A special evening in Cobourg

(Cobourg, Ontario, Canada)

We went for a road trip this weekend and decided to stay overnight in Cobourg, Ontario…a town located almost 100 miles west of Kingston. This is just a bit too far to properly visit on a day-trip, but perhaps not far enough for a weekend trip. Beyond “it seemed like a nice place to explore, the last time we passed through”, not a lot of thought went into our choice.

We arrived to mid-afternoon rain and quickly visited the shops and indoor sights we wanted to see. We took a look at the historic Victoria Hall concert venue, located in a beautiful old stone building on Cobourg’s main street, and decided that it would be nice to attend a concert there some day.

Cobourg's Victoria Hall at night
Cobourg’s Victoria Hall at night

As the drizzly weather continued, we decided to drive on to the nearby town of Port Hope to do some more shopping and indoor sightseeing. Port Hope has a compact but attractive downtown core and we made a point of visiting its restored “golden age of cinema” Capitol Theatre.

Inside the Capitol, we discovered that Port Hope (and Cobourg) were hosting the Vintage Film Festival that very weekend. They were showing some seriously old movies, including one silent movie on Sunday morning from 1917 that would feature a live piano accompanist! We resolved to return in the morning for that unique experience, if at all possible.

Port Hope's historic Capitol Theatre
Port Hope’s historic Capitol Theatre

As we trudged on through the rain, I saw a poster for an upcoming concert:  “Tribute to The Last Waltz”.  I thought this would be interesting, as it featured a large band of well-known professional Canadian musicians recreating The Band’s legendary 1976 farewell concert.  That concert was made into a movie by Martin Scorsese and also received a triple-album release on vinyl.  In addition to music by The Band, that particular concert also featured performances by The Band with Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Dr. John, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and many others.

The Last Waltz in Cobourg
The Last Waltz in Cobourg

Curious, we looked a little closer at the poster.  The concert was going to be in Cobourg’s Victoria Hall!  Tonight!   Should we go?  Yes!  We raced back to Cobourg in search of tickets.  It was a wild goose chase, as stores were closing and the concert appeared to be sold out.  We actually tracked down the promoter himself and found out that two ticketholders *might* not be able to attend.  At one minute before showtime, it was confirmed that there would be exactly two unused tickets.  We were in!  Even better, there were two empty seats in the 3rd row, just a few feet from the stage!

Jerome Levon Avis' drum kit, including a picture of the drummer with Levon Helm
Jerome Levon Avis’ drum kit, including a picture of the drummer with Levon Helm

The concert featured a 9-piece house band (including a 4-piece horn section), plus various special guests…just like the original Last Waltz.  The band’s drummer, Jerome Levon Avis, was the godson of Levon Helm – who was the drummer for The Band!  Other musicians included members of famous bands such as Lighthouse and Blood, Sweat & Tears.

Writing about music is not an easy thing to do.  How do you convey the chill down your spine when a Van Morrison sound-alike has a swinging band and horn section behind him?  When that same band nails a soulful classic by The Band and the whole theatre is singing along like a gospel choir?   It was like that for almost the entire 3-hour concert.  Highlights for us included Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” and “Like A Rolling Stone”, Van Morrison’s “Caravan”, Dr. John’s “Such A Night” and every one of our favourite songs by The Band:  “The Weight”, “Up on Cripple Creek”, and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”,  among others.

The Last Waltz in Cobourg
The Last Waltz in Cobourg

As we left the theatre, we had all of these classic songs (and more) replaying themselves over and over in our heads.  It was plainly obvious that we weren’t the only ones.  Thanks to the kindness of strangers in Cobourg, we had a completely unexpected and amazing experience (“Such A Night”, indeed!) on what was otherwise a dreary, rainy evening.

We didn’t make it to the piano-accompanied silent film screening in the morning…but the film festival is an annual event and we made a mental note to visit Port Hope and Cobourg again next fall.

Fun with Food in Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market district

(Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

Even though I lived in Toronto for three years in the early 1990s, I cannot claim to have seen all the city had to offer.  In particular, for reasons that are unclear, I never made it to St. Lawrence Market while I was living there.  Given its proximity to Union Station, I have managed to stop by on a couple of recent visits to Toronto.  If you are at all interested in “specialty foods”, I think it is well worth a visit.

Jarvis Street, just north of St. Lawrence Market, in downtown Toronto
The corner of Jarvis and King Streets, just north of St. Lawrence Market, in downtown Toronto

While the Market clears out as its 7:00 p.m. closing time approaches (that’s when I took the photo at the top of this post), it is extremely busy during the day.  Some of this is tourist traffic but there is still quite a local presence:  tourists generally aren’t showing up at the 7:00 a.m. opening.   Weekends are particularly busy and you may be tempted to give it a pass in the late morning or early afternoon.

