Back in Brooklyn after spending a few very enjoyable, very damp days in St. John's, Newfoundland (which gets a mere 1,497 hours of sunshine per year, y'all -- do the math). As promised, here is my long-awaited JUNO Award retrospective. (JUNOs = Canada's Grammies, basically.)
I told you earlier about all the air-travel mishegas getting in, with the impenetrable fog surrounding St. John's International Airport causing near-panic amongst the organizers, as they tried to deal with the very real possibility that their biggest stars (K'naan, Drake, Metric, Michael Bublé, and yes, Justin Bieber) would not be able to make it to The Rock for the April 18 telecast.
Fortunately, our fight landed without incident, right on schedule -- 11 PM on Friday, April 16. (As a side note, deepest thanks to my grandmother for donating her air miles so that Lindsay and I could attend!) After checking in to our hotel, we headed out to explore downtown St. John's. George Street is where most of the action is, a pedestrian-only strip lined with bars and clubs, teeming with out-of-towners as well as regulars. The JUNOs are a movable feast -- they are staged in a different Canadian city every year, and it's usually way more exciting when the awards are held in the smaller cities that don't often host big events (St. John's = pop. 100,646).
George Street was given over to JunoFest, where a $30 wristband gets you into any venue, space permitting. We did not have wristbands. We therefore looked for a bar with no cover, and settled on Kelly's Pub. Kelly's is like the Village Vanguard of St. John's, at least in this one respect -- it has a sousaphone bolted to the wall:
The late-night musical entertainment at Kelly's was being provided by a dude with an acoustic guitar singing cover songs, whose name I did not catch. But he did a heartfelt version of John Denver's evergreen "Take Me Home, Country Roads." The crowd of mostly local, mostly blue-collar looking guys, who I would guess have probably never been anywhere near West Virginia, sang along vigorously. Afterwards, the singer dedicated the performance to the victims of the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion. He closed his set with Steve Earle's anti-War on Drugs anthem, "Copperhead Road." We drank our whisky (note Canadian spelling) and wandered back through the fog to our hotel.
Saturday was the big day, at least for us -- the telecast wasn't until Sunday night, but as with the Grammies, there are only a tiny number of awards handed out on teevee. Those of us not nominated in the Seven Really Important Categories (Album of the Year, Single of the Year, Fan Choice Award, etc.) convened on the St. John's Convention Center on Saturday for a reception and gala dinner. Lindsay and I needed something fancy to wear. Luckily our friend Thomas Kleinert came to the rescue -- Tom is like a Zen Master of Astoria thrift store shopping, and managed to find an amazing beaded red gown for Lindsay for a mere $14. He also helped me put together an Edwardian-style tailcoat-vest-striped pants-tuxedo shirt-cufflinks (obsidian cufflinks, no less) combo for $85.
The gala turned out to be a blast, actually. I was worried it would be like the way John Hollenbeck described the Grammy pre-telecast, but it was actually really fun, I think primarily due to the fact that the JUNOs actually feed their nominees and ply them with alcohol. We sat down and introduced ourselves to the other folks at our table: Yukon-based singer-songwriter Anne Louise Genest, who records as Annie Lou (nominated in the Roots & Traditional Album of the Year: Group category), Winnipeg guitarist and singer Romi Mayes (Roots & Traditional: Solo), and Chilliwack singer Inez (Aboriginal Album of the Year), and their guests -- one of whom was Alison Corbett, a local singer-violinist-guitarist who performs under the name Black Molly. It was seriously fun to have this opportunity to eat, drink, and talk shop with a group of very cool independent musicians.
