Man Voyage V: Ontario & Midwestern US

October 19, 2018 § Leave a comment

August marked year five of Man Voyage, my annual male bonding trip & tour with my best pal and Echo & Sway comrade Jared A. Conti.  The MV intro has been done to death and I’ve nothing new to add so you can read the full mission statement here if you’re so inclined (the gist: we drive, talk, eat & drink).  With the shit show that is our current political climate, we decided to get the hell out of Trump country for a few days and hightail it to Ontario where, if our previous visits have been any indication, we’d be in for a refreshing and much more tolerant change of pace.  We struck gold.

Man Voyage rule #2 requires a heavier use of back roads over major highways, and we started our day with a beautiful drive up through rural Pennsylvania and New York, twisting & turning our way through glorious stretches of landscape that would make Ansel Adams blush.  Interspersed with melancholic little ghost towns and the eccentric characters who occupy them, it’s poetry in motion: one minute you’re coasting by endless fields of sunflowers, the next you’re admiring a woman walking her dog in nothing but her underwear and a thick winter coat before entering a sleepy tourist town full of chalets, anxious for the ski season to start.  The highways are faster but not even half as interesting.

We met our friend, alt-rocker James Martin at Big Ditch Brewing in Buffalo for a quick lunch before crossing the border.  It’s a relatively new brewpub, and looks to be a cornerstone for a neighborhood in resurgence.  You can see a ton of potential in the empty warehouses lining the surrounding blocks.  We lucked into street parking half a block away and immediately spied the brewery’s garage-style doors that opened into a sidewalk patio; we liked the place already.  Service was a tad slow for a Thursday afternoon but we probably wouldn’t have even noticed if we weren’t worried about a potential holdup at the border.

I always appreciate a brewpub that offers a smaller size option, for times like these when I wanted to try a few different beers but didn’t want to commit to a whole sampler in case again, potential border holdup.  We shared a handful of 5oz pours including some signatures (Hayburner IPA, Excavator rye brown) and seasonals (Squeezer dry-hopped sour kolsch, FC session wheat IPA and Cinnamon Apple amber) with not a bad one in the bunch, and the FC was exceptional.  I kept it light with a turkey club while Jared went whole hog with a bacon wrapped meatloaf, which I was grateful for – it gave me an opportunity to mooch a bit.  Don’t feel too bad for him; James offered up half of his pastrami sandwich as a parting gift so he made out just fine.  Swell guy, Mr. Martin.  His material has a distinct 90’s feel so it’s not for everyone but if you’re into bands like The Cult, STP and Bowie’s Nine Inch Nails collaboration phase, James Martin might just tickle your ears.

Crossing the border is always unpredictable but we needn’t have worried: we zipped through in about two minutes.  We even got an agent with a sense of humor, ribbing us for going to London (“Listen fellas, I’m not saying there’s nothing there, but basically there’s nothing there”).  We resisted the signs for breweries, wineries and distilleries that lined Queen Elizabeth Way and stayed the course all the way to our Airbnb just three blocks from downtown London.  It was a flawless first Airbnb experience for both of us.  We rented a two-story carriage house with a full bathroom, kitchen and complete privacy. Jared took the loft bedroom upstairs (complete with an outdoor deck) and I crashed on the sectional couch downstairs that was so comfortable it may as well have been a bed.  Our host knocked once to tell us we could pull our car up a bit more into the driveway but aside from that it was like we had the run of the place.

En route to the first of our two gigs that evening we stopped to get re-energized at Locomotive Espresso, just up the block from our Airbnb. Truly the heart & soul of any local community, it’s amazing how these independent coffee shops all have their own quirks and special touches, yet offer the same sense of familiar comfort from town to town. Locomotive is no different with its worn-in wooden floors & fixtures, soft pendulum lights, small pastry & sandwich selection, engaging staff and welcoming vibe. Their special touch?  An old locomotive hauling bags of coffee beans on a looped track suspended from the ceiling.  We’re suckers for a commitment to a theme and the only thing we would’ve liked more was if the train had been running.  The barista offered us a choice of two different espresso roasts for our double shots and Jared got a coffee as well.  Everything was dark, strong & delightful.  We had a gig to get to but two minute walk + the promise of fresh donuts = we’d be back in the morning.

We drove a few blocks south to Grooves Records for a short promotional set in anticipation of gig #2 later in the evening.  Like the neighborhood cafe, local record stores always seem to offer a glimpse into the local flavor despite not being terribly different from one another.  My younger self was way into the dingy atmosphere of a cluttered underground shop but the older my eyes get, the more they appreciate a bright, organized space like Grooves with the music on the sound system kept to a non-deafening level.  They had a great selection of local & regional artists right up front and were spinning Canadian treasures the Tragically Hip periodically during our setup & shopping times.  They offer performers a discount on all purchases and I’ll be forever kicking myself in the ass for not abusing that privilege to fill what little empty space we had left in our vehicle to the brim but hey, burgeoning adult here.  I responsibly only purchased a few used soul albums and the newest Tom Waits ‘Blue Valentine’ reissue… goddamn, being an adult sucks sometimes.

The staff was friendly and helpful in having the PA set up for us ahead of time so all we had to do was plug in my guitar.  The booker warned that a weekday afternoon spot in the summer before the university students came back would be a hard sell for an out-of-town band but if nothing else, we saw it as a chance to get loose and tune up for our evening gig after six hours in the car.  It was sparsely attended to say the least, mostly by shoppers who paused to give a quick listen on their way out but we did earn one loyal observer toward the end.  He plopped down on the floor directly in front of us and listened intently for the duration of the last song, with a look on his face excited & engaging enough to let us believe our art had truly spoken to this lost soul searching for meaning in this harrowing journey we call life, and that his salvation & solace would be found in the poetry of an Echo & Sway song… then we finished, and he spoke.

Boy, did he speak.  It would be impossible to recount everything he said but for several minutes he rambled incessantly about our songs, my guitar, his guitar, Jared’s beard and current trends in facial hair, the fact that my hair is thinning but he liked my hat, other color hats he thinks would work for me, Jared’s shirt, something about chocolate chip cookies, whether or not I’ve ever heard of Johnny Cash, whether or not this store carries Johnny Cash because he’s “not real well known,” garbage and littering, and tattoos, which thankfully brought things to a climax as he declared tattoos OK for men, but not women.  We were still trying to process the first thing he said when we heard a loud “WHAT THE FUCK?” from the back of the store.  The girl who’d been cataloging stomped up as we were attempting to refute such an offensive remark, but then he made it worse: “Well, I guess they’re OK on women some places, just not on their public real estate.”  I can’t even gesture or mime the way he did for maximum effect.  She handled it like a champ by sternly growling at him “Is there anything I can help you find sir?” as if she wanted to embed a few records into his head, and we couldn’t blame her.  He went on a brief search for albums by the unknown up-and-comer Johnny Cash but sensed the abrupt change in the atmosphere and quickly showed himself out.  If there’s some mental illness issues there I hope he gets some help… if he’s just an asshole, I hope he gets hit by a bus.  We chatted a bit about Canadian music & culture, she recommended a spot to get a few local beers and we were on our way.

Our continuous search for unique venues wherever we go wielded Taproot, a performance space above the Root Cellar gastropub in the Old East Village neighborhood, just a few blocks from our Airbnb.  The venue was forthright from the beginning that their pay scheme wasn’t the most lucrative for touring bands, and we’d likely make bigger bucks elsewhere but they dug the album and offered us a gig, suggesting we secure some local support to help fill some seats.  We reached out to folk collective Esther’s Family and in quite the happy accident, they were able to finish their debut EP in time for the gig to double as their album release show.

The space is beautiful.  Newly restored wooden floors with matching bar & seating, brick walls and lamps made of repurposed bicycle parts make it feel fresh and weathered all at once.  Farm-to-table fare from the Root Cellar and organic beers by the London Brewing Co-op round out the menu and would’ve ensured we took the gig even if we weren’t making any money at all.  We ordered one of those trendy charcuterie boards with a slew of delicious meats & cheeses, veggies, breads, nuts and dips our simple palates couldn’t identify but enjoyed thoroughly nonetheless. There’s a larger selection of London Brewing beers downstairs but we were content alternating our way through the Norfolk Red IPA, London Lager and Tolpuddle Porter, careful to pair each properly with their food platter counterparts to emphasize the subtle flavor notes… ha, I’m kidding.  We shoveled it in and poured beers on top of it all, finishing it faster than we ought to be proud of.  What a damn fine dinner.

EF arranged a sound tech for the evening who had us plugged in and ready to folk ‘n roll in mintues.  We eased our way through much of the album (have you heard it yet?  Stream it here) before turning the evening over to the band of the hour.  I love groups that can’t be simply defined by genre and while it’d be easy to shoehorn them into the folk category, there’s something about EF that gives ’em that little something different.  Frontman Lliam Buckley commanded the room with the charismatic charm of a old timey minstral, and the quartet kept pace nicely with bass, keys, cello and drums.  They were a bit scattered but still incredibly tight despite limited percussion as the drummer had lost his scuffle with a kitchen knife earlier that day.  They filled the silences during tuning & adjustments with jokes and lighthearted stories, and had us fully engaged all the way through their show-stopping medley of MGMT’s “Electric Feel” with “Funky Town.”  Their new EP ‘High Fantastical’ is a great mix of poetic lyrics and romantic melodies, and we can’t thank them enough for sharing the evening with us.

We’d passed up the earlier recommendation of Milo’s Craft Beer Emporium because we were uncharacteristically attempting to improve our time management skills before the gig, but the Grooves staff had spoken so highly of it we ventured over for a nite cap and a late bite.  In a decent sized town with a university and a college, Milo’s feels like a more of a locals place: many of the patrons looked closer to our age, scattered throughout booths & smaller tables in the main dining room but seemed to be mingling with one another.  The vibe was friendly & fun.  When we told our waiter the Grooves staff had recommended the place we briefly chatted about records which led to him asking what we’d purchased, and just as we began to peruse the menus we heard ‘Blue Valentine’ begin to play over the sound system… he may have just been negotiating a big tip but shit, he was going to get one.  We ordered up a few lighter Ontario beers (a pilsner & a sour from breweries I wish I could remember) and some sort of boneless curried chicken from the late night snack menu we were in no way prepared to enjoy as much as we did.  I can’t speak for anything else but this was far from standard pub fare, and if we’d been hungrier I would’ve ordered a few other things to try.

We retreated to our pool house for a fantastic nights’ sleep.  Our host communicated quickly in the morning to coordinate a check out time, and within an hour of our leaving she’d left several kind remarks about us in a review on my profile.  We’d love to return to London for another go-around with EF and I can’t imagine staying anywhere else.  We nabbed our morning caffeine and some homemade donuts at Locomotive before heading west toward Sarnia to cross the border into Michigan.

Rt 402 might’ve saved us 20 minutes but we drifted a bit slower on the farm road alongside, enjoying some breathtaking views of dozens of wind turbines in the distance.  We stopped at Refined Fool Brewing Company in Sarnia for lunch and hopefully a few to-go beers, as we hadn’t yet purchased anything to bring home.  Refined Fool is a large industrial loft-style space, with nearly an entire wall open to outdoor seating and colorful murals throughout.  The bartender welcomed us immediately, gave us the run down on beer tasting options and directed us across the room to order food from Burger Rebellion.  She apologized several times for the multi-line food court setup, as their #1 complaint is people having to place two different orders but hell, there are burgers & beers in the end… the dumb shit people complain about.  We were still waking up so the Uprising breakfast burger (fried egg, bacon, hash brown, ketchup & maple syrup) with two tasting flights (four 5oz beers) hit the spot.

We constructed our flights based primarily on the beer titles.  We wanted a good mix of styles but of the four IPAs on, chose “And Then Bernice Flipped the Canasta Table” because well, an absurd amount of effort devoted to nonsensical titles is a hell of a lot more interesting than the IBU count… further proof that while we enjoy good beer, we could never be referred to as “snobs.”  Much of the draft selection was available to go in bombers so we filled a few boxes and headed for the border.  As always, Canada bats a thousand and if the winters weren’t so cold, I’d move here in a heartbeat.

