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: