Sunday, December 29, 2019

Steve McLean's favourite music of 2019

I always try to seek out new music and discover unfamiliar artists, while also catching up with acts I’ve heard before.

I listened to a few hundred albums that came out this year. I thought there were several good ones but, for my tastes, not many great ones. However, following an annual tradition, I’ve compiled this list of records that I enjoyed the most in 2019.

My favourite 10 albums
1. Kitty Kat Fan Club - Dreamy Little You
2. Baby Shakes - Cause A Scene
3. Daddy Long Legs - Lowdown Ways
4. The Resonars - No Exit
5. Tacocat - This Mess Is A Place
6. Geoff Palmer - Pulling Out All The Stops
7. Dehd - Water
8. The Hold Steady - Thrashing Thru The Passion
9. Vandoliers - Forever
10. Charlie Faye and the Fayettes - The Whole Shebang

The next 10 albums
11. Bleached - Don’t You Think You’ve Had Enough?
12. Michael Franti and Spearhead - Stay Human Vol. II
13. Holiday Ghosts - West Bay Playroom
14. Jason Ringenberg - Stand Tall
15. Chuck Mead - Close To Home
16. Redd Kross - Beyond The Door
17. A Giant Dog - Neon Bible
18. Pernice Brothers - Spread The Feeling
19. Stray Cats - 40
20. K-Man & The 45s - Stand With The Youth

The next 10 albums after that
21. Raygun Cowboys - Bloodied But Unbroken
22. The Discarded - Sound Check And Fury
23. Purple Mountains - Purple Mountains
24. King Prawn - The Fabulous New Sounds Of …
25. Screamin’ Rebel Angels - Heel Grinder
26. 500 Miles To Memphis - Blessed Be The Damned
27. Graham Parker - Squeezing Out Sparks Solo Acoustic 40th Anniversary
28. Lowest of the Low - Agitpop
29. The Planet Smashers - Too Much Information
30. Bad Religion - Age of Unreason

The next 15 albums after that
31. Olivia Jean - Night Owl
32. The Schizophonics - People In The Sky
33. The Menzingers - Hello Exile
34. Mattiel - Satis Factory
35. Juliana Hatfield - Juliana Hatfield Sings The Police
36. Shovels and Rope - By Blood
37. Ex Hex - It’s Real
38. Chuck Cleaver - Send Aid
39. Frank Turner - No Man’s Land
40. Nervus - Tough Crowd
41. The Tough Shits - Burning In Paradise
42. Have Gun Will Travel - Strange Chemistry
43. Foxhall Stacks - The Coming Collapse
44. David Picco - Out of the Past
45. David Hasselhoff - Open Your Eyes

My favourite EPs
1. Nick Lowe - Love Starvation/Trombone
2. The Hard Toms - Panties Not Included
3. Sunflower Bean - King of the Dudes
4. Los Straitjackets - Channel Surfing

My favourite compilations, reissues and live albums
1. The Specials - Live at La Bataclan and The Troxy (disc two from the deluxe version of Encore)
2. Roger C. Reale and Rue Morgue - The Collection
3. The Beaumonts - This Is Austin
4. Billy Bragg - Best of Billy Bragg at the BBC 1983-2019
5. Alex Chilton - From Memphis to New Orleans

My favourite concerts (chronological order)

I generally try to stick to attending live performances I know I’m going to like. While some don’t live up to expectations, I came home satisfied after these shows:

The ARC Sound - Jan. 26, The Artful Dodger, Toronto
The ARC Sound - Feb. 23, The Artful Dodger, Toronto
The Discarded - March 9, Duggan’s Basement, Toronto
The Supersuckers - March 20, Lee’s Palace, Toronto
The Interruputers - March 22, Danforth Music Hall, Toronto
The Surfrajettes, UIC - March 23, Horseshoe, Toronto

The Surfrajettes
The Hard Toms - April 6, Duggan’s Basement, Toronto
Ten Feet Tall - April 11, The Dakota Tavern, Toronto
The Hilarious House of Hackenstein - April 19, Horseshoe, Toronto
Teenage Head - April 26, Horseshoe, Toronto
The Slackers - April 27, Lee’s Palace, Toronto
The ARC Sound - May 4, The Artful Dodger, Toronto
Television - May 6, The Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto
Ferraro - May 11, Cameron House, Toronto
Jon Langford with John Szymanski, The Sadies and Burlington Welsh Male Chorus - May 23, Horseshoe, Toronto

Jon Langford
Thelonious Hank - Grossman’s Tavern, May 24, Toronto
Jon Langford with John Szymanski - May 25, 419 Brunswick, Toronto
Dave Bookman memorial with Blue Rodeo, Andy Maize, Andrew Cash, Kate Boothman, The Beaches, Sloan, Ben Kowalewicz with Chris Walla, Tim Mech, Stephen Stanley, Damhnait Doyle, The Inbreds, The Rheostatics, Hayden, Billy Talent, Danny Greaves, , Matt Mays, July Talk, Broken Social Scene, Hollerado, UIC - May 30, Horseshoe, Toronto
The Jet Screams, The Cliff Divers, The Champions of Justice, Mark Malibu & The Wasagas, Luau or Die - May 31, Cadillac Lounge, Toronto
The Specials - June 18, Danforth Music Hall, Toronto
Ten Feet Tall - July 18, The Dakota Tavern, Toronto
Odds with Steven Page, Moe Berg, Tom Wilson, Chris Murphy, Jay Ferguson - July 19, Horseshoe, Toronto
The Dreamboats - July 24, Cameron House, Toronto
Zorton & The Cannibals - July 26, Duggan’s Basement, Toronto
Mark Malibu & The Wasagas, The Discarded - July 27, Duggan’s Basement, Toronto
The Fleshtones - July 28, Horseshoe, Toronto

