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Toronto Through the Eyes of Denise Benson


October 2005. I had just arrived in Toronto and my head was still spinning. I had exhausted the area known as Kensington Market, and couldn't for the life of me find the actual market. (Pffft. Some name.) I had been mocked mercilessly for uttering "Spa-dee-na". I had been stared at for (gasp!) dancing at a concert. I had been dragged along to spots like Shmooze--I should have known better, the name says it all--where I soon learned that being a grody corporate rat is actually a fine art. Wannabes, take note: over the course of an hour, the true Bay Street Baller must hand out at least 20 business cards and order at least one bottle of Grey Goose. The latter task must be performed with faux nonchalance, and at an unnecessarily elevated volume (but of course!)

Needless to say, I was beginning to feel pretty darn sorry for myself. Then a matchmaker introduced me to Her and, suddenly, everything changed.

The first week, She steered me in the direction of a Resfest party featuring Blockhead. Twas bliss. The following week, Mark de Clive-Lowe rocked my world--with Bembe Segue, no less--something I would have otherwise missed had it not been for Her. The week after? I found myself twirling and whirling to Reuben Wu and Mira Aroyo of Ladytron, again tipped off by Miss Thang.

I was in heaven. Indeed, my saviour was none other than Denise Benson, one of Toronto's most trusted authorities on good music. The DJ, radio host, and journalist has been gigging, promoting, pushing, living, breathing and writing about the city's music scene for nearly two decades.

Benson, who grew up in a series of small Southern Ontario towns--Orono and Grafton, anyone?--moved to the big city 20 years ago to study radio and television at Ryerson. The city's vibrant and diverse music scene won over the small town girl immediately and, today, her passion still burns bright.

"I love a lot about this city," Benson bubbles. "The vibe, the creativity, the multiculturalism, the relative calm, the range of things to do and get involved in." And to say that the community goddess has gotten involved would be a gross understatement. Over the years, Benson has donned many hats as one of the city's most dedicated music supporters and pushers. A demanding schedule sees her DJing several nights a week, hosting the city's longest running underground dance music radio show, freelancing for multiple CBC Radio programs, and penning two highly popular columns for Eye Weekly. Hell, her "Best Bets" column--always spot on, always--was what saved this TO-newbie's sanity once upon a time.

And I know I'm not the only one that looks to Benson for both good music and the good word on music in this town. The multidisciplinary artist has built up a loyal following with her varied pursuits--one visit to her monthly Savour will confirm this: where Benson plays, legions of fans follow. But, as the humble artist is quick to mention, the admiration is mutual.

"Seriously. I've met so many amazing and talented people here and there are so many opportunities to learn from and with them," she raves. "The only drawback, as pointed out by numerous friends who've moved to Toronto from other cities, is the fact that everyone is so damn busy we have to pull out date books just to break bread with even our closest of pals."

For 16 years, Benson lived in the Kensington Market area near College. Rotating roommates and climbing rent prices, however, led her to move to the Dupont West area last year. Though it is not as lively as her previous hood, Benson is starting to find her groove.

"The strip I'm in is pretty quiet and isolated compared to what I'm used to. Hey, I love the Galleria Mall (for real), but ache for at least a decent corner store, cafĂŠ, and a fun local bar. Maybe I just haven't discovered them yet," she chirps hopefully. "That said, it's been fun spending more time in the Junction, on Roncesvalles, and in High Park than I ever did, and the recent discover of Garvey's Jerk (1104 Bloor W, 416.538.1257) has been easing my pain."

Perhaps living in a quieter part of town will give Benson the downtime she needs to begin working on new projects. With a couple of book ideas floating around, as well as a keen interest in increasing her involvement in the film and television industries, it shouldn't be long before the Denise Benson name starts popping up at bookstores and in film credits. Yet, at the end of the day, Benson reveals, her heart belongs to radio. And, in typical DB style, the wonder woman is working to expand her involvement with her first love.

"Radio definitely holds a special place in my heart as it's such a warm, immediate, and open medium. Radio is a great way to share music with people and give them a sense of its context and information about the artists who produce it," she gushes. "I'd appreciate the opportunity to produce and host a radio show for a larger audience, and have been knocking on doors for a while. So far, no luck, but I'll keep pushing. 'Electronic music' seems to be a frightening phrase for a lot of radio powers that be; I hope to have the chance to prove what I know: the audience is there and more than ready for such a program."

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Denise Benson on Toronto

My favourite place...

