DOMINIONATED contributors Sebastian Johnston-Lindsay and Matt Hertendy went all night long to cover the 2022 Polaris Music Prize Gala at the Carlu in Toronto. Here’s how their night celebrating this year’s shortlisted albums unfolded.
Preparing to cover this year’s Polaris Music Prize Gala was a little bit surreal. On my drive into Toronto from Peterborough, I readied myself for the night ahead and hoped there would be no embarrassing episodes of fawning over musical heroes and crushes. Matt and I had managed to snag a timeslot to speak with Shad, shortlisted for his album TAO. I have interviewed artists before, but somehow doing these things over the phone or through Zoom felt easier and less intrusive. I was apprehensive about being in his space and he in mine. I also wondered what the mood would be like after so many years of distanced celebrations. What would the vibe be? Would there be any sense of unease in the room? How unhinged do Canadian industry people really get? These are the things I considered as I rolled along the 401 while Kelly McMichael, my adopted hometown’s representative on this year’s shortlist, played on the CBC.
Matt and I met up in the Carlu concourse. The smoke machines were working overtime and large bundles of long grass were tied up and scattered around the room. The lighting lent an ominous sense that we may have just wandered into a dusky forest fire and that the dry leaves of grass might erupt into flames at any point.
Papier-mache mushrooms adorned the corners of the halls and sides of the stage, while a highly-Instagramable display of dangling flower petals hung from the ceiling in the centre of the long room outside the theatre.
We soon found ourselves being led into the Round Room by Susan O’Grady, our PR contact for Shad. As Shad finished his photoshoot and interview with CBC and Canadian Press, Matt and I waited. We waited in a section reserved for Indie 88 while Hubert Lenoir did a spot with Radio-Canada across the room. DOMINIONATED had well and truly infiltrated the belly of the beast.
Susan led Shad over to us for a brief chat as soon as he was free. He told Matt and me that he felt awesome about the nomination and his position on the shortlist. His main goal for the evening was to have fun and view it as a moment to celebrate alongside the other nominees and his team.
When Matt asked him how he felt about performing later that evening, he said he wasn’t a huge fan of performing at awards shows. In traditional concert settings, he said, he does his best to keep his “mind on the material” to “make it come alive” by doing it his way and responding to the crowd. He mentioned the difficulty of doing this during such a short set and in an environment that wasn’t curated specifically for him and his audience.
Nevertheless, he was excited, and when asked about upcoming projects, he spoke a bit about an upcoming CBC documentary on Black history in Canada due out at some point next year. After we thanked him for his time, Matt took a few quick pictures, no doubt attempting not to succumb to the burning sense of lighting envy as we stood in the literal shadows of the CBC.
Walking up and down the long concourse area, Matt and I discussed how best to approach the evening. I noticed that people seemed to be walking and talking in self-selected groups. As we did yet another circle around the room, we ran into Kane Wilkinson from the music blog Dusty Organ. Salacious industry gossip ensued, none of which is fit to print or repeat here.
At one point during our conversation, Matt said he had made direct eye contact with Tamara Lindeman of the Weather Station but that each had immediately averted their gaze.
I recognized Cormac Culkeen of Joyful Joyful, a longlisted nominee for this year’s prize. Knowing Cormac from around Peterborough, I figured it would be appropriate to go and say hello. Cormac and bandmate Dave Grenon talked excitedly about the evening, Grenon less so as his attention was rightfully fixed on one of the finest grilled cheese sandwiches I’ve ever seen.
“I’m really excited to see the performances; the work of these shortlisted candidates is incredible,” Culkeen told me. “These albums are the culmination of so much work,” before adding with a laugh, “and the people look so good.”
I was hard-pressed to disagree.
As Culkeen and I talked about the merits of the Peterborough thrift store Talize, Matt took more pictures, and then we were back off on our own.
All this before the show even started. I sensed we were in for a long night. How long? I couldn’t be sure.
Matt and I agreed that the room had a certain restrained and cautious atmosphere. With the orange-tinged lights, constant, unrelenting beat from the DJ, and the resulting need to yell everything you wanted to say (at least twice), one got a sense that chaos could erupt at any moment. That the thin veneer of civility painted over all these people could be brought down by a shattered plate or one misguided attempt at humour.
Matt thought we should talk to a staff member to see what it was like to work at the event. We found one very happy man named Akhil working the drink ticket table and asked him what he thought about the event. Akhil told us that he had taken the gig last minute but was honoured to be working at this “elite event” and that everyone was very kind to him and his co-workers. This was comforting news, and it set my mind at ease.
At this time, Matt and I decided to try and get the free food tickets that we were entitled to as media. A fruitless venture, as it would turn out to be. I needed some fresh air, so I went to go see if I could get any good gossip or insights from the smokers’ circle.
When I told one woman (who noticed the press pass) that I wrote forDOMINIONATED, she asked what kind of stuff I wrote about. I mentioned I’d just reviewed Daniel Romano’s new album, and while she didn’t know who Daniel Romano was at first when I mentioned Attack in Black, she lit up and told me she used to love Attack in Black. She then referred to them as a metal band and asked why every artist these days seems to have a country phase.
