Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Steve McLean’s favourite music of 2016

The top 10
1. Gringo Star - The Sides and in Between
2. Hidden Stash - Mixed Cassette Tape
3. Dressy Bessy - Kingsized
4. Pixies - Head Carrier
5. Pkew Pkew Pkew - Pkew Pkew Pkew
6. Tuns - Tuns
7. Death By Unga Bunga - Pineapple Pizza
8. Waco Brothers - Going Down in History
9. Ferraro - Losing Sleep
10. The Seams - Meet The Seams
The next 10
11. The Monochrome Set - Cosmonaut
12. Car Seat Headrest - Teens of Denial
13. Dexateens - Teenage Hallelujah
14. Jonny Fritz - Sweet Creep
15. The Monkees - Good Times
16. Shonen Knife - Adventure
17. Brian Whelan - Sugarland
18. Skinny Lister - The Devil, The Heart and The Fight
19. The Mekons - Existentialism
20. Brian Fallon - Painkillers

Honourable mention
The I Don’t Cares - Wild Stab
U.I.C. - The Wiseman Sessions
Laura Sauvage - Extraordinormal
The Gotobeds - Blood Sugar Secs Traffic
Alejandro Escovedo - Burn Something Beautiful
The Thermals - We Disappear
Bleached - Welcome the Worms
Communism - Get Down Together
The James Hunter Six - Hold On!
The Coathangers - Nosebleed Weekend
JPNSGRLS - Divorce
Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker
Acapulco Lips - Acapulco Lips
Blue Rodeo - 1000 Arms
Cyndi Lauper - Detour
Dwight Yoakam - Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars
Jeff Rosenstock - Worry
Surf Bored - The Rehearsal
Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle - Colvin & Earle
Neil Young - Peace Trail
Nick Waterhouse - Never Twice

1. The Orielles - Jobin EP
2. The Kickstand Band - Summer Dream
3. Tokyo Police Club - Melon Collie and the Infinite Radness (Part 1)
4. The Accidentals - Parking Lot EP
5. Tokyo Police Club - Melon Collie and the Infinite Radness (Part 2)
6. Dogheart - Real Mood
7. The Donkeys - Midnight Palms

Reissues and live albums
1. The Beatles - Live at The Hollywood Bowl (Remastered)
2. Adam and The Ants - Kings of the Wild Frontier 2016
3. Barenaked Ladies - BNL Rocks Red Rocks
4. The Velveteins - A Hot Second With The Velveteins (Reissue EP)

Concerts (chronological order)
Joe Strummer tribute - Jan. 8, Tennessee, Toronto
The Jammed, Blondee, Gabba Heys - Jan. 16, Cherry Cola's Rock 'n' Rolla Cabaret & Lounge, Toronto
Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls - March 11, The Danforth Music Hall, Toronto

The Paul Collins Beat
Danny Laj and The Looks, The Paul Collins Beat - March 30, The Cadillac Lounge, Toronto
Skinny Lister - March 31, Horseshoe, Toronto
The Royal Crowns, Chalk Circle, Crummy Stuff, Peter Zaremba's Rock Delegation featuring Keith Streng, U.I.C. - April 2, Royal Canadian Legion, Oshawa, Ont.
Jacques and The Valdanes, The ARC Sound - April 9, Tennessee, Toronto
Daddy Long Legs, Catl - April 21, Horseshoe, Toronto
The Who - April 27, Air Canada Centre, Toronto
The Rheostatics - April 29, Massey Hall, Toronto
Bob Mould - May 3, Horseshoe, Toronto
Mabel - May 4, Handlebar, Toronto
Darts, Archie Powell & The Exports, Punchline 13 - May 4, Bovine Sex Club, Toronto
The Kickstand Band, Laura & Greg - May 5, Nightowl, Toronto
The Orielles, Thrifty Kids, The Magic Gang, OL' CD - May 5, Handlebar, Toronto
Tommy Stinson - May 6, Bovine Sex Club, Toronto
New Swears - May 6, Horseshoe, Toronto
HUttch, The Spook School - May 7, The Garrison, Toronto
Forever Distracted - May 7, Cherry Cola's Rock 'n' Rolla Cabaret & Lounge, Toronto
The Orielles, Fat White Family - May 7, Velvet Underground, Toronto
Sam Cash & the Romantic Dogs - May 7, Horseshoe, Toronto
Ferraro - May 7, Cameron House, Toronto
Waco Brothers - May 13, Horseshoe, Toronto
Scott B. Sympathy, The Lawn, The Dundrells - May 15, Horseshoe, Toronto
The Black Eleven, The High Tides, The Hang-Ten Hangmen, The Men In Gray Suits, The Reverb Syndicate - June 4, The Cadillac Lounge, Toronto

