Photos by Roger Cullman
The Polaris Music Prize reflects the amazing heterogeneity of Canadian music, which is its whole point I imagine. This year we have a handful of Quebecers and a range of ages. It’s fantastic to see two examples of indigenous excellence as well as children of immigrants on the shortlist. I was gutted not to be in attendance at last year’s gala, when Lido Pimenta awarded Jeremy Dutcher with the richly deserved prize for Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, so I was thrilled to be in attendance this year.
The Gala opened with Toronto punk band PUP with their second nomination for the Polaris Prize. PUP are entertaining pop punk, filled with energy, but they don’t stand out for me as much as those nominees who have a political message to share. However despite a decade of playing PUP still do a great job at displaying youthful rebellion. Stefan Babcock seems like a punk Peter Pan; leaping from the stage at the end of their two songs to take his seat with a tall can at his table.
Jesse Reyez was unable to perform due to an injury. I had the good fortune of seeing her at the I Heart Radio Jingle Ball a few years back where she stood out as the most memorable act.
Marie Davidson squeezes in one track: album highlight Work which she admits is usually the closer of her club-based set and she rightly points out that it might feel a bit awkward here, in this cavernous room. The beat is infectious and her existential spoken lyrics fit so well that I long to be in a darkened, sweaty room late at night convulsing to the music. What I want to know is: when is she next playing Toronto?
Shad needs very little introduction, he’s a genuinely nice guy and stalwart of the Polaris Prize. This is his fourth nomination for the fantastic concept album A Short Story About a War. He plays lead track The Fool pt. 1 and is joined on stage for Magic by a surprise guest; 2017 Polaris winner and collaborator Lido Pimienta.
My personal favourite nominee Elisapie takes to the stage with a band of musicians including a saxophonist and backing singers which is really what’s needed to do justice to the rich music of the album. Darkness Bring the Light sets up an atmosphere that reflects her Inuit and folk roots and sets up for full use of the band with the excellent Arnaq (inuktitut for Woman), her album is an intimate portrait of her life, her childhood home in Nunavik, and honours indigenous women.
Haviah Mighty is introduced with much aplomb and gets one of the biggest cheers of the night. Her album 13th Floor is a commentary on Haviah’s experience as a black woman; exploring feminism, modern slavery and racism. She delivers a powerful message with a powerful performance, bringing in a live band for the special occasion.
The effortlessly chill Les Louanges kicks off a hat trick of Quebecois artists with bass that vibed all the way up to the balcony. At times the music is so relaxed he doesn’t so much play his guitar as gently caress it. Seeing him live does add a more dynamic air to his chill wave album and his voice is particularly impressive as he croons to Tercel.
Dominique Fils-Aimé brings a beautiful, soulful and regal air to the stage. Her drummer puts on a hell of a ‘jazz and the art of bop drumming’ masterclass and stands out just as much as Fils-Aimé on Free-Dom. I can definitely see her playing the Sony Centre in the future, and I’ll wait with baited breath for her third album, which will purportedly feature some hip hop and funk.
Convention-shunning FET.NAT provide a frenetic cacophony as they crunch closely together on stage. It leaves me utterly bamboozled, but at least they seem to be having a good time.
Snotty Nose Rez Kids are the absolute pinnacle of the night and a perfect group to close out the performances. They make the cavernous, quiet Carlu seem like a concert. I particularly loved the DJ’s tiny confetti gun half way through the set and the rave horns – showing that the Rez Kids can highlight exploitation of indigenous peoples while not taking themselves so seriously on stage. With their second Polaris shortlist in two years, the Kitimaat rap duo bring a fresh and progressive sound; listen to Son of a Matriarch as soon as you can.
Snotty Nose Rez Kids ramped the energy all the way up and stoked the anticipation for the award announcement, ending on a standing ovation. As Jeremy Dutcher flamboyantly took to the stage in cape and hat, he took a moment to thanks both the artists and their families, saying tonight was about togetherness. He went on to condemn the right wing, anti-immigration People’s Party of Canada, saying “We always welcome in this land. That is how the matriarchs have done it.”
As Jeremy announces the 2019 winner: Haviah Mighty, she slumps in her chair, folded over her seat as her team pat her on the back. She’s genuinely flabbergasted at the award and has no speech prepared. It’s a thrilling moment for her and us. Haviah talks about how important it is to share her truth after so long, with people telling her it wasn’t the time or place for her music. The fact that Haviah released this album independently clearly shows the music industry wasn’t ready for what she had to say, but we are. Now, it is her time. And her place.