Low Cut Connie
Low Cut Connie - Aug. 6, Horseshoe, Toronto
CJ Ramone - Aug. 15, Horseshoe, Toronto
New Swears - Aug.16, Monarch Tavern, Toronto
Ezra Furman - Sept. 9, Lee’s Palace, Toronto
The Quickshifters, Mark Malibu & The Wasagas, The Dreamboats - Sept. 13, Horseshoe, Toronto
The Long Ryders - Sept. 14, Horseshoe, Toronto

Steve McLean with Nick Lowe
Nick Lowe with Los Straitjackets - Sept.18, Horseshoe, Toronto
Pkew Pkew Pkew - Sept. 19, Goose Island Brewhouse, Toronto
Waterboys - Sept. 25, Danforth Music Hall, Toronto
Ramblin’ Deano and His Enablers - Sept. 28, 419 Brunswick, Toronto
Jesse Dayton - Oct. 2, Horseshoe, Toronto
Doghouse Rose, Kate Clover, Tiger Army - Oct. 7, Mod Club Theatre, Toronto
Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls - Oct. 10, Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Toronto
The Hard Toms, The Ad-Ventures, The Members - Oct. 18, The Garrison, Toronto
The Sadies - Oct. 26, Lee’s Palace, Toronto
Skinny Lister, The Interrupters - Oct. 30, Rebel, Toronto
Raygun Cowboys, The Creepshow, The Planet Smashers - Nov. 2, Lee’s Palace, Toronto
The Nude Party, White Reaper - Nov. 8, Horseshoe, Toronto
The Surfrajettes, Bloodshot Bill - Nov. 9, Horseshoe, Toronto
The Painkillers, Ichi-Bons, Champions of Justice, Mark Malibu & The Wasagas - Nov. 16, Baby G, Toronto
The Jayhawks - Nov. 20, Horseshoe, Toronto
George Westerholm and His Wild Wildcats, The Cliff Divers, UIC - Nov. 22, Duggan’s Basement, Toronto
Teenage Head - Nov. 23, Lee’s Palace, Toronto

Reverend Horton Heat
The, Voodoo Glow Skulls, Reverend Horton Heat with Dave Alvin - Dec. 3, Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto
The ARC Sound - Dec. 21, The Artful Dodger, Toronto

The Minus 5, The Sadies - Dec. 31,  Horseshoe, Toronto

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The best of the 2019 Gourmet Food & Wine Expo

The downsizing trend of last year’s Gourmet Food & Wine Expo seemed to continue in this 25th anniversary year of the event at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre from Nov. 21 to 24.

However, even though it’s becoming more difficult to find new beverages — especially when it comes to beer — that I haven’t had before, there was enough to keep my palate satisfied and thirst quenched for three days.

I largely focused on one beverage type each day, with Friday dedicated to beer, ciders and coolers, Saturday to wine, and Sunday to spirits and cocktails.

Here are the highlights:


Indie Ale House Lemonade Stand includes lactose to add body and smooth out the bitterness of the Meyer lemons in this five-per cent alcohol beer to make it surprisingly mellow in bouquet and easy to drink. It’s probably more appropriate as a summertime brew than it is for  November, but I’d have no problems drinking this year-round.

Nickel Brook Zap! Sour IPA is made with four malts, Cascade, Centennial and City hops, and California Ale yeast. A fluffy white head sits on top of a cloudy pale gold base. There’s a strong citrus aroma and while the lemony sharpness of a sour beer is evident, there’s still enough hops and a pine finish for IPA fans in this ale that has a 5.5-per cent alcohol content and 28 international bettering units (IBUs).

Muskoka Hazed and Confused was originally part of the brewery’s experimental Moonlight Kettle series, but was so popular that it was introduced more widely. This 6.5-per cent alcohol, hazy gold IPA offers a  fruity hop aroma and a very juicy citrus flavour that pleases from start to finish.

Here are the other beers I sampled, listed in order of preference:

Muskoka Shinnicked Stout (with an apparently new recipe)
Nickel Brook Glory and Gold
Balderdash Brewing Sneaky Weasel Lager
New Standard Original Lager
Partake IPA (non-alcoholic beer)
Partake Stout (non-alcoholic beer)
Partake Ale (non-alcoholic beer)


Lonetree Dry Cider is a 5.5-per cent alcohol cider made with six different types of apples. It has a low sugar content but still has a degree of well-balanced sweetness to go with a crisp finish.

