Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Deano And The Purvs Fit Well Opening For The Sadies
I see Chicago's Waco Brothers every chance I get, and Jon Langford has become an annual visitor to Toronto for shows with The Sadies and the Burlington Welsh Male Chorus, but other Waco side projects don't make it to town too often.
So it was great that singer/guitarist Deano Waco (or Dean Schlabowske as he's known in his other life as a wine store owner) made the trip north of the border with three members of Austin, Texas high-octane bluegrass outfit The Meat Purveyors (guitarist Bill Anderson, mandolin player Pete Stiles and singer Jo Stanli Walston) to open for The Sadies' public CD release show for Darker Circles on Saturday night at Lee's Palace.
I admit that I'm a bigger fan of the Wacos and Deano's other band, Dollar Store, than the tracks that can be downloaded for free from his web site in this latest collaboration, which bills itself as Deano Waco And The Purvs. But the quartet really brought the songs to life during its 16-song set in front of a steadily growing audience. There were no drums or bass, but the mix of Deano's electric and Anderson's acoustic (they swapped near the end of the set) guitars and Stiles' mandolin virtuosity made you forget that fact.
The band opened with "Workin' For The Devil" and hit my favourite of its songs, "Vacant Lot," a bit later. The show progressed with "Taken," "Reality Blues," "Maid Of The Mist" and one of the most heavily bluegrass-based tunes of the night, the fine "Box Store." There was a great mandolin solo in "Bottle Of Wine" and "Stuck In The Mud" rocked harder than anything else in the set.
Deano And The Purvs ended on a surprise high note, a cover of The Adverts' 1977 punk classic "Gary Gilmore's Eyes," which Deano had recorded on the 2002 compilation, The Executioner's Last Songs, Vol. I.
The Sadies followed and I've seen and written about the Toronto band so often that I elected not to take notes and just enjoy the show and the company of the many friends who came out to show their support. 
The group played a fine mix of old favourites and Darker Circles material. Dallas and Travis Good's mother Margaret came out and sang a few songs, and Ron Sexsmith joined in for sterling covers of Johnny Cash's "Guess Things Happen That Way" and The Who's "The Seeker."
The Sadies brought things home in the encore by blending "Gloria" and "Baby, Please Don't Go," the A- and B-sides of a great 1964 single by the Van Morrison-fronted Them. It was a brilliant way to cap the night off at Lee's. 
But the party continued at my friends' Jeff and Tara's place, where the musicians and some insiders returned for conversation, several Keith's and Big Fat Burritos (thanks again for those, Mike). I've talked to Deano numerous times over the years, but it was nice to meet The Purvs, who were also swell folks.
When the always gracious hosts wanted to go to bed, a couple of other pals and I moved a block down the street for a couple of nightcaps. I arrived home at 7 a.m.
Good times.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Brittlestar and my high school collaborate on new single
Kids who wouldn't know Shakespeare from shaving cream are discovering my hometown of Stratford, Ont. because it's also where teen heartthrob Justin Bieber grew up before attaining worldwide stardom.
Stratford is best known as the home of two globally respected theatres. But it's also the final resting place of the late The Band keyboardist Richard Manuel and the home of John Till, who played guitar in Janis Joplin's Full Tilt Boogie Band.
My friend Stewart Reynolds (pictured above) is behind Brittlestar, a Stratford-based pop-rock project that has released three full albums, EPs and singles, and had songs included in television programs and commercials. Brittlestar's work has included contributions from the likes of Emm Gryner, The Spoons' Gord Deppe and The Lilac Time's Stephen "Tin Tin" Duffy, Nick Duffy and Claire Worrall Duffy. 
Brittlestar’s latest single, “You’re Just So,” features Bieber’s friend, Ryan Butler.
Now Reynolds is the "big name" in a collaboration with my alma mater, Stratford Central Secondary School. He's working with students to write, record and perform a song that will be released via iTunes and other digital music retailers to raise funds for the school. Reynolds will also guide the students through creating artwork for the single and promoting it. 
