Diggin’ in the Drake

There is rarely a time one mentions The Drake Hotel and is met with anything other than immediate recognition. The Drake has been a Toronto landmark since it’s inception in 1949. Located at 1150 Queen street west, The Drake is known for its history, elegant rooms, diverse restaurant menu and grand staircase. There is a certain ambience entirely unique to The Drake. It’s walls whisper secrets of past guests and performers alike. Dimly lit and oozing with class, The Drake is welcoming with a dash of intimidation.

Last Thursday night The Drake Hotel hosted six-piece band The Digs. Coming together roughly 7 years ago at Humber, The Digs began playing birthday parties for friends. The core groups’ talents grew organically along with their notoriety as they accumulated an interchangeable roster of performers. Each show features an on stage guest keeping it so fresh and so clean. The Digs have one album under their belts entitled ‘Homegrown’ and they’re set to release another this March. With regular gigs Wednesdays at The Reservoir Lounge and Thursdays at The Drake Hotel, there’s two solid options to get your funk fix every week.

The Digs take the stage and their prowess is immediately palpable. Male vocalist Francois Mulder nails every note of Sam Smiths’ Stay With Me as Merissa Touissaint provides powerfully angelic backing vocals during the hook. Every snare hit from drummer Shawn Rompre feels like a kick to the sternum. Rompre is highly animated with a contagious ear to ear grin while maintaining his strong groove. Bassist Chris Virtue keeps pace making the pocket his own and digging for spare change. Keyboardist Joel Visentin’s solos tickle the soul and settle down into beautiful accents during the verses. Guitarist Nick Tateishi chooses every lick carefully making it difficult to find a flaw with this dynamic band. Even the guest singer absolutely tears the microphone apart. This just in: The Digs can play.

During a cover of Bob Marley’s Is This Love that takes on a life of it’s own, Touissant’s smoky vocals are sexually charged and bursting with soul.  The Digs open it up, seamlessly transitioning between songs and the party’s rocking all night long (until the break of dawn). Inspiring involuntary foot taps and head nods The digs keep ears guessing where the next bar will lead with spicy rhythm switches and song mashups.

The crowd doesn’t stand chance as both Mulder and Touissant show off their dance moves cultivating a following upon The Drake Hotel’s dance floor. With sounds tighter than a vice-grip that grab ahold of the soul and refuse to let go, winning the crowd over was only a matter of time. Touissant revives Arethra Franklin belting out “R-E-S PE-CT’ and the patrons find out exactly what it means to her. Later, Touissant’s rendition of Ghetto Superstar by Pras complete with flawless rap is another shovel in the toolshed for The Digs. When the band cover a couple of Lauryn Hill classics it cements Touissant’s title as a double threat and her partner in crime Mulder hits every note effortlessly making them a duo to behold as they resuscitate classic after classic.

The combination of the Virtue’s funk dominated bass lines, Rompre’s rhythm-forward backbeats and Visentin’s complex soul smashing solos make their performance pure unadulterated aural pleasure. The Digs blues ballad version of Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy is testament to their diversity. Mulder’s range and power are unleashed during this number making it difficult to pick a favourite within the vocal duo. Each member of the digs brings something unique to the stage and together they meld into a well oiled soul machine.

As Tateishi awakens from his slumber during Mark Ronson’s Uptown funk with a string bending solo chock full of wah-wah pedal, drummer Rompre knocks down the walls with a earth rumbling solo. The only letdown of the night is when the show ended. Throughly entertaining from start to finish the evening was a complete success as The Digs left the The Drake Hotel in ruin. So if ever you find yourself bored on a Thursday evening, treat yourself to a night of funk with The Digs.

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Soul Food: dining the blues away.

  

1989 saw the opening of the Senator Steakhouse at 251 Victoria street. Shortly thereafter The Jazz Club opened atop of the Senator and for 16 successful years the Senator fed music lovers before they would venture upstairs to take in the finest music the city had to offer. The doors finally closed on both the Senator and Jazz club on 2005, and it wasn’t until 2013 that Colin and Joan Hunter came up with the brilliant idea combining dining and live music.

The Jazz Bistro was born and has brought life back into the once dark and vacant 251 Victoria street. The Bistro is an elegant restaurant with classic fine dining decor. Crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling and various artwork is littered across the Jazz Bistro’s walls. Casual diners could be intimidated by the Bistro’s surroundings, as most guests are there to dine, sip fine wine and take in the sounds of music. Ultimately all are welcome for a small cover charge regardless of how much you plan to spend.