Muskoka Lakes Cliff Jump Cranberry Craft Cider is an off-dry, pinkish cider made in the Canadian cranberry capital of Bala, Ont. Apples and cranberries are well-blended in this 5.6-per cent alcohol cider that offers a tangy, crisp and refreshing taste experience.

Here are the other ciders I sampled, listed in order of preference:

Duxbury Back 50 Acres Cider Spritzer
Liberty Village Extra Dry Cider
Duxbury Back 50 Acres Scrumpy


Crafty Elk Mango and Honey Organic Hard Juice is a 4.5-per cent alcohol vodka beverage from London, Ont. The orange-coloured drink also includes water, cane sugar, carrot concentrate, prickly pear fruit extract, turmeric, goji juice powder, ginger, citric acid and natural flavours. It’s slightly sweet and a lot delicious.

Crafty Elk Cranberry, Blueberry and Acai Organic Hard Juice is made with no preservatives or artificial sweeteners and is very berry-forward. This also mixes very well with the Crafty Elk Mango and Honey Organic Hard Juice.

Founder’s Original Bourbon Sour isn’t particularly sour, but I wasn’t complaining with this well-balanced and quite citrusy five-per cent alcohol beverage made with bourbon, Seville orange bitters, orange and lemon juice, cane sugar and water.

Hey Y’all Southern Style Hard Iced Tea is brewed in Vancouver with black tea. It’s lightly sweetened, non-carbonated and pours dark gold with a five-per cent alcohol content.

Here are the other coolers I sampled, listed in order of preference:

Hey Y’all Georgia Peach Hard Iced Tea
Founder’s Original Tequila Paloma
Blue Lobster Lemon Lime Vodka Soda


Martin Berdugo Verdejo Rueda is a very fruit-forward, 13-per cent alcohol Spanish wine made with Verdejo grapes. It possesses a rich bouquet with citrus and peach notes and a finish that lingers nicely.

Pierre Sparr Grande Reserve Gewurztraminer is a 13.5-per cent alcohol, dry and semi-sweet wine from France’s Alsace region with a rose petal aroma and flavours of lychee, pineapple and grapefruit.

Famille Cattin Pinot Gris is a 13.5-per cent alcohol, dry and medium sweet wine from Alsace that’s pale straw in appearance and has apricots and honey in its nose.

Ironstone Obsession Symphony is very pale and, while I was warned about its sweetness, it certainly wasn’t cloying. I enjoyed its rich and fruity bouquet, and peach and melon emerged with the strongest flavour profiles in this 12-per cent alcohol wine from California’s Lodi region.

Here are the other wines I sampled, listed in order of preference:

Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay
Simi Sonoma County Chardonnay
J. Lohr Chardonnay
Willm Reserve Riesling
Gentil Hugel
Baron De Ley White
Cannonball Chardonnay
Pelee Island Bella Sparkling Pinot Noir Rose
Vieni Riesling
Grand Cru Kessler Pinot Gris Domaines Schlumberger
Sterling Chardonnay
Josh Rose
Lolo Albarino
Sprucewood Shores Sweet Select Riesling
Vieni Bruce Trail White
Josh Sauvignon Blanc
In Situ Reserva Chardonnay
Josh Chardonnay
Lolo Chardonnay
Tom of Finland FREEstanding White
Beringer Chardonnay
Five Stones Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 


35 Licor De Pastel De Nata is a 14.5-per cent alcohol Portuguese cream liqueur with a flavour that will remind many of the country’s famous custard tarts. I had it straight up with a dash of cinnamon sprinkled on top and very much enjoyed its sweet flavour that could make it a holiday season favourite.

Vodkow is a unique 40-per cent alcohol vodka from Almonte, Ont. made with lactose, which creates a clean and smooth flavour and a full-bodied mouth feel. It’s made without gluten. I preferred it straight up, as those earlier mentioned characteristics took away some of the ginger spiciness that I enjoy in a Moscow Mule.


The Watermelon Palmer is made with Stolichnaya Vodka, Double Dutch Watermelon Cucumber Tonic and Kiju Organic Lemonade. I’m a sucker for most things with a cucumber aroma and flavour, and this smooth-drinking combo was refreshing and excellent.

Winter Mule is made with Noxx and Dunn Rum, Kiju Organic Cherry Pomegranate Juice, Fever-Tree Ginger Beer and cara cara orange. It was sweeter than a Moscow Mule since the ginger beer plays a slightly lesser role, but I still found it refreshing and enjoyable.

The Cotton Candy Cosmo is made with Stolichnaya Vodka, Kiju Organic Raspberry Lemonade, cotton candy and lime. I’ve never been much of a cotton candy eater, and I was worried that its inclusion in this cocktail would make it sickeningly sweet. But the raspberry lemonade cut that aspect and it was fun to see a drink turn blue when the liquid was poured over the cotton candy of that colour that was stuffed into my glass.

Signal Hill Whisky and Fever-Tree Spiced Orange Ginger Ale impressed me with how well the orange and ginger flavours combined with each other.

Refresh is made with Nutrl Vodka, lemon juice, ginger cordial, pear rosewater kombucha and limonene terpene, and garnished with a dehydrated lemon. It was subtly gingery and mildly sweet.