“The aim is to release a song that isn’t just something that families and friends will feel obligated to buy, but one that everyone will like and will appeal to people around the world,” says Reynolds. “I am not aware of any other high school that is a doing a fundraiser like this, and I think the potential for success is massive. The students bring an enthusiasm that is incredibly infectious.”
You can see and hear more of Brittlestar here.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Harbourfront Centre: Toronto's all-season lakeshore entertainment destination
Though things are changing for the better, Toronto traditionally hasn't made the best use of its Lake Ontario shoreline when it comes to people who take holidays to Canada. But the one major exception for the past 38 years has been Harbourfront Centre.
The non-profit cultural organization oversees 10 acres of facilities (including three marinas) at 235 Queens Quay West, directly south of the downtown core. It attracts 12 million visits annually for more than 4,000 events presented with some 450 partner community and cultural groups. It showcases works in contemporary visual arts, crafts, literature, music, dance and theatre for adults and children.
Perhaps the highest profile Harbourfront events are its weekly World Routes Summer Festivals, which showcase a diverse range of cultures, entertainment and food. This season's events include: Barbados On The Water (May 28-29); Franco-Fete (June 12); Canada Day (July 1), featuring a performance by my favourite local band, The Sadies; The Hot Spot (July 2-4); Break, Beats & Culture (July 9-11); Expressions of Brazil (July 16-18); Love, Saskatchewan (July 23-25); Island Soul (July 30-Aug. 2); What is Classical? (Aug. 6-8); Hot & Spicy Food Festival (Aug. 13-15); Fortune Cooking Food Festival (Aug. 20-22); Telus TaiwanFest Crossover (Aug. 27-29); and Ashkenaz (Sept. 4-6).
HarbourKIDS' freee programming, dedicated to children ranging in age from five to 12, will include the HarbourKIDS: Circus from May 22-24. The Free Flicks program will feature films at the Sirius Stage on the edge of the lake. Look for tall ships in port as part of the Great Lakes United Tall Ships Challenge from June 30-July 4.
There are a number of places to eat, drink and shop. A variety of boat cruises leave from Harbourfront, and the ferries to the Toronto Islands are also nearby. Or you can just take a pleasant stroll and take in the sights, sounds and smells of the lake and its environs extending west through Ann Tindal and HTO parks to Toronto Music Garden. There are five parking lots and the centre is well-served by public transportation.
Art exhibitions, plays and other performances are held year-round, and the Natrel Rink offers what is (with apologies to Nathan Phillips Square) probably Toronto's most entertaining and picturesque place to skate for free during the winter.

Visit the Harbourfront Centre web site for more information.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Toronto's Rogers Centre remains an attraction
I wrote about New York City's two new baseball stadiums last month, so I thought I should let people who take holidays to Canada know about Toronto's Rogers Centre.
The retractable-roofed stadium formerly known as SkyDome opened in the summer of 1989 and has since hosted more than 2,000 events and 60 million people. The prime tenant is the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team, which used to regularly draw more than 50,000 people to games when it was winning World Series' in the early '90s. The Jays aren't what they used to be, and now attract an average crowd of well under 20,000 to games.
Some people blame the stadium as one of the main reasons for the decline, and the impersonal concrete structure certainly doesn't hold the same appeal as the more charming retro-styled ballparks that have been built over the past 20 years — including the two aforementioned NYC stadiums, Baltimore's Camden Yards, Pittsburgh's PNC Park, Detroit's Comerica Park, Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park and Cleveland's Progressive Field.
Retractable-roofed stadiums have become more common in the past two decades, but the Rogers Centre remains a model for architects and engineers to learn from. And while locals now largely take the stadium for granted, it remains one of Toronto's top tourist attractions and many people who witness the 20-minute transformation from enclosed to open air venue (or vice versa) for the first time still marvel at it. 
