Saturday, January 29, 2011

Have You Ever Been To Sea, Davie?

“Have you done much sailing?” asked the agent, “because she’ll be a wee windy out there.”  I was in the process of booking a day long sailing trip from Airlie Beach to an uninhabited little island about 45 km offshore.  “The sailboat’s a bit small, but the skipper’s really good.”

Now, the extent of my sailing experience has been on small vessels in and around Vancouver, usually on days when there wasn’t enough wind to fly a kite, let alone sail a boat.  It was merely an excuse to knock back a few cold ones and putter about.  But sailing is what you do in Airlie Beach.  It’s the gateway to one of the most famous sailing destinations in the world, the Whitsundays.  I booked the trip.

The following morning I met our skipper and his boat.  Both had been around for a while.  Reg (the skipper) was 65, originally from Holland, and apparently got his initial sailing cred with the Ancient Mariners.  His pride and joy is the S. V. Domino, a 36 ft cruiser that he had purchased in Auckland many years prior.  Reg had sailed her across the notoriously dangerous Tasman Sea from NZ to Sydney harbour, so he assured us we would easily make the sail out to ominously named Black Island, even in rough seas.  Besides, he reminded us more than once, his excursions were now rated number two on Trip Advisor.  He wasn’t about to risk that.

The BOM (Australian Bureau of Meteorology) website had forecast windy conditions in the morning, calming off in the afternoon.  I’ve been using BOM since I arrived in Australia.  So far, the closest it had been to being correct was a day at the Australian Open when they predicted sunny and 30.  It turned out to be 19 and rained all day.  I was optimistically hopeful that BOM had it right this time, but wasn’t prepared bet on it.

Despite the assurances of both Reg and BOM, I couldn’t help humming the Gilligan’s Island theme to myself, over and over.

After a quick safety discussion, which basically amounted to instructions on how to not fall out of the boat, we were off.  Windy it was.  No sooner had we departed the protection of the harbour than the winds picked up to 20 knots, regularly gusting to over 30 (that’s ~55 km/hr to us landlubbers).  Despite being partially protected from open seas by the Whitsunday Islands, the water was very rough.  The wind was blowing against an unseasonably high tide, creating frighteningly large and uneven swells.  The two other passengers and I looked back and forth at each other trying to appear calm, which is difficult to do when you’re white knuckling the railings.

Regardless, Reg proved to be a very confident captain.  He skipped about the boat trimming sails and performing lots of other sailing-type tasks as if we were on land, all the while regaling us with stories from his life at sea.  We were pushing the Domino hard, he informed us, and he wouldn’t have taken us out if the winds were any stronger, but as long as we kept heading forward to the island we’d be fine.  That explains why when my brand new, ridiculously expensive, Australian Open hat blew off my head and into the water, it became a sacrifice to the sea gods.  There was no turning back.

The same could not be said for when the rope pulling the dinghy snapped.  A sailboat without a dinghy is like an airplane without landing gear, and our landing gear was disappearing out of sight behind us.  Reg swore and leaped into action.  We had to go back for it.  We “came about” (essentially meaning we turned around – I’m a sailing jargon expert after my one day at sea) in a less than elegant manner that threatened to toss at least one passenger overboard, and made off in the direction of the dinghy.  Reg chose to ignore my request to fetch my hat while we were at it, even after I threatened to leave nasty comments on Trip Advisor.

It was a remarkable display of skill, with Reg managing to steer, grab the raft, tie it up and turn us back around completely on his own.  In fact he had ordered us to “sit still and not touch anything”, which was probably to the benefit of everyone involved.

We eventually reached Black Island (the tourist books have started calling it Bali Hai Reef in an attempt to stop frightening travellers) in one piece.  We decided Black Island was quite appropriate, all things considered. 

Despite the BOM forecast, the wind continued to howl.  We had a short go at snorkeling, but couldn’t see much through the choppy murky water.  We had our “relaxing picnic lunch on the beach” huddled together in an attempt to block the wind, and still ate as much sand as anything else.  We abandoned our “leisurely 2 ½ hours to relax and explore” early and got back on the boat.

The sail back to Airlie Beach was more of the same, but with an exclamation point!  Storms had blown into the area, and our route was dotted with dark clouds and rain squalls.  When one particularly bad one hit, I thought we were done for.  Reg went silent and thrust his jaw into the wind and rain.  The others appeared to be praying.  I kept repeating “a three hour tour, a three hour tour…”

Shakily sipping beers with the other two passengers at the Marina Pub back in Airlie Beach later that afternoon, we were surprisingly non-challant. 
“Great day for sailing, wasn’t it?”
“Awesome time, eh?  Would do it again in a second!” 
And so on.  Still, I can guarantee you that not one of us was having those thoughts when the winds reached 40 knots in the driving rain during our return sail (thanks for the warning, BOM).  If not for the efforts of the fearless Reg, the Domino would surely have been lost. 

