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On the Culture Front: Beyond New York, Montreal High Lights and the Bruise Cruise

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With all the culture in New York, It's easy to make the argument that you don't need to leave the city to experience the world. From Le Bernardin to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we have some of the greatest culinary and cultural treasures. But there's something about traveling that changes cultural perspective, and with that in mind, I set out for two radically different cultural experiences last month: first the High Lights Festival in Montreal and then the Bruise Cruise from Miami to the Bahamas.

Blending really good food with music, theater, and art, Montreal's High Lights Festival displays a unique scope of hedonistic pleasure during the most frigid time of year for the beautiful, French-speaking city. Multi-course dinners that go late into the night compete with performing arts shows for festival-goers' attention. Unfortunately, you have to choose between dinner and a show on any given night due to the extravagance of many of the meals. It's a hard choice, but I ended up going largely for the meals after noticing many of the bands were also playing in New York.

Each meal was a different experience. Our first dinner at Le Beaver Club was a formal affair with multiple uniformed waiters bringing out courses and refilling glasses. The wine pairings were disappointingly mainly white, which I learned was due to their local availability in Quebec. The chef, Anne Desjardins, is a legend in the region, and while some of the dishes struck very dissonant notes with my palate, it was clear she knew how to put together dynamic flavors. My favorite dish was a tender deer loin that was cooked to a perfect medium rare and lightly sauced with black currant and ginger.

The highlight for me, though, was seeing actress/singer Vanessa Paradis at Place des Arts. It was thrilling to share the experience with so many Montrealeans, applauding together as she ran through a diverse set list, from her first single, "Joe Le Taxi," through more recent English songs and a few covers. While I realized later that she would be playing in New York just a couple blocks from my apartment, there's something special about seeing her in a place that loved her long before she was Johnny Depp's girl.

I had barely enough time to process it all before flying down to Miami, where the atmosphere couldn't have been more different. The weather was warm, the skies were blue, and water traced through the city in endless streams, reflecting the sun.

I arrived Thursday to catch the pre-party for the Bruise Cruise at Grand Central, a supremely odd, cavernous venue that seemed to be suffering from a split personality disorder. While the lo-fi garage rock blaring from the stage suggested a basement club like Cake Shop, the overpriced drinks, lounging areas and bleached blond-haired bouncers suggested velvet rope aspirations. It didn't help that the club was located in a pocket of abandoned lots and rundown buildings that brought to mind the extreme discrepancies between the haves and have-nots in places like Atlantic City.

The next day, boarding the cruise brought to mind other sharp divides. The most obvious being the tattooed masses of bruisers and the rest of the ship, who had no clue who the Black Lips were. At only 400 people, the festival didn't feel at all like a festival. Most people I talked to personally knew someone in one of the bands and the rest were die-hard fans. There weren't many casual listeners on board. I was familiar with the Black Lips and Vivian Girls but had only listened to Surfer Blood extensively. Their album, Astro Coast, immediately caught my attention on first listen, and I'd been playing it over and over leading up to the cruise. Hearing them play Sunday, mere feet from my cushy lounge chair was by far the best moment of the festival for me.

I missed their set the previous afternoon because we were docked in Nassau, and I felt that I should explore the island. Not wanting to go to the beach by myself, I walked around a little bit before deciding to take a trip to Atlantis, which I found out was like the Disney world of the Bahamas. Big Mistake. I grabbed some mediocre conch at a local recommended restaurant before heading to the island show featuring the Black Lips, Vivian Girls and a couple of other bands. The Vivian Girls cover of "My Heart Will Go On" brought a smile to my face, but my energy was starting to wane. I was ready to go home.

Looking back on it now, it was a pretty singular experience. There isn't any other festival I can think of that enables such close contact with the bands -- musicians were seated at dinner next to their fans, often lounged by the pool, and were very approachable after sets. There are talks of expanding the number of bruisers next year with the eventual goal of taking over the whole ship. It'll be interesting to watch this homespun festival grow.

Read more about the High Lights Festival in my Classical TV column and on their website.