JUNO Weekend like Spring Break for Canadian music industry

Halifax a welcoming host for annual celebration of Canada’s musical talent

JUNO Awards Weekend
Where: Halifax, NS, various locations
When: Thurs., March 21 – Sun., March 24
Vibe: Spring break for Canadian music industry
Highlight: Impromptu late-night jams around town
Rating: NNNN (out of 5)

HALIFAX, NS — Hometown hero Adam Baldwin sits behind the piano at Barrington’s bar in Halifax Friday night, Day Two of the extended JUNO weekend. His 1,000-watt smile is framed by a perfectly trimmed beard that can give an Emmet Kelly quality to his magnificent grin. This talented Nova Scotia singer-songwriter is holding court in the city throughout the weekend as the Canadian music industry makes its annual road trip to take in the national music awards and adjacent events.

Often touring the country as a member of the Matt Mays Band or fronting his own solo outfit, tonight Baldwin is “the Piano Man,” playing his originals and covers to the delight of a JUNOs-juiced crowd that squeezes around the bar. The award show’s energy and events have been ramping up the city since Thursday, leading up to the Sunday night TV event. The JUNOfest club shows ensure venues are pleasantly packed across the city.

Baldwin’s deep rich voice ably handles Randy Newman’s Louisiana and comfortably moves on to Blue Rodeo’s Try to squeals of delight from the crowd at this CanCon classic.

And when Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy emerges from the crowd and slides in beside Baldwin on the piano bench, shit is officially lost. The two trade off the track as cellphones are held at attention and smiles light up the room. As the song hits its falsetto peak, Baldwin offers up the “We Are Not Worthy” bow and lets the Canadian icon bring the track home as he hits all the high notes to the delight of the crowd.

Maybe Cuddy’s drop-in is payback for Baldwin and his band sitting in on Cuddy’s show at the Carlton club around the corner the night before. That night, Cuddy and his sons, Sam Polley and Devin Cuddy, were joined by a stage load of guests, including Halifax’s Jenn Grant who was everywhere JUNO weekend as well Damhnait Doyle, Rose Cousins, Julian Taylor and more.

(Grant wears Palestinian flag earrings much of the weekend, including on the red carpet; hosts a Gaza fundraising event; opened an art show of her amazing portraits and performs on a handful of stages during JUNO weekend.)

Similar scenes unfold across the city throughout the extended JUNO weekend as local acts are eager to host and visiting musicians are hungry to jam and hang out with their peers. The 2024 JUNO Hall of Fame honoree Maestro Fresh Wes, originally from Scarborough but now happily settled nearby in Saint John, NB, is everywhere JUNO weekend, hopping on stage at parties and clubs to the delight of partygoers and fellow musicians. While the Sunday awards show is the focal point, the JUNO roadshow brings a full slate of official, adjacent and casual activity.

And the return to Halifax shows that the smaller cities truly excel at hosting the weekend where the rock and roll circus tends to take over the town — in a good way. It’s simple math: drop a few hundred music folk into a city of 4.5 million and it’s barely noticed; in a city one-tenth that size, with everyone staying in the downtown, nightlife area at a handful of hotels, it’s an insta-party with an avalanche of air kisses, hugs and hearty “hellos” unleashed into the sometimes-bitter waterfront winds.

The Beaches are the big winners Sunday night at the broadcast awards, picking up Rock Album of the Year and Group of the Year at a show that is well-paced and whose diversity doesn’t seem forced but authentic. (Full JUNO winners list here).

Nelly Furtado is a promising host, though after her pop powerhouse medley to kick off the show, she largely disappears and has much less presence than the show’s almost-perfect host the last two years, Simu Liu.

Nova Scotia and Canadian legend Anne Murray is the ideal “local” to welcome the JUNOs, her presence both saintly and homey with enough self-effacing humour and warmth to make everyone in the room want to be her friend, convinced by the end of her remarks that maybe they are.

Tegan and Sara further solidify their status as Canadian heroes when they receive their Humanitarian Award, using their time to make powerful, personal and deeply moving statements in solidarity with 2SLGBTQ+ youth. Introduced by actor Elliot Page, who made their own call to arms in defence of the 2SLGBTQ+ community.

“We love being gay — try it out — and we love all of you,” the two sisters declare at the end of their rousing remarks.

Punjabi-Canadian hitmaker Karan Aujla’s JUNO Fan Choice win represents another breakthrough and suggests the diversity the awards seek to represent is not just “woke” but a representation of their audience — and Canada. Aujla is part of a wave of great South Asian-Canadian talent grabbing the spotlight in this country — and beyond — including AP Dhillon, AR Paisley, Cartel Madras, Ikky and more.

Indigenous talent is well represented in the show, made all the easier by the explosion of great acts in the community. William Prince and Aysanabee are part of a brilliant tribute performance of The Weight in honour of Robbie Robertson, and Jeremy Dutcher is beautifully featured early in the show.

The night before, at the non-broadcast awards dinner where the bulk of prizes are given out, the show kicks off with a Mi’kmaq dance and prayer of welcome. It’s followed by a reggae- and rap-charged opener featuring East Coast artists — including reggae star Jah’Mila and rising New Brunswick-based Mi’kmaq rapper Wolf Castle — that gets the industry crowd to put down their salad forks and roar their approval.

The show is legendary for a sometimes-tedious run time, but hosts Aba Amuquandoh, from This Hour Has 22 Minutes and CBC radio’s Damhnait Doyle keep things moving. Doyle’s wise-ass adlibs, while not quite Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes, help keep the industry folks from taking themselves too seriously. Miraculously, the show finishes ahead of schedule for the first time in recent memory.

The James Barker Band win the Country Artist of the Year award at the show but miss the chance to grab their trophy since, at the same time, they’re playing one of the JUNO’s nightly free concerts at the Block Party in a giant tent on the waterfront a few blocks away.

The show’s packed and feels more Nashville than Nova Scotia, the beered-up and ball-capped crowd seeming more cowboy than cod fish. Fresh-faced Barker looks straight outta high school and stuns the crowd with a distinctly non-country cover of Avril Lavigne’s Sk8er Boi. A local in the crowd sidles up to me and asks politely if I am familiar with the song. When I politely answer yes, he asks if I’d like to go up on his shoulders. Pretty certain this is not a typical local custom, so I decline the offer.

After juicing the crowd with the Top 40 hit, Barker sends the crowd into further frenzy when he brings out a previous JUNO Country Award winner Brett Kissel for two songs.

Then it’s time for one more guest as the ubiquitous Cuddy, joined by his sons, comes out raising the intensity past 11, wowing everyone with a gorgeous version of Steve Earle’s Sometimes She Forgets.

Later that night Cuddy, Kissel, Doyle and dozens more end up at a late-night jam suite the Blue Rodeo singer hosts each night of the JUNO awards, where instruments are passed, harmonies are shared and stories swapped.

Baldwin is back at a piano, this time doing an inspired version of A-ha’s Take on Me before singing Hasn’t Hit Me Yet with help from Miranda Mulholland on violin, as Peter Elkas, Doyle, Grant, Julian Taylor and more sing in support. This time, Cuddy happily takes in the scene, leaving the singing to Baldwin and friends.