Thanks to Reg for an exciting day at sea.  The experience was certainly exhilarating but perhaps not quite as bad as I described, as you will undoubtedly see in the following video clip taken on Black Island.

Random notes from Australia…

Mullets – Mullets are everywhere. Guys wear them seriously, not for some Movember-like gag. It isn’t just back country hicks, either, but footballers and surfers. I’d do a photo essay, but fear for my life of ever being caught.

El Caminos – Remember the old half car/half truck called the El Camino? Ever wonder where they all went? Here.

Heels – As in the ones on women’s shoes. Impossibly high ones. It’s a phenom I’ve only observed in Sydney (save for a couple of Vietnamese hookers in Melbourne) and is often accompanied by an impossibly short skirt. All the girls are wearing them, for work and leisure. Note to self: there will be extremely high demand for podiatrists in Sydney in about 10 years time.

Classic Rock – At present I’m in a hip little cafĂ© on the strip in Airlie Beach, surrounded by young backpackers, listening to “Sweet Home Alabama”. This, unfortunately, is not a rare occurrence in Australia. It’s the norm. WTF?

Inane Chatter – Not something restricted to Australia, but prevalent amongst twenty something backpackers from all over the world. Like, I’m not, like, totally against the word “like”, but when it’s used repeatedly while discussing whether or not Kanye West is an asshole even though his music is soooo good, I just have to get up and leave the room (which can be hard if you’re, like, on a 3 day sailing trip). And when did guys start like-ing more than girls? I’m beginning to understand how people like me become old curmudgeons.

$13 pints – Really? $13? For a beer? And you say that with a straight face? (Also applies to $6 small lattes.) Sydney is indeed expensive.

Spiders – Yowza! I knew Oz was famous for the buggers, but you gotta see ‘em in real life to appreciate just how big they are.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

2010 - The Year in Music

My past year in music was all about live shows.  Three festivals and a slew of gigs led to a very memorable 2010.  As a result, what follows is a bit of a departure from my usual format for the annual year in music review.  Instead of a top ten list counting down my favourite albums or singles, this is a brief run-through of my hi-lights from a very busy year in concert going.  Along the way I’ll mention some of my favourite releases from the past year. 

2010 started “down under”, as in January my buddy Gary and I headed to Melbourne for some Australian Open Tennis, some sunshine, and the odd beer.  An extra bonus turned out to be the 5th annual Laneway Festival.  What had started as a few bands playing in the alleyways of Melbourne’s CBD (central business district) has now become a full fledged festival playing all the major cities in Australia. 

I was disappointed to learn that 2010’s headliners Echo and the Bunnymen had cancelled due to “sudden illness” (c’mon Ian, you drink a bunch of booze and you get a splitting headache – you should know that by now), but the rest of the line-up was still strong. 

It was my first chance to see The XX (whose single “Crystallized” made my list last year), and despite a pronounced lack of stage presence they played an enjoyable set. 

I had also been looking forward to seeing buzz band Mumford and Sons, but apparently so had everyone else.  The festival grounds were arranged so that each stage had a relatively small viewing area, so it wasn’t set up for every last person in attendance to try and jam into the band’s set.  I got close enough to see what I thought might have been the actual stage and heard some muffled Mumford coming through the crowd noise before I gave up and headed elsewhere.  Not to worry though, I’d see them later in the year.

It seemed that the Laneway Festival was not prepared for such a large crowd period.  They ran out of food by mid day, and with “no ins our outs” we left early.  We still managed to see some good performances by Frightened Rabbit, Hockey and Dappled Cities, but missed The Dirty Three and Daniel Johnson.

Back in Vancouver, the concert season got going in earnest when Black Rebel Motorcycle Club hit the Commodore in March.  These guys are often dismissed as nothing but Jesus and Mary Chain clones, but I love that band and they hung ‘em up long ago so if someone else is going to step in and carry the torch, more power to them!  Their 2010 release “Beat The Devil’s Tattoo” was on heavy rotation in my various music players all year long.  A very strong release and an equally satisfying show.  I even gave myself a bit of whiplash with all the head thrashing.