Lemon Mojito is made with Noxx and Dunn Rum, Double Dutch Double Lemon lemonade, mint and key lime simple syrup, mint and lemon. It was semi-sweet and quite tasty.

The Autumn Sour is made with Willibald Gin, lime and cranberry juice and rosemary syrup. The 43-per cent alcohol gin is made in Ayr, Ont. with corn and aged in oak barrels, giving it a distinctive flavour in this sweet cocktail. 

Here are the other cocktails I sampled, listed in order of preference:

Margarita made with Tromba Reposado
Crystal Head Vodka and Mott’s Clamato Pickled Bean Caesar
Crystal Head Vodka and Mott’s Clamato Original Caesar
Cool As A Cucumber Margarita made with Tromba Blanco Tequila
Cucumber Basil Smash made with Stolichnaya Vodka
Bombay Sapphire Gin and Fever-Tree Mediterranean Tonic
Regenerate made with Bearface Whisky
Pink Gin Fizz made with Hyman’s Sloe Gin

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Highlights of Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town has long ranked high among the cities I wanted to spend time in and, after a week exploring it and its environs in early 2019, my judgment was proven to be strong.

While a future article will deal with sites and sights within a few hours drive of Cape Town, here I’ll focus on the things I enjoyed most in what’s known within the country as the “Mother City” owing to its status of being South Africa’s oldest.

Table Mountain

I had a free ticket for the CitySightSeeing hop-on, hop-off bus that I took through the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront through the heart of Cape Town. It gave me perspective on distances and an idea of what I wanted to return to later on foot.

The bus eventually let me off at the base of Cape Town’s most famous landmark: Table Mountain. The lineup to get into the cable car to take you to the top of the mountain took more than an hour before the five-minute ride to the summit, but the cost was included in my package. There are different hiking routes to the top of Table Mountain, and I would have preferred that method of ascension, but unfortunately time didn’t permit it.

There were great views of Cape Town, the ocean and the surrounding landscape all around the perimeter of Table Mountain. I climbed part of the way down and then back up Platteklip Gorge before continuing my walk for another 1.7 kilometres to the far end of the mountain and Maclear’s Beacon, the highest point on Table Mountain at 1,086 metres. I was alone for much of the walk, which was nice since I hate being around crowds while soaking in nature.

I spent two hours exploring what I could and got in line to go back down in the cable car at 4:30 p.m. It was a process that took 105 minutes due to all of the people sharing that same goal. I had a 6:30 p.m. dinner reservation, which I obviously wasn’t going to make if I took the hop-on, hop-off bus back into the city. Luckily I met a British couple who agreed to split a taxi with me back to Victoria & Alfred Waterfront.

Karibu Restaurant

I was late for my reservation, but the restaurant thankfully held a balcony table for me, as this was one of the most interesting meals I had during my more than two weeks in South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Dinner started with a biltong salad, featuring slivers of cured meat with lettuce, plum tomatoes, cucumber, onion, pumpkin seeds and peppers topped with a piquant dressing. That was followed by a side order of potatoes as part of a massive main course meat platter featuring ostrich, warthog, kudu, venison, springbok and impala, washed down with a couple of Windhoek Draughts. I hadn’t eaten most of those animals before, and I was impressed with almost all of them.

Robben Island

Robben Island, located 6.9 kilometres off the coast of Cape Town, was used to isolate political prisoners, criminals and lepers from the late 17th century until its use as a prison came to an end in 1996. It’s most famous for holding former South African president Nelson Mandela for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the fall of apartheid.

A 30-minute ferry ride from Nelson Mandela Gateway on Cape Town’s waterfront and over somewhat rough seas took us to Murray’s Bay Harbour on the east coast of Robben Island. A short walk took us to buses, from where we could see a variety of sites, before a former inmate took us on a walking tour of the prison.

Our guide told us moving stories of his years as a political prisoner at Robben Island that put a lump to my throat. It’s one thing to visit a historical place, it’s another to be able to chat with someone who has experienced that history.

It was an emotional 2.5 hours taking everything in before it was time to take the ferry back to the mainland. It’s no surprise that Robben Island has become a very popular attraction, and you’re advised to buy tickets well in advance to ensure you don’t miss the opportunity to take it in.

District Six and Langa Township

A local guide named Nelson from Camissa Travel & Marketing met me at a restaurant near my accommodations at Burgundy Apartments and drove his van to Cape Town’s District Six neighbourhood, which was once home to 60,000 people and is now barren due to the forcible evacuations of its former residents during the apartheid era in the 1970s. The former multi-ethnic area plays an important part in the history of Cape Town and apartheid, and Nelson effectively related its role. District Six was named a national historic area in 1996.

We drove on to Langa Township, a 487-hectare suburb of Cape Town that was established in 1927 and is now home to 80,000 people. Langa, which translates from the native Xhosa language into English as “sunshine,” was an area designated for Black Africans even before apartheid and is the oldest such suburb in Cape Town.