The Blue Water Bridge crossing was only a slightly longer wait than the day before. Our agent didn’t have quite the sense of humor as his New York  counterpart but let us through quickly and though I’d looked up a few potential beer stops along the way, we made a beeline for Ann Arbor to get settled and try as many of their five breweries as we could squeeze in.  All the highway travel was necessary but damn was it getting old fast.  We lucked into a parking spot right in front of our evening gig so we took a few minutes to scope things out; it’s one of the few we’ve booked over the years that required a signed agreement and though probably harmless, we wanted to make sure we weren’t getting in over our heads… turns out it’s just a nice space in a well preserved building and they want to keep it that way by weeding out the riffraff.  We ventured off to celebrate our subsided fears by drinking beer.

My wife and I have long enjoyed bottles of assorted Belgian styles from Jolly Pumpkin Cafe & Brewery and with Jared’s ever expanding palate allowing him a new appreciation for sours, we hit there first.  Grabbing two seats at the bar in the main room we immediately noticed the fulfillment of three requirements for every nice but ordinary brewpub in America: dark wood, dim lighting & classic rock (henceforth to be known as the brewpub three), though the chandeliers made of old kitchen utensils were a nice touch.  The plain atmosphere was more than made up for by our charismatic bartender who, from the moment she handed us our beer menus, playfully ribbed Jared without abandon when he casually muttered to me that he wished the print were larger. Now I understand it’s a college town but she was way more amused by this than she ought to have been but even Jared loved every moment of her shameless laughing: “Larger print?  How old even ARE you?!” She proceeded to giggle a bit each time she walked by as we sipped our Bam Biere and Oro de Calabaza, and injected the the experience with that little something extra we’re always looking for.  We tipped her well and passed on the bottle selection since we didn’t see anything we can’t get at home.  While any beer is better on draft we were hoping for a few brewpub exclusives but hey, can’t win ’em all.

We walked a few blocks to the Beer Grotto, hoping for some fresh pints from other regional breweries we wouldn’t have time to visit.  Their website mission statement describes them as “meddlers and experimenters, beer geeks and craft cocktail purveyors, friendly faces with discerning palettes. We’ve been thrilled for some time to offer a great selection of craft beer from all over. But we have a larger mission these days: to be much more than just a cozy taproom to imbibe at. We’ve truly become obsessed with fostering an approachable environment that celebrates progressive ideas, friendship, and of course, tasty drinks of all kinds” … we found them to be slightly above grumpy, begrudgingly pouring beers whilst attempting to communicate as little as possible and avoid all eye contact, though that’s based on one quick visit and all we wanted was to drink beers outside so we didn’t really give a shit.

We ordered up a few IPAs by Michigan’s Eternity and Avron breweries at the cafeteria-style counter, were granted permission to take them outside before being immediately met by a sign on the patio that instructed all glassware must be handled by a server.  We were confused and while I’m sure we could’ve crept to a table unnoticed we didn’t want to be disrespectful so we waited a few minutes for a highly trained purveyor of the serving arts to gracefully deliver our glass vessels of alcoholic nectar so as not to disturb the delicate balance of the established directives (READ: our awkward college-aged waiter spills 1/3 of my beer while clumsily dropping them on the table, barely apologizes and tells us if we want anything else we have to go back in because we’re outside of some designated patio area and table service isn’t offered).  The beers were tasty and the ivy-covered brick walls are very pretty but the whole thing was more trouble than it was worth.  Onward.

Jared went to browse comics at Vault of Midnight while I, with the hostess’ permission but still a vague aura of annoyance, grabbed an outdoor table at Grizzly Peak Brewing Company (am I missing something?  Why doesn’t anyone want you to sit outside in this town?) I probably didn’t need a third microbrew within an hour but I had been cheated out of 1/3 of my previous beer after all.  I’m loving the trendy beer of the moment; the New England style hazy IPA that everyone’s brewing these days and GP’s was exceptional. I ducked in to use the bathroom and sure enough the brewpub three were satisfied.  Sometimes you can set your watch by this stuff.

I’d been looking forward to Frita Batidos from the moment I read about it on a Michigan food blog.  Fast-casual Cuban inspired food & cocktails sounded like a can’t-lose situation.  We ordered up two chorizo burgers topped with shoestring fries, sweet chili mayo, avocado spread, muenster cheese and egg (another trend sweeping the nation I’m more than happy to partake in at every opportunity) and some crisped plantains with cilantro-lime salsa to go, and ate on the back porch of our B&B.  It was a gloriously delicious mess I would seriously consider having shipped to my house if anyone in Ann Arbor would be willing.  Cuba’s been on my list for a long time and Frita Batidos helped move it up a bit, especially with new regulations that make visiting easier.

Speaking of our B&B, we checked in quickly so we could eat before our food got cold.  The Cadgwith Too is located a few blocks from downtown, unassumingly on the corner of Third & Mosley.  We tried the B&B thing a few years back in Sackets Harbor and found the lower price & inclusion of breakfast most appealing, if slightly awkward: I’m guessing many B&B owners are used to guests being older, able to swap stories about grandchildren, etc.  The Sackets Harbor folks were sweet but didn’t have much to say to the tattooed troubadour and bearded poet.  I was hesitant about this place only because I could find very little about it online – reviews, listings, praise and criticism were all scarce, as if it existed in name only.  We took a chance because the price was right, and hoped it was just a case of the place being modestly old fashioned.  We arranged the date promptly through email, sent a deposit check and couldn’t have been happier with the accommodations.  Comfortable twin beds in a private room with shared bath (though to my knowledge we were the only guests), complete privacy, peace & quiet with a spacious back patio overlooking a park where we could slop down our Frita Batidos.  If we’d had more time before the gig I would’ve taken a nap in the hammock.

When I emailed Crazy Wisdom Bookstore & Tea Room in February I was just looking to get a feel for the place and see if we’d be a good fit, so I was surprised when Michelle replied and said they were booked through 2018 and started into 2019.  Damn, this must be a highly sought after gig – who books that far ahead?  I started looking elsewhere until she contacted me again a week later, saying she’d listened to the album, thought we’d fit in well and had spoken to the local guy who had the date we were after – he was willing to move his show to fill a cancellation she had later in the year, and that freed up this evening for us.  Class act, that one.  Between the booking fiasco and aforementioned performance contract with more than a dozen caveats we were cautiously optimistic but needn’t have worried.

The tea room is a cozy, bright space on the second floor overlooking the main drag, and Michelle greeted us warmly upon arrival to get us set up and couldn’t have been more helpful or nice.  We intentionally planned this stop before the fall arrival of MU students, as I imagine they’re every bit as fervent as our Penn State crowds in PA, which bode very well for our leisure time but not so much for the gig – Michelle had warned how thin the summer crowds could be, especially on nice nights and this one was damn near perfect.  Still, while not packed to the rafters we had a few folks who stayed for the majority & chatted during the set break, and we sold a few CDs.  Michelle offered to have us again anytime we’re willing to make the trip, which will give us a great excuse to go back for more Frita Batidos.  Overall a superb time where our only real inconvenience was supplying our own PA.  A gig as established as this one could probably benefit from having an in-house sound system but we had enough fun we’d lug ours back again.

The coffee was delicious but more beers were needed to quench our thirsts after a two hour set.  Unfortunately we chose Arbor Brewing just around the corner and regretted it almost immediately when for the third time, our simple desire to sit outside and drink a few beers in the summer air came rife with unnecessary complications.  For fuck’s sake, most of the restaurants in town offer outdoor seating, so why did it so often seem like they didn’t want us to sit there?  I understand maybe they want to save the tables for diners, afraid they won’t make much on a check of just a few beers but it was late, peak dining hours had passed and three of the four tables outside were open.  The hostess resentfully complied, and when we asked our waitress if anything less than a full pint was an option, she treated it as an imposition on par with asking for one of her kidneys.  The kicker through all of it was the one IPA was actually really good, and we wanted to take some home.  We’d seen a cooler just inside with six packs but that particular beer wasn’t in it, so we inquired about a growler: “I’m sorry but we don’t fill growlers with our higher alcohol beers.”  We doubled checked the ABV on the menu, and it was a little over 8%.  I’ve no idea what they found so offensive about two middle aged dudes who just wanted to sit quietly, drink beer and chat but it seemed they were actively working to get rid of us.  Fuck this place.

Since Arbor made it clear they had no interest in feeding us, we followed the light a few blocks up the street toward a large TAPAS sign, calling out to us like a beacon:  Eat!  Share!  Have a drink, outside on our patio without judgment!  Aventura is a bit upscale and it wouldn’t surprise me if their clientele is comprised largely of well-to-do professors and UM staff with too much money to spend but it’s got an authentic European feel and friendly staff WHO DIDN’T FUCKING COMPLAIN WHEN WE ASKED TO SIT OUTSIDE.  We practically had the patio to ourselves under the partial roof & string lights, and ordered up another cheese/cracker/jam/bread/vegetable menagerie, a few Spanish lagers and a glass of red wine, which our waitress brought in its own little carafe and poured into a glass at the table… again, the kind of elegant touch some stuffy conservative probably feels all self-important over but us salt of the earth types see as an extra dish that’s gonna need washed.  Nevertheless, a perfect late night snack and excellent way to end the evening.

After a fantastic nights’ sleep we enjoyed a heap of scrambled eggs, bacon & toast courtesy of Jeff at the Cadgwith Too.  He checked to make sure we didn’t need anything but gave us privacy and left us to check out at our leisure.  We’d have preferred to forego one of the more uninteresting drives in the country across Ohio on I-80 but I was hoping to make it home in time to catch the last baseball game of the season with my family in State College, and there were a few easy beer stops just off the highway.  Back in 2011 we stopped in Toledo en route to a wedding in South Dakota for lunch & beers at the Maumee Bay Brewpub, and our collective memories placed Toledo somewhere in the “filthy shithole” category.  Searching for the Black Cloister Brewery though, we found the downtown to have a weary, welcoming charm with new murals adorning the sides of historic buildings still bearing old storefront signs.

We arrived just as they were opening the doors (sorry to have been those guys; we really do try to avoid it whenever we can) and were welcomed into a large Abbey-style hall with sweeping arches and minimalist decor.  There was classic rock playing but the atmosphere easily evades the monotony of the brewpub 3 thanks to a few key touches in its large medieval style chandeliers and sprawling mural depicting historic war scenes interspersed with little pop culture blips like the Death Star.  We ordered up a Helles Angel lager & Pale Rider IPA and couldn’t even sit to drink them; the building dates back to the late 1800’s, it’s got soul in every nook & cranny and we couldn’t help but wander.  Tasty beers as well, this place is too cool.  Sometimes beers before noon are the best beers, especially on a rainy morning.

*Side Note* A guy from Toledo wrote to call me an asshole when I referred to his city as a cesspool after our 2011 visit… dude, I divided my time growing up between a ghetto in central Baltimore and a rural PA farm town where the locals went apeshit and offered thousands of dollars in reward money to apprehend some hooligans who tipped over Santa’s hut in our town square…. no actual vandalism was done, they just tipped it over.  I’ve still got a great deal of pride about both, yet I can’t help but laugh when someone makes a comment like “you grew up in Baltimore in the 80’s, how did you make it out alive?!”  The point: it’s obviously hard to pass judgement based on these little pocket stops, and rest assured any insulting words are more comedic effect than serious slander. 

I remember an old joke from the Drew Carey Show where he responded to someone’s insulting of Cleveland with “looks like somebody needs a trip to Youngstown for some perspective.”  Like much of the rust belt, time hasn’t been kind to Youngstown.  The burden is everywhere, in the burned out buildings, littered highways and lost, desperate looking souls wandering the side streets.  It looks a lot like our town.  There’s nothing like a visit to church to lift one’s spirits, however, and much like Church Brew Works in Pittsburgh, Noble Creature Cask House has taken the religion out of an old house of worship and replaced it with food & drink, something I find much easier to put my faith in (side note: Jared is quite devoted to his faith, and I’d never want anyone who finds their way to his blog from here to think otherwise… my heathen ways are my own).  Noble Creature is much smaller and more intimate than CBW, with lots of light coming in the stained glass windows and some pew seating in addition to long high top tables and traditional bar at the head of the room where the altar would’ve been (fitting, yes?).

