Saturday, 20 December 2014

Baker's Dozen of Tour Food

Scouring the restaurants of (mostly) America sure has its advantages when you venture off the beaten path.  Sometimes having the Yelp app is handy, but there's also a joy in stumbling upon something fantastic because you simply felt like walking around.

Touring with a rock band usually results in one nighters where you don't see much more than a hotel, a dressing room, a stage and a van.  But when you're with a touring freak show (read: musical) and you sit in a city for a week, you're granted the freedom to explore.  Unless it's a hundred degrees outside, you're not going to stay in your hotel room when there are new worlds (and foods) to be found.

This is my baker's dozen of foods I experienced in about 35 cities in North America.

13. Causa de Salmon @ Mango Peruvian Cuisine in St. Louis

The menu said - "Aji amarillo infused potato cake chilled & layered with salmon salad, sliced egg & avocado finished with red pepper aioli."  Gesundheit.  I took one bite, died and went to non-denominational and evidenced-based heaven, and promptly ordered something else on the menu.  The item on the left is called Pascualina, which was kind of like a quiche, but not nearly as greasy.

12. Seitan Bowl @ Native Foods Cafe in Chicago

Hands down, the best vegetarian restaurant I've ever eaten at.  I went three more times that week.

On the wall they had a dictionary explaining the difference between things like seitan and tempeh.  Although they're both soy based, they're just as different as steak and scallops.  And both delicious.


11. Schnitzel @ Schmidt's Sausage Haus in Columbus

Columbus is a very cultured city. There is a German section of town, and this place is right in the heart of it.  There aren't a lot of spots to find a quality schnitzel in America, so this was a welcome surprise.  The employees even dressed in Lederhosen, much to my delight.

"I'm only making $7.95 an hour.  Please don't make this any more humiliating."

10. Traditional Mexican food at ... any place in Mexico

A few steps away from the hotel, we went to this place at least once a day during our two weeks in Mexico City.  Just cheese, beans and chicken, but prepared in a way you can only get in Mexico.

9. Street meat at ... any place in Mexico

They make the corn tortillas right in front of you.  No Tex Mex place or grocery store sells anything that remotely compares.  This is the real thing, and you can only find it on the streets of Mexico.  This particular stall was fortunately right next to the Auditorio Nacional, where my show had a residency for two weeks.  Needless to say, I put their kids through college.

The meat on the left was the equivalent to a year being taken off your life.  But it's that year at the end when nobody comes to visit you, anyway.

8. Belgian Waffle in Huatulco, Mexico

Literally a hole in the wall.  There were two tables.  And they served this:

The one and only moment in Mexico where I wasn't thinking about tacos.

It easily rivaled the best waffles in Europe.

7. Smoked salmon crepe @ Crepes du Nord in Bridgeport, NJ

One of the few bus trips of the tour had us stopping at this mall in New Jersey.  In addition to the standard food court options, there was a stall that served crepes, only one of three locations of this small chain.  The house crepe was the best crepe I've eaten in my life - smoked salmon, egg, dill sauce and chives.

The only thing that would have made this better is a building permit to bring their business to Canada.  I'd even go to Buffalo for this.  Yes, Buffalo.

6. Ethiopian dish in Washington, D.C.

I wish I could remember what the dish was called or where it was, but it was in Georgetown near Embassy Row.  Par excellence.

5. Traditional Japanese Breakfast in Vancouver

There are countless Japanese breakfast places in Vancouver, and just about any one of them will get you something that looks like this:

4. Pesto Quinoa dish in my hotel room

Based on a dish I found in Washington DC, I eventually concocted my own version that was even better.  It's boiled quinoa dressed in pesto sauce with spinach, sausage and sweet peppers.  The only major difference between the restaurant's version and mine was the portion size.  This is a hefty meal; ridiculously easy to make and ridiculously delicious.  And pretty healthy.

Proof that anything can be concocted in a hotel room.

3. Zombie Burger in Des Moines, IA

This place is a national treasure, and it's easy to see why.  You get far more than a hamburger here.  I'd actually recommend them for their salads before the burgers.  Exquisite.

2. Papusas @ street market in LA

There's a street market in the Silver Lake area that has a slew of interesting ethnic foods, and this was a combination of Salvadorian foods.  Papusas are kind of like pancakes, but with a lot more depth.  It came with a few trimmings that I'd never heard of, but it sure was a culturing experience.

1. Currywurst @ Berlin Currywurst in LA

The Grand Central Market in LA has so many amazing stalls that it was hard to pick one thing.  Until I ate at Berlin Currywurst, which dwarfs them all.  I've had nothing like it in my life - it's a base of hash browns, sausage, and sauerkraut with a fried egg and curry sauce on top.  Without the slightest hesitation I can say this is the single best meal I ate on tour.  All four times I had it.

Honourable mentions:

Baltimore - salmon.  East coast seafood has its reputation for a good reason.  $30 for a piece of fish and couscous, but you get what you pay for, which includes the location - prime real estate on the waterfront.

