Where was I? I think I last wrote you from a hotel lobby in Quebec City, half-myelinating neural messages concerning sounds, buildings and the hefty taste/aroma of a punishing Montreal ale. That evening, trombones and crepe-steam sung out over cobbled hills and warm church roof-shingles, and once I’d slept a few hours I made my way to Fredericton, New Brunswick. Fredericton? Never heard of it. But it was somewhere to stop for the night.
Albeit reeling from recent storm damage, it was a friendly, smiling place – sleepy but abounding in endearing architecture and good art. Next – approaching Nova Scotia, I’d hoped to escape the larger towns eventually, and convalesce from over-stimulation in a log cabin by a lake somewhere. So, just outside of a town called Old Barns (less a town, more an actual collection of ten to twenty old barns), I did exactly that. The log cabin at Irwin Lake was small and silent, save for the sporadic call of a loon or chittering racoon. Outside, an enormous white circle (just one night shy of being a “supermoon”) glowed like fire, and – winking in the darkness of the undergrowth – tiny fireflies followed suit. The next morning I rowed on the lake and watched the squirrels play, and felt renewed.
Halifax is next. I don’t know if you’ve been to Halifax: for my part, I’d scarcely heard it mentioned. If you quizzed me on the place, I’d have flunked out. Coming off the highway and into town, it resonates with a calm, electric ambience I couldn’t have predicted. The city slopes towards the sea, towards the unassuming harbor which hosts its predictable (though not charmless) assortment of wharf warehouse restaurants, parks, antique sea vessels, tourist traps and monuments. But along the way you pass a dense network of streets where cheery Halifaxians walk their grinning dogs past colorful wooden homes, craft beer salesmen and record stores; past Irish pubs, theatres and murals.
The Commons Inn, where I lug my suitcase up two flights of stairs, is a pebble’s throw from a strip of ad-hoc marketplaces, queer-friendly bars and a Brewery; just beyond is Citadel Hill, where 265-year-old British fortifications cut a star shape into an impressive grassy knoll. Marking the spot where the hill tilts into Downtown is the Old Town Clock, a face of midnight blue and gold roman numerals set in a three-tiered octagon tower. It watches over the heart of urban Halifax; an area once blown apart by the biggest blast prior to the atomic bomb, when a cargo ship carrying wartime explosives ignited and detonated in 1917. A shock wave sliced through Halifax at 23 times the speed of sound, a tsunami wiped out the local Mi’kmaq indigenous settlement, white-hot iron rained down on the city. Thousands died instantly – everything within a half-mile was obliterated. Looking down at the sunny, peaceful streets, it’s difficult to believe, incredible to think that such a tragedy didn’t spell the end of the city. The sun descends and spills gold over the hill as I descend back towards a neighbouring street.
The Halifax Jazz Festival is happening, and a nearby bar called The Company House is hosting its late-night sessions. So a few minutes before eleven I head in, purchase some local IPA that tastes like VB, and sit down to listen to JOSHUA VAN TASSEL’S DOUBLE TOOTH. Having missed the wonderful St. Vincent (who played the festival a few days earlier), I’d been eyeing off Double Tooth as the nextmost up-my-street kind of thing, self-described as 60s-Nigerian-music-inspired instrumental-psych-dance. The trio strap on their bass guitars, mini-moogs, Nord and Juno synths, drum kits and electronic percussion pads and dive into an infinitely funky waterslide of groove that echoes fellow Torontonians BADBADNOTGOOD, but with a bright injection of quicksilver analogue noodling and syncopated beatsmithy. The slink of low, rumbling strings, reverb-drenched snare, tumbling percussion and timewarp dancefloor melody certainly recalls psychedelic-era Afrobeat and Lagos Jazz-Funk, but Double Tooth stop short of outright appropriation, filling out the jams with their own idiosyncratic flavor. Their sound, although often awash in blippy Moog arpeggiation, is pretty minimal – every instrument sits with a wide berth in its own, obvious sonic space – that’s part of their appeal. But a welcome variation on that formula arrives with the group’s final tune, whereupon they invite a trumpet-whiz and guitar-demon from local ensemble THE CHRONOS BAND to join the fray. The result is a thick, pulsating wave of heady rhythm and undulating texture; a quality closer that sees abdomens shaking on the cosy dancefloor.
THE CHRONOS BAND themselves follow: half-mellow, half-adrenalized, they weave through first-wave ska and polychrome Carribean moods, ultimately peddling a package founded on neat brass hooks and solos, straightforward infectious grooves and offbeat bounce. The guitar work is neat, a little surfy, at times impressively melodic; the inclusion of boisterous congas is a wise move. Though not as original or intriguing as Double Tooth (some vocals here and there might have helped to add depth and interest), The Chronos Band are an apt second-half to the bill, no-nonsense, sweaty dancefloor organica. The room, previously quite still save for feet carving a path from table to bar, is now teeming with girls’ hips in oscillation mode. I finish my most recent beer and head back out into the tepid late hours.
Halifax was never somewhere I’d planned to go, but as I wander it the next day and finally make tracks for the airport that will carry me out of Canada to Washington, D.C., I realize I don’t want to leave it. The warmth of discovering pleasant surprises as you zoom through a country is underscored by the bittersweet knowledge you’ll soon have to move on. So it goes! From your friend on the train in Washington with the faulty engine, but plenty of Wi-Fi – hugs and kisses xoxo