They had a good selection of eight or nine beer styles & a few sandwiches listed on a chalkboard and since we weren’t in Ann Arbor anymore, we were welcomed to sit outside where they gladly delivered our muffaletta & Cuban sandwiches each with a healthy handful of chips.  The bartender even smiled while doing it!  I’ll be damned.  Food was simple but damn tasty, and the Bohemian Pilsener, IPA and saison were all flavorful & seasoned enough you’d never know they were a newer brewery.  Posters advertised live original music, DJs spinning punk, ska & new wave and bring-your-own-vinyl nights.  Do they have a scene here?  Shit.  We were hoping to chat with the bartender a bit about it but they were getting busy.  They have a nice stage at Black Cloister too; looks like a few shows over a long weekend in Ohio is something we should look into.

That, my friends, is all she wrote.  We did a three hour haul back to State College, where Jared dropped me off at Medlar Field at Lubrano park where I reunited with my family, we gorged ourselves on much sausage & beer and watched the State College Spikes lose the fourth home game we attended this season.  Post-game fireworks over the stadium while “Born to Run” played over the loudspeaker…  perfect end to a perfect weekend.

A few photos by Jared.  More to come.

Reykjavik, Iceland

March 20, 2018 § Leave a comment

This was a whirlwind jaunt: two shows in two and a half days, with little time to explore otherwise.  However I’m traveling, my posts here typically reflect the wide variety of local fare I try to indulge in, from as many establishments I can visit in whatever limited time I’ve got.  Alas, music was the focus here and while it wasn’t filled with nearly the diverse amount of food & beer I strive for, the trip was above & beyond our expectations for the simple fact that Reykjavik is one of the friendliest places I’ve ever been.

In March of 2015 I did a short tour of the UK & Ireland alongside my Echo & Sway comrade Jared A. Conti, our new friends Charley Edwards and her immensely talented singer/songwriter boyfriend Chris Stringer.  It was a wonderful week on the road and one of the best things I’ve ever done; we got along as though we’d known each other for years and Chris became an incredible new influence.  The shows were some of the most inspiring we’d ever played but it’d be quite some time before they could come to the US so we conspired to meet somewhere in between until then.  We settled on Reykjavik for its troubadour scene and cheap flights.  Charley and Jared were sorely missed but given the good experience we had I’m positive it won’t be our last visit.

Iceland’s WOW Air is a fairly new budget airline with largely negative reviews, but for a less than $300 round trip flight out of Newark (£90 for Chris out of London Gatwick) I was willing to take the chance.  It would appear the negative reviews are mostly by uptight, high maintenance types who can’t read the basic airline info & FAQ presented when booking a ticket (though the gripes about cancelled/delayed/rerouted flights are perfectly justifiable, the majority of the complaints are the former).  Ours were pleasant but absolute no-frills experiences, and the low prices are contingent on your adhering to their policies.  Don’t want to pay outrageous prices for bottled water and bagged snacks?  Get them in the airport before you board.  Upset at the lack of in-flight entertainment?  Bring a book.  Can’t fit all of your stuff in the required size for free carry-on luggage?  Pay for the upgrade, which is almost double the space.  The added fees are a nuisance but again, they’re spelled out plain as day on the website before you make your purchase.  I downed a goblet of Duvel in the Belgian Beer Cafe, popped a Sominex just before takeoff and it was smooth sailing.

I landed at Keflavik airport shortly before the absurd hour of 5:00 AM.  Reykjavik is another hours’ ride and the €6 FlyBus is waiting outside after every incoming flight. There were a few stops in smaller villages but it was far too dark to see anything. Chris was gracious enough to meet me at the bus station at such a horrible time in the morning (he’d landed the day before), we walked about 10 minutes north to Baldursbra Guesthouse and settled into a basic but nice room on the third floor overlooking the snow covered street.  Bathrooms are shared between three rooms per floor and we never had to wait despite the place being filled to capacity, and it was surprisingly quiet at all hours given how compact everything is. There’s a good assortment of books and board games in the common area, plenty of space to relax and it’s all watched over by two ferocious dauschunds in adorable sweaters.  We didn’t interact much with the owners but they were very friendly (witnessing the gentleman doing home repairs in his underwear was a bonus), though slightly disappointed that we missed out on breakfast every morning.  It looked delicious but we were too lazy to get out of bed in time.

Reykjavik had just experienced their greatest snow accumulation since 1937 a few days before, prompting Chris’ first message to me upon landing: “Bring boots.”  It made walking the side roads a little precarious but the city kept up nicely clearing the main streets and sidewalks. We ventured into town for breakfast at Sandholt Bakery on recommendation from local blog I Heart Reykjavik and quickly discovered all the tales we’d heard about Reykjavik’s expensive restaurant scene to be true.  My double espresso and croissant with house-made jam, while delicious, ran me about $16. Fuck.  Maybe we could meander down to the harbor and survive off of seaweed for two days.  Prices notwithstanding, Sandholt was the perfect spot to relax and catch up a bit, in a corner booth lined with soft couch-sized pillows and the sound of 80’s new wave playing throughout.

We wandered around as the sun came up, admiring the architecture, sculptures and graffiti all over the city before making our way up to the Hallgrímskirkja Church that looms over much of the city.  Like most European churches it’s a sight to behold and beats the shit out of our uninspired looking houses of worship.  There’s a statue of Leif Eriksson in front as well (ironically a gift from the US) and a waffle cart on the premises, though cruelly not open so early as we were there. We’d planned to take the elevator to the observation deck where the views are supposed to be phenomenal but the line was insane and we had so much more beer to drink Icelandic culture to take in before the show that night.

The Sun Voyager sculpture on the waterfront is something else.  An ode to the sun, undiscovered territories, hope, progress and freedom… if that weren’t badass enough it’s just awesome to look at, with a perfect backdrop of crystal clear water and snow covered mountains in the distance.  The waterfront is usually my favorite part of any city and despite having frozen feet from scaling a snow bank (the walks weren’t yet plowed where we’d chosen to cross) this was no exception.  I could’ve used a hot chocolate or a whiskey to warm me up but I’ll be damned if that view isn’t one of the best I’ve ever taken in.

It was noon and time for a beer.  I hadn’t read enough about Icelandic microbrew to know what to expect but assumed if nothing else we’d have a few decent lagers. With so many signs for US and European beers in the windows of the craft beer bars I was afraid we’d be limited to those, so we were thrilled to spend two days drinking native pales and IPAs, stouts and porters, even saisons and farmhouse ales, some of the best I’ve had abroad.

We happened upon Kaldi Bar, a cozy locals pub and didn’t want to leave.  Some bars are just places to grab a drink while others give you a window into a neighborhood or city, and Kaldi is definitely the latter.  We were immediately welcomed to sit at the bar, while the bartender poured us several liberal samples of different brews.  Beer in Reykjavik is as pricey as the food (about $10-11 per pint) and we appreciated the option to choose which styles to go broke on.

After we’d settled on drinks we spent a solid hour talking with the bartender/owner, and not just your run-of-the-mill, “Here’s what you should do and see while you’re in Reykjavik” chit chat.  He schooled us on Icelandic people and culture, how he came to love the city enough to relocate here and the changes that have occurred since his citizenship, similarities and differences between our respective countries… if high school politics and geography had been discussed over beers with passionate visiting natives I might have paid better attention.  We slipped him a flyer for that night’s show as we were about to leave, and he insisted we stay a bit longer while he took on the task of impromptu PR man, requesting more flyers for the bar, telling the other patrons to go see us, even pulling up videos on his phone and plugging into the sound system in an effort to pimp us out.  Our quick stop for a beer turned into well over an hour and we were grateful for every moment.

We wandered the main drag Laugavegur looking for Dillon whiskey bar, anxious to try some local spirits.  We perused their impressive selection of 150+ but enjoyed the locals brews from Kaldi so much we ordered two draft IPAs from Reykjavik’s Borg Brewing instead.  There’s an outdoor archway leading to a backyard garden that I’m sure is much more inviting when not covered in two feet of snow and ice, and the inside is nice classic dive bar style if a little hard & classic rock-centric for my taste (their playlist read like a who’s-who of every late 70’s radio staple you never need to hear again).  We sat next to the window and watched outside as kids in costumes ducked in and out of shops along Laugavegur looking for candy, a springtime custom that looks suspiciously like Halloween.  Two Halloweens?  This country’s getting cooler all the time.

If you’re looking to open a museum celebrating punk rock, a former underground public toilet is probably the most fitting place for it.  The Icelandic Punk Museum is one of the most unique off-the-beaten-path attractions I’ve ever been to. Learn about the genre’s history in Iceland via newspapers, magazine clippings and show flyers as you navigate your way through stalls and urinal fixtures, some of which are actually held together with duct tape and one that is still operational.  In the last room you can try on old studded leather jackets and bang away on a guitar or drum set.  There are also headphones suspended from LP jackets you can pull down from the ceiling and hear the bands you just read about, some of which are available for purchase from the (true to form) pissy slacker punk working the counter who’d rather chat on his phone and play air drums than take your money.  Someone told us John Lydon had a hand in seeing this project through to fruition and if that’s true, it’s the most worthwhile thing he’s done in years.

We met renowned Icelandic troubadour Svavar Knutur at Cafe Rosenberg a few hours before showtime for sound check.  We’d glimpsed Icelandic hospitality already and Svavar was determined to take it to the next level. He’s one of Europe’s hardest working musicians who not only set us up with a supporting gig at the city’s premier folk club but allowed us the use of his guitar so we wouldn’t have to pay airline fees for hauling one of our own.  After sound check we got acquainted over a few dark Einstock beers, BSing about music & politics, but mostly commiserating about historical architecture, and cities’ tendencies to bulldoze it in favor of hotels for tourists, who are likely visiting to see historical architecture… it’s a ridiculous cycle taking happening in more places, enough to make your head hurt.  We retreated to our guesthouse for a change into some nicer clothes before showtime.

We returned awhile later to a very respectable crowd, set to discuss a game plan when Svavar dropped some more of that Icelandic hospitality, insisting that HE open for US.  We were nobodies here, and he’s Svavar fucking Knutur – seriously, click on the link and check him out – yet he was adamant that we were the guests of honor, to be treated as such… sure dude, my nerves weren’t tingling enough.  At least the coin toss went in my favor and I didn’t have to follow Chris as well.  The venue is a singer/songwriter’s dream, cozy and inviting with the stage emanating a rich, warm sound.  Svavar was brilliant, dressed to the nines and complimenting his songs with wonderfully funny stories, poignant remarks and a smooth croon.  He split his performance between English & Icelandic, and it was beautiful to listen to (we laughed along with the crowd even when we couldn’t understand a word, truly showing our ignorance).  He is a master of his craft and I can see why he’s such an attraction throughout Europe.

He called me to the stage immediately following his first set, where I nervously balked at introducing myself.  Recalling some discussion during sound check, I said the first thing that came into my head: “My name is Anthony James LaLota, I’m from the US and I did not vote for Donald Trump.”  That garnered much laughter and a huge round of applause… I felt right at home.  With little language barrier, everyone seemed receptive to my dumb stories and I even saw a few people singing along when I closed with Tom Waits’ “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You.”

After a second set by Svavar, Chris took the stage to close out the evening.  People cross countries & oceans to see their favorite bands perform and if time & money weren’t obstacles, I’d be in London every gig he played at some dingy pub.  His songwriting, voice & lyrics, wry sense of humor are all top notch.  He should be a much bigger part of the London folk scene than he is.  His stripped down version of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” is always a crowd pleaser, especially with the callback lines toward the end and this night was no exception.

After enjoying a dinner of local fish Svavar handed us every dime from the cover charge despite our agreement that it be split three ways.  Swell guy, that one. This was one of the finest shows we’ve ever played, in a venue made for what we do.  Sadly, less than a year afterward we learned that Rosenberg had closed down and will be reopened as a touristy Irish pub – hardly necessary considering The Dubliner is just a few blocks away.  An unfortunate blow to the local folk scene, and yet another authentic Icelandic experience visitors will be stripped of.  I feel unbelievably fortunate to have performed on that stage before it closed.

