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We Went to the 2023 Juno Awards Weekend So You Didn't Have To

Highlights include buttrock royalty, flashergate, and a star turn from R&B sensation Mauvey.

by Colin Gallant

The Juno Awards came to Edmonton with a weekend of live music, two awards nights, and a series of other events under the umbrella of JunoFest. The long-running Canadian music awards body isn’t strictly known for being cutting edge — a number of its awards are handed out based solely on sales figures — but there was still fun to be had around the City of Champions and exciting young talent to behold. What follows is a firsthand account of the Juno’s first stop in Edmonton in 19 years.

 

 

Friday, March 10

I camped out at the Starlite Room for a packed bill that skewed towards reggae and pop for the entirety of my first night of JunoFest. It was already a packed house by the time the city’s own St. Arnaud performed, which saw frontman Ian St. Arnaud bringing his indie pop charm to life with plenty of trumpet. 

St. Arnaud performs at the Starlite Lounge in Edmonton, AB for JunoFest on Friday, March 10. (Photo: Colin Gallant)

When fully open, as it was this night, the Starlite Room includes a larger main stage at its front end and the smaller Temple Bar stage at the back (where St. Arnaud performed). The venue took full advantage of both stages by having sets run back-to-back with no dead air left in the room. I dashed down to the larger stage to see Jamaican-Canadian reggae singer Ammoye. She emerged onto the stage in an all-metallic-silver look with voluminous hair that screamed star power from the first note of her Caribbean-inspired set. It may have been -10 degrees celcius here in Dirt City, but her blissful tunes and powerful voice heated things up, carrying the crowd to a mini-vacation of sorts. (Ammoye was nominated for Reggae Recording of the Year)

Cab’Ral performs at the Starlite Lounge in Edmonton, AB for JunoFest on Friday, March 10. (Photo: Colin Gallant)

Ammoye was one of three reggae acts to perform over the course of the night, and as someone who doesn’t spend their time listening to the genre, it was a welcome immersive experience if a bit same-y by the end of the night. To be fair, Cab’Ral brought some hard-edged hip-hop to the main Starlite stage while Justin Kirk, who would go on to win Reggae Recording of the Year, had a huge ensemble of guests help lend his set a great deal of dynamism. And at the end of the night, Sargeant x Comrade showed off a new wrinkle in their sound, with tinges of grunge and 90s alt-rock, making a welcome entry into the group’s omnivorous musical influences. 

Ammoye performs at the Starlite Lounge in Edmonton, AB for JunoFest on Friday, March 10. (Photo: Colin Gallant)

I missed a few photo opportunities and stood back for some of the night’s performers (including both Chad Price and Justine Tyrell, who had seriously impressive pop vocals that carried across the room) while playing with the JUNOs vending machine, taking photos with friends and chatting with the teams from F7 Entertainment (who organized the JunoFest programming this year) and the team from Take Aim Media (who were there to support their artist Vivek Shraya). But this is the Junos after all! Half the experience is half-listening to someone’s name as a friend-of-a-friend or someone you’ve only talked to via email is introducing you to six people you’ll likely never see again. I felt my splintered attention was warranted in the context of an industry circlejerk such as this.

Vivkek Shraya performs at the Starlite Lounge in Edmonton, AB for JunoFest on Friday, March 10. (Photo: Colin Gallant)

However, it was Vivek Shraya who I had built my entire night around seeing, so she had my full attention when she took the Temple Bar stage at roughly 11 pm. For the uninitiated, Shraya is a literary star in Canada who has been profiled in Vanity Fair, featured in a nationwide makeup campaign, and named a Top 40 Under 40 in her current home of Calgary, AB. She’s also a visual artist and one-half of the family duo Too Attached. With her debut solo album, Baby, You’re Projecting, due out this May, she played a showcase-length set of new tracks including the album’s lead single “Good Luck (You’re Fucked).” Her dry humour and call-outs of toxic personalities and performativity provided the perfect antidote for a festival environment such as this, which can often tend to feel a little forced in its rah-rah positivity. She also gave an impassioned speech on the recent wave (although this is decidedly not a new phenomenon) of anti-drag, anti-trans protests happening in Canada and the US. To paraphrase, she implored the crowd to resist these bigoted ideologies and support queer and trans people wherever possible.

