Sunday, April 23, 2017

The best of 2017’s Canadian Music Week Festival

This was my 27th Canadian Music Week Festival, and I thought the 2016 edition was the best in several years. While this year’s event didn’t quite measure up to that level, I still managed to see 31 acts over five nights. Here were my 10 favourites:

Ferraro
Saturday, 2 a.m. at The Cameron House

Ferraro’s Losing Sleep was my ninth favourite album of 2016 and I’ve seen this Toronto-based, brother-fronted band more than any other over the past year. Their ’50s and ’60s-influenced pop songs are full of ear worms and their whip-smart cover choices reflect their love and knowledge of vintage music that’s rare in young musicians. I have a great time at every Ferraro show I attend.


Ferraro

The Velveteins
Thursday, 1 a.m. at Cherry Cola’s Rock ’n’ Rolla Cabaret & Lounge

A Hot Second With The Velveteins was one of my favourite EPs of 2016, and the Edmonton trio lived up to my high expectations on stage. There are some throwbacks to ‘50s doo-wop and ‘60s pop, but the hook-filled songs carry a harder and more rock-oriented edge. A closing cover of Bad Company’s “I Feel Like Making Love” didn’t really fit with what came before it, but it still worked.


The Velveteins

KOLARS
Tuesday, 11 p.m. at The Rivoli

This husband and wife duo features Rob Kolar on guitar and lead vocals and Lauren Brown wearing tap shoes while standing on top of a bass drum and pounding on three other drums. It was danceable but still raw and minimalist as it mixed glam, indie and art rock ingredients that made for a very tasty meal. I had a good conversation with the Los Angeles musicians and artist manager/former Canadian Idol judge Jake Gold in The Rivoli’s front bar at the end of the night. Kolar and Brown were very nice and even bought me a beer, which I swear had no bearing on this high ranking.


KOLARS
KOLARS

Bueller
Friday, 11 p.m. at The Silver Dollar

This Toronto quartet has male and female lead singers and a sound that mixes bratty, nasally vocals with large dashes of power pop and garage, punk and indie rock. It’s eclectic, but the common denominator through most songs is the presence of immediate hooks. I would like to hear a longer set.


Bueller

Casper Skulls
Saturday, 11 p.m. at Lee’s Palace

If I hear elements of Wire, The Fall, Joy Division and The Streets in your set, I’m almost assured of liking you. That was the case with this Toronto band that has a lot of British post-punk influences in its music. It was loud, dynamic and in your face.


Casper Skulls

Punchline 13
Thursday, midnight at Bovine Sex Club

I first became aware of Punchline 13 when the pop-punk group entertained me at the Bovine for last year’s CMW. If Simple Plan was able to make it big (which I predicted very early in its career), I’m not sure why this Montreal quintet is languishing in relative obscurity.

Sly Rawk is a great frontman.

Punchline 13
Punchline 13

 
Early Hours
Wednesday, 1 a.m. at Nightowl and Friday, 1 a.m. at The Cameron House

This very young South African band has a knack for writing smart and catchy indie pop songs that are delivered in an upbeat and energetic manner. There’s an element of highlife in a few songs that helps set the group apart, since it’s something you don’t often hear in Canada. I liked the band enough that I saw it twice and spent time in engaging conversations with the four members and manager Sarah Jane Nicholson, a tireless promoter who was dancing, taking photos from the stage and making new friends at each show. Early Hours gets bonus points for covering David Bowie’s “Heroes” and Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side,” selections which belie the group’s youth.


Early Hours
Early Hours

Twist
Saturday, 9 p.m. at Lee’s Palace

I enjoyed an earlier incarnation of Twist during the North By Northeast Music Festival in 2015, and the Laura Hermiston-fronted Toronto quartet has improved since then. You can hear the pop heart beating within the dense body of guitars and a rumbling bass that I could feel in my stool near the stage. With Hermiston’s dreamy vocals floating over the top, it makes for an experience drenched in moody but not depressing atmospherics.


Twist
Twist

Devin Cuddy Band
Friday, 2 a.m. at The Cameron House

The son of Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy has made a name for himself in recent years as a piano-playing country rock artist. There were large doses of both those styles on display at this late night set that included a mix of Cuddy originals and classic covers, including Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart.”


Devin Cuddy Band

Dentist
Wednesday, 10:45 p.m. at Monarch Tavern

This Asbury Park, N.J. quartet played several CMW sets and I’m quite happy I caught this one. Singer/guitarist Emily Bornemann’s ethereal vocals present an effective counterpoint to the band's melodic but fuzzed-out sounds of punk, surf and indie rock. I was reminded of The Pixies a couple of times during the set.


Dentist
Dentist

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Toronto Winter Brewfest learned from last year


The second edition of the Toronto Winter Brewfest was misnamed by a few days, since it launched during the first week of spring, but that was about the only quibble I had with this year’s event.

The introduction of RFID bracelets meant all transactions took place electronically and, after getting used to tapping them a couple of times to pay for your beer samples or food, it was an efficient way of handling things. Top-up stations made it easy to add money and, despite the large crowd that attended on Friday night (Saturday night sold out in advance), lineups were generally shorter and increased space meant that there was more room to move than last year.