  

Shortly after 8, the lights dim as Ken Whitley takes the stage. Whitley is a seasoned Jazz/Blues musician that sprinkles all of the classic elements within his performance. Accompanied by standup bassist Alister Whitehead and percussionist Derek Ray, Whitely pushed forward with his rich, storytelling voice and well versed guitar playing. Whitehead’s bass lines are commanding yet ever so playful. Ray bangs upon the wooden box with a certain animation and they make the songs look easy. It’s clear their having a good time up there. 

  

Whitely attempts to entertain the crowd with stories from the road, it appears he’s taken on the role of master of ceremonies as well as frontman. He tends to ramble which detracts from the fluidity of his set. The patrons offer up chuckles and the band enters into number after number of 1, 4, 5 jazz influenced blues progressions. The melodies dance off their strings. Whitley accompanies one of the songs with a vocal impersonation of a trumpet. Its silly and illustrates he wants to keep the show light hearted. Whitley later showcases the higher range of his voice and glimpses of his true talent are revealed.

  

Later Whitley incites an unexpected duet with one of the audience members, who knew the Jazz Bistro is a haven for undiscovered talent?! After some more playful banter the audience is warned of entering the “deep blues” territory with or without a life raft. Whitley greases up the acoustic slide and unleashes fury on the Jazz Bistro as Whithead and Ray provide competent accompaniment. There are times you could swear B.B. King has been resurrected and others where the balloon pops and the passion leaves the room in an instant. 

  

One thing is for sure. Whitley plays a mean slide guitar. He changes instruments like underwear in between numbers, combining both electric and acoustic guitars with a side order of mandolin. He’s a long winded storyteller who makes the strings sing. As he closes the set with some gospel reminiscent of something you’d hear on set of O Brother Where Art Thou, the patrons sing along on command in support of the closing moments. It seems as though everyone has enjoyed themselves despite some inconsistency from both Whitely and his supporting cast. The Jazz Bistro may not be for everyone, but it’s certainly a lovely place to grab a bite and take in some tunes.

Robbing Harvard with Voodoo Horseshoes: an evening of live music with something for everyone.

   

The Horseshoe Tavern has been the home of influential acts since its inception in 1947. The dark and dingy legendary venue boasts a sense of success that lingers in the air amidst the cigarettes and stale beer. 

  
The further you retreat into the bar the closer you get to its history. On the walls are signed records and set lists from bands that have graced the stage at the Horseshoe. The presence of greatness is palpable between these old walls. And on Tuesday October 6th the tavern hosted a three-band lineup that had something for every music lover. 

  

 
The clock struck nine and four-piece Hello Harvard begins working the crowd at the Horseshoe with some playful banter. Their sound is reminiscent of Weezer, Blink 182 and Green Day rolled into one. Lead singer/guitarist Bontempo spits out catchy lyrics and the dance floor fills. Hello Harvard are fully accessible to a wide demographic. The drummers swift back beats propel the songs forward. They’re a lot of fun and rock the stage with catchy riffs that make you move almost involuntarily. Hello Harvard intertwine elements of classic rock with modern punk. Their cover of Blink 182’s “All The Small Things” is met with excited recognition from the Horseshoe audience.
 
Bontempo gets the crowd clapping and screaming on command with the comical and playful antics of his bandmates as Hello Harvard closes out their high energy set. 

 

Up next is five-piece band Rob Jankowski

  

They kick off the set with a folk rock touch asking the crowd to play a match of human chess on the Horseshoe’s checkered dance floor. Jankowski is an animated frontman and the accompanying harmonies from lead guitarist Morgan really fill out their sound. Everyone in the bar gets involved with a game of sing song. “Hoo Hoo, Hoo, Hoo” the Owls are out in full force, transporting the audience to a 50s era sock hop​. ​Further down the set list are soulful serenades that ignite a “huddle round the campfire” feel that’s reminiscent of the ​Tragically ​Hip, Jankowski thrashes around the stage providing an entertaining spectacle to accompany the music. 

    

Jankowski is funny and knows how to ​engage the crowd, ​as they ​laugh and ​cheer between each installment. ​Rob Jankowski​ has a modest charisma that makes them impossible not to love.

After a short break four-piece Voodoo takes the stage.  

 
Opening with a heavy hitting blues-funk riff, Rhodes player Karwat delivers a thoughtful spoken word about Bill withers. Voodoo. Got. Soul. Karwat’s deep rasp is conjured from the gut, transmits through the soul and fires out his mouth. There’s a reason they’ve headlined tonight, they are absolutely nasty. Voodoo is every bit as black magic as the name suggests. Their grooves are long and refreshing despite remaining in the same key. The jazz leaks through the speakers and forms a puddle of funk on the dance floor. Guitarist Piilonen’s tasteful riffs bob and weave within the rhythm and break wide open during the solos.  