We skipped breakfast the next morning in favor of sleeping in, as jet lag finally caught up to me and we lazed around awhile reflecting on the gig.  By the time we got out it was closer to lunch so we ordered up a few burgers & fries at the Lebowski Bar on Laugavegur.  Touristy as all hell but the commitment and execution are both solid, and my old man (as I’ve mentioned elsewhere on the blog, a real life embodiment of The Dude) would’ve been horribly disappointed if I hadn’t gone in and snapped a few photos.  We opted for beers instead of the requisite White Russians because vodka is devil’s piss and cool as The Dude is, he should’ve had a better signature cocktail.

We took another walk around the city to take in some sights and snag a few hot dogs at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, renowned for being the best hot dog stand in Europe.  Their list of famous visitors includes Bill Clinton and the guy from Metallica so it must be true.  A sign in the window recommended ordering “eina með öllu” (“the works”); I’ve no idea what all that included but it was damn tasty.  After getting denied by another massive line at Hallgrimskirkja we found ourselves back at Kaldi Bar, again chatting up the bar owner, eager to hear about the show and inquire about the next one.  We invited troubadour #2, our witty & gracious host for the evening Sveinn Gudmundsson to join us for a pre-show beer, though we’d gotten acquainted briefly when he attended the Rosenberg show the night before.  I hated him immediately, as I do any man with such spectacular hair, but after putting aside my searing jealousy we made fast friends.  After reading the description of his debut album, “Icelandic lyrics about cats, stomach aches, Vulcans and survival experts” we knew he’d be a good fit for our goofy, endearing troop.

Sveinn took us to Lucky Records on the way to the gig.  We didn’t have nearly enough time to look around and much of the 45’s I thumbed through were in Icelandic but I would’ve bought several based on the artwork alone.  Fortunately for my wallet, my carry on bag was stuffed as full as it could be and after somehow resisting the urge to visit the Icelandic Phallological Museum, we pressed on to Reykjavik Roasters for gig #2.  Nestled on a hill among what looks to be a community of apartments, it’s a bright & modern cafe with a customer accessible turntable, hand-painted murals throughout and one hell of a tasty avocado toast – my first foray into what is apparently quite the hipster dish at the moment.  They set us up at the end of the elongated main room, with all of the couches & chairs pointed our way and a sweet disco lamp glowing behind us.

Sveinn took the hospitality torch from Svavar by also offering us the use of his guitar, and insisting on opening the show which again, was absurd but very generous.  Though he offered introductions in English for our benefit, he sang almost exclusively in Icelandic (save for a fantastically unexpected version of “Gangster’s Paradise,” which we weren’t ashamed in the least to sing along with) but hell if it mattered – his songs were haunting and beautiful, and everything I wanted folk music of this region to sound like.  Insert whatever cliche you’d like about music being universal, and connecting us despite language barriers because it definitely applies here.  I would’ve gladly played a shorter set to listen to him sing a few more songs.

If it didn’t suck enough following the talented local fellow, I also got to follow Chris…  I hate following Chris.  Why I insist on touring with such a talented SOB is beyond me.  His set was beyond great as usual.  We agreed to each do a Springsteen song and he did the Boss proud with “Born to Run.”  I could write more about his brilliance but just listen to him yourself already.  We had another great crowd, much more family oriented with the coffee shop setting.  Friends of Sveinn brought their kids, who drew pictures of him with crayons while he performed.  We drank way too much coffee and met some more fantastic people including Tryggvi, another local singer/songwriter I’d love to share a gig with when we return someday.  I closed out the evening (holding up my end of the bargain with “Dancing in the Dark”) and the cafe manager chatted us up awhile before gifting us some bags of fresh roasted beans.

I can’t overstate how much I love this shit.  There’s way better money in having the support of a label, legal representation and all that garbage but it’s not nearly as much fun… I’ll trade a booking agent and fancy green room for going my own way, hanging with the crowd and getting to know people who don’t suck any day.  It’s got more soul.

For the third time, we found ourselves back at Kaldi after the gig.  Part of me wanted to explore and try somewhere else but there’s just something about the place… the delicious beer, the homey vibe and congenial owner had us smitten.  Sveinn joined us for a few rounds and we spent hours swapping stories.  We were contemplating leaving when a man approached our tiny corner table, obscured by several dozen people at this point:

“John would like to buy you a round.”

(Chris & I, to each other) “Who the fuck is John?”

“The owner.  I can bring you another round or we can take one off of your tab.”

Shit.  We’ve been chatting with this guy a ton and singing his praises for the past 24 hours, we probably should’ve known his name.  I’m gonna say he never told us because that makes us sound less terrible.  And hell yes, we’ll have another round.  All we have to do tomorrow is fly home.

Several beers in and realizing we hadn’t eaten in hours, I recalled seeing a Voffluvagninn waffle stand down by the harbor and a pilgrimage began.  It looked like the same stand that had disappointed us the day before by not being open outside of Hallgrimskirkja; this was their chance to make it up to us, and make it up to us they did with fresh, warm waffles topped with ice cream and chocolate.  We thanked Sveinn for his kindness and wonderful company before bidding him adieu, then stopped by Lake Tjornin on our way back to Baldursbra.  We’d seen locals walking across the ice the past few days, were determined to do the same before we left and figured we’d look less like dumb, overexcited morons later at night with nobody around.  Fun and mischievous as that was, a few minutes later we spied a fresh bed of untouched snow across the street on the lawn of the British Embassy, just dying for us to desecrate it with a few drunken snow angels and all that stood in the way was a very short fence we could easily hop after six or seven tries… in hindsight, maybe not the best idea but surely nobody would arrest us for making a couple of harmless snow angels.

Baldursbra has a courtyard with a hot tub.  We may not have made it down for breakfast but we damn sure weren’t passing up a chance to relax in an outdoor hot tub with a bottle of whiskey in below freezing temperatures.  I Skyped with my family so they could laugh at what idiots we were (also because I missed the hell out of them), we held on to our reunion awhile longer before making our way up for a subpar nights’ sleep.  I was so glad our flights weren’t too early in the morning.

It was no surprise we overslept and missed breakfast yet again.  We hurried through a couple of showers (which have a strong smell of sulphur/eggs due to the geothermal origins of the warm water… kinda weird but once out you don’t smell it at all) and made one last attempt to take in some views at Hallgrimskirkja.  The line wasn’t as long as previous days but we weren’t taking any chances.  We grabbed some pastries at the station and boarded the Flybus back to the airport, much more scenic now that it wasn’t 5:00 in the morning.  You could see some small villages and volcanoes in the distance; it was really a beautiful ride.  We arrived at Keflavik to find my flight had been delayed by 30 minutes; we promptly logged on to Yelp to report WOW as a bullshit airline run by incompetent assholes grabbed a couple of beers & a surprisingly decent airport pizza and spent the extra time reminiscing about the incredible few days we just had.

A year later, I have nothing but overwhelmingly positive memories of this trip.  We made incredible new friends, shared stories and bonded through music.  Everyone we met was unbelievably friendly and there were good vibes everywhere; it was damn good for the soul.  I ducked into a gift shop before we left and bought some puffin memorabilia for my wife & kid; he still sleeps with his stuffed puffin and it brings a smile to my face every night remembering where it came from.  He still asks me at least once a week if I’ll take him to Iceland someday… the answer is always an unequivocal yes.  I can’t wait for that day to come.

Old 97’s at the State Theater, State College PA

August 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

“We’re not used to playing venues with seats.  I checked with management and they said it’s okay for you guys to stand.  Matter of fact it’s encouraged because I’m gonna be shaking my ass all night.” (Rhett Miller, beginning the evening’s festivities).

We’ve got to be choosy about our concerts and nights out in general these days, what with the kid and all.  We had tickets to see the Old 97’s in 2009, the year we bought our house. The closing fell on the same day, late enough there was no way we’d catch the show considering it was a four hour drive away in Maryland. My wife didn’t even remember this when she surprised me with tickets for my birthday, and the veteran alt-country rockers put on a great fucking show, more than worthy of one of our rare nights out together.

We had pre-show dinner and beers at Liberty Craft House downtown.  I’ve written about Liberty previously and still have mostly good things to say.  It was surprisingly not busy during peak dinner hour and the R&B/soul station they had queued up was ideal for a quiet dinner without our manic child. Fig/prosciutto/arugula/balsamic and kale/tomato/caesar flatbreads were tasty and filling enough to sustain us through showtime.

We saw the Hold Steady and Drive-By Truckers on the Rock & Roll Means Well tour at the State Theater in 2008 and it was one of the best shows we’ve ever been to. The only negative was the lack of alcohol – I don’t mind pre-gaming and am not above sneaking a flask sometimes when booze is prohibited but if there are two bands whose shows demand to be enjoyed with an open beer freely in one’s hand, they’re THS and DBT.  We were feeling similarly about the Old 97’s and were delighted to discover the addition of a liquor license and small bar to the theater lobby.  I was eyeballing a can of Sierra Nevada pale ale (and would have even settled for one of those Miller Lite cans with the screw-top lids) when we noticed they had local Elk Creek Cafe beer on tap. Double Rainbow IPA and Poe Paddy Porter, hot damn.  There was also wine and a small liquor/mixer assortment.

I’m a big proponent of catching the opener – back in my punk rock days, my band was often it.  They know you’re there for the headliner but are trying their damndest to make a name for themselves, and always appreciate having the majority of the crowd come early (one particularly discouraging incident occurred when my band opened for New Found Glory and much of the audience opted to flank their tour bus, only to find out what a huge bunch of snooty dickheads they were… served ’em right). Get your refreshments and use the bathroom but try and catch at least a little of their set.

1990’s fashion revivalists Western Star were a fitting opener. Their new album was produced by the 97s’ own Ken Bethea and you can hear it in their sound; sort of a twangy power pop with some garage leanings and southern harmonies. Learning that they relocated to Baltimore earned them a few extra points in my book.  A heckler repeatedly yelled “TEETH!  SHOW US YOUR TEETH!” between songs. Maybe it was an inside joke or he was new to heckling; either way the band obliged several times with big gaping smiles.

The 97’s were fucking great.  Between them and the Pixies last year I’m beginning to think bands approaching and/or past middle age are the shows to go to.  They played with the passion and energy of groups half their age, with 20+ years of experience on top of it.  They were unbelievably tight and looked to be having a blast.  At Rhett’s behest most of us were on our feet dancing and the front row even propped their drinks and elbows on the stage. The set list spanned their career with a good mix of greatest hits-type tunes (“Doreen,” “King of All of the World,” “Rollerskate Skinny”), deeper cuts (“Streets of Where I’m From,” “Stoned”) and a few Merle Haggard songs, who’d passed away the day before. Rhett gave a shout out to local radio station 98.7 the Freq, claiming the reason their tour stopped in State College at all was due to overwhelming listener demand.

Bizarre incident of the evening: toward the end of their set a burly dude with a beer walked down to the stage and stood with his middle finger pointed at the band for a solid few minutes.  Like the “teeth” guy we assumed he knew them and it was some sort of weird joke, but after a few minutes he angrily exchanged words with Ken then left via the emergency exit by the stage, followed by Ken’s guitar tech and a few security guards.  No idea what was going on there but they wrapped things up moments later with “Four Leaf Clover,” a hell of a closer even without the female duet. They returned a few minutes later for a short encore with “Victoria” transitioning seamlessly into “Timebomb” to end the evening altogether.  If that guy’s antics lead to the set being cut short as it indeed appeared to be, and us missing out on something like “Melt Show” or “Nightclub” then I hope security beat the shit out of him.

Ten years ago this week I proposed to my best girl in the bar where we had our first date by singing the 97’s “Question.”  It doesn’t appear to be a song they play much these days so we counted ourselves lucky when it was the first ballad of the evening. A  highlight for sure.

We popped down to legendary basement bar Zeno’s for a few post-show beers.  It’s a State College institution and one of the finer places to drink a few pints downtown, especially during university breaks when those pesky students go home.  The evenings range from cramped to crowded with a mix of drunken 21 year old idiots putting scores of drinks on Dad’s credit card, and locals who want them all to go the fuck away so we can enjoy our beer in peace, or hear one of the decent satellite radio stations above their screaming.

