget and behind schedule and now isn't expected to open until 2014. But what's completed looks striking. We walked across the Red River via the Esplanade Riel pedestrian bridge to the French-speaking neighbourhood of St. Boniface, where we admired its city hall, fire hall and main cathedral, where controversial Manitoba founder Louis Riel is buried outside in a small cemetery.

We returned to walk around The Forks -- a park, historic and retail/entertainment site where we embarked on a 30-minute, $10 narrated boat ride on the Red and Assiniboine rivers via Splash Dash Guided River Tours that extended from the legislative building to Fort Gibraltar. After a beer on the fifth floor rooftop Tavern United across from the MTS Centre, we dined on ribs and steak on the patio at Moxie's Classic Grill and I later ventured out for a pint of locally brewed Half Pints Little Scrapper IPA at the King's Head Pub.

Two city bus rides the next morning got us to expansive Assiniboine Park, where we spent two hours wandering around the zoo observing a variety of birds, bison, deer, monkeys, lynx, musk ox, kangaroos, camels, zebras, Siberian tigers, stone sheep, takin and more. We continued on through the park's picturesque Leo Mol Sculpture Garden and the English Gardens, past the duck pond and Lyric Theatre and over a foot bridge that returned us to Portage Avenue, where we caught a bus back downtown.

After a pint of Half Pints Stir Stick Stout at the King's Head patio, we wandered around the historic Exchange District, which features numerous well-preserved examples of late 19th and early 20th century Chicago-style architecture. The impressive Manitoba Museum featured a wide breadth of informative and interestingly designed exhibits on the geography and history of the province, and included a beautifully crafted replica of the 17th century ship, Nonsuch.

We stopped at the Winnipeg Free Press Cafe patio for a bottle of Half Pints Bulldog Amber Ale and then browsed in Toad Hall, a large but quaint store with toys, hobby and magic items from 50 countries. A local friend invited us for dinner at his house and we ended the evening with a nightcap at the Marlborough's Regal Beagle pub. Unfortunately, there were no Jack Tripper, Chrissy Snow or Larry Dallas sightings.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Michael Rault - Whirlpool

Michael Rault's Ma-Me-O debut album sat unlistened to in a pile of CDs on my bedroom floor in 2010 before I got around to it because I'd never heard of him before and no-one I knew was talking about him. But I fell in love once I got around to it and it ended up being one of my favourite records of the year.

I saw Rault perform for the first two times during Canadian Music Fest and the North By Northeast Music Festival earlier this year and enjoyed a few songs that weren't on Ma-Me-O. They've just been released on Rault's seven-song Whirlpool EP, which includes two versions of the simple but catchy lead single, "I Want To Love You."

Rault handled most of the instrumentation himself, produced four of the songs and looked to the past to create a timeless sound.

"He Don't Care About You" totally evokes the '60s with a guitar that sounds nasty, but in a good way. "Everyone Must Cry Sometimes" is a ballad that you can dance to. "Fall in Love With Every Girl I See" offers dirty-sounding instrumentation but a melodic tune. "Suckcess" could have been recorded in a garage 45 years ago, and you'll be clapping along with Rault as you listen to it.

In addition to the original numbers, Rault also covers the Staples Singers' "Two Wings" and adds a bluesy twist to the soulful gospel song.

I'd like Whirlpool to be longer, but I'm certainly satisfied with what's been presented and it looks like Rault will be making another appearance on my year-end favourites list in 2012. You can decide for yourself by downloading Whirlpool for free from Rault's Facebook page.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Revisited: Rock star motorcycle accidents

Bob Dylan
Since has removed all of the blogs I wrote for it three times a week from August 2009 to August 2011, I've decided to repost some that I feel may still have some relevance on Steve Says. 
I'll be adding these Revisited columns on a semi-regular basis, so please drop by if you're interested.
Here we go:
From Sept. 5, 2009
Rock star motorcycle accidents
Echo And The Bunnymen keyboardist Jake Brockman died in a motorcycle accident on the Isle Of Man on Tuesday evening, about a month before the sometimes brilliant British band's Fountains album hits stores.

Ironically, original Echo drummer Pete De Freitas died in a motorcycle accident while on his way from Liverpool to London 20 years ago.

