Feature

The 15th Annual Maple Blues Awards

With our population of some 35 million potential blues lovers — you couldn’t find an audience more ripe or receptive to the blues. Problem is — as everyone who lives here knows — this huge country’s tiny population is spread across some 3,855,103 mi² of  turf, which too often proves unfriendly to touring musicians.

Many Canadians are, indeed, dedicated blues fans but the fact remains: the country’s blues scenes are found in far-flung pockets.

The Toronto Blues Society created the Maple Blues Awards some 15 years ago in the hope of marrying Canadian blues musicians and their fans together as a Canada-wide entity, with the goal of encouraging excellence in the category from coast-to-coast.

A packed house pumped for the Maple Blues Awards gala event each year bears testament that, for the most part, it’s working.

As Canada’s largest city, most of the activity can’t help but focus on what happens in the Toronto marketplace but  increasingly other parts of the country prove to be hotbeds of blues talent that just won’t be ignored. This year’s results were a case-in point.

The results this year have born out the original intent of the TBS founders, with winners from east and west coasts and all points in-between.

This year’s MBAs were ably hosted by two of Canadian blues’ leading ladies: Treasa Levasseur and Shakura S’Aida.

These two were competing against each other for the coveted Female Blues Singer of the Year award — yet you wouldn’t know it for the camaraderie on display, just as it should be. And, as was noted by Ms. S’Aida, this evening is not about competition between musicians so much as it is about recognition for the hard work involved in everyone’s efforts towards furthering their craft.

One of the annual highlights about the MBAs is the supremely talented house band – The Maple Blues Band (birthed by the awards show) – helmed by Downchild’s Gary Kendall and featuring the best of Canadian blues musicians: Fathead guitarist Teddy Leonard together with founding Fathead Al Lerman (harp and sax), Downchild’s Pat Carey (tenor sax), Michael Fonfara (keyboards),  drummer Tom Bona plus Braithwaite & Whiteley’s Chris Whiteley (trumpet, guitar, harp) and Western wunderkind Chris Murphy (baritone sax).

Worth the admission price alone, the MBB orchestrates the evening – blues royalty at its finest – and keeps the evening clipping along with its preponderance of tight and well-placed grooves. The band also serves to back up a generous selection of nominated performers to provide the full house with an opportunity to sample their wares and to help spread the news. And it works.

Halifax treasure Joe Murphy took to the stage for a rousing round of his harp-soaked “I Wouldn’t Treat A Dog.”

B.C’s Bill Johnson, nominated for Blues Guitarist of the Year, took the opportunity to contrast his low-key presence with a performance of “Half The Man” and a series of scorching leads for a taste of how he does what he does differently than most, notably so.

The evening included sets by both S’Aida and Levasseur but the night belonged to last year’s Blues With A Feeling award winner, Rita Chiarelli. Her soulful and gutsy rendition of “These Four Walls” almost brought down the house, as did the forthcoming comedy act of Chiarelli & Johnson, as both Rita and Bill kept the audience triple-stitched throughout their presentation of two major awards and respective winners.

Live performances by Fathead and some precious, full-length numbers by the Maple Blues Band over the course of the evening underlined the degree of talent rampant in this country.

Another of the evening’s highlights was a heartfelt presentation in support of one of the country’s unheralded musical giants, Paul James. The blend of a tribute based on friendship by Randy Charlton and a short musical history course by York’s Rob Bowman served to underline James’ importance in blues circles as well as his prominent place on the world stage – although it left James with little else to say but an earnest ‘thanks’.

A performance by the multiply-awarded MonkeyJunk capped off the more formal aspect of the evening with a full-bore version of “Mother’s Crying” prior to the annual post-show scrum around the bar for some much-needed libation, card-swapping, congratulatory hugs and hand-shakes.

Performances by young nominees, The 24th Street Wailers, merged with the smooth direction and slick moves of Mark “Bird” Stafford, testing the art of conversation as it enhanced the mood of the party.