Food is available from the Corner Room restaurant upstairs – typical & tasty pub fare but beer is the reason to visit Zeno’s.  Their 21 drafts (and countless bottles) rotate a good mix of styles, rarities and aged brews, and always includes the rye ale brewed for them locally by Otto’s, a great standby and anytime drinker if nothing else looks particularly tempting.  They also feature an “Around the World in 80 Beers” passport and beer festivals of all kinds (we attended an awesome pay-as-you-go cask fest one year where the bar was lined completely with fresh barrels, replenished as they emptied, with a few beers unique to that event alone).

Their Friday night happy hour offers half price Pennsylvania micros from 9-11, a nice accompaniment to the regular lineup of live music ranging from bluegrass (King Cotton Rounders) and Americana (Pure Cane Sugar) to 80’s/90’s cover bands (Spider Kelly) and PA’s best rockabilly trio the Ultra Kings. It’s one of the state’s best beer spots though much more enjoyable during the day or an evening during school breaks, unless you’re into large groups of loud, obnoxious undergrads. The bathroom graffiti is as legendary as the beer selection, covering the entirety of the walls and offering a disturbing glimpse into the area’s vast array of frat boy douchery (bar tours… oh so many bar tours), with an occasional slice of veritable wit or humor. Sample philosophy: “Alcohol won’t solve your problems but neither will water or milk.” Retort: “Unless your problems are that you’re dehydrated or calcium deficient.”

Summary: a night out with my best gal, some aging rockers and a wealth of good beer.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

Old 97's, State Theater

Photo pirated from Google search.  Mine were all blurry.

Man Voyage IV: NY & Ontario

April 29, 2016 § 5 Comments

This being the fourth year, I’m struggling to come up with new introductions for Man Voyage.  The destination may change each year but it’s always about two friends hitting the open road to eat, drink and take stock of our lives. Read the full manifesto here and click the “Navigation” tab to read previous entries.  In the meantime, we’ll get right to the good stuff from this year’s trip through the Finger Lakes & upstate New York, the 1000 Islands and Prince Edward County, Ontario.

We stopped for a quick lunch at Grist Iron Brewing Company, in the very familiar Finger Lakes region of New York.  We spend so much time here for shows and day trips it’s a sort of second home, and we were anxious to try Seneca Lake’s newest brewpub again.  This was Jared’s second visit, my third and we appreciate it more each time.  The Front Porch IPA is better than I remembered (stronger too, at 9% ABV) and the Big “O” Organic Smash pale ale is the best beer I’ve had from them yet. Southwest mac ‘n cheese and a hot cup of chicken mushroom soup rounded out a nice lunch, and that elevated view of Lake Seneca never gets old. Our bartender was very knowledgeable of their brews and told us about upcoming expansion plans to add a bigger outdoor space for live music and overhead protection from any inclement weather.  Grist Iron is such a great addition to the flourishing brewery scene up here.

I-81 N would’ve gotten us to Wood Boat Brewery in Clayton, NY about 30 minutes earlier but we opted for the gorgeous lakeside drive of Rt 3.  The water was obscured by trees for a good while but once it opened up, that view made it hard to focus on the road.  Clayton is a waterfront town on the cusp of the 1000 Islands in upstate NY, small and quaint with an antique boat museum and general fascination with watercraft, fitting given its location.  Wood Boat is no exception, adorning every surface with vintage boat signage and memorabilia.  Not necessarily our thing but their commitment to the theme is commendable.  Their spacious outdoor deck provides a good view of the waterfront (just a block away) and would’ve been ideal for dining if it’d been less windy and just a bit warmer. Music is subtly pumped through a few outdoor speakers – mostly overplayed classic rock, but that’s our nitpick.

It feels very much like a neighborhood place; most of the other patrons were locals but that’s not to say it wasn’t inviting.  Our waitress was quick and attentive, applauding us for choosing the two best beers on the menu (IPA and oatmeal stout).  The brick pizza oven has an opening on the bar so they get pushed right out when they’re done. Our personal pizzas (sausage & pineapple, pulled pork & coleslaw) were fantastic and big enough we took a few slices to go. Clayton might be a short detour en route to the 1000 Islands but it’s definitely worth the stop.  The best part of their commitment to the theme?  The pizzas are shaped like boats.

Crossing the border at Wellesley Island is much faster than Niagara Falls.  There were four lanes open and our agent waved us through after a few routine questions.  Once again we opted for the scenic lakeside Route 2 over the quicker 401 – it was much too nice of a day to spend looking at nothing but highway traffic.  We arrived in Kingston, found the Confederation Place Hotel on Ontario Street with relative ease, nestled our car into their underground parking lot and ventured up to our fifth floor lake view room for a quick change of clothes.  I didn’t realize when I booked online that the hotel is owned by a chain (Howard Johnson’s maybe?  I saw it posted in the lobby but can’t remember) so technically we broke our ‘go local’ rule, but at $63 for a lake view room two blocks from our gig that evening it was hard to care.  The underground parking was $15 extra and if we hadn’t had the gig gear to haul we probably would’ve researched other nearby options. The room was clean & quiet, the bed was comfortable and the shower was hot… all Man Voyage hotel needs met.

We had a round of pre-gig beers at Stone City Ales downtown, where we experienced our first minor hiccup.  Upon entering we were greeted by a friendly gal at the walk-up counter who asked what she could get us.  Next to the counter is a partition with a clear glass door leading into the bar and seating area – every state/country/province has their own set of strange liquor laws so naturally we assumed that, for whatever reason, we had to order our beer here and take it into the bar.  We ordered an Uncharted IPA and Single Simcoe IPA, she handed us two bombers and told us to have a nice day.  We asked if we could have them opened for consumption at the bar and she looked at us like we were mental patients… yes ma’am, we are from out of town. Turns out we should’ve just walked through the clear glass door in the first place. We had a round in the bar and took our bombers home with us; not so much a minor hiccup but rather a dumb mistake that resulted in more beer.  Everybody wins.

It was a short walk to Musiikki Cafe, an excellent coffee/whiskey bar and even more excellent gig.  Owner Chris and sound man Alex welcomed us upon arrival, concocted a plan for me to play my solo set unplugged in the window front downstairs then move to the 2nd floor stage for the Echo & Sway later in the evening.  The bar downstairs blends an extensive combination of coffee and cafe staples (espresso, lattes, americanos, etc) with whiskies of all qualities, though I did spy several top shelf brands and a few that were unfamiliar to me.  They’ve also got other spirits and mixers for a small selection of cocktails, and a weekly discounted whiskey feature – this week it was J.P. Wiser’s Hopped, dry hopped in the same fashion as an IPA.  A harmonious blend of whiskey and beer properties, it was quite tasty but would probably be just an occasional sipper for me.  Band members are allotted two free drinks each, and I spent mine on a top-notch Old Fashioned and a bottled blonde ale by a Canadian micro I can’t remember.  Jared went with two of the Hopped whiskies, neat… classy guy, that one.

The performance space upstairs is equally stellar, with a small stage at the head of an elongated room.  Interesting side story: one of the cafe’s regular performers was carrying a cello on his back when he was hit by a car.  The cello was destroyed beyond repair, but saved his life in the process.  He donated it to Musiikki, who made it a stage backdrop with orange lights strung throughout. There’s also a chandelier of sorts fashioned from an old wooden door, freshly painted and affixed with small lanterns. The room is lit almost exclusively by those two pieces during showtime.  There’s also a wall for bands to sign and a single keg with a local pilsner on tap.

The gig was superb.  I had a loyal crowd for my solo set and several who stuck around after (namely Kevin and Julie, who sat with us) to chat about our tunes and travels, and life in Kingston.  The crowd fluctuated upstairs for the TE&S part of the evening, many coming and going but seated and attentive in between.  As our set was winding down we were flooded with a large group who not only insisted we continue, but with more original songs no less. Sore fingers and hoarse throats notwithstanding, we’d have been damn foolish to ignore a request like that.

We hung around awhile to mingle and enjoy another round of drinks. We shared stories of traversing the UK with a group of English girls and talked about everything under the sun at warp speed with a particularly fiery Aussie named Christine, who bought us a round of cocktails and proceeded to drink all three of them herself.  Our new friends directed us to Mr. Donair for late night eats, where we assembled a massive platter of poutine topped with tzatziki & sweet sauces, cucumbers, peppers and extra cheese.  Likely a terrible idea come morning, but bordering on genius in the moment.  We retired to our room exhausted but grateful for such an evening.  Unique spaces and fun audiences like this beat the shit out of nightclubs and run-of-the-mill bars any day, and are reasons in and of themselves for independent artists to play music and tour.

———

We awoke refreshed and not nearly as digestively screwed as we’d anticipated following our poutine bomb.  After a quick toast & juice breakfast at the hotel we headed back to Musiikki for our morning espresso.  There were a half dozen other cafes downtown but we wanted to take a better look at some of the local art on their walls and patronize them again for giving us such a great gig.  Jared chatted beans and roasting with the morning barista and we grabbed some local literature before moving on.  I’m overstating it for a reason: Musiikki is too fucking cool.  We picked up some gifts and assorted nerdery at Novel Idea Books and Kingston Gaming Nexus before heading out. These stores seem to be thriving and it’s always nice to chat with small business owners in other towns. As always: shop local, folks.

After another beautiful waterfront drive along Rt. 33 we arrived at MacKinnon Brothers Brewing in Bath, a wonderfully chaotic little farm brewery and tasting room. We’d no idea where to go once in the parking area but we wandered the grounds, observing the brewing area and gorgeous rural setting until we spied a small shed with a bar and handmade stools inside.  The bartender couldn’t have been friendlier as she began pouring us samples of Crosscut Canadian ale, 8 Man English pale, Red Fox summer ale (brewed with a touch of beet juice, giving it a nice red hue), Origin German-style Hefeweizen and Wild peppermint stout.  Not a bad one in the bunch. One of the brothers came in and joined us for a full beer simply because “it’s Friday, and it’s lunchtime.”  Can’t argue with logic like that.

We could’ve used their new fully functioning bathroom facilities if we’d arrived two days later, but the roadside port a potty with resident farm dog chaperone suited us just fine.  We took home a few small growlers (Origin and Wild) and a set of coasters handmade from tree branches on their property and imprinted with their logo.  It was a beautiful start to the day.

I’m not sure I’d ever ridden on a ferry before this and I’m positive I’d never driven onto one.  We envisioned it being much more of a pain in the ass but the Glenora Ferry was smooth sailing all the way; the best option from Bath to Prince Edward County, and the most scenic.  It’s free and departs the end of Rt. 33 (Loyalist Parkway) every half hour.  Once the boat was in motion we got out to walk around and snap some pictures.  The ride was only a few minutes but it beat just sitting in the car.  Once we docked the gates opened and we picked up Rt. 33 on the other side.  I’d love it if this were a part of my daily commute.

We’d planned to make the Inn at Lake on the Mountain part of the beer tour before discovering they wouldn’t be open for the season until May 1st. Disappointing but the mystery of the lake itself is interesting and the view is even better.  We made our way into Picton for a snack and round of beers at County Canteen, a cozy little spot on the main drag with hardwood floors and exposed brick inside, and a small patio with funky lanterns and string lights out front.  Vegetarian rice paper rolls with peanut dipping sauce were great alongside a Muskoka IPA and Flying Monkeys Pilsner, and they had a nice enough variety of Canadian microbrew on tap we likely would’ve stayed for a few more if there weren’t many more attractive looking places to stop that day.  Our waitress/bartender was sweet but we found it odd when she told us they “don’t start giving out our WiFi password until peak season.”  Seems like an odd policy but whatever.  We bought a few gifts for our boys at Books & Company two doors down and made use of theirs while petting the resident bookstore cat.