...for breakfast: Call me sentimental, but I'd still say Aunties and Uncles (74 Lippincott, 416.324.1375) though I'm not such a regular since moving from that neighbourhood. I love the food, the staff, the vibe, and the music there is almost always great. The lineups can be a bit long when you're feeling the hunger, but good on them for the success. A close second for weekend brunch would be the Universal Grill (1071 Shaw, 416.588.5928). It's such a sweet little spot, and the food is delicious. Special props for their original huevos rancheros and hot sauce!

...for lunch or dinner: I love food almost as much as music so there's quite a few. The places I find myself at repeatedly are San (676 Queen W, 416.214.9429) for their sashimi and dol sot bi bim bap, Pho Hung (350 Spadina, 416.593.4274) for their veggie soups and curries, Jumbo Empanadas (245 Augusta, 416.977.0056) for their empanadas and humitas, Kalendar (546 College, 416.923.4138) for sentimental as well as culinary reasons, and Southern Accent (595 Markham, 416.536.3211) where I'm hooked on the blackened chicken and picant shrimp. I'm salivating just saying those words! And I especially have to mention Tacos el Asador (690 Bloor W, 416.538.9747) because I'm there almost weekly, digging into their crispy veggie tacos, corn tamales, guacamole, and veggie burritos. Mmmm.

...for drinks: Crooked Star (202 Ossington, 416.536.7271) has reasonably-priced single malt scotches. I love the margaritas at Rancho Relaxo (300 College, 416.920.0366), the vibe at the Sparrow (92 Ossington, 416.537.0134), and, though I deejay there at least once a week, I love Andy Poolhall (489 College, 416.923.5300) for a drink, especially on their half-price Mondays. I'm still looking for a good, comfy local near me though.

...for dancing: Sadly, it's rare that I go out and really tear up the floor when I'm not DJing--so many gigs I want to catch happen when I'm working! But when I am looking to, I'll check the DJ lineup at Footwork (425 Adelaide W, 416.913.3488). It's a perfect midsized spot with great sound, a relaxed atmosphere, and generally attracts a crowd that's there for the music. I also love Hump Day Bump Wednesdays at the Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen W, 416.531.4635) because the music is mad eclectic as is the party-hardy crowd of queers and friends that gathers there each week.

...to unwind: My bed, with a book. Cycling around the city. Or, more recently, playing squash. So fun.

...to get inspired: Reading, eating, having sex, watching a great film, talking with friends, and, of course, jumping around to a new favourite song or album.

Everyone should know about: I can never say enough how lucky we are in Toronto to have three community radio stations: CKLN 88.1FM, CIUT 89.5, and CHRY 105.5. Three stations offering 24 hours of programming from the heart and mind is a treasure, especially considering that many larger urban centres barely support one or two. Sure, you have to invest a little time to discover the programs that most appeal to you, but where else can you find music played and discussed by people who are so deeply connected to it, arts coverage by people actively involved in making art, and hear social and political commentary by communities of people who rarely are given the opportunity to speak about their own issues, concerns, and lives within most mainstream media?

Biggest pet peeve about Toronto: The smog in summer (not helped by the air show or the Molson Indy!), lack of proper bike lanes (and driver awareness), and relentless condo-building. The Bohemian Embassy? Give me a fucking break. Whoever came up with that should be ashamed of themselves.

An ideal day in Toronto would consist of: Sleeping in and reading, without guilt or deadlines hanging over me, followed by a yummy breakfast at home and a day to explore. I'd ride my bike along the waterfront trail, hook up with some friends for a little soccer in Christie Pitts, then we'd eat a late lunch at Tacos el Asador (690 Bloor W, 416.538.9747) . The sun would be shining and it would be hot enough to hang outside on a patio so we'd walk or cycle around, slowly making our way to the Diplomatico (594 College, 416.534.4637) for a little wine and people watching. Then I'd cycle home, read a little more while sitting outside at my picnic table, shower and prepare for the night's date. From there...

Finish the sentence "Toronto is...": A city I'm proud to show off to friends from out of town.

Denise Benson's Mental Chatter show can be heard Mondays from 11am to 2pm on CKLN 88.1. MP3 archives can also be found on her website, and there are already murmurings about a podcast in the works.

Benson's Friday night party, Synchro, which she does with Andrew Allsgood at Andy Poolhall (489 College, 416.923.5300), is celebrating its third birthday this Friday, November 17. Dropping in from New York to help with the festivities is DJ/producer Nickodemus, who has recently released his debut album, Endangered Species, on Thievery Corporation's ESL label. Cover is $7.

Catch the next installment of her women's/trans/queer monthly, Savour, this Saturday, November 18, also at Andy Poolhall. Cozmic Cat (From Philly With Love, Sticky Fingers) with be there to rock the party. Cover is $6.

Read "Extended Play" and "DB's Best Bets" in Eye Weekly, which can be found all over the city each Thursday or online.


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