Discovery and Nostalgia at the East Coast Music Awards in Saint John
I stood at the back of the showcase room, clutching my paper cup of coffee, and reeling from the waves of nostalgia hitting me. I was in Saint John, New Brunswick, Dave Gunning was up on stage, and I suddenly felt like it was 2002 again.
Throughout my university days, I was a live music junkie. My friends and I would spend our weekends at O’Leary’s Pub in uptown Saint John jockeying for seats and nursing beers while one of the current Maritime pub circuit acts performed on the tiny, 6” high stage. Bands like Sons of Maxwell, Highland Heights, and Crush were some of our favourites. That cramped back room, with its low ceiling beams and haze of cigarette smoke was our clubhouse. Bands got to know us. I had my first real drink in that room. Good times.
Well, it’s 2017 and I was back in Saint John for the East Coast Music Awards. The last time the port city hosted the awards was 2002 and I was there for it, in a fuzzy, camel-coloured sleeveless, cowl-neck turtleneck, and gold block heel shoes. Yes, I remember what I wore because, have you met me? This time the turtleneck was replaced by an East Coast designed and purchased off-the-shoulder top and I choose “millennial pink” block heel shoes instead of gold, but some things remained the same. Like the feeling listening to live music in my city gives me. I kind of wanted to go up to every person I saw and say, “Have you heard? Saint John is cool now!”
When I was growing up, it was the industrial, blue-collar city. We had a cool summer festival, Festival by the Sea where I was introduced to Great Big Sea in 1995, but tourism didn’t seem to be very big business. In recent years though I feel like the city is coming into its own. There are cool, locally owned, shops, restaurants, and bars popping up. Heritage buildings are being renovated into beautiful apartments and “living life uptown” is now desirable among young professionals. Even though I don’t live there now, I love seeing this transformation and I was even happier that the East coast music scene was going to be in town to see it for themselves.
One of the best things about the East Coast Music Awards is that they make it so easy to discover new music. With over 30 showcases over five days, all you need to do is pick a genre, buy a ticket, and sit back and listen. Port Cities, with their tight harmonies and fresh roots-rock sound, encompassed my nostalgia and discovery all in one. The trio features Carleton Stone, Breagh MacKinnon, and Dylan Guthro, whose father that he resembles so much, Bruce, ranked highly in my early aughts CD collection.
It wasn’t until the award show on Thursday night when Halifax pop singer Ria Mae performed that I really discovered her, despite hearing her name bandied about as someone to be excited about. Her single “Ooh Love” is a dancey/poppy love/break-up song that immediately got stuck in my head. I knew I had to check out her full showcase the next night and she sounded just as good live as recorded. It’s always nice to find out that an artist is more than just one single and Ria Mae has a few gems in her arsenal.
My third surprise discovery was PEI’s Paper Lions. They also performed on the award show, but that wasn’t what really grabbed me. It was their full, 80’s twinged showcase set that got me hooked. In fact, it turns out that this band was also a bit of nostalgia for me, as they used to be known as the Chucky Danger Band, which is a name I was familiar with in the early 2000s. They’ve been around as Paper Lions since 2007, but I’ve been living under a rock apparently. Their synth-pop sound now is incredibly danceable and fun. I’ve been lamenting the loss of saxophone in pop music these days so I was thrilled to see them bring it back for a song.
I spent five days bopping around Uptown Saint John discovering new-to-me spots like Eighty Three Bar Arcade, Cask and Kettle, and Ella while also being reminded of some of my favourites like O’Leary’s, Taco Pica, and Java Moose. I loved how my city nostalgia and discovery were echoed in music. It was the perfect way to spend time back in my hometown.
So if you’re looking for something new to do this summer, load up your iPhone with Ria Mae, Port Cities, and Paper Lions and head out on a road trip to the Port City for a few days and make some discoveries of your own.