Report from 2009 ECMAs
by Fraser McCallum
For the recent ECMAs in Newfoundland, PEI sent more than a dozen musical acts, and a bevy of family, friends and industry supporters to Cornerbrook for the 20th annual awards. Two buses, packed with performers and gear, left PEI on February 25 buzzing with anticipation.
The Seaport Lounge within the “illustrious” Hotel Cornerbrook was Music PEI’s headquarters. Two highlights from the Friday show were The Lazy Jacks and the Grass Mountain Hobos. The four Jacks are experienced tradditional multi-instrumentalists who also feature three part harmonies. They were a dynamic contrast to the young acts on the Island’s roster this year. Says vocalist Peter Wynne, “ECMAs were fantastic. Although the business was constant, it was the chance hangout with other musicians and supporting each other’s shows that will stand out for us.”
The Grass Mountain Hobos followed and proved why they created a buzz all weekend. The Hobos are a stomping string-band made up of six 20-somethings who dress in matching fedoras and poorboy suits. They combine flashy attire with vigorous take on bluegrass music. The Hobos impressed wherever they went, eventually bringing home PEI’s only trophy this year, for best bluegrass album. Exhausted frontman Josh Ellis thanked all their fans and expanded, “To top it all off with the bluegrass album of the year, wow. To quote a not-so-big influence of ours, Crowbar, ‘ooooooohhh what a feelin—what a rush!’”
One of the big weekend highlights for PEI was singer-songwriter Meaghan Blanchard from Hunter River. Performing five times in four days, the 20-year-old’s dance card was full, yet she met the challenge every time. Meaghan turned many heads Friday night with an all-star band behind her and also at songwriters’ events on the Saturday. Nominated for two awards for her debut EP, Changing Things, Meaghan was in the spotlight on the CBC-televised gala on the Sunday night.
Other Island entertainers who came up big in Cornerbrook were Charlottetown’s Smothered in Hugs. The up-tempo rock fivesome has worked diligently for five years in the Maritimes and is now getting some much deserved attention. At an after-party performance at the Pepsi Centre, the Hugs, colourfully dressed in bright, exclamation-mark collared shirts, thundered out a guitar-driven set that had the room bouncing. According to keyboardist Todd MacLean, the band’s myspace site achieved 4000 visits the next day.
Kinley Dowling, a violin player from Stratford , performed her final gigs with Newfoundland’s Hey Rosetta! over the weekend. The home-province rockers came away as the big winners Sunday night, snagging three ECMAs and Dowling was part of an excellent live number, televised on CBC.
Folk-singer John Connolly and multi-project frontman Dennis Ellsworth were other PEI talents that got attention.
All the PEI artists performed with pride and delivered the goods, enduring long days and nights of non-existent rest. Music PEI should be be commended for producing several terrific shows, bringing such a fine group of people closer together, and getting everyone home in one piece to dry out.
The ECMAs are always the Maritimes’ musical party of the year. This year was no exception; the four-day extravaganza filled with ‘those moments’ and ‘oh-my-god’ performances. However, with the big show held more than a 24-hour bus-ride away in the quirky, industrial town of Cornerbrook, this year was a wild one, unlike any other.
On the Friday evening, I was on the same flight to Newfoundland as the CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi, in town to host the awards show. It should be noted that Ghomeshi reads the business section of the Toronto Star inside out. Also, Ghomeshi shakes one’s hand with the strength of a toddler. Yikes.
I caught up with the PEI crew at the Seaport Lounge, a venue reminiscent of the great downstairs from the days of Myron’s (RIP). Having missed the six-hour ferry ride over (where buses from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and PEI all convened), I was told by many that PEI’s Vishten, the Grass Mountain Hobos, and Meaghan Blanchard had gotten the whole ship hopping along with their Island tunes. O’Leary native Josh Ellis of the Hobos stammered, “We were scheduled to play at 1:30 am, by that time the place was as packed and juiced as an unopened jar of pickles. One Newfie woman wanted to dance with our fiddler so bad she knocked him over on stage—just a complete riot on the waters.”