This got me thinking about the other rockers who were killed or injured in motorcycle accidents and, since there will be a ton of two- and four-wheeled vehicles on the highway for the always busy Labour Day weekend, I present the following examples to you as cautionary tales to drive carefully:

Duane Allman and Berry Oakley
If it's strange that two Echo And The Bunnymen members perished in motorcycle crashes 20 years apart, it's downright eerie that the only two other rock musicians I could think of who met a similar fate were also in the same group. Allman Brothers Band co-founder and guitarist Duane Allman (ranked as the #2 guitarist of all time behind Jimi Hendrix by Rolling Stone magazine in 2003) was killed in Macon, Ga. when he lost control of his Harley-Davidson while trying to avoid a truck. Bassist Berry Oakley died 13 months later just three blocks away from the site of Allman's accident when he collided with a city bus. A bridge in Macon was named in Oakley's honour in 1998.

Bob Dylan
Mystery still surround's Dylan's July 29, 1966 motorcycle accident while coming over a hill on a highway near his home in Woodstock, N.Y. There are reports that it almost killed him, while others say it was staged to give him time off from a hectic recording and touring schedule and to help him kick a drug habit. Either way, he had a long convalescence period that he used part of to record with members of The Hawks (who soon afterward became The Band) at his home and in the basement of their nearby house known as Big Pink. These demo recordings were released as The Basement Tapes in 1975. Dylan's first studio album after his crash was the sparse, Nashville-recorded John Wesley Harding, which was released in December 1967. It often sounds like Dylan is wearing a motorcycle helmet when you try to make out what he's singing in concert these days.

Billy Idol
I'm not sure if this pop-punk progenitor was wearing one of those fingerless gloves he flaunted in the early '80s or let out a rebel yell when he went through a stop sign and was hit by a car while riding his motorcycle home from a Los Angeles studio in February 1990. The accident nearly cost him his leg, but not his ability to sneer, and prevented him from playing the T-1000 character in Terminator 2: Judgment Day because of his long bedridden recovery.

Steven Tyler
The Aerosmith singer was riding his motorcycle to pick up his daughter Mia from a babysitter on Jan. 24, 1981 when he hit a tree and tore open his heel. The injury took almost a year to heal. You'd think he would have used that time to come up with better songs than those that appeared on 1982's Rock In A Hard Place.

Mark Knopfler
Dire Straits' main man was in dire straits when his Honda collided with a Fiat in mid-morning London, England traffic on St. Patrick's Day in 2003. He broke his collarbone and several ribs and took months recuperating before he could write songs or return to the studio. Most people would have been happier if he returned to Dire Straits.

The soulful singer was in a motorcycle accident as a child, but it was his lupus that caused his facial scarring and hair loss. Those setbacks haven't prevented him from selling millions of records, dating Tyra Banks and marrying Heidi Klum. Life could be worse.

I still get all warm and tingly when I think of Ann-Margret writhing around in baked beans in the 1975 film version of The Who's Tommy, but the actress, dancer, singer and Elvis Presley ex-girlfriend was probably feeling anything but when she was thrown from a motorcycle in Brainerd, Minn. in 2000. She broke her arm and some ribs. Mmm ... baked beans.

Keanu Reeves
The Speed freak and master of gravity-defying acrobatics in The Matrix ruptured his spleen and broke some ribs in a 1988 motorcycle accident and was on crutches for several weeks after breaking his ankle during a 1997 crash. Reeves is on this list because he played bass in the '90s grunge band, Dogstar. I'd probably like to forget about that group as much as Reeves would like to erase his memory of motorcycle injuries.

Gary Busey
You probably think of Busey first as an actor and then as a bit of a whack-job, but he began his entertainment career as a drummer with The Rubber Duck Band, played in a group called Carp which released an album in 1969 through Epic Records, was featured on several Leon Russell recordings, sang "Stay All Night" on both Saturday Night Live and Late Show With David Letterman, continues to write music and was a dead ringer for Buddy Holly when he was nominated for an Academy Award for his incredible portrayal of the legend in 1978's The Buddy Holly Story. Busey wasn't wearing a helmet when he was severely injured in a Dec. 4, 1988 motorcycle accident that fractured his skull and had doctors fearing he suffered permanent brain damage. He was once very outspoken against motorcycle helmets, but is now an advocate of them. Hey, Busey isn't totally crazy after all.

David Hasselhoff
You probably think of Hasselhoff first as an actor and then as a guy who gets drunk, takes off his shirt and lies on a hotel room floor while trying to eat a cheeseburger — unless you live in Germany. The Hoff topped the German pop chart with "Looking For Freedom" in 1989 and had other hits there from the more than a dozen albums he's released. Hasselhoff and ex-wife Pamela Bach sustained minor injuries when he lost control of his motorcycle and crashed into a pole in Los Angeles in 2003.

