The annual Polaris Music Prize gala was held in downtown Toronto last night, and as the tradition has been, it was a fantastic night celebrating the best music in Canada. For those who might not know, Polaris is strictly based on artistic merit – opposed to album sales & “mainstream” popularity. There is a jury that votes on a “Long List” (40 albums), which then gets reduced to a short list (10) and then the eventual winner, who receives a cash prize (which this year was raised to $50,000!), an opportunity to perform with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and incredible bragging rights (although Canadian’s are more the humble type).
First time host (& Canadian icon) Fred Penner kept the crowd smiling as he charmed with a nice mixture of indie music humor (referring to himself as the Timber Timbre for kids), audience breathing exercises, a sign-language lesson, and most notably, an attempted acoustic medley of past Polaris Prize winners. Mr. Penner refusing to use “bad language” did a ukulele-assisted cover of “Fuddle Duddled Up” aka 2009 winner Fucked Up & their song “Son the Father” which was awesome, while his attempt at 2013’s winner Godspeed You! Black Emperor & last year’s champ Tanya Tagaq sounded more like Feist’s “How Come You Never Go There” (from her 2012’s Polaris winning album Metals). He also referred to Kevin Drew (who was there presenting for newcomer & nominee Tobias Jesso Jr.) as the frontman of Social Broken Scene which was… cute.
The night had its fair share of amazing performances too. Eventual winner Buffy Sainte-Marie opened the show with 2 passionate cuts from her album Power in the Blood (which included a great spoken word interlude). Alvvays got everyone moving thanks to their irresistible hit “Marry Me, Archie”. Braids stunned with their equally varied earthy and techie performance, and Jennifer Castle impressed with her voice and band and was backed also by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. The TSO came back later in the show to perform a medley of songs from Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (which was appropriately introduced by hip Toronto City Councilor, Norm Kelly). Viet Cong, who are in the midst of changing their name and are no longer “Viet Cong” (they were introduced by Dan Boeckner as “Four Guys from Calgary”) also played, closing out the show with their tremendous angular alt-rock. Even though Tobias Jesso Jr., BadBadNotGood (no Ghostface Killah – sorry Mr. Penner), as well as members from the New Pornographers were all in attendance, they choose not to perform. It was clear though from the crowd’s reaction that Buffy was the artist of the night as once her name & album was announced, the audience erupted, eventually becoming a deserving standing ovation for the 74-year old artist (who was clearly taken by surprise).
Backstage at the press conference, Ms. Sainte-Marie enthusiastically talked about how she listened to all this year’s nominees and particularly enjoyed both the Jennifer Castle and Viet Cong albums. As well, Ms. Sainte-Marie was happy to see Aboriginal artists getting more recognition (last year’s winner was Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq and in 2013 First Nation hip-hop group A Tribe Called Red was shortlisted) and hopes it continues. She also went on to say that the big difference between Power in the Blood (her 20th album btw!) and past albums of hers, is that this one “got heard”, and thanked members of the press for getting word about her music out there.
Despite not winning the big prize himself, Tobias Jesso Jr. was thrilled for the outcome and summarized the night perfectly by declaring, “A win for Buffy Sainte-Marie is a win for Canada” and judging by the audiences reaction, everyone was in full agreement.
Watch Buffy Sainte-Marie perform “Carry It On” from her 2015 Polaris Music Prize winning album, Power in the Blood which is available now via True North Records.