The Royal Crowns
The Royal Crowns, The Shuffle Demons, The Dears - June 11, Dundas West Fest, Toronto
The Jayhawks - June 11, Horseshoe, Toronto
Sam Cash & The Romantic Dogs, By Divine Right - June 14, The Rivoli, Toronto
Lucky Ron - Aug. 20, Chateau Lafayette, Ottawa
Ferraro, Gringo Star - Aug. 26, Velvet Underground, Toronto
Ferraro, Sam Cash & The Romantic Dogs - Sept. 9, Horseshoe, Toronto
The Far East, The Specials - Sept. 13, The Danforth Music Hall
Margo Price, The Hives, Skinny Lister, Dropkick Murphys, Drive-By Truckers - Sept. 16, Fort York, Toronto
Lush, Okkervil River, Whitehorse, Barenaked Ladies, Guided By Voices - Sept. 17, Fort York, Toronto
The Mekons - Sept. 17, Horseshoe, Toronto
Corb Lund and The Hurtin’ Albertans - Sept. 18, Horseshoe, Toronto
Leather Uppers, U.I.C. - Sept. 24, Horseshoe, Toronto
Kenny James, The ARC Sound - Sept. 30, Tennessee, Toronto
Nick Waterhouse - Oct. 6, Horseshoe, Toronto

Nick Waterhouse
Catl, Dex Romweber - Oct. 22, Garagenoir, Toronto
Stiff Little Fingers - Oct. 27, Horseshoe, Toronto
Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls, Arkells - Nov. 4, Massey Hall, Toronto
Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls, Arkells - Nov. 5, Massey Hall, Toronto
Lydia Loveless - Nov. 5, Adelaide Hall, Toronto
The Johnstones, The Planet Smashers - Nov. 18, Horseshoe, Toronto
The Aquamaniacs, The Surfrajettes, The Blue Demons, The Men In Gray Suits - Nov. 19, The Cadillac Lounge, Toronto
Alejandro Escovedo - Nov. 23, Horseshoe, Toronto
The Tailbreakers - Dec. 10, Duggan’s Brewery Basement, Toronto
The Rheostatics - Dec. 10, Horseshoe, Toronto

Monday, November 21, 2016

No going hungry or thirsty at Gourmet Food & Wine Expo

You’d think that I’d eat a lot at an event called the Gourmet Food & Wine Expo, but that hasn’t always been the case. I attend more for the wine, beer, ciders and spirits. The food, for me, is almost an afterthought.

Maybe it was just my imagination, but I thought that there were more food exhibitors and more of a focus on food at this year’s event at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre than in recent years. So I paid a bit more attention to sampling edibles, while still getting my drink on, from Friday to Sunday.

I’ve walked by Entice Culinary Lounge on Toronto’s Queen Street West dozens of times without ever going in. But proprietor Ali K graciously offered me three of the things it offers in the restaurant that it also had available at its Gourmet Food & Wine Expo booth. The ravioli, Korean beef ribs and unique bread pudding in hot chocolate were all delicious.

Two companies were peddling jerky: Krave and Lorissa’s Kitchen. They each had four varieties available and, while I enjoyed them all, Krave Chili Lime Beef Jerky was my favourite, as it had the most bite of all of them.

That bite also gave the edge to Campbell’s Thai Tomato Coconut Soup, though I'd also have no problem serving its tomato basil and golden butternut squash flavours, which I also sampled.

Cool isn’t the word I’d apply to most of Cool Runnings’ sauces, but I tried almost all of them and most bring a satisfying amount of heat. Damien’s only had two sauces, one hotter than the other, but both were terrific. They would have gone well with the parmesan turkey meatballs I sampled.

I always have a jar of Matt & Steve’s Extreme Beans in my fridge, and now I know I also like their similarly flavoured asparagus and olive products — and I don’t even eat olives.

Casa Manila has treated me right at past Gourmet Food & Wine Expos, and did so again this year, as I closed both Friday and Sunday sessions at its booth. On night one a spring roll, tangy boneless chicken adobo and tomato garlic beef stew hit the spot. And on Sunday I was left satiated and satisfied with grilled chicken skewers, salad, rice and more chicken adobo. I accompanied both meals with a delicious calamansi mojito.

Speaking of cocktails, I had several of them on Sunday.

The worst was first. Social Lite comes in a can and has a full ginger and lime aroma, but those elements are much less pronounced in the flavour. It’s certainly light, with just 80 calories and a four-per cent alcohol content, but it’s much too watery and lacks the kick that both lime and ginger can provide.

Things improved considerably after that, starting with a simple Bombay Sapphire Gin and Fever-Tree Tonic. You can’t go wrong with those two ingredients.

Great Britain’s dry and non-citrusy Boodles Gin was the primary alcoholic ingredient in my next three cocktails, which were mixed and served by a lovely young woman from Invite Catering.

The Boodles Smash was made with 45.2-per cent alcohol content Boodles Gin, QCumber Water, Belvoir Elderflower Water, cucumber, lime and basil. It’s as cool as a cucumber and would make a great summer refresher.

The Boodles Mule was made with Boodles Gin, Kiju Apple Juice, Fever-Tree Ginger Beer and a slice of lime, and then shaken and served over ice with an apple slice. The ginger beer comes through loud and clear in the nose and flavour, but the apple adds a distinctive touch and mellows things out a bit.

The Boodles Blossom was made with Boodles Gin, Kiju Mango Passionfruit Juice, Kiju Lemonade, iced tea and fresh raspberries that were shaken and served over ice with a bruised mint leaf. The raspberries and iced tea provided the strongest flavours in this easy-drinking translucent pink cocktail.

Jeremy Parsons mixed my next two drinks with 1800 Tequila.

The Winter Sun Margarita was made with 1800 Tequila, Kiju Cranberry, Pomegranate and Blueberry Juice, Kiju Mango Orange Juice foam, and a lime slice, shaken and served neat. While I’m a traditionalist when it comes to margaritas and prefer the original lime juice-based version, this was a fun alternative.

