As a six-time Maple Blues Award winner, Steve Marriner definitely has enough experience at the podium to serve as host for the event, established 20 years ago by the Toronto Blues Society. Fittingly, Marriner is nominated again this year in the Best Harmonica Player category, while his band MonkeyJunk is up for Entertainer of the Year and Electric Act of the Year.
But for most of the nominees, the Maple Blues Awards are more about celebrating the ongoing achievements of the Canadian blues community as a whole, and providing a chance for musicians who don’t often cross paths to mingle and jam through its Blues Summit conference held in conjunction with the gala.
It’s something Ottawa native Marriner has certainly enjoyed since he first made his mark on the scene in 2007 with his debut solo album Going Up, followed two years later by MonkeyJunk’s first album, Tiger In Your Tank. The Maple Blues Award recognition has gone a long way to raise Marriner’s status within Canada, which led to MonkeyJunk earning a Juno Award in 2012 and becoming one of the country’s most popular live blues acts.
MonkeyJunk’s latest album, Time To Roll, was released in November on Stony Plain Records, and the band’s tour schedule resumes in early February with Colin James and The Harpoonist & The Axe Murderer joining them for dates in Ontario.
The 20th edition of the Maple Blues Awards takes place Monday, Jan. 23 at 7 p.m. at Koerner Hall in Toronto. Along with Marriner, performers include Michael Kaeshammer, Shakura S’Aida, Sugar Brown, The Paul DesLauriers Band, and more. For ticket info, go to torontobluessociety.com.
You’re hosting the upcoming 20th Maple Blues Awards. What are you doing to prepare?
Besides talking to myself in the mirror like a crazy person, shockingly little! Truthfully, I’m currently on vacation in the Adirondacks in New York State enjoying some calm before the storm. Recently, I’ve been working with the executive producer David Barnard and musical director Gary Kendall, brainstorming about the content of the show. Some great ideas are being exchanged and I think we have a few fun surprises in store for everyone.
You've been honoured on many occasions by the Toronto Blues Society. How would you describe its importance to the blues community in Canada?
I’m grateful for the awards that myself and MonkeyJunk have received from the TBS over the years. While it’s true that awards programs within music are controversial, I believe that the TBS have ultimately done the Canadian blues community a service in establishing the Maple Blues Awards and, in particular, The Blues Summit. The Blues Summit is a conference that takes place over three days every odd year in Toronto. It’s a great opportunity for everybody in the industry - artists, agents, publicists, presenters and festival directors - to gather, discuss, showcase, promote and simply hang. For the musicians especially, it’s an awesome party! We get to catch up with our friends who we seldom see, share a sip and a song and a story or two. I feel like it reminds us all that we are indeed part of a community and that when all of us work together and support each other, we can really help each other’s careers along.
What do you have on tap for 2017?
I have a pretty exciting year ahead. In February and March I’ll be playing harmonica for Colin James on his Blue Highways Tour across Canada. We’ll be playing some amazing rooms—The NAC in Ottawa, Massey Hall in Toronto, the Jubilee Theatres in Calgary and Edmonton. It promises to be an awesome tour. Later in the spring and into the summer, I’ll be busy with my main squeeze, MonkeyJunk, as we tour our new record Time To Roll across Canada and the U.S. Then, for the month of October, we’ll be doing our third tour of Eastern Europe. We’ll visit Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria and Germany. It’s always big fun over there.
What have been among your most memorable touring experiences, in Canada or elsewhere?
I’ve been fortunate enough to tour full-time for twelve years now. I’ve performed in a dozen countries and have had the chance to share the stage with some of my greatest heroes. No single moment stands out above all others; rather, I have little snapshots of amazing moments. The times where it’s struck me just how lucky I am to lead the life I do. I think of MonkeyJunk performing in Paris for the first time at the legendary New Morning Club. As we loaded in our gear, we passed the “Wall of Fame” that had photos of some of the jazz and blues greats who performed there. Giants like Miles Davis and Muddy Waters. Can you say, chills? I remember a couple summers ago when we performed at The Dawson City Music Festival at midnight while a couple thousand people raged as the sun still shone. I believe we had three separate sets of ladies’ unmentionables hucked at us during our set, which gave us a good laugh! There really are too many great stories to mention. Maybe one day I’ll write a book.
If there were anything you could change about the music industry, what would it be?
Radio. I wish the entire approach of broadcasting music to listeners were altogether different. We’ve all heard the tired narrative: “This song wouldn’t fit on commercial radio.” And as a result, some really great songs from some really great artists don’t get the exposure they deserve. Perhaps I’m too naive or idealistic, but I believe that if media executives and station managers took more risks with their playlists, they would successfully introduce a lot of great music to hungry ears. It’s kind of the chicken and the egg, really. There’s no mass commercial market for certain styles of music, so songs in those styles don’t get spins. But then, it’s impossible to develop an audience and a market on a large scale unless listeners get exposed to the music. I say take some chances! The industry might be surprised by how well the public would respond to the “counter-formula.”