Soon after, another woman told me that she never even thinks about COVID anymore and has had it two times. At long last, I admitted to myself that this venture, like the free food ticket search, had failed.
After two hours of wandering and taking in the scene, the event finally started with a rousing performance of “On Me” and “Senna” by 2021 Polaris winnerCadence Weapon.
Shortlisters Snotty Nose Rez Kids delivered a set that included a driving and percussion-heavy rendition of “Sink or Swim.” I was up in the balcony for this one and watched as Matt made his way from one side of the stage to the other. After the set, he messaged me saying there was “No crowd vibe.”
“Queen of Chiac Disco” Lisa LeBlanc pumped some energy back into the house with her songs “Dans L’Jus” and “Gossip.” She told the crowd back in her hometown, that one need only go to the Timmies to hear everyone else’s business.
Ouri transfixed the audience with an atmospheric set that rose to a crescendo with a version of “Ossature” following “Too Fast No Pain.”
Charlotte Day Wilson delivered three great songs from Alpha. She absolutely transfixed the audience in The Carlu with her soulful vocals and piano/guitar accompaniments on the tracks “Take Care Of You,” “Mountains,” and “If I Could”.
No spoilers here, but my god Pierre Kwenders put on a show. Stepping on stage in a coat made of what looked to be voodoo dolls he gifted us with some of the sauciest hip movements I saw all night, on stage or off. He and his dancers took us on a sensual multilingual journey through his songs “Your Dream,” “Heartbeat,” and “Papa Wemba.”
In lieu of Destroyer, we got a one-song performance from Toronto’s Fresh Pepper with a version of Destroyer’s “Eat the Wine, Drink the Bread.” A fitting pick from the culinary rockers who released their self-titled album back in June.
Host Angeline Tatteh-Wayoe got her own Ron Burgundy moment when she introduced McMichael as Hubert Lenoir. Jumping the cue only slightly, she revealed the dangers of teleprompters. Backed by a band featuring Polaris’s first winner, Owen Pallett, McMichael blew through “Stepping Stone” and “Out the Window” making the Electric City proud in the process.
Over the course of the entire evening, it was hard to miss Hubert Lenoir. He wore a large yellow safety jacket with matching rubber boots and a cowboy hat for the entire evening, only removing the jacket midway through his set to reveal a short night dress. Lenoir and his band are as captivating as they are loud. They absolutely blew the lid off the venue with “Golden Days” and “Dimanche Soir.” My takeaway: Do not pass up any opportunity to see Lenoir.
At the stroke of midnight, Shad took to the stage. Starting with “Out of Touch,” Shad’s lyrical depth was on full display as he followed it up with an acapella freestyle that touched upon systemic racism, disaster capitalism, and the apathy of global leadership.
With this final performance, it was time for the big reveal. As winner of the 2021 award, Cadence Weapon took to the stage, envelope in hand, to announce Pierre Kwenders as the $50,000 Polaris Music Prize winner for José Louis and the Paradox of Love.
Surrounded by his family and crew, Kwenders, whose birth name is José Louis Modabi, knelt on stage for about half a minute before speaking. During his speech, Kwenders mentioned the loss of his cousins and how his aunt convinced his mother to move to Canada in 1992. He told the crowd that he is still trying to figure out what love is and that he has been able to discover himself in Canada. He concluded his remarks by saying “This is my African story, my Congolese story, Canadian story, this is your story if you want to take it as yours and make it whatever you want to make it.”
In a brief press conference following the gala, Kwenders expounded on his gratitude for Canadian multiculturalism and for helping him tell his story and to represent African and Canadian culture. The recognition was an honour, he said. When asked what he planned to do with the money, he stated that he would be giving his mom “The percentage she deserves,” and said that she always believed that he had the guts to make a career in the music industry.
And that was it. The night was over. A dance party had started in the Round Room where not five hours earlier Matt and I had seen the finishing touches being put on a large papier-mache orb that was now glowing the same ominous orange hue as the lights in the concourse had been all night.
Chaos, it turned out, was reserved solely for the stage, where eleven short performances necessitated that the majority of the night be devoted to simultaneous stage set-ups and tear-downs every couple of songs. Now, for perhaps the first time that night, the symbolism made sense. The bundles of grass were dishevelled, nevertheless, they like the natural world they mirror, persist despite our human errs. I imagine they’ll be vacuuming the remnants of the decor for weeks to come.
As Matt and I got an elevator down to street level, he summoned an Uber. We said our goodbyes on the corner of College and Young and I began my drive back along largely deserted highways. Every once and a while, though, a headlight would flash in my rearview, a partial reflection of the orb in the Round Room, illuminating the connection between us all — a connection that we are still learning to re-negotiate.
The ups and downs of the evening were palpable, but ultimately, music and community brought us through it. We kept returning to the room between sets anxious to witness the next act and revel in the sense of belonging to a crowd, to feel the energy that doesn’t translate through Zoom screens, and to carry that spirit with us out into the night. If that’s not the definition of a gala, then I don’t know what is.