I preferred 1800 Punch, which was made with 1800 Tequila, Kiju Pomegranate Cherry Juice, Fever-Tree Ginger Beer and an orange slice that was shaken and served over ice. It’s surprisingly mellow, considering the tequila and ginger beer combination, but it’s beautiful.

Circa Lemon Ginger was made with Ciroc Ultra-Premium Vodka, lemonade and ginger beer, and then garnished with mint and lemon. The ginger beer cuts through and makes this sparkle.

The Moksha Indian Bistro booth was out of its chicken when I arrived shortly before closing time on Sunday, but the Niagara Falls restaurant more than made up for my disappointment with that with its cocktails, including the excellent Moksha Ginger Sour made with Jagermeister and ginger. I also tried a concoction made with rum and tamarind. It made me smile.

I discovered Tito’s Vodka in Austin, Texas several years ago and have drank it on occasion ever since. At the Gourmet Food & Wine Expo, I was given a souvenir Tito’s glass for a drink that mixed the vodka with cranberry juice and lemonade. I wasn’t disappointed.

White wine fever at Gourmet Food & Wine Expo

“White Line Fever” is one of my favourite Motorhead songs, but I was overcome with white wine fever at Toronto’s Metro Toronto Convention Centre over the weekend. After focusing on beers on Friday, trying a variety of white wines was at the top of my agenda on Saturday and Sunday at the Gourmet Food & Wine Expo.

There were a few booths specializing in New Zealand wines, and a high percentage of them were Sauvignon Blancs. The bright and fruity yet dry style is made in different parts of New Zealand’s Marlborough wine-growing region, some areas of which produce a more grassy flavour. I’m more of a fruit-forward guy and preferred those.

My favourites were Villa Maria Private Bin Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2016 and Villa Maria Private Bin Lightly Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc. I’d rank Babich Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Peter Yealands Sauvignon Blanc, Stoneleigh Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Stoneleigh Latitude Sauvignon Blanc, Nobilo Icon Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Nobilo Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and the Maori-made Te Pa slightly behind them but still worthy of recommendation.

Joiy, which just arrived from New Zealand in boxes containing four 250-millilitre bottles, was a pleasant surprise: a sparkling and aromatic wine made with no added sugar, concentrates or flavours that would work well for the holiday season.

I was also very fond of the extra dry White Cliff Sauvignon Blanc 2015 from New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay region on the north island.

I spent time at a few California booths and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, what impressed me most was the Fetzer Gewurztraminer from Monterrey. The style is fairly uncommon for California and this one was sweeter than what I generally prefer in a wine, but its bold floral aroma, rich full-bodied fruit flavour (with a hint of pineapple) and oily finish won me over.

The organic Fonterra Chardonnay from further north toward the Oregon border had pleasant green apple, pear and citrus flavours and tied for second on my list of favourite California wines from the Gourmet Food & Wine Expo along with the gentler and earthier Chloe Chardonnay.

I enjoyed Italy’s Ruffino Prosecco, an extra dry and very bubbly sparkling wine with peach and apple aroma and flavour profiles.

Calmel & Joseph Villa Blanche Chardonnay 2015 was the only French wine I had, and the extra dry medium-bodied wine with apple, peach, melon and citrus elements didn’t disappoint.

I didn’t get around to trying as many Rieslings as I normally would at this year’s Gourmet Food & Wine Expo, and only one from where the style is best known: Germany. The light and easy Funf Riesling lived up to its fun name with its peach and apricot bouquet, citrus flavour and clean finish.

Closer to home, I became a fan of the bold, refreshing and off-dry Rosewood Sussreserve Riesling from Beamsville, Ont. The Rosewood Legacy apple and honey mead was interesting, but a bit too sweet for me.

Port Dover, Ont. is the home of two cheekily named brands, Frisky Beaver and Smoke & Gamble. Frisky Beaver Sparkling was off dry but wit some sweetness and would be my first choice over Frisky Beaver Frisky White Riesling, Smoke & Gamble Chardonnay and the only rose I tried over the weekend, Frisky Beaver Blushing Beaver.

The other Ontario wine I sampled was Fielding Estate Winery’s Long Weekend Pinot Grigio Chardonnay, an enjoyable casual wine with a robustly fruity aroma and flavour.

Perhaps the least favourite wines I sampled were from Greece: Santorini Assyrtiko; and a Sauvignon Blanc called 2014 Thalia White.

And finally, thank you to the lovely couple from Cambridge, Ont. who gave me three sampling tickets as they celebrated their anniversary on Saturday. And also to my New Zealand wine-drinking buddies Natasha and Louise, who gave me four tickets but then didn’t show up at The Cadillac Lounge afterward like they said they would.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Beer night at Gourmet Food & Wine Expo

Toronto’s Gourmet Food & Wine Expo seemed smaller this year, but there were still a couple dozen beers and ciders that I hadn’t tried before (as well as a few cocktails and wines) that were available to sample on Friday night.

Four beers stood out from the rest.

Smuttynose Brewing Finest Kind IPA from New Hampshire is made in a LEED Gold-certified brewery, but it’s not just its facility that’s impressive. The 6.9-per cent alcohol ale pours a slightly cloudy gold with little head and a pleasant hop aroma. It stands at a 75 IBU on the bitterness scale but, despite this, the taste is crisp, clean and well-balanced and isn’t excessively bitter. It has an excellent and surprisingly easy finish.