Awards-wise – in a nutshell – there were no major surprises, with a few exceptions.

New Brunswick’s Matt Andersen (2010’s International Blues Challenge winner) mopped the floor with three major awards while B.C.’s Sabrina Weeks & Swing Cat Bounce emerged as a bona fide new artist of the year.

Suzie Vinnick, too, took home a bagful of awards as Songwriter and Female Vocalist of the Year while the deserving Steve Strongman scooped the prestigious Guitarist of the Year ahead of stiff competition, forever altering his unsung hero status.

MonkeyJunk’s gamble with their latest record earned them Electric Artist and Recording of the Year, not to mention Matt Sobb’s Drummer of the Year trophy.

Alec Fraser’s acceptance speech was notable in his praise of fellow musicians – and best friends – ultimately dedicating his prize in the name of good friend and musical mentor, the late Wayne Wilson.

One of the evening’s sweetest awards went to Ottawa’s Liz Sykes – Blues Booster of the Year. A soft-spoken miracle worker who carries a big stick behind the scenes, her history of selfless promotion of the blues and its many worthy artists has earned her the attention she’d likely prefer to transfer to someone else, as is her way.

Special thanks for the high calibre of this evening’s proceedings belongs to both Levasseur and S’Aida — who unleashed loads of personality while revealing some fine acting skills, not to mention good comic timing, greasing the rails to keep the troops entertained between presentations.

All in all? A distribution of recognition from one end of the country to the other and a catalyst for all blues fans to make noise for their blues heroes and heroines.

The fact that the blues has the power to unite the country in its song is reason enough for the MBAs to continue to dig deeper and mine the rich veins of talent found all across the country. It’s good for the artists. It’s good for the fans. And it’s even better for the blues.

 

WINNERS OF THE 15TH ANNUAL MAPLE BLUES AWARDS

ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR

Matt Andersen

 

ELECTRIC ACT OF THE YEAR

Monkey Junk

 

ACOUSTIC ACT OF THE YEAR

Matt Andersen

 

MALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR

Matt Andersen

 

FEMALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR

Suzie Vinnick

 

NEW ARTIST OR GROUP OF THE YEAR

Sabrina Weeks & Swing Cat Bounce

 

RECORDING OF THE YEAR

To Behold, MonkeyJunk

 

BLUES WITH A FEELING (Lifetime Achievement)

Paul James

 

BB KING INTERNATIONAL ARTIST OF THE YEAR

Gregg Allman

 

GUITAR PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Steve Strongman

 

HARMONICA PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Carlos del Junco

 

PIANO/KEYBOARD PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne

 

HORN PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Chris Whiteley

 

DRUMMER OF THE YEAR

Matt Sobb

 

BASSIST OF THE YEAR

Alec Fraser

 

SONGWRITER OF THE YEAR

Suzie Vinnick

 

BLUES BOOSTER OF THE YEAR

Liz Sykes (Ottawa)

 

Photography by Eric Thom

 

 

 

 

 

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2 comments

  1. avatar
    Papa King Cole 18 January, 2012 at 20:25

    Really nice presentation on your web sight…I was a presenter for a dozen years back in the nineties…Papa King Productions…Lethbridge Alta.
    Caroles Bistro and Bar…and the 1st. official all Blues festival in Alberta…Fort Whoop Up…Indian Battle Park.

    Connected to Rita, Al, Carlos, Kenny and Suzie. So very Kool to watch it all evolve…
    Thank you for all of your hard work and love of the Blues..
    Sincerely…W. King Cole

  2. avatar
    Bill Johnson 19 January, 2012 at 19:47

    Hi blues brothers and sisters. I just want to correct the authors statement that I was nominated for Best Guitarist. As much as I am happy to be mentioned any time, I was actually nominated for three awards: Best Recording, Best Song Writer, and Best Electric Act. I will except the error as a compliment though. An easy mistake to make, haha.

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