The May long weekend has been home to the Sasquatch Festival for a decade now, and 2010’s line-up wasn’t only the best in the festival’s history, it was one of the better line-ups I have ever seen anywhere!  I won’t bother listing the bands, but suffice to say I wanted to see almost every one, which led to many scheduling conflicts.  If you’re interested, below is a poster from the festival listing all of the acts.  Click on it to enlarge and start cursing that you weren’t there.
Sasquatch is held at The Gorge, a natural amphitheatre in a stunning setting along the Columbia River in Washington State.  There’s a main stage, two smaller side stages and a DJ tent.  This year’s headliners were My Morning Jacket, Massive Attack and Ween.  You couldn’t find three more dissimilar bands, yet all put on great shows that kept capacity crowds entertained right to the finish of each night.  My Morning Jacket played an extended set of their energy filled anthems, while Massive Attack offered precision renderings of old and new material.  (Their new album Heligoland was one of my favourite releases of 2010.)  And Ween?  Ween was just Ween.  Sloppy.  Stoned.  Awesome!

There were too many great performances to mention, including sets from Laura Marling, Mumford and Sons, New Pornographers, The Hold Steady, Band of Horses and on and on.  Two of the crowd favorites from a “get yer dance on” standpoint were Miike Snow and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes.  The bands are a contrast in styles, with Miike Snow leaning towards pop-synth while Edward Sharpe belts out hippie tinged rock, but both had massive crowds bopping from start to finish.

Many people’s choice for best performance (including mine) came from LCD Soundsystem.  Their latest release This Is Happening is undoubtedly one of my favourites from 2010.  Their live shows have become legendary, combining James Murphy’s personality and sharp lyrics with unparalleled beats.  They had the entire amphitheatre at Sasquatch dancing and screaming along as the sun set behind the stage.  Utterly brilliant.

And a shout out to Deadmou5.  I’m not an electronica dance guy (hell, I don’t even know what the current terms are for categorizing dance music), but his midnight show was a visual extravaganza.  I planned to watch for a song or two, but stayed for the whole set, mesmerized by the visuals and light show while the young kids danced their faces off.

One considerable drawback to the Sasquatch Festival is the accommodations.  Your choices are camping, camping or camping.  Even though we were in the “VIP” area, it was still over crowded, with line-ups for showers starting at 5 AM and the inevitable disgusting toilets.  I’m not sure I’d do it again without a luxury motor home.  Still, many thanks to Shannon for bringing along all of the camping gear.  Without her I may not have survived!

A striking juxtaposition to Sasquatch is the Austin City Limits festival, held annually in September in Zilker Park, Austin, Texas.  Whereas prospects for food and comfort are abysmal when the music ends at Sasquatch, ACL is in the heart of one of the great towns in the US, so the end of a day at the festival is only the beginning. 

The 2010 ACL headliners were anything but inspiring.  I suppose Muse is bearable, but the jam-band guitar wank of Phish is anything but.  And The Eagles?  Are they still alive?  Those bands couldn’t get me out of bed, let alone thousands of miles away to a festival.  Yet that’s the beauty of ACL.  The festival is full of other interesting bands to keep you occupied during the day, and when you leave the park, the city of Austin awaits with its great restaurants and bars.  Even better, many of the bands do aftershows, providing the opportunity to see them doing a longer set in a small club.

A couple of standouts from this year were Beach House and Broken Bells. I mention Beach House primarily on the strength of their 2010 release Teen Dream, a beautiful collection of atmospheric, dreamy pop.  It may very well have been my most listened to release this year.  (Either it or the new BRMC – toss up.)  Unfortunately, their live performance didn’t quite live up to the album, but hey, the lead singer is a stunning French woman, so how bad can it be?  Broken Bells, on the other hand, played a set that was at least as interesting as their strong self titled 2010 release.  The album is by the Shins' James Mercer with producer and Gnarls Barkley member Danger Mouse, and it’s a fun if not slightly melancholy pop record.  They perform live as a full band, providing for lots of opportunities to stray from the album and mix it up, which they did wonderfully at ACL.

There were a number of repeats from the Sasquatch festival at ACL, plus many other good performances from the likes of The Flaming Lips, The Soft Pack, The Black Keys, Nortec Collective, Richard Thompson, Spoon and many more.  Sonic Youth played a loud late night set at a small club, just to round out the weekend with a bold exclamation point.

The fall concert line-up in Vancouver was truly great (including a Black Angels/Black Mountain double bill), but the two shows I’ll finish with happened south of the border in Seattle.  The first was Gary Numan (yes, THAT Gary Numan) playing the entire Pleasure Principle at a small club called Neumo’s.  Now, most people only associate Gary Numan with “Cars” his electronic hit from 1980, but seeing him live shows that many of today’s artists, from Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson to Moby, owe a lot to Mr. Numan.  The man has been prolific over his 30 year career, and many artists claim to have been influenced by his heavy, synth driven style.