Beau’s Collabrewnaut Espresso Pilsner was perhaps the most unique beer I tried. I’ve had espresso porters and stouts before but had never tried it in a pilsner. It works wonderfully. It’s very finely filtered so the coffee bean darkness doesn’t infuse the five per cent beer, but the flavour certainly does.

Beau’s Polaris Pale Ale was made for the Polaris Music Prize gala and, since I didn’t attend this year, the Gourmet Food & Wine Expo presented my first opportunity to try this five-per cent alcohol beer that’s brewed with spruce tips. It’s rich gold, pours with little head and has a 32 IBU. There’s not a lot of spruce in the nose but it comes through in the flavour. The spiciness of the spruce gives it a bit of bite almost like ginger, making Polaris a bit reminiscent of a ginger beer.

I didn’t expect a lot from Moosehead Radler, but I was happily surprised by it. It’s a pale and slightly cloudy gold and, at four per cent, has a bit more of an alcoholic kick than many radlers. I’m on medication where I’m not supposed to eat grapefruit or drink grapefruit juice, so I couldn’t have many of these for that reason, but they’re certainly refreshing enough that I’d like to on a hot summer day.

There were three other beers just a notch below these.

Railway City Express India Session Lager is a dry-hopped, 4.8-per cent, 18 IBU beer made with Galaxy, Mosaic and Cascade hops at the St. Thomas, Ont. brewery. It’s light gold with  a beautiful hop and pine aroma and a well-balanced flavour.

Railway City Double Dead Elephant Imperial IPA is a 7.5-per cent alcohol beer that’s dark gold and pours with a big white head. It has a gentler aroma and flavour than I expected, as the high alcohol content and bitterness expressed in its 90 IBU rating aren’t overpowering. It finishes very nicely.

I’m a wimp when it comes to sour Berliner Weisse beers, but Nickel Brook Raspberry Uber may be my favourite of the style since it’s not overly sour and isn’t that much different from some raspberry-flavoured beers I’ve had.

There were three beers I’d put in the next tier.

Charlie Wells Dry Hopped Lager from the United Kingdom just arrived in Ontario and the 4.7-per cent alcohol beer has more body than a lot of lagers. It’s gold, has a small head and is made with two types of malt and four different hops. It’s an easy-drinking, refreshing beer with a smooth finish and is best suited for summer.

Nickel Brook Equilibrium ESB is a 5.5-per cent, 43 IBU beer that pours dark gold with a small head. You can taste the complex blend of hops and malts, but it’s hoppier than many extra special bitter beers I’ve had — which is a plus for my palate.

Nickel Brook Cucumber Lime Gose is cloudy gold and had no head. The cucumber is wonderfully evident in the aroma and, while you can detect the lime as well, it comes through more in the flavour and gives the beer a slightly sour taste. I don’t drink a lot of goses because they tend to be too sour for me, but that’s not the case with this one.

There were seven beers I’d rate a step down from those.

Wellington Kickin’ Back is a dark gold, dry-hopped session ale with a somewhat floral bouquet. At 48 IBU, it may be the Guelph, Ont. brewery’s most hop-forward beer. The 4.8-per cent alcohol ale is dry on the first sip and stays that way through the finish.

Smuttynose Brewing Robust Porter is very dark brown with a tiny head. The 6.6-per cent alcohol beer isn’t as robust as a stout but it has the dark chocolate bitterness of some of them. I preferred the initial introduction over the finish.

Badger Fursty Ferret is from the United Kingdom, where it’s apparently the top-selling craft-bottled ale. It’s a light golden brown and has a bouquet of malt and orange. Raisin comes through with the malt in the flavour, which is nicely balanced and not too heavily malted. I don’t often drink English pale ales, but I appreciate this one.

Median Brewing Dark Ale is a 5.2-per cent alcohol beer from a Windsor, Ont. brewery that opened early last month. The aroma is stronger than the taste, which is initially sharp but then quickly mellows.

Whitewater Midnight Stout is a 4.5-per cent alcohol oatmeal stout that pours black with a medium tan head. It’s coffee and dark chocolate flavour is pleasant, but I would have preferred more body as I found it a bit thin for a stout.

Sierra Nevada Nooner Pilsner is a light gold beer that’s certainly decent but doesn’t stand out. It’s a crisp but easy drinking pilsner.

Propeller IPA from Halifax has just been introduced to Ontario in a can. The 6.5-per cent alcohol, 68 IBU ale is a slightly cloudy gold and has a fruity and full-bodied bouquet. It’s not bitter at first but it has a bit of bite in its finish.

Luckily I have no reason to drink gluten-free beer, as most of them I’ve had aren’t very good. There’s nothing offensive about Bard’s Gluten Free from Utica, N.Y., but it’s very dull in its aroma and flavour profiles and has little to offer. It was my least favourite beer of the Gourmet Food & Wine Expo.

I was quite happy with the three ciders I sampled.

Brickworks Cherry Cider will arrive in the LCBO in early December. I prefer it over the company’s two apple ciders and one peach cider. It has a dry apple cider base augmented with cherries, with all ingredients grown within 300 kilometres of Toronto. It has a five per cent alcohol content and isn’t nearly as sweet as many cherry ciders. Although it’s a seasonal product, I could enjoy it year-round.