The 11,000-tonne roof is divided into four sections, three of which move. When it's closed, a 31-storey building located in the centre field area could fit underneath it. Eight Boeing 747 jets can comfortably fit on the field when it's in baseball mode.
The Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League also play at the Rogers Centre, as do the National Football League's Buffalo Bills as part of an agreement whereby the team plays at least one game a year in Toronto. The stadium also hosts major concerts and a variety of other events.
Even if you don't attend a game or some other happening, the Rogers Centre offers one-hour guided tours that cost $10 for children, $12 for youths and seniors and $16 for adults. Tour stops include a recently renovated museum featuring a model of the Rogers Centre, memorabilia from past events and a multi-screen video wall showcasing highlights from the facility's history. Visitors can also check out the Blue Jays Hall of Fame, a press box and a luxury suite.
If you find you like the Rogers Centre enough, you can stay at the Renaissance Toronto Downtown Hotel, which offers a number of rooms overlooking the field. Many of the city's top attractions — including the CN Tower and Hockey Hall of Fame — are located within a few blocks.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Danko Jones — Below The Belt
Here's a sentence from the promotional biography for this record: "So long as guys keep thinking with their dicks instead of their heads and so long as beautiful women have the power to reduce men to drooling, deviant, irrational idiots, Danko Jones records will continue to sound like Danko Jones records."
While that may seem like a good thing to most followers of the man and his identically named band, it isn't for me. I've enjoyed songs from Danko Jones' four previous albums and the My Love Is Bold EP, and there are tracks on Below The Belt that fit into that category as well. But they all start to sound too similar, as are Jones' lyrical themes dealing with his strength, sexual prowess and ability to be mean and ornery.
I've seen Danko Jones perform several times and still chuckle when I think about a comment from a friend (and like myself, somewhat of a fan) who said that the frontman's big stock stage move was to "look left." The stage show is powerful and rocks hard, but really hasn't progressed too much. And with Below The Belt, neither has Danko Jones.
If that's okay with you, you should really like this album.
Thieves By Law Can Chill Viewers On Different Levels
Having previously read articles and watched television shows about the Russian mafia made me interested in seeing Thieves By Law as part of the Canadian International Documentary Festival this week. While corruption in the former Soviet Union is commonly acknowledged, this film's examination of three gangsters and their cronies showed me how frighteningly widespread, accepted and legitimized it is.
"Show me one person in Russia who doesn't have a criminal record," challenges one of the subjects, who describes himself as a businessman. Largely uneducated, having spent as much or more time in prison than in school, these three men aren't afraid of revealing things to writer/director Alexander Gentelev that make you question why they're still not living behind bars instead of in luxury through wealth gained via extortion and violence.
Want an example of how violent these guys can get? Start by abducting a homeless person. Then you dress him in a suit and take him to the office of an executive targeted for protection money collection, where his head is cut off on the spot to show what happens to people who don't pay up.
Yet these men also claim to live by an honourable thieves code, which began in Stalin-era gulags in the 1930s, and continued until Mikhail Gorbachev put perestroika in effect in 1987. Money — big money — could now be made. And to my eyes, at least, that moral code seemed to be hit as hard as the victims of the criminal groups that sprang up during this time.
Gang wars throughout the '90s wiped out many mafia soldiers and leaders before survivors realized that large profits could still be made without all of the bloodshed through the influence they'd attained with businesses, the government, police and the church.
An Interpol agent, mafia lawyer and Russia's first millionaire are also interviewed in the film, along with some lower-ranking thieves by law, but it's the three main protagonists who really drive this documentary. And aside from the one who's now making a theatrical film, which includes footage of his actual victims being beaten up to add realism, they seem likable at times.
That can be almost as scary in a personal sense as realizing the power that men like this wield on the global stage.
Thieves By Law is 90 minutes long and in Russian, French and Hebrew, with English subtitles. It will receive a second Hot Docs screening at 10 p.m. on Sat. May 8 at Toronto's Isabel Bader Theatre.
