Juno Week & JunoFest featuring the Beauties, Kevin Drew, Harlan Pepper Toronto, ON March 23-26

Juno Week & JunoFest featuring the Beauties, Kevin Drew, Harlan Pepper Toronto, ON March 23-26
The big night for the 40th anniversary of the Juno Awards may be the televised awards, but the preceding week in Toronto featured a whole series of Juno-related events. One of the first of these was the Songwriters Circle at Massey Hall, featuring an excellent bill comprising some veteran songwriting icons alongside younger talents. However, it was a pity to see such sparse attendance. Thankfully, Johnny Reid (now Canada's biggest country star) served as host. He proved a charming one, with his Scottish sense of humour well to the fore.

Including Royal Wood, Lynn Miles, Dan Hill, Sylvia Tyson, Randy Bachman and Luke Doucet, the event featured each singer-songwriter doing two songs, accompanied by stories about the composition and the writing process. Hill proved the best storyteller, especially about the creation of his biggest hit "Sometimes When We Touch," with his piano-based rendition drawing huge applause. And Royal Wood confirmed he's one of Canada's brightest young talents on "Do You Recall," while Miles showed off her songwriting eloquence on "Black Flowers." Reid's fans in the crowd swayed along to the two ballads delivered with his signature raspy sincerity.

The Welcome Reception for Juno nominees, delegates, sponsors and media at the Royal York Hotel's Ballroom was enlivened by some fine musical performances as well. Following the successful Juno-backed tributes to the decades, this featured plenty of nominees covering some Canadian classics. They were all accompanied by the Beauties, versatile Toronto rockers who are rightfully the house band of choice at such events. Care Failure of Die Mannequin rocked out righteously on Neil Young's "Southern Man," while long underrated guitarist/singer Derek Miller sizzled on Jeff Healey's "See the Light." That was appropriate given that Derek Downham of the Beauties informed the crowd this was the much-missed Healey's birthday.

Soul/jazz vocalist Kellylee Evans showed her musical versatility by covering Shania Twain smash "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!" and later assisting Ghettosocks on a cool version of Maestro classic "Let Your Backbone Slide." Meaghan Smith excelled on a stripped-down version of Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You," while a real highlight was Justin Rutledge rocking out with the Beauties on Arcade Fire's "Wake Up." This pairing has played together a lot, and it showed.

JunoFest featured over 100 artists and bands (more than half were nominees), performing over two nights in 20 Toronto club venues. Many venues didn't attract large crowds on the first night, but those braving the cold weather had a plethora of tempting choices. Warming the Dakota were hotly tipped Hamilton rockers Harlan Pepper. Still a very young band, they're improving in leaps and bounds. The group mostly played material from their recent debut disc, Young and Old, with the catchy "Reefer" and "Great Lakes" standing out as the group mixed psychedelic freak-outs with roots rock in a captivating fashion.

Also generating attention are Toronto's the Darcys, and their Garrison set showed why. The band have a propulsive sound a little reminiscent of '80s British rockers like Comsat Angels, and the keyboards of singer Jason Couse are used to add interesting atmospheres to the mix. Something quite different yet equally intriguing was delivered by Manitobans Chic Gamine at the El Mocambo. Juno roots nominees, they feature four female vocalists accompanied only by their own percussion (tambourines and drums) and a drummer, making for a sound that's both vocally and rhythmically imaginative. At the Silver Dollar, the Meligrove Band demonstrated their instrumental cohesion, though excessive between-song banter disrupted the set's flow.

On the second night, a capacity crowd showed up at the Drake for fast-rising Vancouver songstress Hannah Georgas. Being up for a pair of Junos, she clearly has industry respect, but her admittedly well-crafted songs were a little too monochromatic and bloodless. Those descriptions certainly don't apply to the Beauties. In a clear JunoFest highlight, they held court at Lee's Palace for two hours. The guitar-heavy sextet delivered songs from their recent debut CD with typical rock'n'roll fire, in between welcoming and backing a powerhouse cast of Canadian stars.

First up was Andy Kim, who reminded the crowd that his own Juno history goes back 40 years. Backed by Lisa Lobsinger (Broken Social Scene) and Samantha Martin, he offered up strong renditions of monster hits "Baby I Love You" and "Rock Me Gently." A close comrade of the Beauties, Kevin Drew (BSS) was in fine voice on his two tunes, especially "Safety Bricks," while Martin impressed with her Janis Joplin-like vocal fire.

Fiddle player Kendel Carson joined the ensemble for two songs from the reliably excellent Oh Susanna, and also accompanied next guest Luke Doucet. Chiming in during Doucet's superb short set were Melissa McClelland and Colin Cripps as well. "Blood's Too Rich" was a highlight, while a full-blooded eight-piece romp through Gordon Lightfoot's "Sundown" served both as a nod to Canadian music history and a reminder that our future is in some very talented hands.