On January 18 at Toronto’s acoustically and visually stunning Koerner Hall, the annual honoring of Canadian blues artists was a profoundly moving – and rousing – celebration. Below, take a look at the complete list of winners as well as our photo gallery.
TEXT & PHOTOS BY ERIC THOM
Quick – can you name 5 top Canadian blues acts? Didn’t think so. Yet, many Canadians would be equally hard-pressed to do so, if only because the sacred genre continues to find itself buried alive in its own vague mystique, never completely understood as a distinct category unto itself. Truth be told, Canada is a long way from Chicago or the crossroads of Highway #1 and #8 in Mississippi. Yet, you wouldn’t know it from the continuous flow of blues talent originating in this country.
Canada is, in fact, a hotbed for the blues. And it would seem that all it takes is an international Awards Show to throw fresh wood on the fire each year, rejuvenating ‘the brand’ and building excitement afresh in this much-maligned, sometimes tired, category.
Two decades back, the Toronto Blues Society pushed forward with the notion of a national blues awards program with the two-pronged goal of promoting blues music across this vast country and to recognize outstanding achievement in the field. In a country so geographically challenging to the sacred heart of journeymen and women who slog thousands of thankless miles to play live, the Maple Blues Awards have become more of a national group hug and something to look forward to, besides getting rich quick.
These awards do offer a lovely twist on the traditional awards blueprint. Once nominees are thrashed out by a representative panel of blues-related aficionados, the voting process is, for the most part, opened up to Canadian blues fans from across the country to choose their winners. Real people voting for real winners is a reality; yet, on the downside, if you don’t have a profile amongst the voting public (which can only come from touring and keeping in the news), then you’re not likely to take home any hardware. As such, a lot of the winners are ‘regulars’ but, over time, new blood does trickle into the process and the special night tends to shine a light on what is distinctive about Canadian blues – a celebration of where it’s been and, quite likely, where it’s going next.
The outcome of this year’s Maple Blues Awards – and the show itself – proved an outstanding example of how exciting, and affirmative, the blues can be. The show itself is held in the Royal Conservatory’s showpiece, Koerner Hall – a stunning example of Euro-design with near-perfect sightlines and divine acoustics. Despite that you’d be hard pressed to ever find a typical blues audience here, it makes the occasion all the more special, lending a sophistication to the proceedings and an excellent focal point for both the Maple Blues Band (comprised of the cream of Canadian Blues musicians) and the evening’s six featured showcase artists. Guest host, CBC Radio’s Gillian Deacon – pictured above; a self-confessed blues newbie – did a very impressive job of hosting the gala event while the hugely popular MBA band kept the show moving with well-rehearsed stings and full-bodied instrumentals, ably lead by Downchild bassist, Gary Kendall.
With the run-down of nominees and ever-rotating presenters from the blues community announcing the winners, the busy schedule moved along surprisingly quickly – broken into uniform sections by single-song performances from the list of nominees. These included Harrison Kennedy, Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar, Colin Linden (above) David Gogo, Cécile Doo-Kingué and John Campbelljohn (joined by the gospel-fired voices of Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar). With the exception of Linden’s coin-drop, solo presentation of the title track from his latest album, “Rich In Love”, each act was backed by the Maple Blues Band. From the full-tilt gospel scorch of Martin and Delta Sugar to the acoustic bliss of Linden’s polish; from the blues-rock bite of Gogo’s guitar-playing to the smooth, soulful spin of Kennedy’s take on “Milk Cow Blues”; from world music fire of Doo-Kingué’s joyful “Animal Kingdom” (below), to Campbelljohn’s full-bodied testifying over “The Poor Man Pays” – there could not have been a better turning out of the healthy state of blues in this country, based on this significant range of blues styles.
Cleaning up in the Entertainer, Electric Act and Guitarist of the Year was Montreal’s one-man-band, Steve Hill, while everybody’s favorite sideman, Linden, got some overdue attention for his latest solo project with both Recording and Songwriter of the Year Awards. Much beloved Manitoban icon, Big Dave McLean, scooped Acoustic Act, playing his heart out with his Sinners Choir for the post-awards party. Twice in two years honors went to New Brunswick’s Matt Andersen and Montreal’s sultry Angel Forrest who repeated for Male and Female Vocalists of the Year. New blood was welcomed as Alberta’s own Kirby Sewell Band claimed New Artist of the Year while, speaking of youth, Conor Gains pocketed a tidy cash award, having earned the Paul Reddick/TBS Cobalt Prize for his original composition, “Leave It On The Line”. Individual ‘Best of the Year’ instrument awards are listed below with a special upset in the bass category with Wicked Grin’s Leigh-Anne Stanton taking home the coveted prize. Ex-pat David Vest, upon accepting his award for Piano Player of the Year, noted – charmed by his new Canadian home – that “I wasn’t born here but came as soon as I heard about it”. Outstanding contributor awards were earned by the First Lady of Maritime Blues, Theresa Malenfant (Lifetime Achievement Award) while Larry Kurtz (below) Artistic Director of his successful Orangeville Blues & Jazz Festival, graciously accepted the Blues Booster of the Year award.
The successful evening didn’t end there, spreading from the main hall into the adjoining bar/lobby area where Dave McLean’s set became an open stage. These guest spots and cameos plus the chance to mingle with fans and artists alike, have become the highlight of each MBAs, once the prizes are doled out. As always, the beauty of a night of celebrating the blues – encompassing everybody’s definitions of the blues – provides us all with the opportunity to revel in our personal victories and a chance to seek out those artists who are new to us. That’s good for the artists. It’s good for the fans. And, most of all, it’s all the better for the blues.
John Campbelljohn, showcase performance:
David Gogo, showcase performance:
Colin Linden, Songwriter of the Year:
Guest Presenters, Eric Bibb and Steve Strongman:
Barbara Newman, CEO Blues Foundation & Charlie Andrews, SOCAN, Presenters:
Angel Forrest, Female Vocalist of the Year:
Wicked Grin’s Leigh-Anne Stanton, Bassist of the Year:
Big Dave McLean and his Sinners Choir, kick off after-party:
Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar, showcase performance:
WINNERS OF THE 19TH ANNUAL MAPLE BLUES AWARDS
ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR
ELECTRIC ACT OF THE YEAR
ACOUSTIC ACT OF THE YEAR
Big Dave McLean
MALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR
FEMALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR
NEW ARTIST OR GROUP OF THE YEAR
The Kirby Sewell Band
RECORDING OF THE YEAR
Colin Linden – Rich In Love (Stony Plain)
BLUES WITH A FEELING (Lifetime Achievement)
BB KING INTERNATIONAL ARTIST OF THE YEAR
GUITARIST OF THE YEAR
HARMONICA PLAYER OF THE YEAR
PIANO/KEYBOARD PLAYER OF THE YEAR
HORN PLAYER OF THE YEAR
DRUMMER OF THE YEAR
BASSIST OF THE YEAR
SONGWRITER OF THE YEAR
BLUES BOOSTER OF THE YEAR