The awards ceremony itself was hosted local boy Seamus O'Regan, who I later learned also hosts Canada AM, "Canada's Most Watched National Morning News Program." I am not sure I have ever watched a single minute of any Morning News Program in my life, but O'Regan was affable and entertaining. The awards themselves were punctuated by musical performances (The Arkells, Carly Rae Jepsen, Alex Cuba, Mistress Barbara, and Amelia Curran), which ranged from genuinely poignant to uncomfortably awkward. It's a tough room, the audience consisting of (A) industry people your band is trying desperately to impress, and (B) anxious or crestfallen musicians -- the delighted-to-have-won musicians don't hear you, as they are immediately whisked away to the press room after picking up their lovely statuette.
Speaking of which -- in case you didn't hear, the winner of the 2010 JUNO Award for Contemporary Jazz Album of the Year is... Charles Spearin's Happiness Project. There are those who found this outcome curious... as Spearin himself told the press after he won: "I never went to school for music and all the jazz musicians I know are such dedicated players and there's such a tradition of jazz music so it's an honour to be the category. I didn't expect to win it, I'm a visitor in the world of jazz, I live my life in the rock'n'roll world." If you are even a casual indie rock fan, you are probably familiar with Spearin as a key member of postrock band Do Make Say Think and indie supergroup Broken Social Scene. I happen to like both of those bands an awful lot. (I wrote about Do Make Say Think's 2007 Wordless Music show here.) I also like The Happiness Project, which uses the "spoken-words-transformed-into-music" techniques familiar from Frank Zappa, Steve Reich, Jason Moran, and (recently, hilariously) Henry Hey. Spearin's album, though, feels a lot less mannered and more heartfelt than is usual with this kind of thing. Partly that's because the audio he uses as source material -- interviews with people from Spearin's neighborhood -- are quite compelling in their own right (one of them is a woman who was born deaf but can now hear thanks to a Cochlear implant), and partly that's due to the skill and inventiveness with which the speech-derived musical motives are arranged and transformed.
As someone who is both skeptical of and frustrated by genre-based isolationism, I actually find it refreshing that this album is "self-identifying" as a jazz record. It doesn't have any of jazz's usual signifiers -- there's no spang-spang-a-lang nor walking bass lines to be found, nor are there are any "solos" in the traditional sense. But as we all know, the same could be said of an awful lot of jazz these days. It seems to me that it's the conceptual, reflective, and progressive impulses in contemporary jazz that Spearin is choosing to align himself with, and that's a vein that goes deeper than just surface characteristics. I think a lot of jazz musicians and fans who listen to The Happiness Project with open ears will hear the workings of a kindred spirit. Or, at least, enjoy the music, regardless of what you want to call it.
Obviously, I am disappointed not to have won. (Especially since a JUNO win would have helped enormously with my ongoing quest to actually line up some Canadian gigs for Secret Society.) But as much as I hate to drop "it's an honor just to be nominated" on you guys (again), seriously: in addition to Spearin, the other nominees in my category included legendary saxophonist Kirk MacDonald, fearsomely agile Cuban-born pianist Hilario Duran, and rising star John Roney. This is company I'm proud to be considered alongside.
Anyway, after the gala wrapped, we cabbed it back to our hotel, changed out of our fancy clothes, then headed out again to take in some music. As it turned out, our new friend Annie Lou had a post-gala gig at a bar called Shamrock City. Fortunately for her, but not for us, the place was already packed to capacity when we got there and we couldn't get in. We proceeded to the Rose & Thistle, where our other new friend, Alison Corbett, was playing a gig with what I can only assume is St. John's only klezmer band. They were really good! The live music continued until 3 AM or so, with Alison playing in every group. Clearly, this was the right local musician for us to meet! We had a fantastic time, and our spirits were only slightly dampened when a local dude managed to upend his nearly-full pint on us. (I figure that is just as good as getting screeched in.)
Both Lindsay and I each have old friends we haven't seen in years who are now living in St. John's, so we spent Sunday afternoon reconnecting with them and seeing the sights -- the city and the surrounding areas are truly spectacular, and I highly recommend visiting, if you can. (Just maybe not in April. July is nice, I hear.)