A few short miles (well, kilometers) down the road was Barley Days Brewery, housed in what appears to be a small airplane hangar painted up like an old barn. We stayed longer than we’d planned thanks to a generous bartender who let us try everything though we only paid for one sampler (four liberal pours for $1, a damn good deal in itself), and a patron who wanted to chat with us while downing a few pints of cherry porter himself.  Their dark beers were among my favorites, particularly the Ursa Major Black IPA and Scrimshaw Oyster Stout.  Others could take a lesson in brewing with maple syrup: I find most in the style too sickeningly sweet and despite many reviews suggesting their Sugar Shack ale is the same, I found it perfectly balanced between bitter and sweet. The gift shop is loaded with local food items we were tempted to take home but weren’t sure what we could legally get through customs, though we did buy a bottle of hot sauce made by the bartender as part of a side business.  Two of the friendliest people we met, she even offered to call ahead to our next stop to make sure they were still open. Ahh, the perks of traveling in the off season.

We should have had her call 66 Gilead Distillery because he was locking up when we got there.  The grounds are beautiful, on a farm with some antique accents and animals running around.  In keeping with the generosity we’d experienced in Ontario thus far, he gladly opened back up to give us a few samples and talk in great detail about the ingredients and making of each of their spirits.  He really knows his stuff as we got a pamphlet’s worth of information on each one.  The Crimson Rye whiskey and Loyalist Gin were great and I was contemplating a purchase until I saw the price list. I’m obviously not averse to spending decent money on well-made liquor but with the money I’d already spent (and intended to spend) on alcohol this trip, between $50-$70 for a single bottle was a bit much. If Jared hadn’t already intended on buying vodka I probably would’ve sprung for something just to thank the guy for opening back up.  Next time I’ll ease up on beer and fit one of their spirits into my budget.

Our first of two food disappointments this trip was missing out on Terracello Winery. They’re rumored to have fantastic red wine and pizza that rivals Italy and we’d only eaten the spring rolls at County Canteen thus far.  Their advertised hours were 12-6, and I even emailed ahead to make sure they’d be open since it’s not peak season, which they confirmed.  We arrived shortly before 5:00 on Friday and they were closed, with nobody in sight.  It’s understandable that they’d quit early if things were slow but it still sucked.  Jared grew tired of me bitching about wanting pizza so he fished our Wood Boat leftovers out of the back.

It was about an hours’ drive to Gananoque Brewing Company in downtown Gananoque, not far from the border.  We were hungry after missing out on Terracello pizza (look Jared, I’m still griping about it) but couldn’t pass up one last Ontario brewery.  We’d had so much remarkable brew and the Gan was no exception.  Jared went in while I parked our car on a nearby street and I arrived a few minutes later to find him already sipping on a canned Bell Ringer IPA, also on draft but on a faulty tap line. I ordered a Coopershawk pale ale and we kicked back in their picture window seats, lined with comfortable cushions and pillows. Their were spent grain and hop pellets all over the floor and a perfect view of the brewing action, directly behind the bar with nothing to separate them but some kegs and stacks of malt bags.  We chatted about ‘Murica with a few locals at the bar before raiding the fridge for some takeout cans of IPA, Naughty Otter lager and Black Bear Bock. The bartender comped our round of beers to make up for the faulty draft IPA, which was incredibly generous considering it didn’t affect my beer at all.  We shoved the last of our Canadian money in her tip jar and left wondering if everyone in this country is as friendly as all of the wonderful people we’d met in the previous 24 hours.

Border patrol was a bit more harsh on our way back through.  “Why would you drive SIX HOURS from Pennsylvania to only spend ONE NIGHT in Ontario?  What were you DOING up here?!”  Just doing his job but still a bit unnerving.

I’d never stayed in a bed & breakfast until our UK tour last year, when we wanted to splurge for a nice stay in Worcester and all of the boutique hotels were either booked or overpriced.  Staying in someone’s house and socializing with other guests when I’m usually a grumpy asshole in the morning never sounded too appealing, but we took a chance and were pleasantly surprised.  Sackets Harbor B&B was more of the same: a big house on a quiet street owned by a nice couple who didn’t make two scruffy young hooligans feel out of place.  They welcomed us late at night, coordinated a time for breakfast, gave us a key for the front door and sent us out for dinner, asking only that we not make a ton of noise if we got back too late.  We were the first guests of the season and had the place to ourselves.

The Hops Spot and Sackets Harbor Brewing Company are located side-by-side, two blocks away on the main street downtown.  The former is supposed to have dynamite food so we’d planned on dinner & drinks there and additional beer at SHBC afterward. Again, advertised hours until 10, and we arrived at 9:00 to a closed building (only now when I’m checking the website do I see “RE-OPENING APRIL 27, 2016” … damn these places with seasonal hours).  Better than Terracello, that was at least posted online and we just didn’t see it.

SHBC was extremely hit or miss.  Per the instructions at the host station, we wandered into the bar to be seated for dinner but couldn’t find a bartender anywhere.  We only saw people drinking until we realized the bartender was one of them, nestled in a far corner sharing rounds with patrons.  We paid no attention, as sipping a bit on duty is both a perk and part of the job.  After five solid minutes though, we tired of waiting so we seated ourselves at a table, then waited another 10 for her to bring menus and take our drink order.  She was a sweet gal but also flat out drunk. She had difficulty focusing her eyes and began slurring her words. I wouldn’t care how much she’d had if she could still function but it took her a ridiculous amount of time to check on tables, as she rarely left her corner of the bar.

All of the waiting wouldn’t have mattered if the beer and food were exceptional but much of it was pretty ordinary.  They have an atmosphere and feel that cater to locals but the quality of a tourist brewpub.  1000 Islands pale, St. Stephens Stout and Barstool Bitters were decent but underwhelming, as were Jared’s seafood chowder and fish tacos.  I will praise their willingness to cook a rare burger – my Adirondack with bacon, cheese and apple slices had a good amount of blood in it and was damn tasty. I’ll assume the excessive imbibing and subsequent inattentiveness from the bartender isn’t a regular thing and I certainly won’t fault them for the overabundance of obnoxious popped collar frat boys because brewpubs attract all different types of clientele.  The atmosphere is cozy and inviting but I expected a little more from a place that, as I discovered via Liquid Alchemy‘s review, has been around since 1995 (Side note: read Liquid Alchemy’s review.  He has many positive things to say about SHBC and per the comment the owner left on this page, it sounds like we visited on an off night.  I’ll definitely give it another go next time I’m in the area.).  

———

We had a hell of a good night’s sleep and piping hot showers the following morning at the B&B.  We were also in bed by around midnight so we could get a decent nights’ sleep and still make our 8:00 breakfast time.  Fruit, cereal, juice, freshly baked banana bread and made-to-order eggs and bacon all made a great breakfast.  Mary and her husband were kind hosts who made us feel welcome to socialize while granting us our own space.  Everything was very casual.

We’d planned to walk off our breakfast via the self-guided tour along the hiking trails at Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site, a block away from the B&B. It began that way until we wandered down by the water and discovered a more scenic, if much more precarious and possibly illegal trek on some jagged rocks underneath an outcropping of cliffs.  We walked until a blockage kept us from going any farther, both of us narrowly dodging several spills into the frigid water as we stepped on the slipperier rocks. There were no signs we couldn’t take the walk though it was certainly off the beaten path.

Weedsport in the northernmost reaches of the Finger Lakes is a small town that time hasn’t been kind to.  Strongly reminiscent of our once booming lumber region of central PA now a shell of its former self, much of Weedsport looks like a ghost town. Many of the buildings downtown are worn and decrepit with empty storefronts, but the same way local favorites like Avenue Coffee and Broken Axe Brew House have helped to revitalize our downtown, I imagine Lunkenheimer Craft Brewing Company is breathing some new life into this one. Located unassumingly behind the Old Erie restaurant on the main drag, Lunkenheimer houses a small brewing operation behind what looks to be a handmade wooden bar and draft system, accented with growlers from other NY state breweries. We grabbed a six beer sampler for $5 and planted ourselves at a table outside – we wanted to chat with the bartender but it was just too damn nice out.  None of the beers blew us away but were all decent enough, the Hoppy Little Kolsch being a favorite and very easy drinker while sitting in the sun. Seems like a place with a lot of potential that I wouldn’t hesitate to visit again in a few years, once they’ve developed their craft a bit more and Weedsport hopefully has more to its downtown than a vape shop.

A 15 minute countryside drive south, Auburn has some nice brick streets, boutique stores and  the original Genesee beer sign in its downtown.  They’ve also got Prison City Pub & Brewery, another relatively new addition to the area serving beer so damn good they tailored the food menu to their brewer’s selections.  It’s hearty fare: burgers, sandwiches and the like, with some small plates and appetizers to share. The pork belly tacos with house-made kimchi & avocado lime sauce were my favorite meal of the weekend.  Jared had a lighter lunch of everything pretzels with queso sauce & beer mustard and while everything was delicious, the focus really is on the beer.  The berliner weisse has made a stateside resurgence in the past several years and while my favorite of the style is still Nodding Head (Philadelphia), Prison City’s Klink was tart and refreshing.  The Bleek Warden Belgian strong pale and 4 Piece pale were both sessionable enough to enjoy a few pints but still packed with flavor.

They really went all out with their theme, an effort we always appreciate. From the lock & key logo to their wall of mugshots for pub club members, the prison details are ever-present.  Our waiter was unbelievably friendly, apologizing for our two minute wait and hustling to take great care of seemingly every table in the place by himself with occasional help from the bartenders.  Prison City is fantastic and I only wish it were closer to the Watkins Glen/Hector/Lodi areas we frequent so we could include it on every trip.  We got a later start than planned thanks to our impromptu hike in Sackets Harbor so we passed up Good Shepherd Brewing Company, just a few blocks away.  Next time.

We walked a few blocks north to the Thirsty Pug Craft Beer Market, located in the Genesee Mall.  The mission statement on their website reads:

Here at the Thirsty Pug, beer is our passion. We carry only the best craft beer available and promise you’ll always leave with a great product. Our constantly growing and rotating inventory ensures a fresh and diverse selection. Our knowledgeable staff is happy to assist you with beer selection, food pairings and even designing your own beer tastings at home! Come explore the complex, diverse world of beer and experience the Thirsty Pug advantage.  

They couldn’t have chosen truer words to run their business by.  I’ve no idea if the guy working was the owner or just an employee but he was ecstatic to be talking beer with some locals when we walked in and shifted the conversation to us when they left. Thirsty Pug has a killer selection and I bought much more than I’d intended, with a great mix of styles from all over the world and from several breweries I’d never heard of.  Everything is neatly organized by style and most are available to buy in singles. They have a few draft beers as well, and I enjoyed a Liquid Crystal hoppy farmhouse ale from Brooklyn’s Grimm Artisinal Ales while Jared poked around the rest of the mall.

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Another year, another round of first rate establishments discovered in our small corner of the world.  As if the gentleman at Thirsty Pug wasn’t helpful enough, he may have given us a few ideas for next year.

The Legend of Man Voyage

April 4, 2016 § 3 Comments

Man Voyage was established in 2013.  My pal Jared and I needed a way to celebrate our impending fatherhood and a three day road trip in search of good food and beer seemed like the way to go. It’s since become an annual excursion, one of the trips I most look forward to and a focal point of this young blog.

I was recently contacted on Facebook by a guy in Manchester who saw our show at the Castle Hotel last March.  The random string of words he plugged into a Google search led him to my tour diary, which coincides with Man Voyage III.  He asked specifically about the name and while we didn’t put much thought into it before, the time seems right for a more extensive definition and official mission statement, as we approach our fourth installment and once again, my friend has reason to simultaneously celebrate and panic as he and his wife prepare to welcome their second child (congrats, guys!).

Man Voyage [/’män voi’äZH/]
(noun)

  • A renewal of friendship and general recharging of mental, emotional and spiritual batteries through good food and libations on the road.
  • A road trip with an awesome name.

There are no rules per se, as that would take away the fun and go against the spirit of Man Voyage. There are, however, a few particulars we adhere to:

1) A focus on all things local: food, drink, lodging, shops, even gas stations when possible.  Chain establishments are only permissible in times of desperation.

2) A heavier use of back roads over major highways.  Man Voyage is as much about the journey as it is the destination.

3) Exploration of the unfamiliar and the discovery of new things are important aspects.  The majority, if not all of the stops should be new.