I was in search of unusual cheese on this visit.  One of the vendors had lengthy descriptions of its imported offerings and something called “Parrano” caught my eye.  One of its slogans is “the Dutch cheese that thinks it is Italian”, so I asked for a sample.  Indeed, as advertised, it combines the texture of Gouda with the taste of Reggiano Parmigiano…I quickly declared it my new favourite cheese and picked up a wedge to bring home.

"G For Gelato" on Jarvis Street in Toronto
“G For Gelato” on Jarvis Street in Toronto

I also picked up some red Cerignola olives from one of the other vendors.  These are very large and mild-tasting olives but their radiant red colour makes them an interesting, albeit not essential, olive for snacking.

There has been a considerable amount of recent development in the Market neighbourhood.  While not all of it appeals to me, there was one restaurant that I wanted to try:  the innocuously-named “G for Gelato”, specializing in pizza and gelato.  These are two very important foods and I wanted to find answers to two burning questions:  did it live up to its billing as having Toronto’s best gelato?  And did its pizza also attain the heights suggested by its many positive on-line reviews?

My "Prosciutto Contadina" pizza at G For Gelato (featuring lots of arugula)
My “Prosciutto Contadina” pizza at G For Gelato (featuring lots of arugula)

The gelato was excellent.  It’s made on site so it wasn’t cheap…but neither was it extortionate.  I tried two scoops (Dark Chocolate Whiskey and Amaretto DiSaronno) in a cup and I’d have to agree that this was the best gelato I’ve had in Toronto, if not Canada.  There were about 30 flavours and they all were artfully presented.

Although we had intended to have gelato the night before when we had dinner at the same restaurant, our pizzas were quite substantial and we didn’t want to stuff ourselves before the concert.  The pizzas were also very good – certainly in the first tier, with top-quality and well-matched toppings.  Prices were comparable to other Toronto restaurants  but “G is for Gelato” includes taxes in its price.

Friday night in downtown Kingston
Friday night in downtown Kingston

We will definitely return here for more gelato…and, if it is at the right time of day, we will sit down for a no-nonsense but high-quality Italian meal.   Between “G For Gelato” and “Jumbo Empanadas” in the Kensington Market, I always look forward to eating in downtown Toronto!

We expect to go on another road trip next week – stay tuned!

Stevie Wonder in Concert

(Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

There was a lot of musical synchronicity over the past week.  I wrote about seeing Paul McCartney in concert, received a vinyl copy of McCartney’s remixed “Tug of War” album (featuring two duets with Stevie Wonder), and then went on a blitz of a road trip to see Stevie Wonder perform live in Toronto.

This wasn’t just a “greatest hits” concert:  Stevie was going to perform his entire 1976 magnum opus “Songs in the Key of Life”.  Widely considered to be one of the best albums ever made, despite an extended running length of almost two hours, it spawned both hit singles and “deep cuts” that have had a profound influence on popular music.   Almost everybody knows songs such as “Sir Duke“, “I Wish“, “Isn’t She Lovely” and “Pastime Paradise”…at least by tune, if not by name.

IMG_7275Stevie went onstage at 8:15 p.m. and it was clear that his voice had not suffered over the years.  He also had a huge 36-person band, including a string section, a horn section, a choir, multiple drummers and percussionists and at least 6 backing vocalists.  Songs such as “Village Ghetto Land” were improved from the album as they featured live (rather than synthesized) strings.  Special guests included April Ellington, daughter of…Duke Ellington!  This was a big, big show.

For me, the highlights came fast and furious with back-to-back performances of “Sir Duke” and “I Wish”.  “Sir Duke”, in particular, benefited hugely from the large horn section.  “I Wish”, with its prominent bass, fared slightly less well due to some low-end sound issues but was still memorable.  The low-end issues became rather distracting right before and after the 20-minute intermission but thankfully resolved before too much damage had been done.

IMG_7283While the point of the concert was to play the entire “Songs in the Key of Life” album in order, Stevie did embark on a few tangents. In the first set, he challenged his backing vocalists to match his singing gymnastics solo and without any accompaniment. They all passed the test with flying colours.

In the second set, Stevie played “Ngiculela-Es Una Historia-I Am Singing” with an unusual zither-like instrument called a “harpejji”.   After it was over, he started playing what sounded to me like the chords to John Lennon’s “Imagine” on the harpejji.  He then said that it was his brother’s birthday, to which the audience responded with polite applause.  But it also occurred to me, as someone who probably knows an unhealthy amount of Beatles trivia, that this precise day would have been John Lennon’s 75th birthday.

Outside the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, after the Stevie Wonder concert
Outside the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, after the Stevie Wonder concert

Sure enough, Stevie then said that he wanted to play “Imagine” for his brother, John Lennon.  This definitely wasn’t in the script.  He began playing the song and asked for audience help partway through the song.  It soon became clear why:  he began crying and was unable to sing an extended portion of the lyric.  He recovered somewhat, but wiped away a lot of tears (without apology) before he could continue with the next song.   A lengthy standing ovation ensued and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Concerts are obviously big business and Stevie is not a poor man.  But he is still a sensitive man and, 35 years after Lennon’s death, Stevie is still affected by his murder.  He urged the audience to do what they could to prevent senseless violence and intolerance.