Raleigh, NC - black bean burger @ Bahama Breeze.  The best veggie burger there is.

Philadelphia - coconut tofu.  Hip City Veg is one of the best vegetarian restaurants in existence.

Mazunte, Mexico - enfrigoladas.  This rice dish tends to have a bean base (hence "frijol"), but some places go the extra mile and include eggs, meat and vegetables galore.

St Louis - toasted ravioli.  It's a cultural staple.  Delicious beyond belief.

Detroit - French toast.  The best French toast of my life was consumed at the Hudson Cafe.  We waited an hour for a table, but it was well worth it.

Toronto - pad Thai.  The Evergreen was home to the best pad Thai I've ever had (although I've never been to Thailand).  The place actually shut down while I was in Toronto for a two week tour stop.  I went there with one band member on a Wednesday and wanted to take another band member on the Saturday, and by then newspaper was covering the walls, appended by a sign saying there was a sushi restaurant coming soon.  Just what Toronto needs - more sushi.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

5 Songs People Who Hate 'Rush' Need To Hear

For decades Rush has been referred to by fans and critics alike as the thinking man's rock band.  After learning of Neil Peart's extensive book collection shortly after he joined the band in 1974, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson thought, "Hey, maybe this guy can write lyrics."  They weren't wrong.  His diverse and insightful musings about everything from nuclear weapons to the complexities of relationships have filled Rush albums for the last 40 years.

#5. Resist

One of the best examples of the inner workings of Peart's insatiable mind is 'Resist' off 1996's Test For Echo.

"I can learn to resist anything but temptation
I can learn to coexist with anything but pain
I can learn to compromise anything but my desires
I can learn to get along with all the things I can't explain"

Powerful words put to perfectly complementary musical tapestry.  It speaks of a spirit on a never ending search, yet at peace with what cannot be rationalized.  It was all the more personal when performed acoustically in the early 2000s.  A gorgeous track in either setting.

"I can learn to close my eyes to anything but injustice"

Peart could have taken this one line and turned it into an anthem for (insert NGO here), but his songs tend to be novels covering enough bases that no single idea emerges victorious.  And as you grow, lines that once passed you by suddenly have an effect on you years after you heard them for the first time.  If this isn't good art, then I don't know what is.

#4. The Wreckers

Most bands from the 70s who still exist today are dialing it in on autopilot, riding on the coattails of their past.  Rush, on the other hand, are flying high.  They're arguably more popular now than ever, especially now that the kids have played the entire Moving Pictures album on the Rock Band video game.  The generational gap at Rush concerts has never been more apparent, and of course this is a good thing.  But equally importantly, they remain relevant.

Their last two albums have received rave reviews, some even comparing them to their finest work at their creative peak.  'Clockwork Angels', released in 2012, was highly anticipated and well worth the wait.  It is an exquisite blend of the vintage Rush sound with a sense maturity and self-realization of the fact that they aren't spring chickens anymore.  In the anthemic chorus of 'The Wreckers', Peart spills his wisdom:

"All I know is that sometimes the truth is contrary, everything in life you thought you knew
All I know is that sometimes you have to be wary of a miracle too good to be true
All I know is that sometimes the truth is contrary, 'cause sometimes the target is you"

Many people find themselves disliking Rush because of Geddy Lee's voice.  Even many rabid fans would agree that he sounded anything from squeaky to obnoxiously high in the 70s.  I actually prefer many later live renditions of the earlier material when Geddy's voice settled down into more of a baritone.  With each passing album, Geddy has sounded more mature and grounded, channeling Peart's thoughts and visions with precision and emotion alike.  Now at 60, with his age starting to show, his conviction remains unabated.  In 'The Wreckers' he sounds like your uncle giving you life lessons that you luckily don't have to wait to learn until you're his age.

#3. La Villa Strangiato

Of all the instrumental pieces in their catalog, this extended piece from 1978's Hemispheres captures Rush at their hungriest and most virtuosic.  Despite being at the peak of their powers, the complexity of the arrangements still forced them to record the piece in three separate sections and paste it together.

After a ripping flamenco flurry of an intro, the first of many themes is introduced and, like a story, every few bars a new character is introduced.  After a few minutes of momentum are built, the tale takes a sharp left turn and soon Alex Lifeson gives a clinic on how to construct a guitar solo that captures every emotion a guitarist can go through in sixteen bars of music.  While Rush may be thought of as a nerdy band, here Lifeson gets as close to sex as any of their bare-chested contemporaries.  He begins sparsely and slowly builds to a fulfilling climax, maintaining utmost intensity through the peaks and valleys.  Simply marvellous.

Even amongst people who hate Rush, Geddy Lee is widely recognized as one of rock's finest and most innovative bassists.  He is featured heavily in this piece, taking his Chris Squire-influenced sensibilities to great heights.  And just when you think they've thrown in the kitchen sink, a homage to a classic 1930s piece called Powerhouse (recognizable to many as the Looney Tunes assembly line music) is cleverly woven in.

