April 20, 2015
Arriving practically sleepless after a red-eye flight, two layovers, and a 12-hour trek, crossing four time zones from Calgary to St. John’s, this would be the first of many late-nights ahead. St. John’s does not disappoint when it comes to music and revelry—as I would soon find out—especially during 2015 Eastlink East Coast Music Week (ECMW).
St. John’s is a beautiful place with some of the friendliest people you’re bound to ever meet, like one of the cab drivers whose thick accent I could barely understand, but ensured that I get some photos and food before heading to the East Coast Music Awards (ECMA). “Don’t ya leave St. John’s without gettin’ some fish n’ chips,” he chimed. I did and it was delicious.
The East Coast Music Awards Gala
The Gala is a polished event, televised throughout the Maritimes with casually dolled-up East Coast celebrities, and a full-on light show that would put the JUNOS to shame.
Fittingly, Amelia Curran, the pride of St. John’s, opened the awards show, returning to the stage later that night to fete independent record shop Fred’s Records with an Industry Builder Award. The St. John’s landmark has supported—and employed—many of Newfoundland’s current crop of exports, including Curran, members of Hey Rosetta! and Andrew O’Brien of The Fortunate Ones. Fun fact: Curran’s first JUNO Award still sits inside of the shop today.
Among the other highlights from the Gala were alt-rock group The Town Heroes’ musical hat trick of three ECMA wins, including group recording for Sunday Movies, along with Fan’s Choice awards for entertainer of the year and video of the year. “I found a piece of pizza on the floor and now this!” said vocalist/guitarist Mike Ryan while accepting an award.
Moncton retro rockers Les Hôtesses d’Hilaire were arguably the showstoppers of the evening’s performances. With members of the band donning black turtlenecks, like a bunch of spliff-smoking, Kerouacian Beatniks, frontman Serge Brideau threw off his shirt, exposing his very round gut, and, with a box filled with rose petals, blew kisses into the audience. I feel terrible for the band that had to follow that.
Elsewhere, multi-award winning Cape Breton supergroup Còig, brought the house down with a foot-stomping, fiddle-drenched set of traditional tunes. What would an East Coast party be without a little Celtic music, after all?
St. John’s is Awesome
There are rows upon rows of vibrantly coloured ‘jellybean’ houses that line the streets of downtown St. John’s, and you can actually smell the scent of salt water wafting in from the ocean. Streets are steep and winding and locals will joke about “learnin’ how ta fall after a night on George Street havin’ a drink.”
On George Street, the venue-packed row that would be my home away from home for the duration of my stay, you’ll hear every sort of East Coast accent shouting over noisy tunes, and drifts of music blowing through the doors of venues, fighting for space with passersby.
There are also the touristy traditions, like getting Screeched-in, a sort of initiation ritual in which a non-local will down a shot of Newfoundland Screech, kiss a cod and repeat a number of tongue-twisting sayings.
The music scene is vibrant for such a small city. In fact, the AIC postal code in St. John’s allegedly has the most, or among the most, artists per capita in Canada.
If you are going to make the musical pilgrimage to St. John’s, Fred’s Records is an absolute must. Described during the ECMAS as “like the shop in High Fidelity, but way more successful,” and where a recommendation from an employee is “nothing less than scripture,” you will not find a better place on the island to dig for Newfoundland Music.
East Coast Music Week Showcases
ECMW can be traced back to a bar in Halifax—a one day event that cost $1,000—and has since grown into Eastlink East Coast Music Week (a festival, conference, export buyers program and awards show) with a budget of over $1.6 million, according to the East Coast Music Association website. Many careers have been launched as a result of the five-day event, which draws industry people from all over the world to discover the best in East Coast talent.
Having just collected an ECMA for Album of the Year for their indie-pop opus Conversationalist, there was a dreamy, celebratory feel to Thursday’s late-night slot by Halifax’s In-Flight Safety. Tracks such as the wistful “Blue Flares” seemed to be the perfect nightcap for sleepy-eyed industry folks, while the shimmering guitar hooks of “Animals” brought on my own second wind.