I'll leave you with the best of both worlds. Here's a clip of Hasselhoff showing off both his dulcet voice and motorcycle riding skills.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Get off your seat, it's The Complete Beat

The Specials introduced me to the second wave of ska when I saw the British band perform "Gangsters" and "Too Much, Too Young" on Saturday Night Live on April 19, 1980.

Madness, The Selecter and The Bodysnatchers came on my radar soon afterward, but it was another British band to emerge from the Two-Tone movement that I first managed to see live. The English Beat (it was just called The Beat in its homeland) had just released its third and final album by the time I caught it on April 12, 1983. A band I'd never heard of called R.E.M. opened for The Beat and released Murmur the next day. I became an R.E.M. fan that night, but I was at the University of Western Ontario's Alumni Hall in London, Ont. to see The English Beat.

The group's I Just Can't Stop It debut album was an instant blast of freshness when it came out in 1980, blending ska, rock steady, punk and pop to create a joyful and energetic combination that forced you to move your feet from beginning to end. While a cover of Smokey Robinson's "Tears of a Clown" became a British hit and sped-up versions of Prince Buster's "Rough Rider" and "Whine & Grine" and The Pioneers' "Jackpot" showed that singer/guitarist Dave Wakeling, guitarist Andy Cox, bassist David Steele, drummer Everett Morton, vocalist Ranking Roger and saxophonist Saxa were clever interpreters, the 10 other songs on the LP showed that The English Beat was much more than that.

"Mirror In The Bathroom" got you dancing right from the start and songs including "Twist & Crawl," "Ranking Full Stop" and "Best Friend" kept the momentum going throughout. The multi-racial group also showed its social conscience and unhappiness with what was going on in England at the time with "Stand Down Margaret," which urged prime minister Margaret Thatcher to resign.

It wasn't long before I was sporting a T-shirt with the group's "Beat Girl" logo and looking forward to album two, 1981's Wha'ppen. But The English Beat veered off course from the first album and added samba, calypso and other elements to the mix. I liked it -- especially "Doors of Your Heart" and "Get-A-Job" -- but found it more reserved. Wha'ppen lacked the immediacy of  the first album and, in retrospect, I therefore didn't give it as much time and attention as I probably should have.

Wha'ppen set the stage for The English Beat's last record, 1982's Special Beat Service, which added smoother soul to the mix in places, added more keyboards and made a bigger impact in North America. "I Confess" had a great sensual groove, "Ackee 1 2 3" had a tropical sound, the more reggae-based "Pato and Roger A Go Talk" featured toasting, while "Jeanette," "Sole Salvation," "Spar Wid Me" and "Save It For Later" were all standouts.

I've been revisiting the English Beat catalogue recently since Shout! Factory has packaged and remastered the three albums (with bonus tracks) and two other CDs in a box set titled The Complete Beat. "Tears of a Clown"  and "Ranking Full Stop" weren't included on the original United Kingdom version of I Just Can't Stop It, but were once the North American edition was. Likewise, "Too Nice To Talk To" wasn't included on either version of Wha'ppen but is one of the highlights of the reissue.

"Psychedelic Rockers" is the best of the bonus tracks on Wha'ppen, beating out "Hit It" and "Which Side of the Bed?" for that distinction. "What's Your Best Thing," "March Of The Swivel Heads" (an instrumental version of "Rotating Heads"), "Cool Entertainer" (which sounds a little like "Spar Wid Me") and "A Go Talk" (a version of "Pato And Roger A Go Talk" that drags on too long) are Special Beat Service's bonus tracks.

The two-disc Bonus Beat addition includes 15 12-inch and dub versions of The English Beat songs on the first, and who wouldn't want to hear extended renditions of "Hands Off … She's Mine," "Doors of Your Heart," "Save It For Later" or "Jeanette?" The second CD features sessions recorded for legendary British DJ John Peel in 1979, 1980 and 1982 and four songs captured at the Boston Opera House in 1982. The live performances present a good cross-section of repertoire and give you an idea of what The English Beat sounded like 30 years ago.

I've since seen Wakeling's version of The English Beat several times, I usually talk to him after shows and I interviewed him in 2009, so my fondness for this music hasn't waned. And though I've returned to I Just Can't Stop It more than the other two albums over the years, The Complete Beat is a good reminder of just how good this band was before its members went their separate ways to form General Public (Wakeling and Roger) and Fine Young Cannibals (Steele and Cox) and earn more commercial success.