Having been to the past three ECMAs, I can attest that Cornerbrook organized some of the quirkiest host venues. One unforgettable show took place inside a tiny shop, Cycle-solutions. With small, yellow lights blinking and mountain bikes hanging all around, a captive audience took in the fine folk sounds of Duane Matthews and later Ruth Minnikin. Matthews, of St. John’s, acrobatically finger-picked through a set of playful gypsy and jazz songs, closing with a hilarious, classical take on Sweet Georgia Brown. Minnikin, a tall, smiley Haligonian with a sultry voice played a wide array of bittersweet folk songs from across her career. This was the most attentive audience I saw all weekend, obviously not bothered by the pungent scent of new rubber tires.…
From there it was off to Union Station for the Music Nova Scotia stage. Big-voiced singer Carmen Townsend, a consummate ECMA nominee, brought down the house. Her fiery red hair flying around like a windmill, Townsend amazed with her Joplin-esque vocal style and wall-of-sound guitar shredding. The double-threat was followed by Share, an up-and-coming indie band from Fredericton. The five-piece’s red/blue light show was dazzling, lyrics introspective and music full of epic swells and gang vocals. Two of Share’s members often support PEI’s Catherine MacLellan, among others, and they proved they could shine with any project.
Saturday morning, after a bowl of rabbit stew and some hilarious banter with Hotel Cornerbrook’s staff (Wot would'ja like, moy trout?) I caught PEI’s Songs & Writers concert.
Dennis Ellsworth’s acoustic set was a great surprise. Normally the front-man of hard rock band, Battery Point, he showed an intimate side, playing some Haunted Hearts (his other project) and Battery Point songs acoustically. Music PEI Exec Rob Oakie added a layer of mandolin atop a few, including “Electric Stars,” a heartfelt song about missing one’s love on the road. The synergy was powerful, an afternoon highlight that entranced the room.
Down East Islander Tim Chaisson hit the deck next alongside his barefooted, right-hand man, Tian Wigmore. They delivered a vibrant set of poppy, acoustic tunes. Chaisson, a previous ECMA nominee, started feeling unwell from the flu, but acting fast, whipped out his fiddle and nimbly demonstrated his skills with some classic celtic, stirring the crowd. A fan-club of girls sprung up just as quickly, spinning and grinning across the dance floor. Aside from the ill-health Chaisson coveted his weekend, reflecting, “So much good stuff went on at ECMAs! It was great to hang out with the other artists all weekend too!”
From Chaisson to the Sidewalks and from Vishten to The Orb Weavers, many spoke of the strong fraternity among the Island delegation this year. Showcasing folk artist, and three time PEIMA winner, John Connolly echoed this, “My impression of PEI was one of unity…more than ever it seemed like one big band.”
Never was this more evident than when the exhausted musician gang finally left the ferry during the 24-hour bus ride home. Our oddball bus driver forgot the aforementioned Connolly onboard. The panicked howls of the entire PEI crew eventually forced the jumpy driver to pull over. Luckily for Connolly, it was only a three-kilometre chase in the sleet and snow. Crisis averted.
Some other highlights included the return of folk singer Jill Barber, who now calls BC home. Her performance of “Oh my my” at the Sunday’s gala showed a new depth to her music, and she looked radiant in a 50s pink and white gown. Also seeing Charlottetown’s country gem, Nudie and the Turks in a live workshop with hotshot producer Tom Jackson was memorable. A frantic American, Jackson stripped a Turks’ song down and built it back up in front of a live audience. An impromptu jam session on the ferry home was unforgettable as well. Led by New Brunswick country singer Ryan Cook, and featuring the strings of the Hobos and Turks, and fine voice of Meaghan Blanchard, the artists rolled through a lively set of folk and country classics. A large crowd of Newfoundlanders, artists and others amassed, somehow still energized after four intense days of entertainment, and loved every minute of it.
The weekend is a blur in retrospect, and a challenge to process as a reporter. My eyes were opened to both the inspiring depth of Island talent, and the respect and mutual support that exists within that scene. I’m sure the same can’t be said all over this country. Although all of the bands’ friends and families couldn’t make it, it was impressive to see MLAs Carolyn Bertram and Cynthia Dunsford in town along with the managers of Harmony House and The Guild. The support from such players is essential in keeping our music scene strong and developing in these tough times.
Cornerbrook proved to be a little too spread out and industrial to really excel and embrace the music festival. This didn’t hinder our performers from making big strides and putting on many engaging shows, but I echo the sentiment expressed by many performers and industry folks alike; it’s pretty tough to beat the ECMA party when it’s in Charlottetown. Let the countdown begin to March 2011.