A young Langa resident named Simo took me on a walking tour of the area that included a visit to his ramshackle apartment that he shares with several other people. He told me of life in Langa and how he’s hoping to earn enough money from working as a guide to pursue further education. Simo pointed out local businesses, schools and customs during our walk, which ended at a memorial that was unveiled by the government in 2010 to honour those who lost their lives opposing apartheid. Nearby were apartment buildings with colourful murals covering full walls.

The visit to Langa ended with a lovely lunch in the home of Akila, a professional chef who quit her job to look after her mother and daughter and now earns money by hosting visitors in her home. She made a large meal that included a garden salad, a Thai pasta salad, butternut squash, chicken stuffed with cheese and spinach, roasted potatoes and, for dessert, a pavlova with strawberries and blueberries. It was as good as anything I ate in high-end restaurants in and around Cape Town.

A walk around Cape Town

I was able to cover quite a bit of ground (and fit in several beers during two pub visits) during an afternoon walk around the city of approximately 450,000 people that covered:

the very picturesque Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, the most heavily touristed area of the city, with a variety of shops, craft markets, restaurants and attractions; 
the Canal District;
Grand Parade and City Hall, which features a life-size statue of Nelson Mandela waving from a balcony;
St. George’s Cathedral;
Houses of Parliament and the neighbouring The Company’s Gardens;
The South African Jewish Museum and Cape Town Holocaust Centre;
the Bo-Kaap neighbourhood of brightly coloured houses;
and Long Street, which features a number of lovely vintage buildings housing a variety of restaurants, bars and stores.

Victoria & Alfred Waterfront
Canal District
City Hall
Long Street
 World of Birds

The largest bird park in Africa is in the Cape Town suburb of Camps Bay. It features more than 3,000 birds and small animals of 400 different species over four hectares in more than 100 walk-through aviaries. It wasn’t difficult to spend an hour observing the beautiful birds as they flew and walked around the grounds.

Two Oceans Aquarium

This aquarium is dedicated more to education than entertainment — with no performing dolphins, seals or whales — and is more aimed at children than adults. I’ve been to bigger and better aquariums, but this one had enough interesting things to hold my attention for an hour.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Celebrating the life of Dave Bookman

Thursday would have been Dave Bookman’s 59th birthday. While he passed on nine days before that, the Horseshoe Tavern hosted a celebration of his life that the singer, songwriter, longtime radio personality and part-time club booker who many knew as “Bookie” would have loved.

It was a night of music, recollections, hugs, laughs, tears, friendships renewed and started … and a Toronto Raptors victory over the Golden State Warriors in the first game of the National Basketball Association championship final.

While several people quickly banded together to organize the event to pay tribute to a lost friend, everything about the evening had Bookie’s fingerprints all over it.

Things started with Horseshoe co-owner Jeff Cohen talking about how much of his career he owed to Bookie, and then he played a recording of The Bookmen (Bookie’s ‘80s band with guitarist Tim Mech) covering Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding.”
Other speakers came to the podium throughout the evening to speak of the impact Bookie had on them, including: 

  • representatives of the Bookman family;
  • broadcaster and former Air Canada Centre public address announcer Andy Frost;
  • The Pursuit of Happiness founder Moe Berg, who emphasized how important it is to tell people how much they mean to you now before it’s too late;
  • CARAS president and CEO Allan Reid, who said that a May 29 Indie88 12-hour radiothon in honour of Bookie had raised a remarkable $68,000 (a figure that’s still rising) for music education charity MusiCounts, smashing through the initial goal of $10,000;
  • Phoenix Concert Theatre partner and booker Zeke Myers; music executive Ryan Shepard;
  • Bookie’s former 102.1 The Edge and Indie88 colleagues John Davies, Maie Pauts, Josie Dye and Mike Religa;
  • and Horseshoe institution Willie McDonald.

And then there was the music. Event emcee Dave Hodge said it was the greatest collection of musicians to ever take the stage of the legendary 72-year-old venue in one night. And who am I to argue with a man who’s gained legendary status of his own through his long sports broadcasting career.

All of the musicians who took part in the celebration had a close connection to Bookie, and they reflected on that while also performing songs.

Blue Rodeo with Andy Maize, Andrew Cash, Chris Murphy and Kate Boothman.

When your opening act is Blue Rodeo, you know you’re doing something right. Jim Cuddy, Greg Keelor and Bazil Donovan took the stage for two songs before inviting Andy Maize, Andrew Cash, Chris Murphy and Kate Boothman on stage to join them in a moving rendition of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” that caused the first tears of the night to roll down my cheeks.

Skydiggers frontman Maize and singer, songwriter, musician and former (and hopefully future) politician Cash included a cover of Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back In Anger” in their two-song set.

That duo was followed by The Beaches, the female quartet that won this year’s Juno Award for breakthrough group of the year, who turned up the rock during their two songs.


Sloan’s three-song set was highlighted by “The Good in Everyone,” which I believe was something Bookie always saw.

Billy Talent frontman Ben Kowalewicz and former Death Cab For Cutie member Chris Walla just met before they walked on stage to perform Death Cab’s “I Will Follow You Into The Dark.” You wouldn’t have known.

Bookie’s former Bookmen bandmate Mech performed a song solo, while Sarah Harmer’s solo two-song set opened with a cover of The Replacements’ “I Will Dare.”