  
 Karwat and bassist Griffith trade off leading the charge vocally. Griffith provides walking bass lines that strut beneath the groove with grace. They are tight, polished and not afraid to take chances, dropping ones like they’re hot. The members of Voodoo trade solos holding true to an experienced jam band. These men are musicians, they’ve honed their craft and were truly amazing to watch. Only a three song set but it felt like a journey through music. They close with a version of “No Diggity” by Blackstreet that is all their own. One can’t help feeling they’ve unearthed a diamond in the rough after witnessing Voodoo at the Horseshoe. 

Have any of you witnessed any fantastic bands recently? If so, where can we find them?

Moon Beams Brew: a night of music, art and craft beer

  

I walk into an empty Melody Bar at The Gladstone Hotel in time for a sound check. On stage is a two piece with a punk/rock-n-roll sound. The singer/guitarist Caldwell has a pining voice dripping with melody. The drummer Marlon plays along with a hurried intensity providing a garage band feel. After sound check, Marlon, a former member of http://www.harlanpepper.com tells me this is two-piece Billy Moon’s first show. They’re on at nine.

  

Lured in by five dollar pints, people slowly filter into the Melody Bar. On the walls hang pictures of six different Collective Arts beers with artwork from eighty three different artists. The labels are limited edition and make for a great marketing campaign.

  

Collective Arts has been brewing beer (and good times) for roughly two years. Founders Matt Johnston and Bob Russell launched the Collective Arts Brewing company envisioning a great beer that gives back to the local arts community. Since then, they’ve created a series of music and art events aimed at promoting local artists.

  

Each label runs for between three and four months and each six-pack is different. A their retail store, consumers can acquire their favourite labels in poster and t-shirt form. With the Blippar app, beer drinkers can scan each label and access that artists’ portfolio of work.

9 o’clock is quickly approaching and the Melody Bar is reaching capacity. Billy Moon is fine tuning his guitar as the room fills with chatter and hands fill with beer. All the makings of a fantastic night of entertainment are present.

Caldwell approaches the microphone and swears a lot before breaking into his first melodic opening. His voice is powerful and clean. He captivates his audience. Just the right mix of distorted guitar and strong vocals. The drummer provides a solid backbeat and for a two piece they sound impressively complete. His vulgar banter between songs is strangely endearing. It’s clear he’s a little nervous.

  

The second installment of his set has a much more punk rock influence. Fast paced and less melodic, but grungy and high energy. It’s well received by the crowd. His next is an upbeat number that has a hard chorus, and has the crowd moving around. He’s highly animated and everyone is feeding off of the energy.
By his fourth song he’s in full swing and has the crowd right along with him. His music is fun, edgy and full of a vast number of influences. He narrates, sings and wails over hard riffs atop fast and nasty drumming. Imagine Johnny Cash meets The Clash. The beats are infectious and the crowd moves its feet. He points out the gap between the stage and the crowd as the “Toronto Gap” the patrons chuckle and close in. His use of a vocal pedal adds to his sounds. It’s simple, catchy music with just the right amount of grunge. For a first show together, their performance is solid.

  

After the set, Caldwell, originally from Hamilton, confirms his nervous disposition. He’s friendly and selling cassette tapes for five dollars. His charisma convinces me to purchase his tape, but how I’ll play it remains a mystery.

After a short break the next band to take the stage is a seven-piece lineup complete with xylophone, banjo and mandolin. Beams sound is full with lead vocal harmonies by Anna Mernieks and Heather Mazhar. They have a great ambience and immediately win over the crowd.
  

Their opener is true to form folk music that’s modernized and incredibly catchy. It’s hard not to fall in love with their energy. They have rock and country undertones and know exactly how to work a crowd.

They’re second number features xylophonist Keith Hamilton pulling out a saw and a violin bow. It creates a wonderful wailing sound the band refers to as “the singing saw” for a beautiful touch to there already layered music. They’re all business on stage with little banter. It’s obvious they’ve been playing together a long time. They are a pleasure to watch and had me tapping my feat and swooning to their hypnotic ambience. Their third and fourth numbers remained true to their niche sound. Everyone in the band plays their part in creating a complete musical experience. Hard to say a bad thing about Beams. They shined on the stage with a fun yet polished performance.

After the show I ventured upstairs to find some eclectic art ranging from photographs to three-dimensional canvases. This launch party had something for everyone. Music, artwork and craft beer. I left the Gladstone Hotel feeling like I was a part of something. Collective Arts knocked this one out of the park.