His Seattle show was rather appropriately on Halloween night, so an audience that would have already been a bit freaky was downright out there.  The concert was full of energy, extremely loud, and had probably the brightest light show I’ve ever seen in a club.  And because of that, I must give full kudos to Renee, who only four days earlier had undergone major invasive eye surgery, yet made the trip to see Gary all the same.  She is a huge fan and knew this was an opportunity not to be missed.  Her Halloween costume was perfect.  She dressed as a patient who had recently undergone major invasive eye surgery, complete with hospital blues and eye patch.  Probably not the most appropriate interpretation of medically ordered convalescence, but well worth it!  Right Renee?

And lastly, a New Years Eve show to remember – X at The Moore Theatre.  I am normally Scrooge on NYE, preferring the comfort of an intimate dinner party over drinking bad champagne with hordes of people who otherwise never go out.  But it took the coaxing of my buddy Dave to remind me that this was in fact X, with the original line-up, doing their 1980 album “Los Angeles” from start to finish.  So, despite the fact that I was leaving the country for six months in 4 days and hadn’t packed or cleaned, and was hosting a party in 2 days, I did what any sane person in my position would do; I hopped in Dave’s car and went to Seattle.

And so the year ended, with me in bliss singing along with John Doe and Exene Cervenka to every word of each song they played.  They may be getting older, but those guys will rock into their hundreds.  (Mind you, Exene was diagnosed this year with MS, so the days of X shows may be numbered.)  They played as hard and fast as they ever have, blistering through “Los Angeles” in about a half hour, followed by an extended set of their greatest hits.  A suitable end to an amazing year of live music…

For true X fans only, attached are two videos I took at the show.  Apologies for the poor sound and video quality, but you get a sense of just how stoked the crowd was, as was the band for that matter.  And if you listen carefully, you just may hear yours truly, as well, in utter ecstasy.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Modern Gadgetry

Traveling sure has changed since the last time I hit the road for an extended period.  Mind you, back then I was a horny teenager jumping from youth hostel to pub across Europe in search of, well, let’s just say Cathedrals weren’t at the top of my list.  Today, I’d prefer to experience a better rounded sort of trip, and take the time to remember more of what I see and do along the way.  I also want to share my travels with friends and family, so modern travel gadgets for communication are a must.

Still, my selection of travel gadgets as I hitch hiked around back in 1983 was pretty cutting edge.  I had a cassette tape Walkman with 5 tapes to choose from (and I can assure you I will never listen to any of those albums ever again), a Canon Sureshot automatic camera with 25 (that’s right, 25!) rolls of slide film, and a six month supply of AA batteries.  I was as connected as it gets, which wasn’t much at all, really.

For an example of just how rudimentary communications were back in those “dark ages”, consider what it took for a traveller to call home from Europe.  It would start with a trip to the central post office, where the only international phones outside of the major hotels could be found.  (You had better have been in a larger center as many of the small towns only provided public access to local phones.)  Once inside, the would-be caller was undoubtedly confronted by a long, painfully slow moving line.  Getting to the front wasn’t guaranteed, but it also wasn’t the end of the ordeal.  The receptionist had to take down the number and transfer it to an operator who would place the call, but only when one of a limited number of phone booths came available.  It was often an all day affair!

In my case, being connected when I called home didn’t necessarily assure that I would have the opportunity to speak to my parents.  I always called collect, and apparently calls were expensive.

How the world of communications has transformed!  I don’t consider myself an overly tech savvy individual, but check out the list of gadgets accompanying me on the 2011 version of Dave’s adventures (along with why I need each item):
·         SLR digital camera with 32 GB memory card
o       because I can’t carry 5,000 rolls of film and “point and shoot” cameras are for amateurs)
·         “point and shoot” camera
o       because I’m an amateur
·         Flip HD video camera
o       because standard video doesn’t cut it any more
·         16 GB iPod Nano
o       because I need 7000 songs to choose from
·         capsule loudspeaker
o       because the people in the next room need to hear “good” music
·         quad band Blackberry mobile phone
o       because I haven’t been to Thailand yet to buy an iPhone
·         500 GB portable hard drive
o       because I need the capacity to store an additional 50,000 songs, 2000 movies, and 100,000 photos
·         Netbook computer
o       to pull it all together and take up all of my time

For a more detailed description check out this video (shot in HD, or course):

Remarkably, all that gear takes up less space than my humble load of gadgets from back in 1983.  However, I’ve noticed it does weigh a tad more.  Or is it perhaps that I’m a tad older?