Former Lowest of the Low member and now longtime solo artist Stephen Stanley performed a song before he was joined by The Rheostatics’ Dave Bidini on drums, Bazil Donovan on bass and UIC’s Dave Robinson on backing vocals to do “The First Saturday In May” by Midi Ogres, a short-lived mid-‘90s band comprised of Stanley, Bidini, bassist John DesLauriers and Bookie on lead vocals.

I’m sure Damhnait’s Doyle a cappella version of Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” had eyes of all colours crying with its beauty and power.

Chris Murphy played tambourine and sang backing vocals on the first of The Inbreds’ two songs, the second of which was a fine “Any Sense of Time.”

The Rheostatics with Stephen Stanley and Tim Mech.

The Rheostatics were joined by Stanley and Mech for two more Midi Ogres songs written by Bookie: “Little Mushroom” and “Huggin’ At My Pillow.”

Hayden played a song on his own before being joined by Billy Talent for a rousing rendition of Neil Young’s “Powderfinger.”

Danny Greaves, lead singer for The Watchmen, performed a solo a cappella version of Billy Bragg’s “Tender Comrade.”

Matt Mays joined July Talk to cover Wilco’s “I’m The Man Who Loves You.”

Broken Social Scene

A smaller than usual version of Broken Social Scene ripped through versions of Dinosaur Jr.’s “Feel the Pain” and “The Wagon” that had me thinking there’s a future as a cover band there if the group ever tires of writing and recording its own songs.

Hayden and Billy Talent joined up again to play Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.” and the night’s second performance of Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back In Anger” (with Maize supplying backing vocals) before they delivered the song that helped launch Billy Talent to stardom, “Try Honesty.”

Hollerado was up next and the band invited members of The Beaches and July Talk on stage to join in singing Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.” Mays picked up his guitar and joined them for Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

The night closed off with an electrifying four-song performance from UIC that opened with “Our Garage” and closed with “It’s Alright.”

It was five hours of great music and memories, and some of us would have been happy if it had continued even further into the next day. There was a special vibe in the bar that I didn’t want to leave behind.

But I also know that as long as the people who organized, took part in and attended Bookie’s celebration — and countless others who would have loved to have been there — are sill among us, we’ll forge on with the kind spirit of the evening.

There’s nothing funny about peace, love and understanding. They’re beautiful things. Carry them with you and spread them.

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Four Chords And A Gun brings back The Ramones

Fans of The Ramones — and shame on you if you don’t count yourself among them — should get to Toronto’s Fleck Dance Theatre to see Four Chords And A Gun before it ends on April 28.

I was curious when I first read about the play and was pleased to have been invited to Tuesday’s opening night performance. While not without some flaws — just like the four musicians, producer Phil Spector and girlfriend Linda Danielle who are portrayed in Four Chords And A Gun — they’re more than offset by its rough-edged charms.

Most deserving of praise is the script, written by John Ross Bowie, who’s best known for playing Barry Kripke on The Big Bang Theory. The dialogue has a sharp and often humorous edge and is frequently delivered in rapid fashion, just as you’d expect from The Ramones.

While Four Chords And A Gun is centred around the tension-filled 1979 Los Angeles recording sessions for the End Of The Century album with Spector, it also gives you insights into the quirky personalities of Joey Ramone (Jeffrey Hyman), Johnny Ramone (John Cummings), Dee Dee Ramone (Douglas Colvin) and Marky Ramone (Marc Bell). 

Their particular traits — Joey’s obsessive compulsive disorder, Johhny’s anger and obsession with control, and the respective heroin and alcohol addictions of Dee Dee and Marky — may be overemphasized somewhat for dramatic effect, but that’s to be expected.

Sometimes the acting doesn’t live up to the material despite the impressive pedigrees of those delivering the lines. Justin Goodhand (Joey), Cyrus Lane (Johnny), Paolo Santalucia (Dee Dee) and James Smith (Marky) are all young theatre veterans with long resumes. But perhaps because they’re portraying characters who I started listening to in my early teens and have since read about and watched in videos, I sometimes had difficulty imagining them as the four New York musicians who helped introduce the world to punk rock in 1976 and had such an influence that they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.

The same can be said for Ron Pederson (Spector), since I was so familiar with his 1960s hits, “wall of sound” production techniques and ever-increasing erratic behaviour, which culminated with him being imprisoned for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson.

While I knew that Danielle ditched Joey for Johnny, which created a conflict between the two men for the rest of their lives, I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about what she was like. So, for that reason, I might have been most impressed with Vanessa Smythe’s performance despite her having the smallest role in the play.

While director Richard Ouzonian has served as artistic director of five major Canadian theatres and as an associate director of the Stratford Festival for four seasons, I’m most familiar with him for being the longtime theatre critic for the Toronto Star. From reading his reviews and articles over the years, I never would have thought of him as a Ramones fan or an appropriate choice to helm Four Chords And A Gun.

However, I have no issues with Ouzonian’s staging or pacing. And while the set design was relatively simple, it worked -- especially within the intimate confines of the Fleck Dance Theatre, where I was still within a few metres of the action from my fifth row seat.

