We Got Drunk at the Junos Gala

We bothered Randy Bachman at the Juno gala and then got kicked out for stealing someone's seats.

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Mar 31 2014, 3:51pm

This weekend, Winnipeg played host to the Juno Awards, Canada’s version of the Grammys. With a packed series of official Juno showcases spread out Thursday through Sunday, downtown Winnipeg was awash in musicians, industry geeks, and the odd music fan or two.

While the CTV Sunday night broadcast, featuring performances from Tegan and Sara, Classified, the Sheepdogs, among others, draws the most attention, the bulk of the awards were presented Saturday evening at an exclusive gala event at Winnipeg’s convention centre. I had secured a press pass for the gala, hoping to see Royal Canoe and other local acts take home awards. Unfortunately, but not surprising, Arcade Fire walked away with Alternative Album of the Year.

The finely tuned Juno machine had the press bunkered a floor below the actual gala. And, while well stocked with cold beer, the bar was much less free-flowing than the gala, so my photographer wisely suggested we see head upstairs.

Munching on shrimp and hammering back complimentary drinks, we ran into a few of the Winnipeg Five, who were nominated for group Roots & Traditional album of the year. They were fired up to be nominated, for sure, but expressed some concern at the extravagant cost of the evening. “My girlfriend paid $600 for all this,” horn player Jimmie James McKee said. “We’re gonna be scraping to pay rent on Tuesday. Seriously.”

Little Miss Higgins & the Winnipeg Five ended up losing out to the Strumbellas, a member of whom I ran into later at the Fairmont Hotel, celebrating their success. “I won a fucking Juno,” he hollered at one point, before offering me a beer. “Whoopee!”

When the pre-dinner cocktails wrapped up and the dinner got going, attendees were treated to a quick performance from A Tribe Called Red, who took home breakthrough group of the year Sunday. As the evening’s MC, CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi, got the crowd ready, my companion and I made our way through the crowd. Friendly tables throughout the venue kept our tea cups full of wine as we went.

“This is a great event for Winnipeg,” Greg Selinger, the premier of Manitoba, told me when I asked about how he was enjoying the Junos. Selinger also told me he’d taken in the Symphony’s performance with the Lytics, Royal Canoe, Imaginary Cities, and Nathan Music Co. the night prior. “It was fantastic.”

Winnipeg’s embattled mayor Sam Katz was also in the building, though he couldn’t really tell us who his favourite local act was. “I like the old guys,” he said, alluding to the glory days of Winnipeg rock and roll that spawned the likes of Bachman-Turner Overdrive, who were inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame on Sunday.

Randy Bachman, though, had few words for us when we approached him and asked about the honour. “Let’s make this quick,” he said, eager to get back to takin’ care of business at his table. Jim Cuddy, on the other hand, took a few moments to chat with us about the Juno Cup, which I’d attended Friday night.

“It’s a great time,” Cuddy said. The charity hockey game that pits Canadian “rock stars” like Cuddy, his son Devin, Gord Bamford, and a roster full of other musicians with varying levels of agility on skates against former NHL “greats” like Mark Napier, Mike Keane, and Brad Dalgarno. “I love the JunoCup,” Dalgarno told me much later, in the basement of the Fairmont Hotel, as we drank beers and harmonized on “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” A big music lover, Dalgarno said he looks forward to the Junos and the Juno Cup every year. “It’s just a fuckin’ blast.”

As the awards began to be announced from the stage, we scrambled to find a spot to sit. We took a seat with some folk singers we knew, but before long the old ladies whose spots we’d inadvertently taken showed up. Despite our best efforts at sweet talk, the gals from Ontario quickly waved security over. Our press passes were taken, and we were escorted outside by two burly men. When they closed the doors behind us, the sun was still shining.

“Well,” I said. “What do we do now?”

“Let’s go to Shannon’s and drink some more,” my photographer said, pointing at the Irish Pub across the street.

With the biggest stars honoured at the Junos (Arcade Fire, Drake, the Biebs, Celine Dion, and Robin Thicke, who cancelled his performance last minute) not even bothering to attend, it certainly sends the message that the whole thing is a bit of a joke. Sure, the nominees are by and large thrilled to be honoured, and rightly so. When you excel at your craft, it’s a fine thing to be recognized for it.

But when you celebrate the likes of Chantal Kreviazuk and Raine Maide, the vapid king and queen of Canadian snooze rock, with a humanitarian award, complete with a nauseating video testimonial from Justin Trudeau, you’re not far removed from pleasuring yourself while staring in the mirror. I’m sure their “humanitarian” efforts certainly help some people, somewhere, but those two just reek of posturing and self-aggrandizement. And as much as the awards broadcast Sunday night — which the press watched from box up near the ceiling of the MTS Centre, without access to a bar — “aimed for the sky” to put on a spectacle, it was a bit of a bore.

While the Junos certainly shine a media spotlight, for a couple days, on homegrown Canadian talent, it’s hard not to see the whole endeavour as a massive industry circle jerk. And if Stompin’ Tom Connors didn’t need the Junos he won, and returned to the Canadian Recording Academy in protest back in the 70s, then who fuckin’ needs them at all?

Photographs courtesy of Matt Williams

Sheldon Birnie is hungover and on Twitter.