Polaris Music Prize Gala 2013: Allelujah! Ascend! Offend! Bitter End?

By: Hilary Johnston September 26th, 2013

After several months of anticipatory music listening, the Polaris Prize winner was announced on Monday night – an evening, hosted by Canadian musicians Kathleen Edwards and Shad, that uniquely saw focus shift toward performances, rather than novelty or gimmicks. 
Purity Ring kicked things off, followed by Zaki Ibrahim– both endowed with style and strength, yet merely opening acts for what was to come. A grand piano entered next, wheeled forth for Emily Haines, whose acoustic duet with Jimmy Shaw hit me like lightning, illuminating a glimpse of the Metric fandom that I, admittedly, had lost sight of. 
Having caught my breath, I knew something potent laid ahead when presenter Martin Gero  appeared, describing the next nominee as nothing less than a  “religious experience”. Standing modestly mid-stage and letting his saxophone speak its distinct language, Colin Steston kept it simple, and remarkable. His music both screamed in the face and whispered in the ear of each visibly astonished guest. So much so, that successors, Choir! Choir Choir! and George Strombolopolous – equipped with made-for-tv cheese – barley registered amidst the shadow of Stetson’s alchemy.   
By the time Young Galaxy’s turn came around, even their brand of art pop couldn’t gather the attention of a soused crowd that had been drinking away the onerous between-act breaks. Truthfully, their performance was blown away, along with most other memories, by METZ’s gloriously abrasive noise-rock clamour. Splashing in the puddles of their energy left behind, A Tribe Called Red finished the bill with their innovative blend of beats and tradition.
Interestingly enough, the nights most awkward, and ultimately controversial, moment transpired when the Polaris was handed out to Godspeed You! Black Emperor; their absence suddenly apparent when Leslie Feist named them victorious and no one from the Montreal post-rock troupe was there to accept. Instead, standing in was Constellation Records’ Ian Ilavsky, who improvised a polite “thank-you” before the show wrapped. 
The plot thickened Tuesday morning when Godspeed You! released a statement via Constellation, calling Polaris out on being an unnecessary expression of lazy money in times of social distress. “This scene is petty cool but what it really fucking needs is an awards show is not a thought that’s ever crossed our minds” – and with that, Godspeed You! Black Emperor history-booked themselves. The fact that they released such a statement revealed that the jury selected the right band for the award. The bands’ rejection of the gala gives their record (Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!) that much more weight and reminds us that we not only need to listen to their music, but perhaps also question Polaris and their oversized novelty checks. Then again, it is a celebration of Canadian artistry. We shouldn’t lose sight of that. 
                                                                                                                                               (Colin Stetson)
(Photos courtesy of Polaris Music)
Be sure to follow Toronto Music Scene on Twitter @TorontoMusic and Hilary Johnston @hilary_johnston

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