This year’s Polaris Prize winner, the iconic Buffy Sainte-Marie, was as gracious a winner as she was a passionate performer. She gave a soaring performance and reminded Canada how lucky we are to have artists like her. As presenter Owen Pallett put it, “her music is angry and its love is fierce. It’s the music of reconciliation and resolution. Buffy has been twelve steps ahead of us the entire time, and yet encouraging us all – all along.” Her performances of “The Power and the Blood” and “Skin of our Teeth” were moving and life affirming – in short, what any of us want our music to be.
The Polaris Prize gala always unfolds the same way. Everyone takes their seat in the Carlu’s swank hall, shortly after which we all meet our host. This year’s host was, in every way, an upgrade over last year’s. Last year, we got Jay Baruchel, an actor who (to his credit) loves Canadian music. The problem was, Baruchel’s sense of humour (read: endless dick jokes) did not go over well with the crowd. This year’s host was probably the polar opposite of Jay Baruchel; Fred Penner – embodiment of the happiest memories of your childhood, music lover, nicest guy.
Penner was a spectacular host, adorably (sort of) making his entrance through a log (just like on his show), making songs out of pretty much anything (just like his show) and in the end, being handed the winner on an envelope by word bird. Just like his show. Total of 0 dick jokes.
Katie Stelmanis of Austra gave a stirring intro for BRAIDS’ performance, stating, “by creating something deeply personal, BRAIDS have created something that speaks to all of Canada”. She of course is talking about “Miniskirt”, a call to arms against slut shaming, and the horrific violence that so commonly follows.
Simone Schmidt said of Jennifer Castle, “Today’s songwriter contends with so much opposition to the craft. There are still men relegating women’s voices to ornament, but the sounds on Pink City transcend these hostile conditions. I would call her singular, except for the fact that she sings for so many.”
Then there are the moments of levity. Toronto City Councillor Norm Kelly is almost certainly part of Young Money by now, and likely shares every one of his #squadgoals with Drizzy. That’s why he was the perfect candidate to intro him. But as is a fine tradition now, Kelly was intro’ing an empty chair, as Drake did not make the trip. It must be noted that he made the trip to RYERSON’S FROSH WEEK, but could not come out to Polaris. No matter, as the Toronto Symphony Orchestranailed cuts from If You’re Reading this It’s Too Late to endless fanfare.
There was also Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake, all the way from Glasgow to introduce perhaps one of Canada’s greatest success stories over the last few years; Alvvays. As many times as we’ve all heard it, it was a thrill to hear “Marry Me Archie” done accompanied by the TSO.
And while they didn’t take home the prize, the night’s second biggest story was Calgary’s Viet Cong. While most of us seem to agree that their self-titled album is among the best of the last decade, there are those who take seriousumbridge with their band name. And the band has been listening. Over the weekend, Viet Cong announced they’d be changing their name. Operators’ Dan Boeckner laughingly said, “Four guys from Calgary chose a really bad name. They also made one of the best albums to come out of this country in a decade. It’s about what it’s like to be confused and under surveillance. It’s about what it’s like to be alive in 2015.” Boeckner underscored the need to separate great art from the personal errors of the artists. Whatever these four guys rename themselves, it will hopefully propel them forward, instead of letting this chapter hold them back.
Back to Buffy. Here’s a 74 year-old woman who’s made 20 albums. She shows no sign of wear, or bitterness, despite being both Cree and a woman in an industry and country that unfortunately has a history of favouring neither. Polaris could have gone to any of the shortlisters this year, but it clearly belonged to Buffy.
Click here to see more photos from the 2015 Polaris Music Prize gala.