This is, hands down, one of the finest pieces of rock music ever laid down to tape.

#2. Mission

Plenty of Rush fans maintain that 1987's Hold Your Fire is their least favourite album, largely because Alex Lifeson is more of an afterthought compared to the main dish that he was in their classic era.  Indeed, the album is very keyboard heavy, to the point that even they realized that they had exhausted this direction and took a back-to-basics approach on their next album, Presto.  But while the guitar is sparse, many of the songs remain excellent.  'Mission' is undoubtedly one of them.

This song didn't hit me until my mid 20s.  I only heard it a couple times as a teenager and it passed me by like much of the Rush synth era.  That's just as well, as I wouldn't have understood this song's meaning as a youngster.  Peart speaks of all-consuming passion, whatever such ideas may mean to you.  He speaks first as one who observes, even envies someone with a sense of fiery attachment that they can't quite understand or relate to:

"I hear their passionate music
Read the words that touch my heart
I gaze at their feverish pictures
The secrets that set them apart"

But the listener can't be fooled for long thinking this is in third person, as the poet manages to find the words that nobody on the outside of such experiences could ever come up with:

"In the grip of a nameless possession
A slave to the drive of obsession
A spirit with a vision is a dream with a mission"

By the time I had achieved some long-standing dreams of my own in my early 20s, this could certainly hit home.  Peart soon jumps back to the outsider's perspective:

"If their lives were exotic and strange they would likely have gladly exchanged them for something a little more plain.  Maybe something a little more sane"

This is to say "the grass is always greener on the other side," but far more poetically.  Having a mobile job that leaves family and friends behind for months at a time - a lesson learned by countless singers, musicians, crew members, athletes, scientists, international aid workers - certainly can take its toll.  And as someone who is one of these people, I can say without question that these few paragraphs of words from Neil Peart encapsulate the full spectrum of emotions one goes through on the road.

That said, working 70 hours a week in one place can certainly have similar effects.  That's the beauty of art - what counts is what it means to you.

"We each pay a fabulous price for our visions of paradise
But a spirit with a vision is a dream with a mission."

The lesson is - there are consequences no matter which path you choose in life.  Red pill or blue pill.  So choose your poison - door #1, or doors #2 through infinity.  The former may seem safer, but these are usually the people who die with greater regrets.  He who dies with the most stories wins.

And, for the record - Lifeson's solo at the end of the song slays.

#1. Time Stand Still

Choices made in "Mission" lead to the effects in "Time Stand Still."  If you haven't caught on by now (and without trying to appear narcissistic - but it is my blog, after all!), these five songs represent five corners of my existence thus far.  Most geometric objects (at least, those we normally see on a daily basis) tend to have an even number of corners, but most people who live a life as described in "Mission" are everything but square.  Not even parallelogram.

Some days I feel more like a tetrahedral-octahedral honeycomb.

The song's title seems simple.  Wanting time to stand still.  But it's *how* he expresses it.  He starts simply by referring to the daily grind and its associated regrets of not being able to do everything one wants to do:

"Driven on without a moment to spend
To pass an evening with a drink and a friend"

Peart absolutely destroys me every time I hear this song.  As the months and years pass by, as the people around me get older, as the time left to achieve what I want to accomplish in life diminishes (this isn't pessimistic - it's merely accurate mathematics), these words become more and more meaningful.

"Freeze this moment a little bit longer
Make each sensation a little bit stronger
Experience slips away"

Peart triggers every emotion inside me throughout the course of this song, and Lee sings it with such dramatic yet gentle guidance, as if to say there's still time to change your course of action so as not to fall into this trap permanently.  The first chorus above represents childhood when compared to the more mature view of the world heard in the second chorus.  Peart's sense of reflection in his middle age is clear:

"Freeze this moment a little bit longer
Make each impression a little bit stronger
Freeze this motion a little bit longer
The innocence slips away"

Geddy's delivery of the third chorus tugs at my heartstrings unlike any other.  Peart is now speaking from old age, where the changes of the seasons become fewer and the extra years see the generations pass before your eyes:

"Summer's going fast, nights growing colder
Children growing up, old friends growing older"

If only I could imagine how this will make me feel when I'm twice my age.  This may well be my single favourite piece of vocal music ever written.

All art is subjective to taste.  Anyone with a smidgen of wisdom understands this.  But separating quality art from one's tastes is a virtue.  These five pieces of music represent five branches of self-expression that most artists would kill to have people en masse enjoy, be challenged by, or reflect upon even just ONCE.  With me, Rush have profoundly succeeded five times.  And undoubtedly there are countless people whose top five Rush songs are different from mine for equally or perhaps even more substantial reasons than mine.  If you're out there, bring the fruits of your labours this way, please.

And if you still hate this band, at least after reading this you can hopefully appreciate the honest, personal art that they've created and understand how they've managed to sell 40 million albums with very few hit songs.  And, as an added bonus, maybe you'll know me a bit better as well.