iHeartRadio’s holiday mega-concert series, Jingle Ball, has finally found its way North. The concert tour, which has been hosted by iHeartRadio sister stations across the States since 2000, features a rotating roster of radio’s top artists. The music media giant arrived on Canadian soil earlier this year through a partnership with Bell Media, and – luckily for Torontonians – their star-studded event immigrated over as well, just in time for the holidays.
Toronto’s inaugural Jingle Ball engagement featured a local folk rocker, melodic EDM superstars, two international chart-slaying R&B/Pop hometown heroes, rappers from both sides of the border, a Canadian pop rock mainstay, and an Irish singer-songwriter from one of the most successful boy bands in the world. The diverse lineup resulted in a diverse age range: from parents who left the kids at home (likely to indulge in the sultry tones of The Weeknd sans restless children), parents who brought the kids with them (and attempted to shield their ears from any stray cuss words that found their way into the evening), kids themselves (who were often featured dancing on the jumbotron between sets), teenage girls (who successfully increased the night’s average decibel level during Niall Horan’s performance), and representatives from the lucrative 18-24 demographic.
The evening’s first performer, 23-year-old Florida rapper, Kent Jones, burst onstage donning a Toronto Blue Jays jersey with shortstop, Troy Tulowitzki’s name emblazoned on the back. Peterborough, Ontario native, Serena Ryder, was up next with a three-song performance consisting of new and old singles “Stompa”, “Got Your Number” and “What I Wouldn’t Do”.
At the beginning of Ottawa-based rapper, Belly’s performance, The Weeknd’s pre-recorded voice filled the Air Canada Centre, singing the verse to their collaboration, “Might Not”. Given both parties were on the evening’s lineup, it would have been nice to see a live rendition of their shared song, but the audience enjoyed the precursor either way.
Judging from the sudden increase in shrill, female, overexcited screams that emanated from the audience as Niall Horan took the stage, a large majority (or at least, a vocal majority) of the crowd were in attendance to witness the One Directioner’s first solo performance on Canadian soil since the boy band split up earlier this year. Armed with an acoustic guitar, a capo, and a microphone, the Irishman performed his single “This Town”. Though a simple tune in structure, the performance was further proof of the great progress Horan has made since auditioning for The X Factor six years ago. However, with only one song in his arsenal as a solo artist, his set was short, but sweet. “I literally came to Canada for three and a half minutes,” Horan joked before promising he’d be back soon with a longer setlist in tow.
Taking to the stage directly after a member of One Direction is a daunting task, but so is transitioning from minor YouTube success to hitting #1 on the Billboard Pop charts with your first single… all before your 20th birthday. Brampton’s Alessia Cara, who has accomplished precisely this, was the next artist to grace the Jingle Ball stage. Cara began her set with “I’m Yours”, the 4th song off her debut album, Four Pink Walls. Though the verses of her opening song were admittedly pitchy, she more than made up for it with strong performances of “Wild Things”, “Overdose”, “Scars To Your Beautiful”, and her breakout single, “Here”. Cara’s voice is brimming with texture and personality, and she carries herself with a self-aware sass that one can’t help but root for.
Next up, BC pop rockers, Hedley took to the stage. With six studio albums, all of which churned out singles that graced the airwaves of pop radio, the band has an extensive discography to craft into a half hour set. The band, fronted by an infectiously excitable, red-Solo-cup-wielding, Jacob Hoggard, performed tunes from their two most recent albums, including “Hello”, “Can’t Slow Down”, “Lose Control”, and “Anything”.
For the evening’s penultimate performance, Andrew Taggert and Alex Pall, also known as The Chainsmokers, transformed the Jingle Ball stage into a massive, LED-lined, dry ice bursting, pyrotechnic-enabled, DJ booth. The duo performed remixes of their chart-topping, female vocal-featuring, pop tunes “Roses”, “All We Know”, and “Don’t Let Me Down”. “The last time we were in Toronto, we were listening to a lot of throwback tunes like Taking Back Sunday and Blink”, Taggert shared with the crowd before singing along with Halsey’s disembodied voice during “Closer”.
Last, but certainly not least, the Starboy himself, Abél Tesfaye, a.k.a The Weeknd arrived onstage. His highly anticipated third album, “Starboy” was released earlier that day, and is forecasted to debut at #1. It’s worth noting that with two Grammy Awards and a chart-topping album under his belt, The Weeknd could have easily chosen a music industry mecca, such as LA or New York, to play host to his album release show. Instead, he came home, and Toronto was exceptionally excited to welcome back, and celebrate, this hometown hero. Tesfaye crooned through selections from both his new album and his previous award-winning offering in his signature smooth, melancholic, and yearning style – all of which was simultaneously live broadcasted on the iHeartRadio app. Throughout, he was accompanied onstage by an enormous, rotating, triangular lighting rig that created an additional layer of visual intrigue as well as mood lighting to his set. The expert performer had the audience swaying during “The Hills” and “Worth It”, bouncing during the rock-tinged “False Alarm”, and of course, dancing to “Can’t Feel My Face”.
Hometown love was strong that evening, with Tesfaye affectionately dedicating “Crew Love”, his collaboration with Drake, to Toronto, which was shortly followed by a minute long wave of audience cheering. As a preface to the title track on his brand new album, “Starboy”, The Weeknd showered even more love on his hometown: “This song represents where I am in my life, and where Toronto is right now. And we are definitely unstoppable.” Though Toronto may not be at “music industry mecca” level quite yet, it’s artists like The Weeknd, Alessia Cara, and the many other internationally and nationally recognized Canadian musicians who are helping to carve out our route. If the Canadian dominance on last year’s Billboard charts is of any indication, The Weeknd is definitely onto something.
One part music festival, one part sports-esque rally, one part self-promotion extravaganza (just ask Shamar Moore), the Jingle Ball is unlike any event that Toronto has seen thus far – and it totally worked. With the low Canadian dollar hindering the 2016 renditions of festivals such as Riot Fest, Warped Tour, and Squamish, it’s nice to see some new activity on the Canadian event front. Here’s to the first, hopefully of many, iHeartRadio Jingle Balls!