Saturday, March 12, 2011

Toronto: Day 1

I knew Toronto would be one big snafu. That's how this tour was supposed to start. Toronto - a total wash. New York, well, who cares, we're playing on a Monday night and anyway, it's New York. We'll have fun. For this rock 'n roll tour, all the money is really on SXSW, and the "big" Taiwan indie rock showcase there is already showing traction. One radio interview lined up. Japanese photojournalists and Korean bands and promoters psyched to check it out. And that's just on my end. Orbis Fu, director of The Wall Music, says he's getting a lot of interest as will. Things look good.

But for the moment, I'm in Toronto, which, in case you didn't know, is in fucking Canada. Pizza costs $4 a slice, and that's four bucks Canadian, which is like five real American dollars. Why is this place so fricking expensive? And how can our 4-star hotel have an indoor swimming pool but not ESPN?

I arrived Friday night at 7pm, one full day after the Taiwan showcase had ended. What was the point of my being here? The plane ticket, they said, couldn't be changed. We'll buy you a drink, they said. Would I really have to stay in Canada till Monday? This time I called American airlines. I'll make it to New York by noon Sunday and catch Go Chic on the Lower East Side at Arlene's Grocery the same night.

So far in Canada, I've managed to speak Mandarin more than English. I ate mediocre vegan risotto at an over-priced restaurant in The Distillery, a trendy Castle Elsinore-looking district of restored brick warehouses and quaint retro signage where the waiters are too-well groomed and the music sounds like techno played through a pipe organ. Steak dinner and 1.5 beers per person - with me pulling the "I'll just have salad" line - cost C$385 for seven, and I don't even want to ponder what that is in real money. On the way, the tour photographer lost his iPhone 4 in an illegal, untraceable taxi. And afterwards, I caught a couple of bands that didn't particularly impress me, including a set by former lead singer of Dinosaur Junior J. Mascis, before giving up on the 800-band schedule/clusterfuck. So I walked into a normal bar for a few bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and then took a long but fun jaunt past the bars, clubs and late night eateries lining Queens Rd. West. The walk took about 40 minutes, not including the stops for pizza and falafel, and I got back to the hotel by 3am. Then today, after buffet breakfast and three cups of coffee, I walked down to Lake Huron with the members of the bands Sugar Plum Ferry, Fire EX and the top staff at The Wall and got in a snowball fight while they all took pictures of each other in the snow.

Going to the bar last night, I did however get a chance to meet some real Canadians. One of them asked if I was American.

Wondering if' I'd failed to mispronounce "about" or "house" - though I'd been trying to avoid these verbal landmines - I asked "Is it that obvious?"

"It's the PBR."

Which I only ordered because I thought it would be cheap. Oh well. I could live with this.

But these Canadians - Torontoans? - they were friendly. Another tried to convince me Toronto was the fourth biggest city in North America. New York, Chicago, LA...and Toronto? I made a mild protest but quickly deferred, filing a mental note to Google it. A Canadian would not get this wrong. Or too wrong as it turns out. We'd forgotten about Mexico City. Toronto is 5th.

The Thursday night Taiwan gig was, consistent with the snafu-ness of it all, not even an official Canadian Music Week event. They'd been rejected at the eleventh hour, but still managed to organize a show in at some CMW-unaffiliated, Underworld-sized bar. About 50-70 people showed up, most of them Taiwanese studying abroad. Fire EX, Sugar Plum Ferry and Orange Grass played. When I asked band members about the gig, most of their answers amounted to little more than a shrug, though Andy, the soundman said Sugar Plum Ferry's set was awesome.

SPF's guitarist, Su, said their last Toronto gigs - another GIO sponsored tour - had been better. The official concert was mostly Taiwanese, but they also played a couple live houses for crowds that were at least half local and got great response.

"They all bought our CDs," said Su.

Meanwhile, The Wall manger Orbis was spending time at the CMW conference, a series of music industry talks that happens in the afternoons, before the music starts. How were they? "Boring." Then two hours later, Orbis says, "I saw a talk by Lady Gaga's manager." Troy Carter. "He's only 30 years old, and a black guy. Sometimes people think he's her bodyguard."

"People asked questions about everything. 'Would Lady Gaga consider doing an acoustic album?' The manager said, 'Of course!' 'What's the difference between Lady Gaga and Madonna?' Lots of questions like that. After it was over, he was mobbed on stage and security had to keep everyone back so he could leave."

Such was the talk around the breakfast table, where I also learned that Fire EX lead singer, Sam Yang, is being allowed to take a special "vacation" from his mandatory military service to participate on this tour - this arranged by a special gongwen (official letter) from high up in the GIO. "It's for the national glory," jibed one of his bandmates, A-Hsin. Like an Olympian.

I told them I'd seen J. Mascis the night before, but the sound was mediocre and most of the audience was just talking and drinking beer during the set.

"Cool. Then we what we saw was even better."

Oh yeah. What?

"We went to a strip bar!"

Strip bars. I get the feeling this will be a running theme for this tour. Can't wait till we get to Austin. For a long time now, I've been thinking that Orbis really needs a lap dance.


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