Double Trouble Grow A Pear Cider is a pale, 5.5-per cent alcohol perry made in Stoney Creek, Ont. It’s made with water, sugar and pears from Winona, Ont., in the heart of the Niagara wine region. It was a bit sweeter than expected, but I thought it was excellent.

Pommies Perry is a light straw-coloured, semi-sweet and medium dry pear cider with a five per cent alcohol content. It’s crisp, but not overly so, and is very pleasant. Its pears come from around Meaford, Ont.

I’m generally not a fan of barley wines and while I wouldn’t go out of my way to have another Midian Brewing Barley Wine, it was certainly decent. The eight-per cent alcohol brew from this new brewery is a cloudy, dark amber. While you can detect the high alcohol content in the aroma, it’s not overwhelming. It’s full bodied, fruity and gentler than most other barley wines I’ve tried.

I discovered Tito’s Vodka in Austin, Texas several years ago and have drank it on occasion ever since. This time I was given a souvenir Tito’s glass for a drink that mixed the vodka with cranberry juice and lemonade. I wasn’t disappointed.

Les Quarterons Cremant de Loire is a dry and creamy sparkling wine with a slight lemon aroma that’s made with chenin, chardonnay and cabernet franc grapes. The 12-per cent alcohol wine is aged between 18 and 24 months by Amirault in France.

Rodrigues Blueberry Wine from Whitbourne, Nfld. is all natural with no sulphites that rates a two on the sweetness scale and has a 10-per cent alcohol content. I’ve had better blueberry wines.

It was suggested that I also try mixing the Les Quarterons Cremant de Loire with the Rodrigues Blueberry Wine. I did, but preferred them both on their own.

I admit that I attend the Gourmet Food & Wine Expo more for the booze than the food, but I’ve enjoyed the Filipino food from Casa Manila in the past and stopped by its booth again. This time I had a small but delicious meal of a spring roll, tangy boneless chicken adobo and tomato garlic beef stew. I accompanied it with a lovely calamansi mojito. If you haven’t had calamansi juice before, I definitely recommend it. It has a mix of orange and lime flavours that’s great on its own or, as I found, in a rum cocktail.

The Krave Chili Lime Beef Jerky I sampled was excellent. The sweet chipotle flavour was also nice, but not as good.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Rugged beauty of Lewis and Harris shines through the rain, the wind and the cold -- in July

You soon realize how sparsely populated the Isle of Lewis is when you arrive by the large MV Loch Seaforth ferry to its major city of Stornoway, whose 7,500 occupants comprise 40 per cent of the island off the northwest coast of Scotland’s inhabitants.

Stornoway has the typical small town stores, restaurants and pubs you’d expect, as well as a disproportionately large amount of barber shops and storefronts promoting religion and Christianity. If you’re looking to find God or get a haircut, this is your place.

Stornoway is a strongly Calvinist enclave, an important port and the administrative centre for the Outer Hebrides islands. I stayed at Heb Hostel, a clean and friendly place to rest your head and enjoy a warm peat fire after a day exploring the rest of Lewis. And you’ll want to explore, because there’s not a lot to do in Stornoway.

I was with two dozen other people on the 10-day Compass Buster tour of the Scottish highlands, the Western Isles, Orkney, Skye and Loch Ness run by Haggis Adventures, which gets you out and about to see and experience several sights without the hassles of renting a car and driving.

Abhainn Dearg Distillery
Our comfortable and roomy bus left Stornoway for the west coast through a landscape of small, rocky hills occupied by grazing sheep. Our first stop was the tiny and rustic Abhainn Dearg Distillery, where we were greeted by high winds and torrential rains. Thankfully, the staff was much more accommodating than the weather as they showed us their small operation and offered us samples of their Spirit of Lewis and my favourite, Abhainn Dearg Single Malt. It’s a smooth, totally homegrown Scotch with a natural cask colour and a pleasing finish despite its 46-per cent alcohol content. I enjoyed several free shots and while I’m not used to drinking that much Scotch at 11 a.m., you have to take advantage of such things when circumstances arise.

Callanish Standing Stones
We moved on to the Callanish Standing Stones, a large stone circle that’s considered one of the most significant and important megalithic complexes in Europe. Think Stonehenge, the most famous stone circle, on a smaller scale. The pelting rain and fierce wind, unfortunately, dampened my enthusiasm and appreciation for this historic site.

Carloway Broch through a wet camera lens.
It was a short drive to what’s left of Carloway Broch, a round Iron Age structure positioned well from a defensive standpoint on a hill with free roaming shape. It was probably the home of tribal leaders and important members of the community hundreds of years ago.

Gearrannan blackhouses
The Gearrannan blackhouses aren’t as old, but it’s still difficult to believe that they were inhabited until 1974. Blackhouses acted as homes for both people and livestock and were constructed of stone with gaps filled in with earth or peat. Wood frames held up thatched or turf roofs which had to withstand severe weather. I was there in July and shuddered to think what it might have been like to live in one of these structures in January. There were several blackhouses at Gearrannan, some of which have been modernized to house a small museum and hostel rooms.

Butt of Lewis
I’ve always loved rugged landscapes where cliffs meet the sea, and the Butt of Lewis provided an opportunity to enjoy one of these vistas. The rain had stopped and the wind had diminished, allowing us to roam over the soft green turf and peer down at waves crashing into small coves, with seals occasionally bobbing above the water’s surface.

