Departure lounge ramblings on music, places, climate change and stuff outdoors

Take a risk, it’s the most Edmonton thing you can do

I have to be honest, I had low expectations of Edmonton, a sprawling, million-plus city in oil-rich Alberta, Canada. But a week there was full of surprises, from great record shops, a fantastic gallery, incisive improv-comedy, tasty vegetarian restaurants, an introduction to ice-hockey, and guitar rental, all the way through to ultra-friendly people. I almost don’t mind not seeing the promised Northern Lights. Here follows the markontour guide to Edmonton.

Let’s start with the most important stuff: music:

Blackbyrd is a long, thin vinyl emporium on the studenty/hipster-ish Whyte Avenue. Beck and Margo Price were prominently on show, so I was instantly at home. Albums by the Handsome Family and Lucius were quickly in my hands and the helpful shop assistant then introduced me to local band Faith Healer, plus Phoebe Bridgers, who’s on Ryan Adams’ label, along with good tips on live music.

Free Cloud is a long-standing second hand record shop, which I discovered only in passing having rented a guitar at Long & McQuade. Yes, rented. Apparently that’s normal for Alberta, but I was in ecstasy at being able to borrow a $3,000 Martin acoustic for five days of strumming pleasure for just $65. The fabulous Kyle even put on new strings for me.

Just round the corner is Padmanadi, a cracking Thai vegetarian restaurant. My stomach was grumbling after spending longer than intended choosing a guitar, so I got filled up quickly on a lovely fried aubergine dish that was so big I had to take some back to the hotel in a box. Other lunchtime diners appeared to be taking advantage of the extensive tofu menu, although a 2pm curfew meant we all had to finish up fast.

A more leisurely dinner was enjoyed at Ucellino, a trendy Italian specialising in simple classics. My truffle tagliatelle was gorgeous, as was the Malbec the helpful waitress recommended to go with it. Arriving without a booking on a Saturday night we benefited from access to the shared table at the back, where new friendships appeared to be being made, although it was also surprisingly easy to mind one’s own business. Indeed, so laid back was the atmosphere that no-one seemed to mind that my dinner companion was ostentatiously wearing his Toronto Football Club jersey in a town that is resolutely all about ice-hockey.

On the subject of ice-hockey, head down 104th Street from Ucellino and you won’t need a map to find the impressive new Rogers Place stadium, home to the (once) mighty Edmonton Oilers. I’d never been to an ice-hockey game before and it was a full on experience. Sport North American style involves lots of entertainment that is extraneous to the match itself. We had shouting competitions with pizza prizes, a quiz where a young lad won tickets to the next game, and Smooch Cam, encouraging friends to snog on the big screen. In the rink itself, the Oilers went 2-0 up against the run of play thanks to star player Connor McDavid. But they couldn’t sustain it and ended up losing 4-2 thanks to lapses of defensive concentration. In between there was a little punch up and lots of crunching, mostly off-the-puck, ‘tackles’. Only markontour and my British friend seemed to notice. Everyone else was screaming for pizza.

Coming back to the stadium a few days later for a reception, the impressive city mayor, Don Iverson, pointed out the beautiful First Nation mosaic that adorns the welcoming hall. Stand in the middle and spin round slowly and a magical representation of the ancient Albertan landscape is revealed.

Normally I would avoid any British-themed bar like the plague, but the Sherlock Holmes drew me in with the promise of live music and I ended up going back again with conference friends a few days later. Both times the pale ale was good, the atmosphere lively, and markontour enjoyed the old concert tickets stuck to the walls. Close by is the Citadel Theatre, where there is incisive, late-night improvisational comedy on Fridays with the Rapid Fire Theatre Company. The Three Professors were fantastic.

Back on Whyte Avenue, upstairs at Have Mercy has great Thursday night piano-accompanied karaoke. Down the street there was a stomping three-piece 12-bar machine on stage at Blues on Whyte, who appeared to welcome to exuberant, dancing conference delegates (the dance-floor was otherwise empty). I’d love to know where we ended up after that, playing darts at 2am, but it seemed to be full of all the stay-outs from the previous bars, so just follow the crowd if you want to find late-doors.

Leaving the best to last, the Art Gallery of Alberta, opposite the pyramidical architecture of the city hall (where there was a lovely little food market at the weekend), boasted genuinely first class exhibitions on when I visited. But I’ve already blogged about it and apparently the Royal Alberta Museum will be even better when it reopens. Reasons to return..

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