Prices were also lower, as more than two-thirds of the four-ounce sample glasses were priced at two dollars, with beers above 6.1 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV) going for three bucks.

Toronto is blessed with a variety of beer festivals and events, and this newcomer drew mixed reviews in its debut, but I heard very few complaints from patrons this time out.

And believe me, I know about complaints. I dealt with a lot of them at last year’s Toronto Winter Brewfest after serving for a shift behind the busiest bar. There were problems with the refrigeration trailer that made the beer pour unreasonably foamy and caused us to shut it down for a period of time until technicians made adjustments and repairs.

I spoke with Alex Van Dieren, one of the organizers, who generously bought me a $12 pork souvlaki from Pappas Greek on Wheels food truck as a thank you for making the best of a bad situation the previous year. He said he’d received much better feedback this time out and was pleased with how the evening was progressing. Lessons learned seem to have paid off.

While on the topic of food, T Dot’s Nonsense, Delight Bite, Hank Daddy’s Barbecue and Pappas had trucks on hand to offer hearty dishes to soak up all of the beer being consumed. I paid $11 for a small and delicious order of chicken poutine from Delight Bite later in the evening. Lineups were small and there was an adequate amount of tables and chairs to sit down and eat at.

The bars that weren’t specifically dedicated to a single brewery were the ones that most interested me, as they had the best variety and most interesting styles to choose from, but they’re staffed with volunteers who can’t explain much about what they’re pouring. But during my wandering around the Enercare Centre Heritage Court I had the opportunity to talk shop with: Jordan St. John, co-author of The Ontario Craft Beer Guide and other books, who bought me a beer; and Toronto Star beer writer Josh Rubin.

My friend Jeff and I made cameo appearances 37 seconds in to a Winter Briefest report on the local CTV six o’clock news.



Armed with 50 “Brew Bucks” given to me by Brew Fest organizers and the publicity team from Halo PR, I sampled 19 different beers over several hours.

My favourites were:

Beyond The Pale Juicy Dream IPA
This pale gold Vermont-style IPA from the Ottawa brewery poured with a nice white head and had a rich and fruity aroma and full-bodied flavour with an easy finish. It measured in at six per cent ABV and 50 international bitterness units (IBU).

Beyond The Pale Aromatherapy IPA
This was quite similar to Juicy Dream, but was a slightly darker gold and poured with a smaller white head. The alcohol and bitterness were notched up slightly, at 6.5 per cent ABV and 55 IBU respectively, and left a pleasant taste in your mouth and a smile on your face with its effective mixture of Citra, Mosaic, Amarillo and Centennial hops.

Redline Sprung! Belgian Pale Ale
This slightly cloudy gold ale was finished with a rich white head and had a definite citrus aroma. It uses four kinds of hops, three types of malt, Belgian yeast esters and coriander seed that combine to produce a pleasant flavour with hints of bubblegum and banana. With 4.9 per cent ABV and 31 IBU, this Barrie, Ont. brewery has come up with a beer that acts as a good introduction to those wanting to ease their way into the wonderful world of Belgian pale ales.

Stalwart Down By The River Wheat Ale
This Carleton Place, Ont. brewery has made a well-rounded 5.3 per cent ABV, 29 IBU ale that includes wheat and oats. It has a floral and lemon bouquet, a slightly cloudy gold colour and a dry and mildly bitter finish that leaves you wanting another one.

Gainsbourg La Traitresse 2.0
This Hull, Que. brewery has made a Belgian Tripel-style beer that’s medium gold with a thin head and a rich floral bouquet. At 10.7 per cent ABV, you can taste the high alcohol content, but it certainly doesn’t overpower you and it has a surprisingly easy finish.

Vox Populi Anna Citra
This Belgian Tripel-syle beer from the Boucherville, Que. brewery is made at Oshlag Brasserie & Distillerie. It’s made completely with Citra hops, which happen to be my favourite, and Belgian yeast. At 10 per cent ABV and 75 IBU, it’s probably not wise to drink a lot of these — but you’ll want to.

Castor Yakima IPA
This is made in Rigaud, Que. but has the bold hop and flavour profile of an American west coast IPA. It’s dark gold and has a large white head and its strong citrus flavours and aromas on a bed of pale malt produces a refreshing beer that’s not as bitter as you might expect from a 6.5 per cent ABV, 75 IBU ale.




Here are the other beers I drank, in rough approximation from most to least favourite:

Le Trèfle Noir La Mafia Gibb American Pale Ale
Barnstormer Accelerated Stall Double IPA
Benelux Cuda West Coast IPA
Left Field Prospect Hallertau Blanc Single Hop IPA
Nita Beer Coach’s Challenge Imperial IPA
Beau’s Bush Fire Rooibos-Honeybush Beer
Gainsbourg Cote Ouest Tangelo (cask)
Walkerville Sweet Milk Stout
Folly Brewpub Little Barasway Porter
Waller St. Harvest Sour (cask)
Whiprsnapr Blackberry Blastr IPA
Innocente Two Night Stand (cask)

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Discovering Vat Phou in Laos' Champasak province

I’ve been privileged to twice visit Angkor Wat and several other temple complexes in the vicinity of Siem Reap, Cambodia, but am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I’d never heard of Laos’ Vat Phou until I went there in December.

