The evening was broken into three sets, each with its own house band anchoring things. First up were laid-back Toronto country rockers the Treasures, who delivered a pair of Band covers before inviting East Coasters Matt Mays and Buck 65 (aka CBC Radio 2 personality Rich Terfry) to the stage for Bruce Cockburn's "If a Tree Falls," with Terfry rapping the verses.
An unnamed singer delivered another Cockburn cover, before Moxy Früvous' Mike Ford emerged to sing Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now." His crisp and clear voice was paired nicely with Mitchell's lyrics. The Treasures took the lead for Blue Rodeo's "Lost Together" and the Mitchell-penned "Woodstock," before CBC's Tom Power, also the evening's host, took a stab (a good one at that) at Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain."
There was a brief break before Jay Malinowski took the stage with a trio of string players to run through Shania Twain's "That Don't Impress Me Much." The Bedouin Soundclash member was the first artist of the night to actually push outside of their usual musical comfort zone, but his lack of preparation — he was reading the lyrics from a notebook, yet still bumbled them throughout the performance and generally looked as if he thought the whole thing was a goof — took away from what could have been a terrific cover.
Members of Jane's Party then took the stage to lead the crowd through the second act, kicking things off with the Guess Who's "Laughing." But it was upstarts July Talk who really surprised with their version of Leonard Cohen's "I'm Your Man," which proved to be one of the evening's highlights and finally helped to elevate the energy level in the half-filled venue. Jane's Party tackled Basement Tape classic "Bessie Smith" before Matt Mays made his second appearance, this time with Kathleen Edwards in tow for a Neil Young cover.
Jully Black was a surprise to see on this roots-rock-heavy bill and offered a much-needed sonic change-up. Describing her childhood growing up at Jane and Finch, she recalled hearing Blue Rodeo on the radio and thinking that Jim Cuddy was black before bringing the house down with "Try." Prairie Oyster's Russell deCarle had the daunting task of following Black but came through with "Only Love Can Break Your Heart."
Blue Rodeo made another appearance in the set list when NDP MP Andrew Cash and his son Sam tore through "Til I am Myself Again," before Jane's Party closed their set with Leonard Cohen's "Memories."
Another break and then up-and-coming Vancouver crew the Matinee — dressed as if this actually was the 1970s — took the stage, seriously upping the energy levels once again, kicking off with "Up on Cripple Creek." That it took until the third act for anyone to pull out some Tragically Hip was surprising, but Teenage Kicks' Peter Van Helvoort was great working through "Bobcaygeon."
Horseshoe Tavern owner Jeff Cohen took the stage to thank everyone and promote the long-running venue's upcoming 65th anniversary. He also introduced Skydigger Andy Maize, asking why more artists weren't explaining how they chose their selections, before revealing that Greg Keelor had originally written "Hasn't Hit Me Yet" for the Skydiggers. He left the stage for Maize to deliver a pretty fantastic take on the could-have-been hit for his band. Hannah Georgas followed with "Man, I Feel Like a Woman."
Matt Mays made his third and final appearance of the night, delivering some blistering guitar work with the Matinee, before the Arkells' Max Kerman bounded onstage. "We've been looking forward to this since we were asked to do this," said Matinee guitarist Matt Rose before ripping into Bryan Adams' "Run to You." Kerman brought an energy and enthusiasm, clearly loving every moment of the evening. He kept things going for an incendiary take on the Hip's "Grace Too," (both Hip covers yielded the evening's biggest sing-alongs), trading verses with Matinee singer Matt Layzell. The night then ended fittingly, if somewhat predictably, with Young's "Rockin' in the Free World."
It was an uneven evening, but given the format, that was to be expected. Too few artists took any major risks with their selection, but the performances were almost uniformly good, with some being absolutely spectacular. While these intermittent Juno nights are always a live highlight for Torontonians, you've got to wonder if Regina — where the 2013 Junos are actually being held — felt a bit left out.