After that it was off to bed to rest up before what would be an exhausting awards gala to follow on Saturday.

 

Saturday, March 11

Taking place at the Edmonton Convention Centre, the media check-in deadline for Saturday’s opening night awards (the event where the vast majority of Juno Awards are handed out, untelevised) was 3:45 p.m. for a show that would not begin until six and end close to 10 p.m.. To anyone who thinks writing for magazines is all glitz and excitement, I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong. This is no shade to the massive PR squad from Rock-it promotions, the agency tasked with wrangling an onslaught of national media for a week, or even of the Juno Awards themselves, but sitting under fluorescent light in a conference room for six hours is definitely more “job” that “job perk.” 

With that out of the way, I’ll say that the awards presenters, performers, and winners who came through the media room were incredibly generous with their time and answers. 

The Arkells (Photo: CARAS:iPhoto)

Jon Dore, winner of the relatively new category Comedy Album of the Year gave advice for aspiring stand-ups; Arkells, Group of the Year winners, told a harrowing journey of flying out from St. John’s at 6 a.m. that morning but kept the media pit in stitches with their game answers during an extended Q&A session; Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew, who received a special honour as a Musicounts ambassador, ceded most of his time to Sanaaj Mirrie, the founder and artistic director of Afiwi Groove School (a Musicounts beneficiary); and 80-year-old Ron Sakamoto, a concert promoter, industry vet, and philanthropist, reminisced about promoting Shania Twain’s first tour and his scholarship program for University of Lethbridge music students. 

The Bearhead Sisters (Photo: CARAS:iPhoto)

Unsurprisingly, the artists with the most international success who won awards were no-shows. The Weeknd, Kaytranada, and Michael Bublé all had awards accepted on their behalf by CBC personalities and show-hosts Angeline Tetteh-Wayoe and Andrew Phung. The winners who may have struck the biggest chord of the evening were Treaty 6’s own The Bearhead Sisters — the only Edmonton-area winner of the night. The sisters opened the show alongside Elder Dougie Rain with a song that celebrated the Creator. Shortly after, they won for Traditional Indigenous Artist or Group of the Year and discussed how family influenced their work with the scrum.

Corb Lund, The Sadies and Shannon Johnson of The McDades (Photo: CARAS:iPhoto)

Performance-wise, I missed most of them because they took place during walk-throughs from winners. But I do feel it’s important to shout-out the special rendition of Ian Tyson’s classic hit “Four Strong Winds” by Corb Lund, The Sadies, and Shannon Johnson of The McDades during the in-memoriam segment. Tyson and The Sadies’ Dallas Good were both honoured (among others) during a fitting, heartfelt send-off that exuded respect and admiration.

After leaving the convention centre at the end of the gala, I made a quick stop at the Canadian Independent Music Association’s (CIMA) after-party at a warehouse down the block. After trying some local cuisine from Stawnichy’s, The Lingnan and Pei Pei Chei Ow (all delicious) I took a seat at the Blackbyrd Myoozik record store pop-up. I learned from assistant manager and Edmonton musician Aladean Khreoufi that the shop will be celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. At that point, I learned the night’s entertainment would be The Barkells, a local cover band, and my exhaustion had reached its peak. I ducked home as The Barkells played a Queen song in the background, completely devoid of FOMO.

 

Sunday, March 12

After catching up on sleep and making some notes for my write up, I headed down to Edmonton’s only gay bar, Evolution Wonderlounge, to take in a showcase of electronic music. I made it in time to catch Teen Daze, winner of Electronic Music Album of the Year, DJing some easy-listening house tracks. It did what it needed to do: a handful of the modest crowd made it to the dancefloor and a tone of carefree fun was set for the coming acts, who were to be two of the highest energy performers of the festival.