A Film Unfinished
A Film Unfinished, a documentary written and directed by female Israeli filmmaker Yael Hersonski, had its Canadian premiere at the Canadian International Documentary Festival this week.
The 89-minute film is the first to use almost all 62 minutes of unedited, silent footage shot over four reels by Germans in the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, Poland in May 1942 and not discovered until after World War II.
The ghetto's population was estimated to be 440,000. Disease and starvation were rampant and more than 100,000 people died before some 250,000 were deported to the Treblinka extermination camp from July to September 1942. 
Excerpts from these films have since been used as objective illustrations of what the ghetto was like shortly before the Jews were shipped off to Treblinka, but Hersonski's documentary reveals that they were propaganda tools and that many of the scenes were staged. 
Participants co-operated out of fear of the repercussions if they refused. Nazis used the ghetto as a film set, the inhabitants as actors, and dead and decaying bodies lying on the streets as exhibits.
The historic, heartbreaking and frequently disturbing footage is interweaved with readings from diary entries written during the period and testimonies from ghetto survivors and a German cameraman who took part in the filming. This helps contextualize things, but still leaves the viewer with questions that will likely never be answered. Documents revealing who initiated the project and why it was never completed have yet to be found.
Hersonski's aim was to examine both the potential and limitations of images to bear witness to the truth. She wasn't completely successful in coming up with answers, but A Film Unfinished certainly makes you think about the complex subject. And with modern photo, film and video-editing technology, it's becoming more complicated all the time.
A Film Unfinished is in English, Hebrew, German, Polish and Yiddish, and uses English subtitles. It won the editing award in the World Doc Competition at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Marwencol Is A Whole New World
Mark Hogancamp was viciously assaulted by five men outside a bar in his hometown of Kingston, N.Y. in the spring of 2000 and spent nine days in a coma. After regaining consciousness, the 38-year-old had no memory of his previous life and had to learn how to do the things that the rest of us take for granted all over again. Marwencol, a 1/6th-scale World War II-era Belgian town that he created in his backyard as self-administered therapy, is his story.
Hogancamp populated Marwencol with dolls that represented his alter-ego, friends, family members, attackers and others, and came up with storylines to help him cope with his pain and avoid the outside world that he still sometimes fears. He eventually started photographing these scenes, and the detail and realism of the shots started to catch people's attention — including an art magazine editor, the curator of a New York City gallery and filmmaker Jeff Malmberg. 

The director shot Marwencol over four years, and his documentary tells a touching, sometimes disturbing and occasionally funny story of a man who plays with dolls.
Towards the end of the 83-minute film, which has an intriguing twist part-way through, Hogancamp admits that he prefers to live in Marwencol over the real world.
While I find myself pulling for Hogancamp so he can re-integrate himself more fully with human society and financially take advantage of his talents, this beautifully made film makes me realize that a big part of what makes him so compelling and unique might be lost if he did. And that seems like something he's not willing to sacrifice at this point.
As Marwencol's tag line says, "If you aren’t accepted in the real world, create your own."

Marwencol premiered at the 2010 South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, where it won the Grand Jury Award for best documentary feature. It also won the Nesnadny + Schwartz Documentary Film Competition for best documentary at the Cleveland International Film Festival and the Special Jury Prize for best documentary at the Independent Film Festival of Boston.
Marwencol and Malmberg, who was on hand at Tuesday night's Canadian premiere at Toronto's Isabel Bader Theatre and answered questions after the screening, both received rousing ovations when the lights came up. It wouldn't be surprising if the film won another prize as part of this week's Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. I doubt that I'll see many films better than this over the rest of the year.
Marwencol will receive a second screening at 1:30 p.m. on May 6 at Toronto's Cumberland Cinema 3.
The documentary will also be shown at the Seattle International Film Festival on May 30 and 31 and at the June 17-27 Los Angeles Film Festival. 
You can visit Marwencol at www.marwencol.com.