Port of Ness
There was a short stop in Port of Ness, where the tide was out and boats were stranded on sand, on the way back to Stornoway. 

Upon arrival back in town, I went to an unlicensed Thai restaurant and paid $18.50 for a good if unexceptional meal of two chicken skewers, fried rice, beef and vegetables. McNeill’s pub was the place to be later in the evening for fruit-flavoured ciders (which are much more popular in the United Kingdom than in Canada) and musicians covering country songs until midnight.

When morning came it was time to make the journey south to Harris, which is attached to Lewis by a causeway. Harris has higher elevations and its rocks evoke thoughts of lunar landscapes, but the white sands of Loggantir beach were as nice as you’d find at Caribbean resorts. The water, however, was still cold even in July and there was no-one swimming.

Loggantir dunes
I walked alone along the beach for 30 minutes before climbing up the dunes that overlook it. I shared them with sheep and was wishing I had something to slide down on when I came to a sand canyon. I instead climbed down and then back up to get back to where the bus was parked near a small cemetery. 

St. Clements Church
A nip of Scotch did the trick to pick me up before arriving at St. Clements Church, which was built around 500 years ago for the MacLeod clan. It was repaired after a fire in the 1800s and its lovely setting surrounded by rocky hills on one side and the sea on the other would have been an interesting place for a golf course —- and I soon discovered that the Isle of Harris Golf Club wasn’t too far away. Owing to the winds blowing in from over the water, a 215-yard hole was still a par four.

After reaching the southern tip of Harris, we headed back north to the village of Tarbert, the embarkation point for the ferry to the Isle of Skye. It didn’t take long to walk around, so it wasn’t difficult to find Isle of Harris Distillers Ltd. While the distillery is waiting for its Scotch to mature, it’s making gin. I was given a sample, and it was fine, but I didn’t spend $63 for a bottle. Nor did I buy any of the tweed that Harris is famous for before boarding the 4 p.m. ferry to Skye.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Lapping up the leftovers at Cask Days

I’ve volunteered to serve beer at the annual Cask Days festival at Toronto’s Evergreen Brick Works for the past few years because it enables me to relive my bartending days, hang out with other beer aficionados and gain admission to non-working sessions for free.

Last year I was invited to the Friday night session after my Friday afternoon shift, and then to bring a friend to the Sunday afternoon session, in exchange for my service. Organizers were less generous this time, as I was just offered free admission to Sunday for myself only. I also received a Cask Days T-shirt and three food tickets, which I spent on some delicious Brando’s fried chicken during a short break in my shift.

Friday afternoons aren’t generally that busy, so it allows me to talk to patrons more than I could at the much busier Friday night and Saturday sessions. I enjoyed my time pouring more than 50 different types of unfiltered, unpasteurized and naturally carbonated real ales from Quebec, and it was a good way to gear me up for a trip to Duggan’s Brewery later that evening.

I arrived at the Brickworks on Sunday afternoon at 1:30 p.m., purchased a dozen five-ounce sample tokens for $30, and began my thirst-quenching quest. The good thing about Sunday at Cask Days is that it’s not overly crowded. The downside is that the most popular beers are all gone because there’s only one cask of each and they’re not replaced when they’re done.

So I did my best to try and make the best of what was left. I wasn’t offended by any of what I sampled, but I wasn’t knocked out by anything either. I’d rate most of them a five, six or seven out of 10.

I started with India pale ales from Quebec, California, New York and Oregon. In honour of late Motorhead singer/bassist Lemmy Kilmister, I ordered an Ace of Spades Double IPA from Portland, Ore.-based Hopworks Urban Brewery. It was cloudy, tan-coloured and had a pleasant hop and pine aroma. It went down nicely with an easy finish. It wasn’t a knockout, but it was the best of the five IPAs I tried.

I then went for a Graveyards Pale Ale from California-based brew pub chain Pizza Port Brewing Company. This American pale ale was the clearest one of the day and had a very mild aroma. There was no overt happiness and it was somewhat complex and spicy, almost like a saison.

Ulla!, a dark farmhouse ale with raspberries from Toronto’s Folly Brewpub, was black and had a rich raspberry bouquet and a flavour profile dominated by the fruit. I probably would have liked it more if it wasn’t so acidic.

Since it’s October, I figured I should have a pumpkin beer, and my choices seemed limited to Nickel Brook’s Pumpkin Stout. It poured black and had more of a spice than pumpkin aroma and taste. It was thinner than I’d like in a stout, but it was flavourful.

There were almost 60 ciders at Cask Days, more than ever before. Since a lot of beer nerds probably just stuck to sampling ales, I noticed that there was a better selection of ciders available and spent most of the rest of my time around those casks.

Unfortunately, like with the ales, I only came across ciders that I’d rate in the five to seven out of 10 range.

Again, since Halloween is looming, I figured I should have a pumpkin cider. I tried Spirit Tree Estate Cidery’s Pumpkin Chai. It was a very cloudy pale yellow. It had a pleasing chai aroma and both chai and pumpkin were evident to the palate, though definitely more of the former than the latter.

Les Vergers De La Colline from Saint-Joseph-du-Lac, Que. was a cloudy gold apple tea cider. You could taste the tea, and this mild cider was pleasant but unexceptional.