Four Chords And A Gun concludes with an epilogue involving Marky telling the somewhat tragic tales of what happened to all of the players after End Of The Century.

While some Ramones songs are played in the background during the play, it should be emphasized that Four Chords And A Gun isn't a musical and no-one sings their lines. However, after the actors took their bows, the stage was quickly rearranged and four musicians came out to play a set of Ramones covers.

It seemed disjointed and the renditions of “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “We’re A Happy Family,” “Rockaway Beach,” “Pinhead,” “Danny Says,” “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker,” “Beat On The Brat” and “I Wanna Be Sedated” weren’t particularly inspiring.

This component of the evening could have easily been left off. Or if the desire to keep it is strong enough, it probably would have been more appropriate at the beginning to get people into the spirit of things as they were taking their seats in anticipation of the main event.

And instead of the four musicians who played on Tuesday night, I would have gone with The Gabba Heys. The Toronto Ramones tribute band has been playing the club circuit for years and would have delivered more energy and street credibility.

I also noticed a couple of timeline incongruities in Four Chords And A Gun. Johnny mentions the death of John Wayne during his first meeting with Spector, which would have taken place before recording began on May 1, 1979. “The Duke” didn’t pass away until June 11 of that year. Johnny also talks about the new Blondie album including rap music, but Autoamerican — which featured Debbie Harry rapping on “Rapture” — wasn’t released until November 1980.

Aside from this nitpicking, I enjoyed Four Chords And A Gun and recommend it to anyone with knowledge of, or an interest in, The Ramones.

Saturday, March 02, 2019

March roared in like a lion at Toronto Winter Brewfest

The fourth annual Toronto Winter Brewfest moved east from the Enercare Centre to Evergreen Brick Works, which also hosts the Cask Days festival every fall, and I was invited to check out what was on tap on opening night.

With approximately 40 breweries offering almost 100 beverages, there was a lot to choose from. I narrowed my selections to 14 and, while I definitely enjoyed some more than others, I’m pleased to report that I didn’t have a bad beer.

I started with a Pixies-themed Here Comes Your Mango IPA from Brew Revolution. The mango flavour wasn’t as strong as the aroma, but it poured with a nice white head and was both robust and crisp. It registers a 52 on the International Bitterness Units (IBU) scale, and it had a pleasant happiness and clean finish, which isn’t always the case with a seven per cent alcohol by volume (ABV) beer.

I hadn’t heard of Brew Revolution, and that’s because I learned that the Stittsville, Ont. brewery won’t officially open until April or May. The folks behind the bar were friendly and told me about their plans, and I was enticed to try the two other beers they were offering.

The 6.7 per cent ABV, 38 IBU Lemon Daze Lemongrass IPA had a very evident and pleasant lemongrass flavour. I would have liked more body in the five per cent ABV, 39 IBU Smoke On The Porter porter, but it had all of the other elements I look for in a smoky porter.

Muskoka Brewery’s Pair of Wise Guys Weizenbock was my favourite beer at November’s Gourmet Food & Wine Expo, and the brewery came through again with my two favourite beers of this festival.

Black Raspberry Thunder was created in collaboration with Kawartha Dairy, and the six per cent ABV milkshake IPA looks like what you’d expect from the first two words in the name. It has a powerful bouquet and lovely raspberry and vanilla flavours, while the lactose infusion provides a rich mouth feel. I was happy to find out that it will be canned and served in LCBO and select grocery stores.

Like Pair of Wise Guys, Lunar Haze is  part of Muskoka’s Moonlight Kettle Series, which spawns a new recipe every month. The 8.5 per cent ABV, 75 IBU double IPA is made with lupulin powder, a purified concentration of all the resin compounds and essential oils that create hop flavours and aromas in a beer. It has an intense, fruit-forward hop flavour and bouquet, without being too bitter, and that high alcohol content is dangerously unnoticeable.

Ranking just behind those two beers was my last one of the evening: Side Launch Getaway. The 6.3 per cent ABV, 55 IBU IPA is just available in the brewery’s Collingwood, Ont. tap room at the moment, but I’m hoping it comes to stores at some point. It’s medium-bodied and has a solid, though not overpowering, hop bite that complements a citrus aroma. It’s bright, easy-drinking and has a clean finish.

There were also a few booths offering spirits, wines and ciders, and a handful of food vendors provided more solid sustenance. Judging by the way my notes became more scrawled as the night went on, perhaps I should have eaten something.

But I go to beer festivals for beer, and these are the other ones I drank, ranked in rough approximation from most to least favourite:

Charlevoix Dominus Vobiscum Lupulus Belgian Strong Golden Ale - 10 per cent ABV, 70 IBU
The Exchange Brewery New England IPA - Seven per cent ABV, 71 IBU
Orleans Brewing Co. Sid’s Vicious Imperial IPA - 9.3 per cent ABV, 110 IBU
Prince Eddy’s Dawn Patrol Raspberry Gose - 3.5 per cent ABV, 4 IBU
Prince Eddy’s So Many Friends IPA - Five per cent ABV
Double Trouble Brewing Co. Hops & Robbers Sucker Punch IPA - 6.5 per cent ABV, 38 IBU
A la Fut Matawin Brett Pale Ale - Five per cent ABV
Lowertown Big Wood American IPA - 6.9 per cent ABV, 42 IBU

Friday, February 15, 2019

Wine tasting around Cape Town

The Dutch aren’t acknowledged to be among the great winemakers of the world, but we have them to thank for the emergence of South Africa as a nation that’s earned respect for its viticulture and quality wines over the past few decades.