The package is augmented by a booklet featuring photos and an essay by Alex Ogg, which makes it even more attractive -- especially to folks like me who didn't own any English Beat on CD.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Toronto's Festival of Beer offers large taste of Quebec

Toronto's Festival of Beer was held for the 18th time on the weekend, and I celebrated my 18th time being in attendance.

My friend Jeff and I each purchased our first round of tokens (20 for $20, but I got lots of freebies), and the first brewery booth I came across offering something I hadn't had before was Nickel Brook. A well-balanced and somewhat complex saison with a mildly fruity aroma and flavour got my thumbs up, but I thought the tan-coloured Berliner Weisse might have gone off when I first put my nose above the glass and took my first swallow. It was definitely sour, but the woman who poured it says it was meant to be that way. I'll never order another one.

Cheval Blanc, a Belgian white ale from Montreal that's been available in Quebec for 25 years, is now making its way into Ontario -- and that's definitely a good thing. It has a rich colour and lots of bubbles, which act as a fine introduction to a refreshing and slightly fruity taste experience and a brief finish. It's five-per cent alcohol and a great summer beer.

We next visited the Niagara College Teaching Brewery, where a young woman gave me a temporary tattoo and the guys at the taps first gave me a bitter -- which was okay, but served a bit too cold, which didn't allow all the hoppiness to come to the fore -- and then a pilsner weisse beer combination that lacked the flavour and character I was hoping for. It just sat there and failed to impress.

But there were some tasty treats to be found at the Quebec tent next door, which featured 19 beers from seven of the province's microbreweries courtesy of Keep 6 Imports. (It's also where I met Toronto Star business/beer reporter Josh Rubin. I want his job.) Everything I had here was new to me, but I hope the best of them won't become strangers again.

Dunham Black IPA lived up to its name as the 5.7-per cent ale poured into my glass. There was a coffee aroma and definite hoppiness in the bouquet and flavour, which had a sharpness and a pleasantly bitter finish. Dunham's IPA Belge was also excellent. The 6.5-per cent alcohol Belgian IPA was orange/caramel to look at and had citrus elements in its bouquet and flavour. Dunham's cloudy yellow, 6.5-per cent alcohol Pale Ale Americaine was pleasantly hoppy, but not too much so, and had just the right amount of bitterness.

Charlevoix Dominus Vobiscum Saison was a six-per cent farmhouse ale with a gold colour and spicy bouquet that extended to the palate, where it was balanced by some nice sweetness. The five-per cent alcohol Charlevoix Dominus Vobiscum Blanche was decent, but I preferred the Cheval Blanc. Charlevoix La Vache Folle Imperial Milk Stout was the only one of its kind I had, and it was quite satisfying, although the nine-per cent alcohol brew seemed too rich to drink in large volumes. There was some sweet chocolate and roasted malt in evidence and it felt creamy in the mouth.

Hopfenstark Saison Station 7 (a hazy gold saison made with seven herbs) and Hopfenstark Boson D’Higgs (a Berliner Rauch Saison) were both drinkable but not exceptional. The same can be said for the brewery's Framboise, a wheat beer with raspberries.

The straw-coloured, six-per cent alcohol Les Trois Mousqeutaires Hopfenweiss had citrus and banana undertones that made it easy to drink. The brewery's mahogany-coloured Weizenbock wasn't. The wheat interpretation of bock packed a punch with 11 per cent alcohol, but you could taste the booze too much. I prefer strong beers that creep up on you, not knock you over the head.

Brasserie Dieu Du Ciel! Rosee D’Hibiscus is a wheat beer with a distinctive rose colour derived from the addition of hibiscus flowers during brewing. The 5.9-per cent alcohol beer is mildly acidic, but it's the floral aroma and flavour that gives this beverage its uniqueness.

I heard a number of people raving about Les Vergers De La Colline CID Rose, but I didn't share the excitement over the only cider I sampled during this festival. The 6.5-per cent beverage was light pink and slightly bubbly to look at and slightly dry and authentically apple-y to taste.

I could hear Salt-n-Pepa singing "Push It" on stage as I walked to the media lounge to see what free food and beer was available. The food was gone and the beer was Labatt 50. It's my default domestic big brewery beer when I'm out seeing bands and Jeff didn't want his, so I quickly downed two mugs and we hit the home stretch for Great Lakes Brewery's CASKapalooza.

CASKapalooza features 20 one-off casks brewed specially for the event, but the large majority of them seemed to be repeats from past years and (as I've found since it was launched in 2009) they're rarely exceptional. Closing time was rolling around so we finished off our last few samples and made our exit.

See you next year at number 19.