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.
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.
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.
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.
ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR
ELECTRIC ACT OF THE YEAR
ACOUSTIC ACT OF THE YEAR
MALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR
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)
BB KING INTERNATIONAL ARTIST OF THE YEAR
HARMONICA PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Carlos del Junco
PIANO/KEYBOARD PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne
HORN PLAYER OF THE YEAR
DRUMMER OF THE YEAR
SONGWRITER OF THE YEAR
BLUES BOOSTER OF THE YEAR
Liz Sykes (Ottawa)
Photography by Eric Thom