After a busy day, we got decked out again and made our way to the Mile One Centre for the JUNO telecast. The stadium is so named because St. John's is "mile one" (or really, "kilometer one") on the Trans-Canada Highway -- though even this nomenclature ignores the inconvenient truth that there is no bridge from Newfoundland to mainland Canada. Anyway... the Mile One Centre is the local sports arena, and ground zero for the glitzy teevee portion of the JUNOs, which is the only portion of the JUNOs that even people who know about the JUNOs tend to know about.
When we arrived, there were seat fillers in our seats! This is not something I've experienced before. Our seats were more or less in line with the end of the main stage's apron, meaning we could see behind the "curtain" that came down at the end of every performance. I also found myself fascinated by the ruthless efficiency of the stage crew, who managed to completely reconfigure the set for every act, all in what seemed like a matter of seconds. The actual awards presentations and speeches happened on a satellite stage, a makeshift island in the middle of the crowd, which bought the stage crew extra time to, e.g., sweep up all the confetti that rained down at the climax of Michael Bublé's show-opening performance of "Haven't Met You Yet." In a fortuitous coincidence, Bublé also won the first award of the night (Single of the Year), for the very song he had just finished singing. (Secret Society co-conspirator Rob Wilkerson, who performs with the Bubléband, was tragically bumped from their charter flight and did not make it to St. John's at all.)
After Bublé was done, the enormous, shiny metal structure that had been suspended above the audience began to slowly drop towards the floor. I did not expect that prop to move, and it looked more than a bit ominous when it did. I am not sure I necessarily would have wanted to be standing directly underneath it. Still: disco iceberg!
Next up -- Justin Bieber. The screams are deafening. This kid is plainly a phenomenon. He is also plainly terrified. He is singing a stripped-down version of his signature hit "Baby," without a backing track or band as a safety net -- just acoustic guitar and four swaying backup singers. This was no doubt intended to convey the message that Bieber has genuine musicianship and authenticity and can deliver the goods, even absent the autotune and the fancy production and the rest. This might have worked out better had the Bieb not choked like a dog on a chicken bone. His swagger coach appears to have left him woefully underprepared for this turn in the spotlight, and when Drake joined Bieber mid-song for an unsurprising "surprise" cameo, the charisma differential between the two almost made you feel bad for the kid. (Watch -- if you must -- here.)
Country Album of the Year winner Johnny Reid was next with his ballad "Dance With Me." I am of the opinion that when country songs mention drinking, the beverage in question should probably be whiskey, not "sweet red wine," and that in any event, there should certainly be more than just one glass consumed. I mean, I am willing to defer to my Texan friends on this, but while dancing quietly and tenderly with your significant other at home, by candlelight, at the end of a long day, seems like a pleasant enough thing to do, it would also seem to lack the emotional punch of your classic lyin', cheatin', stealin', ramblin', drinkin', fightin' and/or murderin' country music tropes. These are the classics for a reason, after all. (Watch here.)
After this, things started to pick up a bit. Rock Album of the Year winners Billy Talent (the band is named after the guitarist from Hard Core Logo) are not precisely my thing, but they definitely injected some badly-needed stims into the proceedings. (Watch.)
Great Lake Swimmers might've lost their category (Roots & Traditional Group) to The Good Lovelies on Saturday, but they pulled out a really strong performance for the teevee broadcast. (Sadly, that performance doesn't appear to be on YouTube.)
Next: in a non-stunning "stunning upset," New Artist of the Year award goes to Drake, not Justin Bieber!
I am a fan of indie dance-rock darlings Metric and was happy to see them take home a couple of awards (Group of the Year and Alternative Album of the Year), but frontwoman Emily Haines struggled a bit with her pitch on "Gimme Sympathy." Great song, though, and absolutely killing drumming from Joules Scott-Key. (Watch.)