South Africa’s first grape harvest took place in 1659 on a farm managed by Dutch navigator, surgeon and colonial administrator Jan van Riebeeck near what’s now known as Cape Town. While wine has been made in this region of the country ever since, it wasn’t until the end of Apartheid in the 1990s that the world started paying attention.

The Stellenbosch region east of Cape Town is perhaps South Africa’s most internationally recognized winemaking area and produces about 15 per cent of the nation’s wine. Since I was spending a week in Cape Town, it was a no-brainer to spend a day on a Go Touch Down wine tour starting in Stellenbosch.

The first stop was Skilpadvlei, a 78-hectare farm with accommodations, a restaurant, event venues, a gift shop and a children’s play area. After a breakfast of fresh fruit, yogurt, muesli and honey on the restaurant verandah, the wine tasting began at a picnic table around the corner at 8:45 a.m.

I’m a much bigger white wine drinker than red, which was the opposite of the three other people on the tour. This meant that I got to have the majority of the white for the rest of the day, since they just took a small sip and poured the rest into my glass.

Skilpadvlei has been in the Joubert family since 1917, and it’s been making wine for four generations. We sampled six bottles: three reds, two whites and a rose. My favourite was the 2018 Chenin Blanc, a mildly sweet wine with a hint of green apple in the flavour. I liked it so much I bought a bottle for 60 rand ($6).

We got back in the van and drove 10 minutes down the road to Neethlingshof Wine Estate, where wine has been made since 1692. A kilometre-long avenue of pines leads to the large property, which features an impressive manor house and other old buildings, and is flanked by the Bottelary Hills and Papegaaiberg Mountains.

Neethlingshof features a restaurant, tasting centre, event space and a store. Our server was excellent in explaining the history of the estate, the stories behind the wines and the flavour profiles of each of the three whites, one red and one dessert wine I sampled. My favourite was The Jackal’s Dance 2018 Sauvignon Blanc, a rich and full-bodied young wine with a tropical fruit aftertaste.

Franschhoek is another popular wine region in the area, so our next stop took us there and the 19-hectare Grande Provence Heritage Wine Estate, which dates back to 1694. This is another impressive property, which includes accommodations, a restaurant and bistro, a tasting room, event spaces, an art gallery, a sculpture garden and a very small cheetah reserve.

After sampling two whites, a rose and a Zinfandel, I was most satisfied with the very fruity aroma and flavour of the 2017 rose. I was even more pleased, however, with my lovely open-air, three-course lunch comprised of: a starter of cured beef, mustard, Boland cheddar, shallots and mushrooms; a main of duck leg confit, sweet potato dumplings, sultana and Chinese cabbage, served with an apple chutney; and a desert of chocolate fondant, peanut butter ice cream and apricot.

With a full belly, it was back in the van to drive to the touristy food and wine town of Franschhoek. I had an hour of free time and spent it walking around, looking at the Huguenot Monument and then sitting down to sample five beers at Tuk Tuk Microbrewery. I wasn’t particularly impressed with any of them, with the golden ale and pale ale being the best of the lot.

I enjoyed the countryside scenery on the way back to Cape Town and the final stop of the tour, a lovely multi-space restaurant called Blanko that’s part of the Alphen Estate in Constantia. The former farm has been converted to a high-end property with a boutique hotel and restaurant.

Still full from the large lunch, I ordered a local fish called kingklip that was topped with orange, herbs and pink peppercorns and served with saffron rice. I ate so well during my time in Cape Town and its surroundings that, while there was nothing wrong with the food, it may have been my least favourite meal. At least the glass of Brampton Sauvignon Blanc I had with it was very good.

While I didn’t partake in tastings at them, I had two other dinners at wineries. The first was at Cassia Restaurant, which is part of Nitida Wine Farm in the Durbanville Wine Valley. I enjoyed a mildly spicy soup with beef, sausage and vegetables, followed by a swordfish steak and roast potatoes, and accompanied by Nitida’s excellent 2018 Riesling.

The other dinner was at Durbanville Hills, where the restaurant terrace provided great sunset views of Table Mountain and Table Bay. Duck spring rolls followed by a sirloin steak hit the spot pretty much perfectly. In South Africa you’re allowed to buy a bottle of wine with a meal and take it with you if you don’t finish it, so I purchased a bottle of dry but effervescent Durbanville Hills Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc (which had notes of citrus and tropical fruit) for 85 rand ($8.50) and drank what I didn’t have there when I returned to my condominium.

I bought a few other bottles of cheap and cheerful Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc during my time in South Africa. They were certainly drinkable, if not exceptional, and I have no issue with paying 50 rand ($5) for a bottle of wine to accompany some quiet reading and writing.