Ernest Cider Co.’s Key West dry-hopped cider was flavoured with key limes, lemongrass and liquorice. It wasn’t as robust as what those ingredients should have produced.

Revel Pear Necessities was a very cloudy tan-coloured perry cider that incorporated Sauvignon Blanc yeast. While relatively mild, it still had a funky flavour that didn’t appeal much to me.

By then I was subtly buzzed and, judging by what I’d already had, I didn’t think I was going to make any brilliant discoveries if I bought more tokens. So with The The’s “This Is The Day” emanating from the DJ booth and putting an extra bounce in my step, I made my way out.

One of the things I like most about Evergreen Brick Works is the trails that lead out of it. I followed one through a forested area until hitting some streets I’d never been. I then made my way to Bloor Street and then southwest across the downtown core during a two-hour walk that included a brief pit stop for a couple of chicken pitas for dinner.

A night of both new discoveries and familiar faces

I made a few new discoveries on Saturday night while venturing to a little known to me part of Toronto for what was billed as a secret show featuring Dex Romweber, Catl and the Zakary Miller Band.

The first revelation was the venue, Garagenoir. I’d never heard of it and there was very little information about it online. Even Romweber’s booking agent apparently didn’t know where it was, and I was given two different addresses for it. It turned out they were both correct, as they were for the same building, but there were entrances on two streets: Dupont Street and Campbell Avenue.

Zakary Miller Band
Upon arrival at this office/industrial building, I was told to go to the second floor and follow a long hallway. I was expecting a warehouse space but instead I had to go up another short flight of stairs and then into what looked like a recently renovated space that could have made a nice office or apartment. There was another short set of stairs leading down once I got inside the main room, and this is where I first laid eyes on Miller and his four-piece backing band. Instead of looking up at a stage, the 50 or so patrons who paid $15 to $20 for the gig looked down at the entertainers.

Miller and company played old-timey sounding songs with electric and acoustic guitars, tuba, trumpet and trombone. It was loose and fun and reminded me somewhat of Pokey LaFarge. It was my first time seeing Miller and will likely be my last for a long time since he’s moving from Toronto to Canada’s east coast.

I’m much more familiar with Catl, which I’ve probably seen more than any Toronto band this decade. I’ve never been disappointed by a performance, and that streak continued Saturday. Guitarist Jamie Fleming and drummer Sarah Kirkpatrick play stripped-down juke joint blues with high-octane punk energy. And even though they’d just returned home from an American tour the night before, they exhibited no signs of road fatigue.

Kirkpatrick is singing more while still smashing her snares with abandon, while Fleming continues to slink around while producing jaw-dropping licks that take you back to the American south — if it was all hopped up on amphetamines.

Dex Romweber
Catl set the mood for Romweber, a singer and guitarist who’s been a staple of the southern United States alternative music scene since forming the Flat Duo Jets with drummer Chris “Crow” Smith more than 30 years ago. The influential lo-fi psychobilly duo broke up in 1999 and Romweber has continued making music on his own and with his sister (and former Let’s Active drummer) Sara since then. But his Toronto appearances have been few and far between, so this was my first time seeing him.

Romweber was on his own this time, playing in support of his new Bloodshot Records solo album, Carrboro. I’m not as enamoured with it as I was with the previous Dex Romweber Duo record, Images 13, which was my fourth favourite album of 2014. Still, it’s a solid record and Romweber has a way of mixing rock, country, rockabilly, blues, jazz, pop, surf and straight-up ballads to create a soundscape that’s all his own.

Decked out in dark shades that gave him a bit of a Link Wray look, Romweber and his shorter than normal guitar entertained a small but appreciative audience that included local musicians Ian Blurton, Sean Dean, “Classy” Craig  Daniels, Dave Kiner, Steven Bromstein and Jeff MacNeil, who were sipping on Steam Whistle pilsner that was brought in for the occasion. 

Since I was seeing a Bloodshot artist, I showed my support and further fortified myself with the contents of my Waco Brothers flask.

It was a mellower than expected set, but one in which Romweber was able to showcase his crooning and finger-picking skills with songs including “Blind Man” and “Paradise,” even if he did seem to be treating the gig as a public rehearsal by repeating parts of songs he said he wasn’t satisfied with the way he initially played them.

There was little talking between songs until, inexplicably, Romweber put down his guitar and sat down and talked about a mental breakdown he had. He got up and sat down again while telling this story, which had unsettling racial overtones, for several minutes. While it may have been cathartic for Romweber, it obviously made some audience members uncomfortable — and I saw a couple of people walk out.

Romweber then picked up the guitar and began playing again as if that previous interlude had never happened. The room was so cozy that he sometimes moved away from the microphone and you could still hear every word. Romweber performed a few more songs and then ended with an extended guitar solo that amped up the energy but was primarily played with Romweber’s back to the audience.

Dex Romweber and Sean Dean
Romweber’s set clocked in at less than an hour. On my way out, I took a photo of him with Dean, who has played several shows with him over the years as the bassist for The Sadies.

While the neighbourhood is pretty desolate as far as nightlife is concerned, luckily Boo Radley’s pub was across the street. This was another first for me, but I liked the atmosphere, the bartender and the Henderson’s Best that was on tap, and MacNeil and I struck up a good music conversation with a young regular.