Blue Rodeo are a Canadian country-rock band that have been around for decades and that almost everyone at least sort of likes. "Dreamy twang" is basically their core brand idea, and if that's your thing, they do that thing really well. (Again, this performance doesn't seem to be online.)
Before he launched his music career, Drake was an actor on the Canadian teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation. Now, he is known as a rapper with a pathological aversion to similes -- instead, he just drops in the object of the comparison at the end of the verse, like:
"I can teach you how to speak my language. Rosetta Stone"
"But I really can’t complain, everything is kosher
Two thumbs up. Ebert and Roeper."
I find the autotune on the recording of his hit "Over" thoroughly unbearable (it is way worse than even your standard-issue autotune -- I do not understand why this abominable trend will not die, already) and the chorus ("What am I doin’? What am I doin’? Oh, yeah, that’s right, I’m doin’ me") is beyond cringeworthy. That said, I must grudgingly admit that Drake has skills, his band is tight, and he gave a confident, passionate performance. Plus, live, the autotune is only on the backing tracks, not his live mic. A small mercy, but I'll take it. (Watch.)
Canadian Olympian gold medalist, Alexandre Bilodeau, is the presenter for Album of the Year. He is even more nervous than Justin Bieber, although this is understandable -- English is not his first language, and also, he does not have a swagger coach. But when it comes time to present the award, he says: "And the JUNOs goes to... Michael Bubble." (Here Bilodeau has no excuse -- "Bublé" is pretty clearly a Francophone name, even though Bublé himself hails from British Columbia.) Anyway, the important thing is that, with this award, Bublé has completed the Justin Bieber JUNO shutout. At this point, I Tweeted "Just realized I have now won as many JUNOs as Justin Bieber" which unfortunately caused no small amount of confusion.
The telecast closed with Artist of the Year winner K'naan's anthemic "Wavin' Flag." This song has an interesting history -- it originally appeared on K'naan's 2009 album Troubadour. Then it was re-recorded by a Who's Who of Canadian artists (including Nelly Furtado, Avril Lavigne, Metric's Emily Haines, Drake, Nikki Yanofsky, and -- you guessed it -- Justin Bieber) as a benefit song to raise money for the victims of the Haiti earthquake, a kind of "Tears Are Not Enough" for 2010. (This version was even recorded in Bryan Adams' studio!) Now, it has been acquired by Coca-Cola, who have made it their theme song for the World Cup.
According to Wikipedia:
K'naan's "Wavin' Flag" will be used as the music element throughout the entire campaign including as the soundtrack on all global Coca-Cola TV commercials for the soccer tournament. It will also be played at events for the FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour by Coca-Cola, and featured on the online digital platform for the World Cup.
In other words, it is going to be everywhere. You can see the version from the JUNO broadcast (with Drake, Yanofsky, and Bieber joining K'naan) here. And here is the World Cup version, which has modified lyrics, plus Spanish verses by David Bisbal.
All told, it was a fun show. I was able to get my geek on watching all the behind-the-scenes transitional action. The live sound in the stadium was surprisingly solid, considering all of the rapid changeovers that were required -- the mix actually sounded quite a lot better live than it did on the broadcast (at least, going by those YouTube clips). We saw a couple of major awards go to genuinely good and interesting artists. The presentation was much less glitzy and more performance-focused than I'd expected.
But as if everyone hadn't had enough trouble getting to the JUNOs, rumors (wholly unfounded, it turned out) of volcanic ash from Iceland blowing west set off another panic even before the telecast wrapped, as people flipped out about the possibility of being stranded in St. John's for another 3-4 days. I actually would have quite enjoyed that -- but we had already planned on staying an extra day in St. John's. On Monday, we got to see more of our friends, do some more sightseeing, and sample some cod cheeks, a (highly recommended) local delicacy. Our Tuesday AM flight left without incident. It's good to be back.
Now can someone tell me where I can find a swagger coach?
More photos below the fold.