Teen Daze performs at Evolution Wonderlounge during JunoFest on Sunday, March 12. (Photo: Colin Gallant)

The first live act was Vancouver’s Mauvey, who recently released a new single “WE HAD THE TIME OF OUR LIVES TOGETHER” with pop stalwart Lights. If you aren’t already familiar, this performer has serious star-power. He arrived on stage in an all-mauve outfit including a face covering and delivered his ultra-emotive pop-R&B hybrid with aplomb for about 40 minutes. Musically, he landed somewhere between the maximalism of Brockhampton, the gender-fuckery of Lil Nas X, and the unhinged energy of JPEGMAFIA, all with a radio-ready bent. While he filled the stage with his dance moves and flowing costume, it’s easy to picture him filling concert halls (even stadiums?) with a bigger show alongside a live band and back-up performers.

Mauvey performs at Evolution Wonderlounge during JunoFest on Sunday, March 12. (Photo: Colin Gallant)

The night’s de facto headliner was pop impresario Rich Aucoin. Known for interactive shows that include scream-alongs, video projections, and often a parachute; he did not disappoint. There were memes, there was a metallic silver costume, there were dance games. A Rich Aucoin live experience is all-encompassing, and that means losing yourself to his sincerity. The grins from the audience confirmed that Aucoin was having his intended effect.

Capping off the night, I ran to Temple Bar at The Starlite Room to catch Odonis Odonis but only made it in time for the last song. And though my experience was limited, I did think that their EBM/coldwave sound was pleasingly tactile on stage — something not all bands relying on synthetic instruments can accomplish. That concluded my JunoFest experience, but there was one last challenge in store for me the next day — the telecast.

 

Monday, March 13

The Juno Awards telecast started out with Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi donning a Starlite Room t-shirt and welcoming Halifax Mayor Mike Savage in a symbolic passing of the torch as Halifax will be the Juno’s host city for 2024. Then, host Simu Liu took over to big reactions from the crowd. But soon enough, things devolved into chaos. Truth be told, reader, if you watched the telecast then you probably know what’s coming next. 

Flashergate was the star of the show. When Avril Lavigne (who later won the TikTok JUNO Fan Choice Award) was introducing a performance by AP Dhillon, a topless person stormed the stage with messages including “Land Back” and “Save the Greenbelt” and bared almost all for the audience. And that wasn’t the only CRTC violation to happen in the span of just a few minutes: Lavigne yelled “get the fuck off the stage, bitch.” We love to see women supporting women. Next time someone says the Junos are boring, you can point them to this Canadian Heritage moment.

Dhillon was the first Punjabi act to perform at the JUNOs and made up just some of the tapestry of cultures on display that night. There was the expected pop and EDM (Tate McRae, Banx & Ranx with Rêve and Preston Pablo) but most stirring were Aysanbee’s performance with Northern Cree, honouring residential school survivors, and the balls-to-the-wall tribute to the anniversary of hip-hop. Hosted by Kardinal Offishall and Haviah Mighty, the tribute featured veteran acts Michie Mee, DJ Mel Boogie, Dream Warriors, Choclair, TOBi, and Maestro Fresh Wes.

Throughout the night, Simu Liu offered capable hosting duties, hampered only by the fact that being a Juno Awards host is inherently a cringe gig. Notable moments included his serenades to Avril Lavigne and a pre-taped segment where he received spa treatments alongside Nickelback. Haha, because it’s girly to go to the spa? Masculinity is truly a prison.

Nickelback performs at the Juno Awards ceremony on Monday, March 13 in Edmonton, AB. (Photo: CARAS:iPhoto)

Nickelback were the de facto top-billing for the evening. After being inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame by Oilers’ superstar Connor McDavid, the band closed the show with its, um, signature tunes and a massive pyro show. Fan or not, Nickelback’s success really can’t be denied and by all accounts they seized their moment with requisite buttrock aplomb.