Photos by Dakota Arsenault.
On Monday, September 17, 2018 Jeremy Dutcher won the Polaris Prize for his operatic post-classical debut album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa. Hours earlier, the enraptured audience had a chance to experience all of the 10 short-listed albums through lively and diverse performances from the nominated musicians. As captured by Dakota Arsenault’s energetic photos, the night was an emphatic display of the future of Canadian music.
Arriving at the Carlu in downtown Toronto, I was met with a mix of delighted fans, music industry veterans and very exciting first-timers (like myself) ready to see the Polaris Prize Gala come to life. The venue is unique: a full curtained stage, a bare “orchestra” floor designed for gala-style tables and a surprisingly comfortable seated balcony. This being my first time at the Carlu, I didn’t know what to expect, but overall, the sound quality didn’t disappoint.
The first act of the night was Weaves, performing “Law and Panda” and “Wide Open” from the nominated album Wide Open. They were a great warm up for the crowd, with a slower intro moving into rambunctious rock. Everyone was there for the band’s sound and lead singer Jasmyn Burke’s vocals were in great form. The second nominee of the night, Daniel Caesar, wasn’t present at the gala, but CBC Music had a live performance from an episode of q ready to go.
The next live performer was Jean-Michel Blais. This was a real surprise for me – I love his album Dans ma main but was curious how the classical piano and synth ambient sound would come together live. I was extremely impressed and Blais’ performance was one of my favourites of the night. Performing “Dans ma main” and “Hypocrite” with only a grand piano and a small synth looper, Blais created a haunting quality and powerful performance that filled the room with more sound than you’d expect from a musician alone on stage. This garnered one of the many standing ovations of the night. Jean-Michel Blais plays the Danforth Music Hall on October 3rd, I recommend checking it out!
After some time spent thanking the Polaris Prize’s many sponsors, French glam-rocker Hubert Lenoir took the stage, performing the opening suite from his nominated debut album Darlene. This was Lenoir’s first performance west of Quebec and he said hello to English Canada with gusto: a full band, a loud sound and suitably over-the-top demeanor. He spent have the performance standing on gala tables and drinking among the attendees, even shouting “I’m your French Canadian nightmare” among other things not suitable for print. This was a rocking performance and even more vivacious than I expected, and the crowd completely loved it.
Nominated for the album Antisocialites, Alvvays wasn’t available to perform, but they asked Girls Rock Camp Toronto to send a group in their stead. The teens from Deep Vvaters played “In Undertow” with gusto, bringing the Alvvays sound even without Molly Rankin’s distinctive voice. The great teen act garnered yet another standing ovation.
Next up, Snotty Nose Rez Kids performed “Savages” and “H.O.W.” from their nominated album The Average Savage. With a ton of energy, the hip hop duo brought their sound to life for a national audience, complete with dancers and drummers while their lyrics turn the listener back on themselves. Another great performance (and this is coming from someone who is not a big hip hop or rap fan!)
Next up, U.S. Girls took a unique approach with an a capella performance of “Pearly Gates” and “Poem” from In a Poem Unlimimted. The group performed both songs in a beautiful arrangement that drew the raptured attention of the audience. Meghan Remy, the central force behind U.S. Girls, stepped out of the group to perform centre stage, before leaving the group onstage for a rambunctious closer from the background singers.
Jeremy Dutcher performed next, no one aware he would be named the winner only an hour later. Performing “Mehcinut,” “Essuwonike” and “Pomok naka Poktoinskwes” from his soon-to-be-crowned album, Ducther was joined by a small string section and percussion arrangement. The translation of his recorded sound to the live performance was astounding, creating an incredible aural field with spot-on singing, piano-playing and backing musicians. Dutcher ended the set alone with his stunning operatic voice, met with rapturous applause from the endlessly-impressed audience.
Pierre Kwenders, the next performer, brought his world-music fusion sound to the stage with “Zonga,” “Welele,” and “Sexus Plexus Nexus” from Makanda at the End of Space, the Beginning of Time. The energetic performance from Kwenders and his band got everyone moving and proved the place of the Polaris Prize to seek out and honour the greatest artistic achievements in Canadian music – just like Kwenders’ Makanda.
The final performance of the night belonged to Partner, performing “Creature in the Sun” and “Big Gay Hands” from the nominated album In Search of Lost Time. The indie rockers’ performance was a great closer to a night of diverse sound and style, opening with a low-key energy and sound that built to a bigger rock-out and asking the crowd to show their “Big Gay Hands” during the final number.
The time finally came for Lido Pemienta, the 2017 Polaris Prize winner, to come onstage with “The Envelope” and revealed Jeremy Dutcher as the winner. As always, the Polaris Prize is given to the album that represents the greatest musical artistic achievement of the year, regardless of record sales or promotion. Jeremy Dutcher represents this and so much more. In his speech, Dutcher reminded everyone that we are in the middle of an Indigenous renaissance in this country, and he asks if we’re ready to “hear the truths that need to be told, to see the things that need to be seen.” We’re ready, and future Polaris Prizes will only open the door to more creative Canadians sharing their gift.