Vogue Dots, the electronic duo of Tynan Dunfield and Babette Hayward, set the mood at the Molson Late Night— Electronic Spotlight on Friday with Dunfield’s programmed beats coalescing to Hayward’s ethereal vocals. Occupying a space within the atmospheric realms of the UK’s Jamie xx, the two performed facing one another, rocking back and forth like a sort of nocturnal call and response.
DoubleTooth, the project of Joshua Van Tassel (also of the Great Lake Swimmers and Amelia Curran’s band), nods to a spacey sort of Nigerian afro-beat. With Robbie Grunwald twisting nobs and experimenting with all sorts of far-out synthesized soundscapes, the band creates a brand of psychedelic funk all its own.
Over at the Bluebird Song Circle at the JAG Hotel on Saturday, Mo Kenney was in the middle of soundcheck by the time I arrived. Among the young songwriters at ECMW, Kenney is definitely one of the standouts.
In order to understand why artists such as Joel Plaskett—who produced Kenney’s debut album—have taken notice, you just need to see her perform one song live. Aside from her infectious songcraft and delicate guitar plucks, her stage presence is effortless and often hilarious. Amid performing the meanest love song ever, “I Faked It,” she shared personal accounts of working at Sobey’s and a dollar store—her favourite job aside from being a musician. “I worked there for years!” she proclaimed.
There were also several precise performances by folk raconteur Ian Sherwood and jazz-inflected newcomer Brianna Gosse, and you would have to be without a pulse not to be swept into the sweet, heart-melting vocals of New Brunswick chanteuse Caroline Savoie.
Making the 15-hour journey by car/ferry from his home of Caraquet, New Brunswick to St. John’s, Francophone folk singer-songwriter Cédric Vieno did a captivating rendition of Daniel Lanois’ “The Collection of Marie Clare,” along with songs off his latest Maquiller l’âne, which was nominated for two ECMAs. Admittedly, I could not understand most of the words, but you do not need to understand French to recognize talent.
Hot off the heels of her 2015 JUNO Award win, and accompanied by fellow guitarist Chris Gauthier, Catherine MacLellan ran through songs off her critically-acclaimed album The Raven’s Sun, including the infectiously brooding “Jack’s Song.” Inviting the audience to join her on a pub crawl down George Street on Sunday night until “we can’t anymore,” the singer-songwriter, whose PEI village has a population of about 100 people, joked that her idea of a pub crawl is hopping from house to house, followed by a potluck at her friend Hal’s.
“I’m so happy to be home with my people,” Amelia Curran gushed during her show at the Delta Avalon Ballroom. “You’re all so good looking.” Having just returned from a lengthy Canadian tour, Curran played fan favourites, such as “Somebody Somewhere” and “I Am the Night.” Like a welcome home reception, the opening notes of each song, so familiar to the crowd, were met with adoring hoots and hollers.
Then came Ten Strings and A Goat Skin, the young PEI contemporary/traditional Celtic troupe, who delivered a flurry of rousing jams, spurring on a group of ladies at the back of the room to joyfully jig and clap along.
Over at the Molson Late Night—Hip Hop Showcase, New Brunswick rap crew City Natives, hailing from the community of Tobique First Nation, gave a solid performance despite member Beaatz almost losing his voice. The winners of a 2015 ECMA for album Red City—their second Aboriginal Recording of the Year win since 2014—Beaatz and his cohorts breathlessly spewed rhymes, including “Straight Chief’in,” and “Revival,” a bass-pounding track that nods to ‘90s-era backpack rap.
Enter Halifax’s Jay Mayne, who took the first few moments of his set to ask: “How many of you smoked before coming here tonight?” to a chorus of cheers. At one point things got especially weird when a few dudes wearing horsehead masks jumped on stage to headbang alongside Mayne—a trippy scene whether you were on anything or not.
“Ya come back in the summer. We got lots a room for ya, love,” I recalled one of my friendly cab drivers telling me the night before. “Ya go home and ya tell all ya friends about us.”
So I’m telling you all: Go to St. John’s and tell them I sent you. Just be sure to get some sleep before you go.
— Julijana Capone