The surviving ruins of the Khmer Hindu temple complex in Champasak, in the southwestern part of the country six kilometres from the Mekong River and at the base of Phou Khao mountain, were built from the 11th to 13th centuries — making them around the same age as those around Angkor Wat. Although the site is still used for religious worship, it’s been opened to tourists who pay approximately eight dollars to visit. Lao people receive a 60-per cent discount while monks, those under 18 and disabled persons are admitted for free.

An electric vehicle takes you from the entrance to the base of the complex, which is accessed by a long central walkway flanked by phallic symbols. Two reservoirs called barays, and formerly used for bathing, are on both sides of the path.


The walkway to the temple complex.
The first two buildings you encounter are the north and south palaces, which sit on terraces and feature interior courtyards. It’s not known what they were used for, though they may have had a religious purpose. While in disrepair from age, the detail of many of the sandstone and volcanic rock carvings on them remain beautiful. 

The south palace.
Stairs lead up to other terraces with small buildings until you reach the top level, 100 metres up. You’ll find the ruins of a sanctuary (in which more recent Buddha statues have been placed) and a small library, as well as rock carvings of crocodiles, elephants and snakes. 

The sanctuary.
There’s also a “sacred spring” that brings water from higher up the mountain.

The "sacred spring."
Perhaps the most striking aspect of this top level, however, is the view it presents of the rest of the complex and the surrounding countryside.

The view, and the author.
Caucasian visitors must still be relatively rare, as I was stopped by three different groups of Lao teenagers who wanted to have their pictures taken with me as I was descending the stairs.

The electric vehicle returned me close to the site entrance, where a museum houses a collection of recovered objects, architectural elements and sculptures, with explanations of their use and importance. There’s also a shop with products made by local artisans and a tearoom, where I was able to quench my thirst on a hot day by purchasing my first Beer Lao Gold for $1.60.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

My introduction to southern Laos

Entering Laos was forbidden to non-essential visitors during the period I was travelling through southeast Asia in 2004, and I’ve always wanted to return to visit the country. In December I had the chance to do just that.

I thought that the nation of 6.8 million people bordered by Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Myanmar and Thailand might still be holding a grudge against me, however, when I arrived at the only Cambodia to Laos border crossing from Dong Kralor to Veun Kham and found out that Canadians had to pay more than any other nationality to obtain a visa. I paid $42 U.S. while people from other western countries were charged $30 or $35.


The Cambodia-Laos border crossing.
The crossing itself was rather surreal. While large buildings have been constructed and it looks quite grand, the duty free store was deserted and the 15 folks on my bus were the only ones heading into Laos while three people walked across the border going the other way. But after getting through that bureaucratic process, I found the Laotian people to be very friendly and welcoming.

It was a short drive to Don Khong, the largest of the 4,000 islands in the area on the Mekong River, and Pon’s River Guest House in the small town of Muang Khong.

The guest house was centrally located for walking, bicycling or boating. The room was fairly basic but clean, with two beds and a washroom with a toilet and shower with hot water. I was able to change money at the front desk. It was all I needed.


The view from the riverfront restaurant.
The guest house also operates a restaurant directly across the street, right on the shore of the Mekong, which provides great views of the river, the far shore and a few of the 4,000 islands. The food was fine, the beer was cold and inexpensive, and the staff was friendly and helpful.

Southern Laos is the least visited part of the country and its laid-back style is perfect for relaxing and soaking in the atmosphere. After checking in and having a large tuna sandwich and large bottle of Beer Lao for less than five dollars while enjoying the breeze off the Mekong, the guesthouse proprietors arranged a late afternoon longtail boat tour that included a 45-minute stop to walk around a smaller island that was home to about 500 people.


The small island.
There were no vehicles on the island and it was pretty poor and backward, but the people seemed happy — especially the children, who start school at age seven. I high-fived several of them and played soft toss with a few others using some nuts, although they had no concept of catching and didn’t manage to hang on to one after five minutes. But they laughed hysterically when I showed them the photos I’d taken of them.

The children.
We returned to the boat and continued the tour, stopping to watch a lovely sunset, before docking, having a couple of more beers and preparing for dinner at Pon’s affiliated but more upscale Pon Arena Hotel a short walk away. Fifteen dollars got me a traditional Laotian fish and rice dish, garlic bread and another large Beer Lao.

The sunset.
The next morning I elected to walk around the town for a couple of hours, which involved passing three schools and playing with more smiling and laughing kids. I visited two monasteries with ornate architecture, carvings and stupas, and came across a memorial monument to a man who was 115 when he died. 

The 115-year-old man memorial monument.
It was time for lunch, and eight dollars got me a plate of pad thai with chicken and two large Beer Laos at Pon’s riverfront restaurant to pass the time while waiting for a 2 p.m. bus to take me on to the next destination.