4) A celebration of song: each year I make a mixtape (well, iPod playlist… this isn’t the 90’s anymore) with a travel/exploration/carpe diem theme.  Sample excerpts include Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” and Social Distortion’s “Live Before You Die.” And of course “Born to Run.”  That’s been on all of them.

5) A leisurely pace: everyday life is rushed enough.  We want to make the most of the time we have but it’s important to slow down, stop to take pictures of roadside oddities and soak up the scenery on those back roads.

We depart next week for Ontario, where we’ll play our first gig for the Great White North in Kingston, explore Prince Edward County and the 1000 Islands before heading home through Sackets Harbor and the eastern reaches of New York’s Finger Lakes. Come along with us on Instagram:
Instagram
@theoracularbeard
@theagingcynic

¡Viva Man Voyage!

Live @ 5:00, 98.7 The Freq

February 22, 2016 § Leave a comment

Diversity hasn’t been a strong quality in central Pennsylvania radio for many years. We’re bloated with this horrible Nashville pop garbage that passes for country music these days, with auto tuned banjos and wannabe cowboys in $200 designer studded jeans (if that weren’t enough, a good number of these studio-bred morons have begun incorporating rap into their songs, effectively disgracing two genres simultaneously). If that’s not coming through our speakers while the radio shuffles, it’s likely worn out classic rock staples interspersed with today’s “hard rock” (bands with names like Five Finger Death Punch) or top 40. Even satellite radio stations seem to rotate the same 20 songs and nothing else. On longer drives I’m happy to plug in my iPod or pop in a cassette but I shouldn’t feel the need to maintain radio silence during my daily 10 minute commute to work. [Side note: the Altville, Americana Overnight and Classic Country shows on 99.9 The Bear are quite good but only a fraction of that station’s programming].

While shuffling one afternoon last summer the Replacements’ “Bastards of Young” caught my ear. At first I thought I’d mistakenly powered on my iPod but no, that was most certainly some horrible Blake Shelton crap playing just moments before. It was followed by Whiskeytown – not solo Ryan “I just covered an entire Taylor Swift album and expanded my fan base by 10 billion” Adams, but Whiskeytown.  A mere few weeks later my pal Timmy Tatts announced he was to be a guest on something called the Morning Mixtape, talking about his craft and shop.  I don’t know that we’ve ever had a station in the area cool enough to feature guests and music of this caliber.  What in the hell is going on?

In high school I was faithful to 101.1 (now a country station), specifically the Free Range Radio program on Sunday nights.  You see kids, back in the 90’s before the internet exploded with pirate sites, YouTube, iTunes or even Napster (damn, even that reference feels dated) you actually had to listen to the radio and call in requests when you wanted to hear certain stuff.  Here’s the kicker though: back then, the radio didn’t totally suck.  The Free Range playlist featured everything from Nirvana and Weezer to the Dead Kennedys, Elvis Costello, Springsteen, Pixies, early folk, old blues and anything else the other stations weren’t playing.  It’s been a long time but the radio gods have finally blessed us with 98.7 the Freq, and taken me back to those Sunday nights I had my ears glued to the beat up old radio in my parents’ kitchen.

Cooler still is their dedication to local music, and I mean ALL local music, not just the band the owner’s kid plays in.  They put area acts into their regular rotation, promote shows, work with the local newspaper to get band info and interview snippets into the weekly entertainment excerpt and best of all, host a 30 minute “Live at 5:00” program every Friday where local bands and singer/songwriters give interviews and perform.

Incidentally (and I swear not the only reason I’m championing them so heartily), my pal Jared and I were invited to bring our folk/punk duo The Echo & Sway to Live at 5 in January and we couldn’t have had more fun.  We arrived shortly after 4:00 and were welcomed by afternoon DJ Dave Snyder, chatting us up as we tuned and got gear situated. Our host Jason Crane arrived shortly after and along with his partner, my old man, studio interns, local photographer Jeni Kocher Zerphy and a small studio audience, we spent the better part of the afternoon nyucking it up, cracking jokes and generally acting juvenile. It was good company to be in for sure.

The shindig is catered every week by Gigi’s Southern Table, who provide an appetizer and carafe of their featured cocktail for everyone to share.  As if they knew my taste, this week’s was Renegade Manhattan, with Bulleit Rye Whiskey. We poured ourselves a few generous glasses (hey, nobody else was digging in and we weren’t about to let it go to waste) and prepped for showtime.  We didn’t have an opportunity afterward to partake of the spinach artichoke dip but I’d give Gigi’s a try sometime based on the cocktail alone.

We were able to cram in six songs amid our interview segments.  Jason very kindly described us as having an “economy” to our songwriting, when in reality I’m just too lazy to write longer songs. A slightly incomplete video of our performance is available to stream on YouTube, missing only Jared’s sultry crooning of The Pretenders’ “Brass In Pocket.”  I won’t say it was my favorite part of our performance but I’m confident that Chrissie Hynde herself would approve of his interpretation. There’s also a collection of several other performances under the “Live @ 5” tab on their website.

Afterward we made our way downtown for dinner and a few beers at Liberty Craft House.  Relatively new, Liberty keeps in the tradition of many State College establishments in its mixing of pretentiousness and drunken student tomfoolery, but we tolerate those things because the food and beer is top notch. Their state-of-the-art electronic draft system houses nearly 50 taps and includes beer, wine, cold brewed coffee and even pre-mixed cocktails like the Hurricane and Moscow Mule.  Next to each is a symbol that depicts how much is left in the keg so you always know if it’s relatively fresh or that end-of-the-batch nastiness.

Liberty is a decent place to hang out on a Friday evening as well.  Hardwood floor, exposed brick walls, comfortable booths, nicely lit and not overly loud, though as usual I could do without the damn televisions. It’s probably a crime to not have them in a town known for their football fanaticism and prone to rioting over it; heaven forbid we have dinner or drinks without the ability to watch a game. We shared a charcuterie plate, pierogies and sausage sandwich. They advertise local, organic ingredients and the food reflects that (or as they put it, “foodstuffs” … read: pretentiousness).  Washing it all down with Troegs Nugget Nectar and a few limited release unpasteurized Stone Enjoy By IPA’s was a damn fine way to end the evening.

If you’re in central PA, tune your radio to 98.7 and give ’em a listen.  Elsewhere you can stream them on 987thefreq.com.  Thus far they’ve been a refreshing game changer, reviving my ability to enjoy radio again and helping me discover a few new bands. Here’s to hoping they do the same for you.

2015 Gig Roundup: The Outlook, Hanover PA

February 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

Playing a benefit show is never pleasant venture, especially when it’s for someone in your own family.  My dad’s ex-wife (for all intents and purposes, my mom) and her new husband had one motherfucker of a year. A space heater exploded in their garage and quickly spread into a fire that engulfed most of the house, burning it down to the studs. Just when they were beginning to recover and rebuild, he was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer that’s taken over portions of his liver and lymph nodes and even seeped a bit into his blood stream.  There’s only one word to describe a year of that caliber, and it is, indeed, motherfucker.

There’s a horrible feeling of helplessness when someone you love is in trouble and there’s not much you can do.  All I could offer was to perform a benefit, where we’d probably only raise enough money to put a small dent in their upcoming travel costs back and forth to Johns Hopkins Medical Center, but at least we’d gather friends and family to show support.  I was born and raised in Hanover and still have a good deal of family and friends in the area so I was pretty sure we’d pack the place.  I couldn’t be more grateful to Rachelle and David at The Outlook in Hanover for helping me put everything together, write up press releases and get the word out in the community. The local newspaper even contacted me for an interview to help spread awareness.

I brought my old man along for the ride, with a plan to visit my grandmother and explore Hanover’s burgeoning brewery scene before the show. This town has long been a difficult spot to acquire some decent micro brew.  Years ago there was Kclinger’s Tavern, which housed 30+ drafts and 500 bottles from around the world but closed in 2011, likely due to a staggering amount of bar fights (we witnessed more than one in our sporadic visits), generic sports motif and atmosphere that catered exclusively to macho bros and the dramatic Barbie Doll types they fought over. Hanover is also home to every chain restaurant known to humankind so you know, Sam Adams, Leinenkugel’s, or maybe a Dogfish Head if you’re lucky.  Four breweries have sprung up in the city since 2013 and we were anxious to try one or two of them.

We met my sister and her boyfriend at Miscreation Brewing, right in Center Square. We sat overlooking the square, in a booth with a mosaic backing made of recycled skateboard pieces. Too cool.  We shared a few paninis and some spent grain pretzels and cheese with mustard dip, all on par with standard brewpub food and that ain’t a bad thing.  Like many though, the food basically serves as accompaniment and the real focus is on the beer, or in this case, “miscreations.” The Powder Keg, Frank’n Stout, Pale Storm and Reckless Imperial IPA were all unbelievably crisp and fresh, better than anything I presumed brewed with Hanover water to be capable of.  The place is lit almost exclusively by the natural light coming in the first floor picture windows and very family friendly.

A sign above the bar advertised fresh beer to go with a single plastic cup pictured.  I presumed it was some sort of sippy cup type deal with a straw poking out of a hole in the lid.  The waitress brought me an open cup and bid us adieu… what the hell is this? This state has some of the most constricting liquor laws in the country and you’re telling me I can walk outside with an open beer and drink it on the street? Even after she assured us that was the case I was hesitant, especially when the first car to pass us on the street was a cop.  I took a liberal gulp as he passed and hot damn, it’s true. Hanover is not a town I’d have predicted to be so progressive with its open container laws but it’s awesome nonetheless.  I drank without fear of repercussion as we walked to our next stop.

Something Wicked Brewing Company is two blocks away from Miscreation, also a welcome addition to the PA craft beer scene. Industrial feel with exposed pipes is cool, and the wall-sized mural of beer themed quotes and electronic draft display are nice touches.  It’s got a great brewery atmosphere but I prefer the relaxing tone of a brewpub, so SWBC is the lesser of the two for me, if only slightly.  If Miscreation’s beers weren’t so fresh in my mind I probably would have enjoyed these more.  Chaos (chocolate coconut stout), Sinful (IPA) and black IPA were good but paled slightly in comparison. Complimentary tabletop pretzels and a friendly staff rounded out a nice first experience; I’d definitely recommend Something Wicked to anyone and look forward to trying it again myself sometime.

My sister was kind enough to return to Miscreation and refill my cup while I headed to The Outlook for setup and sound check.  It’s one of the most eccentric venues I’ve played and that’s absolutely a compliment.  The stage is a carpeted alcove overlooking a consignment shop with clothing, furniture, albums, memorabilia and anything else you can think of.  My only regret is not having enough time between playing and socializing to shop.  David (owner) and Rachelle (event coordinator) were friendly and very accommodating, setting up folding chairs, bean bags and coffee tables in front of the stage, making coffee and offering light refreshments.  The whole setup is reminiscent of the punk rock house shows I enjoyed as a young hooligan and I felt right at home.

They set up a big, comfortable lounge chair right in the center for the guest of honor, who arrived in great spirits and took all of his fanfare and excessive attention in stride.  I played my first set then socialized with our packed house while Harrisburg duo Weird Year performed.  Busy as it was I never got to properly thank them for donating their time and talent, and I enjoyed them immensely.  They’re a single electric guitar setup with everything sung in two part harmony, and it was beautiful. I hope we have an opportunity to share the stage together again someday.

We suggested a $5-10 donation, which Rachelle collected at the door and at the end of the night we were pleased to discover several people had given more.  I had no expectations and would have been happy with anything we’d taken in.  The Outlook donated every penny and were tremendous in helping throughout the evening, and never rushed us out when we all spent quite a bit of time socializing after my second set. They’re a unique venue I’d recommend to anyone looking for a change of pace from the usual bar gig.

Bullfrog Brewery, Williamsport PA

February 7, 2016 § Leave a comment

Williamsport is known primarily as the home of the Little League World Series & Hall of Fame, and drugs.  A whole lot of drugs.  Like most cities it’s gorgeous in parts and downright ugly in others, but was also one of the forerunners in the Pennsylvania craft beer movement, home to several of the state’s finest breweries years before every town in America had a brewpub popping up on every block.

