It’s a sub-zero Sunday evening in Toronto. Under an unheated canopy, a gang of fledgling rock stars wait their turn on the red carpet, shivering in T-shirts and black leather. They’re Down With Webster, a Toronto rock-rap band of twentysomething sensations whose album, Time To Win, has scored a string of platinum hits. The occasion is the 40th anniversary of the Juno Awards at the Air Canada Centre. The band will get to kick off the show, which is a big deal for them. Earlier in their dressing room, these amiable pop idols had been finessing last-minute details, planning a run from the stage into the crowd and voting down a plea from the drummer to shoot video during the performance for the band’s Facebook page. Then, after correcting their hair, rummaging about for their sunglasses, and freshening their breath with gum from a bowl on the buffet table, they head outside, so they can re-enter via the red carpet.
Huddled in the cold beside the Barenaked Ladies, the boys wait for their cue, as Drake, the show’s emcee, is whisked through with his entourage. “Twenty-two years for this s–t!” yells Ed Robertson of the Ladies. “My Junos are getting cold!” He’s joking. But there is something so forlornly Canadian about frozen rock stars queuing up for their turn on a red carpet. When Down With Webster finally gets the nod, pandemonium erupts. Throngs of young teenage girls, pressed against the barricades with outstretched arms, scream their names at an ear-splitting pitch: the sound of Beatlemania, or Biebermania, on a smaller scale.
Later, a grizzled old dude in a long black coat, black hat and red scarf enters to a decidedly less hysterical response. Many of the kids don’t even recognize Neil Young.
For Canadian pop music, the Junos’ ruby anniversary marked a ritual passing of the torch, from the boomer icons of Young’s generation to the world of Drake, Arcade Fire and Justin Bieber. The full pantheon was not on hand: Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Anne Murray, k.d. lang, Céline Dion and Alanis Morissette were present only in video clips. So Neil, making his first Juno appearance in 29 years, was the designated patriarch, basking in tributes and dispensing wit and wisdom like a wily old philosopher king. Shania Twain, a vision of chiffon and sequins, played homecoming queen. And shoring up the old guard were Bryan Adams, Robbie Robertson, Daniel Lanois, Randy Bachman, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and two-thirds of Rush.
The weird thing is, none of those living legends deigned to perform. It’s as if Grandpa Neil had tossed the keys to the family car over to the kids and said, “You drive.”
For years, critics have carped that the Junos were out of touch with contemporary Canadian music. Last week a cruel cover line in Toronto’s Eye Weekly barked: “Step off, Anne Murray,” referring to a woman with a record haul of 24 Junos. It’s true that in past years the Junos often seemed like a major-label cabal of self-congratulation, recycling the old warhorses while snubbing indie acts like Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene. But this year, both orchestral collectives were out in force. And Arcade Fire, flush with its Grammy victory, emerged the champion, winning four Junos—for best album, group, songwriter, and alternative album. But Young held his own. As well as receiving the Allan Waters Humanitarian Award, he beat out Bieber for artist of the year and won adult alternative album for Le Noise (created with Lanois, who won producer of the year).
Young, who seemed as mystified as anyone by the “adult alternative” label, said, “I’m an adult, there’s no alternative.” And backstage, when a journalist asked if he ever expected to share a category with Bieber, he replied: “Of course I’m in the same category. I’m not in the same time zone.”
The first Junos staged in Toronto in a decade, the CTV show unfolded like an intergenerational love-in, as younger musicians paid homage to their elders, and the town Canada loves to hate received its due as an unsung music capital—the cradle of so many ’60s legends. A phalanx of Toronto musicians performed heartfelt covers of classics by Young, Mitchell, Lightfoot and the Band. And as the hometown host, Drake gamely slipped into the role of a retro emcee and milked the generation gap—from doing pre-taped schtick with Lloyd Robertson and Bieber to teaching rap moves to seniors in a retirement home.
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