It was a nice late autumn night so, after the bar closed, I had an enjoyable 90-minute walk that got me home around 4:30 a.m. It gave me exercise, fresh air and time to reflect on what I’d experienced and discovered in the preceding few hours.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Nuit Blanche 2016

I've become a regular attendee of Nuit Blanche, Toronto's dusk to dawn arts festival, since its inception.

I find much of Nuit Blanche to be pretty pretentious so I got the idea a few years ago that, as an artistically rebellious act to mock that aura, I'd show those pretentious artistes what real pretension is. I obtained all the application paperwork and filled out forms to submit to the City of Toronto to try to be part of this wide-ranging event. However, the people I thought would support my large-scale interactive installation weren't as supportive as their early enthusiasm indicated and I never applied. But I promise that's not why I'm a bit jaded about Nuit Blanche.

The art itself, with some exceptions, has never overly impressed me. And even though I've lowered my expectations since the early years, I still come away with a "meh" attitude towards what I've seen.

I'm a night owl and usually have the streets pretty much to myself when I'm walking around at 4 a.m., so I find it interesting to see the streets packed with people (presumably) seeking out art after midnight. 

I've regularly attended the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas for the past dozen years and I find that Queen Street on Nuit Blanche has become like 6th Street during SXSW. If you've ever attended the sprawling March music fest, you'll know that's not a compliment. 

But Nuit Blanche has become an early autumn ritual for me and I'll probably attend as long as it exists, especially if -- like last night -- the promised rain holds off and the temperatures are comfortable.

Here are some of the things that caught my eye in walking around downtown Toronto (and avoiding things that had excessively long lineups to get into) from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. on Oct. 1 and 2:

This was a sort-of air hockey game played on a metal surface covered in flames behind Site 3 coLaboratory.
These were scans of small porcelain dolls that were blown up, illuminated and presented like this. It was a bit eerie at Markham House.
This is what the interior of the former David Mirvish Books store looked like on Nuit Blanche.
This still from a slow-motion video at one of the many galleries at 401 Richmond doesn't quite capture the power of the expressions of the woman's face as she's surrounded by flames.
This is someone looking at an interactive light installation by my friend Roger Sader at 401 Richmond.
These flags belonging to historic and primarily unsuccessful revolutionary movements in Latin America were assembled and repeated to form a quilt-like carpet on Stephanie Street.
This video installation presented the illusion of Blue Jays fans climbing the columns in front of Union Station.
These are videos of different waterfalls from along the Niagara Escarpment that were displayed on monitors stacked to look like a waterfall at Brookfield Place.
The above three images are from the Oblivion installation at Nathan Phillips Square.
A teeter-totter made from a cedar tree trunk at Artscape Youngplace.
The above two images are from the Drake Hotel on Queen Street.
Nuit Blanche wouldn't be complete for me without watching Scopitones under the stars at 401 Richmond. They've become a Nuit Blanche tradition and I could have happily sat there all night watching them. Here's a clip from one of them:

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Corb Lund closes TURF in western style

Corb Lund is one of Canada’s best, and probably one of its most overlooked, songwriters. And I’m somewhat ashamed to say that it’s been several years since the last time I saw him perform despite deriving a lot of pleasure from his albums. Luckily, that drought came to an end on Sunday night at the Horseshoe Tavern as part of the Toronto Urban Roots Fest’s club series.

Lund cut his teeth in the ‘90s with Edmonton punk/alternative rock band The Smalls before returning to the music of his ranching roots and embarking on a career that embraces traditional, honky tonk and alternative country styles and has attracted fans of Americana and folk with his backing band The Hurtin’ Albertans.

Lund’s songs are clever and often humorous, but can sometimes be poignant and address social problems and personal travails, perhaps most notably in “Sadr City,” which tells the moving tale of an Iraq war veteran, and “Sunbeam,” which he wrote for his late niece. 

You can’t take Lund’s ranching heritage away, however, so western themes and tunes about horses, cows and other farm animals also have a place in Lund’s repertoire.

With three albums certified gold in Canada, Lund has obviously struck a chord with his countrymen. Even in downtown Toronto, many in the audience were singing along to rural and outdoorsy-oriented numbers like “Hair In My Eyes Like A Highland Steer,” “The Truck Got Stuck,” “Horse Soldier, Horse Soldier,” “Little Foothills Heaven,” “Buckin’ Horse Rider” (in which Lund incorporated some of “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys”), “Dig Gravedigger Dig,” the Hayes Carll collaboration “Bible On The Dash,” “(Gonna) Shine Up My Boots,” “Getting’ Down On The Mountain,” “Cows Around,” “Roughest Neck Around,” “S Lazy H,” “Talkin’ Veterinarian Blues” and “Hurtin’ Albertan.”

And an old school country singer is hardly worth a lick without a few drinking songs, and Lund and his SNFU sticker-emblazoned guitar engaged the crowd with a singalong cover of the cowboy classic “Rye Whiskey” and the set-ending “Time To Switch To Whiskey.” 

The audience wanted more and, after a brief time off stage, Lund and his bandmates returned to treat it to “The Truth Comes Out” and the ever-popular “Five Dollar Bill.”

Other commitments unfortunately prevented me from attending earlier TURF performances at Fort York on Sunday, but year four of the consistently high quality fest ended on a very high note with Lund and friends.