The Bullfrog was their first, and has become an area institution for good beer and live music.  I’d never played there before my good pal David Pulizzi and his band Graveyard Rooster asked me to open up for them in January.  I offered to play for dinner and beer since I had the opening slot, his band are mostly working musicians and I was just happy to finally play somewhere I’d been enjoying so long. The Bullfrog was the first place I tried an IPA 13 long years ago (“It’s so fucking gross, it tastes like perfume!”) and their beer has maintained the same fantastic quality ever since, despite the departure of near legendary brewmaster Terry Hawbaker a few years back. Nate Saar’s style is a bit different but consistently great, and his farmhouse saisons have become real standouts in the area. Their food menu has changed a lot over the years and while I’m still bitter they did away with their chicken parmesan, their burgers are fantastic and the mac ‘n cheese with ale sauce is a welcome addition.

The best part about playing solo in an opening slot is getting to skip sound check, a necessary evil but tedious nonetheless.  When the whole band goes first and the the front man gets his guitar and vocals at the right levels, it takes very little tweaking for my acoustic guitar & vocal setup to sound right.  I offered to help of course but was repeatedly told to sit  and relax so I obliged.  I mingled with friends and the legions of new fans I was surely about to amass with my 45 minute set, and enjoyed my complimentary food and drink.  Jong Bruin Kriek (sour brown steeped with cherries) and Jon’s Jawn (wild fermented saison with cocoa nibs and merlot grapes) were easy drinkers, and fantastic predecessors to the coup de grace, the Figgy Pudd’n.  An 11% Belgian Quad with figs, it went down much easier than it should have and ensured I’d be taking my buddy Ryan up on his offer to drive us home.

The sound technician (who doubled as Dave’s drummer this evening) had everything up and running smoothly in no time and sure enough I plugged in, ran through a quick verse/chorus of The Clash’s “Train in Vain” and off we went.  It’s Williamsport’s premier venue for music but still a bar and restaurant, with a fair amount of people dining and socializing but the listening audience is listening intently.  The front 1/3 of the restaurant nearest the band setup were clearly there for music and showed it with liberal applause; many even took the time to come over and chat between sets.

Graveyard Rooster was incredible.  You can listen to some tracks from the album on their website and while the recording is solid, it hardly does them justice.  This show fell on what would have been Elvis Presley’s 81st birthday and the boys covered a few of the King’s songs in tribute. Add in some bruschetta with toasted baguette crisps and it was a damn fine evening.

I only wish I could take credit for designing a poster that features a rooster wearing sunglasses.

Graveyard Rooster

2015 Gig Roundup: Riepstine’s Pub, Williamsport PA

February 1, 2016 § Leave a comment

I played some great shows in 2015. I’ll be recalling these fine venues and the kind folks who run them in separate posts throughout January, save for the gigs on the UK & Ireland tour which you can read about here

Thanks to the versatility of my cohorts, Rattlesnake Gospel has the ability to alternate between foot-stomping, hand-clapping rockin’ barroom band and quieter, more mellow lounge trio to suit different venues and circumstances.  We’ll do either but are at our best when we can turn up the volume and let loose, especially after a good meal and a few pints of delicious microbrew.  My wife and I frequent Riepstine’s for dinner but this was my first time playing with any group.  It was a damn good time and I hope it’s not the last.

Bands have to provide their own sound which can be a hassle to lug around but at least it’s equipment you’re familiar with (it took me nearly half an hour to properly assemble and sound check with an unfamiliar PA system at a solo gig elsewhere last summer).  Ideally a venue will provide compensation, food and drink for their entertainment but if we only get one or the other, I’d much rather the beer be part of the package as it is here.  I’ve listened to different venues’ justifications for their policies and having been on that side of the operation, I usually understand their reasons.  In this case, Riepsteine’s beer is just so damn good it’s hard to care too much.

Ahh, Riepstine’s beer… a reason in and of itself to visit Williamsport, PA.  Alpha Deuce double IPA is one of the finest of its style I’ve had anywhere, their Oktoberfest and pumpkin porter are two fall beers I most look forward to each year and I don’t overly care for either style, the winter seasonal Reindeer Fuel is a Belgian-style whopper at 12% that goes down like its half of that, and their everyday flagship brews are among the best on the menu.  The food is limited to a handful of sandwiches, appetizers and shared plates, plus a weekly featured burger. It’s all quite tasty (not very vegetarian friendly, much to my wife’s chagrin) but as the slogan says, “it’s all about the beer.” We shared a few massive plates of pizza fries and drank like kings.

The place is divided into the main bar area and a back dining room where tables are moved for bands to set up.  After a quick and painless sound check, we tore through two hour-long sets of all original material and got to do a few songs with our friend and occasional harmony vocalist Todd Patterson, who was leaving this bleak and desolate land to settle in Hawaii with his new fiancée a few days afterward.  We played a slew of new tunes, which you can be on the lookout for this year… seriously, we are working on a new album.  We mean it this time.

We packed the place, barely left an open seat in the house and when we were paid at the end of the night, the bartender told us we’d brought a bigger crowd than any band in recent memory.  We couldn’t have been more flattered.  Next time I suppose we’ll have to shoot for no empty seats at all.

2015 Gig Roundup: Two Goats Brewing, Hector NY

January 27, 2016 § Leave a comment

I played some great shows in 2015. I’ll be recalling these fine venues and the kind folks who run them in separate posts throughout January, save for the gigs on the UK & Ireland tour which you can read about here.  

The Finger Lakes (specifically Lake Seneca) are like a second home to my wife and I. So much scenery to take in, food to eat, beer to drink, and stuff to do, all just a short 2+ hours north of our central PA home. One of these days I’ll attempt a compendium of all of the breweries, wineries, restaurants, afternoon hikes and scenic overlooks we’ve taken in over the years but even sticking exclusively to the events of Rattlesnake Gospel‘s gig weekend in September offers a decent first glimpse into the region.

We checked into our digs at The Colonial Inn & Motel in downtown Watkins Glen, where much of the Rattlesnake entourage was staying. The decor is a bit dated but they have an ice cream parlor, cafe and newly renovated craft beer bar and lounge with live music all on the premises, and considering most area hotels charge outrageous prices and/or have a two or three night minimum policy on the weekends, $150 isn’t a bad deal.  We’ve also become faithful to the place since the owner Paul has occasionally worked with us on staying just one night after a gig on a typical two night minimum weekend.

The rest of the band and our convoy had gone up the night before and were already working their way down the west side of the Lake Seneca wine trail, so we headed up the opposite side to the new Grist Iron Brewing.  The grounds are stunning with a large colorful marquee and pond with a fountain, all situated next to GI’s cabin-esque (and rather expensive) inn.  The entryway curves around to reveal a sizable wood and stone dining area with a view of the brewery action behind the bar.  The bathroom entrance is behind a large wooden partition coated in chalkboard paint, with a bucket of chalk and a sign encouraging you to leave some sentiments behind.  The views from the dining room picture windows are fantastic, and the back room features a fireplace and two garage doors that open and extend onto the outdoor patio.  Somebody put a lot of money into this place.

I’d enjoyed a beer sampler and tasty buffalo chicken pizza a few weeks prior on a road trip with my sister and was looking forward to trying a few different brews this time around.  The Back Porch IPA was as good as I remembered, and the robust blueberry/blackberry porter could be a dessert in itself.  The pilsner didn’t blow us away but is a decent representation of the style and to be fair, a recap of our 2010 trip to Prague I’m working on will show just how picky we are about our pilsner.  It’s the beer of my wife’s heritage after all.

We’ve done tastings in the past at Finger Lakes Distillery and they’re more than worth it ($3 buys you four samples and they’ll refund it back into any purchase you make), but we needed only to replenish our supply of their Seneca Drums Gin.  It’s the best gin I’ve ever had, hands down.  A friend once described it as “outer worldly.”  I’ve tried gin at every distillery I’ve visited since discovering this one years ago and it’s ruined them all for me.  Gin cocktails just don’t taste the same without the Drums. Their whiskies are damn good as well, they’ve got a full gift shop and recently added a lounge where you can get cocktails made exclusively with their spirits and bitters. Looking forward to trying that out next time.

We met up with the gang on the west side at Finger Lakes Wienery, a relatively new place with a modern yet unpretentious spin on a burgers-and-fries joint.  It’s awesome in its simplicity; it looks like a run-down old shack from the outside, ordering is done deli counter style and seating is limited to picnic tables.  We shared the K-Town burger with kimchi, cilantro, Korean BBQ, mayo and a fried egg, an order of poutine, a Nutella malt milkshake and a pear cider from Bellwether Cidery in nearby Trumansburg.  The burger was delicious if not heavy (washing it down with the milkshake probably didn’t help) but the poutine was a salt bomb.  I felt like I needed a gallon of water afterward.  They have a few local draft beers, a decent bottle list and some sausage selections I wouldn’t mind trying.  It’ll be a welcome addition to our visits.

Most of the wineries on the trail close by 5:00 or 6:00 so we huffed it to Wagner Vineyards to get a few tastings in.  Wagner has a brewery, winery, upscale restaurant called the Ginny Lee and a large deck out back overlooking their grape vines.  We’ve done their beer tastings many times (one of the best setups we’ve seen, twenty-five cents per 2 oz glass, no minimum or maximum) but never made it to the wine side. My wife and I tasting wine is hilariously awkward, as we’re both shameless in our lack of wine knowledge.  We enjoy it but can rarely detect those subtle nuances they tell you about. We follow most sips with remarks like “It tastes like wine… yep, it’s most definitely wine.”  I know I’m a sucker for reds and rieslings and that’s the extent of my wine prowess.  Still, drinking with friends and poking fun at those taking it way too seriously are two of my favorite pastimes. Especially this pretentious loser and his entourage:

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Lord Chesterfield

Two Goats is my favorite beer stop in the Finger Lakes, also largely for its simplicity. It’s a small, single barroom with hand-carved wooden trim and features, a few pub tables and a ton of beer-themed decor hanging on the walls and from the ceiling. They boast the best lake view on the trail from their back deck and while I haven’t visited everywhere, I’m inclined to agree.  They’re a full-service bar and brewpub, so they don’t do samplers or flights like most of the trail, though I’m sure the bartenders will let you try something before committing to a pint.  Their website details their food “menu” better than I ever could:

“Got a hankering for pork with charcuterie sauce, roasted roma tomatoes and fingerling potatoes sided by a cavolonero salad with pommery mustard vinaigrette to go with your beer?  Yeah, you won’t find that here. We serve just one dish…a roast beef sandwich. We take a tender side of naturally-raised local beef from Schrader Farms and slow-cook it for… forever. Then it’s thin-sliced and piled high onto a homemade bun from our friends at the Village Bakery in Montour Falls. Homemade au jus and our super-secret horseradish sauce top off this meal to remember. The crispy chips and crunchy pickle are really just there to look on in amazement.”

…and it’s every bit as good as they’re bragging.  If ever there were a pub that could get away with serving only one sandwich, it’s Two Goats.

Showtime.  Bring your own PA, set up in front of the dart boards, kindly ask patrons to nudge tables back and make enough room.  If they need persuading, have your bass player woo them with his small town farm boy charm (works every time; Danny could enter a room with 100 people and have 99 new friends in less than an hour).  We sound checked quickly to the Misfits’ “Skulls” then ripped through three sets of our original tunes to a packed house, breaking Two Goats’ original-music-only policy just once to accommodate an Ithaca gentleman who asked if we knew “No Diggity.”  We didn’t, but turns out it’s not hard to learn.  We hammered out a few chords and he crooned along while dancing up a storm.

Good food, great beer and a lively crowd, save for the end of the night when it thinned out a bit.  We also had the pleasure of a large doberman in the audience for our first set, which may have been a first.  Sold a few CD’s and made some new fans, were looked after quite diligently by Adam behind the bar.  Retired to the Colonial just a little bit hoarse.

A morning after hike up the Gorge Trail at Watkins Glen State Park with the gang was an invigorating start to the day, and helped fuel our appetites for the plethora of international foods we were looking to consume at the Ithaca Farmers Market that afternoon.  Weekends like this are reasons in and of themselves to play music.

 

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