Toronto at midnight
Toronto at midnight

Stevie then resumed performing the rest of his famous album with renewed vigour and finished it about 3 hours after the concert began.  He then assumed his alter-ego of “DJ Tick Tick Boom” for the encore and it is difficult to explain exactly what happened next.  To preserve the surprise, I’ll just say that he played snippets of some disco classics, abbreviated versions of a few of his other hits, and finished with a scorching version of “Superstition”  that made full use of the entire band (again with a memorable brass performance).  It was almost midnight when the concert finally ended; Stevie looked like he had thoroughly enjoyed sharing his music with us.

While there were plenty of Stevie Wonder classics that weren’t played (“Signed, Sealed, Delivered…I’m Yours” is one that I would have liked to hear), there simply would not have been enough time.   As with Paul McCartney’s 2009 concert in Halifax, we felt like we were witnessing a part of history.   We’re looking forward to reliving the experience by playing “Songs in the Key of Life” when we get home!

Road Trip to see Paul McCartney in Nova Scotia (2009)

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

In about one week’s time, we are going to check off another item on our musical bucket lists.  Music is very subjective, of course, but I think the magnitude of this upcoming concert is similar to our evening with former Beatle Paul McCartney in Halifax, Nova Scotia back in July of 2009.

Paul McCartney live in Halifax, Nova Scotia (July 2009)
Paul McCartney live in Halifax, Nova Scotia (July 2009)

Driving to Nova Scotia from Ontario does not enjoy a great reputation. Yes, there were some long stretches of tedium. However, we were pleasantly surprised by our overnight stay in Riviere-du-Loup, Quebec, where we found an attractive downtown core with excellent food…and even bought a pair of Helly Hansen (see my previous post) shorts!

Waterfalls at Riviere-du-Loup, Quebec
Waterfalls at Riviere-du-Loup, Quebec

Next up was a long drive through New Brunswick. We had big plans for Fredericton but the legislature building was closed for renovations and the downtown generally seemed closed when we arrived late in the afternoon.  We pressed on to the tiny town of Sackville, home of Mount Allison University, to spend our second night on the road.   We stayed in a college residence: an excellent accommodation option in the summer months.  We also felt compelled to visit Mel’s Tea Room:  the jukebox, stools and menu were all in accordance with our expectations.

Mel's Tea Room in Sackville, New Brunswick
Mel’s Tea Room in Sackville, New Brunswick

Early the next day, we crossed the border into Nova Scotia.  It was the day of the concert so we didn’t have much time to catch up with our friends before heading to the show.

So what is a Paul McCartney concert like?  Unlike his 1970s concerts with Wings, Paul’s latter-day concerts fully embrace his Beatle past.  It is truly remarkable to hear so many Beatles classics sung by the man who actually wrote them.  You get a feeling that you are a part of history:  many of these songs will be considered the “Classical Music of the 20th Century”.

Waterfalls at Grand Falls, New Brunswick
Waterfalls at Grand Falls, New Brunswick

However, and this may seem like sacrilege to some, Paul has been emphasizing his Beatles hits (and his essentially solo “Band on the Run” album) in concert for so long now that I sometimes found myself wishing that he would skip some of the more overexposed or less-melodic songs.    “Paperback Writer” and “Get Back”?  Er, heard those the last time, thanks…don’t really need to hear them again.   On the other hand, I certainly can’t find fault with songs like the enormously popular “Hey Jude” and it was great to hear energetic versions of only slightly-less familiar tracks like “All My Loving” and “I Saw Her Standing There”.   These songs still sound fresh and brilliant after half a century, and they weren’t even singles in most of the world!

Welcome to Nova Scotia!
Welcome to Nova Scotia!

So, while I would have liked to have heard a few more surprise selections from his solo work (“No More Lonely Nights”, for example, was a huge hit and has a great tune to boot), it is a very minor quibble.  To be fair, I also have seen Paul McCartney perform live before and have seen several of his concert videos.  The bottom line is that his concerts are about three hours in length, immaculately performed, and feature 95% of the songs that casual fans will want to hear.

McCartney still clearly loves performing and his band looks equally thrilled to be there.  I’ve never seen so many people be so happy at a concert from beginning to end.  This “shared experience” makes it easy to understand why many reviewers employ quasi-religious language when describing McCartney shows.  Tickets aren’t cheap but, if you’re a fan, I have no hesitation in recommending these concerts.

Things get a little chaotic during "Live and Let Die"
Things get a little chaotic during “Live and Let Die”

After all that, you may be wondering who we’re seeing next week.  It’s another living legend whose story is every bit as compelling as (and perhaps more so than) Paul McCartney’s.  Feel free to guess…or stay tuned for my report in about a week’s time!