After a five-year absence, the CSHF (Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame) made a welcome return on Saturday night at the fittingly storied Toronto venue, Massey Hall. The eighth gala, it featured the induction of four Canadian songwriters: Beau Dommage, Stéphane Venne, Bruce Cockburn and Neil Young.
Previous songwriters who received the honour include Leonard Cohen, Robbie Robertson, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Hank Snow, Robbie Robertson and Gilles Vigneault.
2017's equal split of francophone and anglophone inductees was mirrored on the evening, a truly bilingual affair featuring performances and speeches in both languages. That helped account for the marathon length of the proceedings, clocking in at over four hours.
Along with the excessive duration, some rumblings of discontent could be heard over the sound quality in parts of the hall. Those misgivings aside, there were certainly enough highlight moments to make this a memorable affair.
All four inductees were honoured with performances of some of their best-known compositions by an all-star cast of guests, along with a short film of their accomplishments and a speech by someone close to their career.
Helping induct Beau Dommage was Julie Payette, Canada's soon to be new Governor General. She reminisced fondly about her love for the music of the Montreal band, as shown by her taking one of their CDs to listen to at the international space station.
Greeted with a standing ovation, Buffy Sainte-Marie spoke eloquently about Bruce Cockburn, praising him as "an astute observer, a wise man who asks tough questions. And someone who wants us to be better people."
Francophone star Daniel Lavoie did the honours for Stéphane Venne, while Randy Bachman recalled his days on the Winnipeg scene in the '60s with a young Neil Young, long a good friend.
Those chosen to enter the CSHF all made quintessentially Canadian acceptance speeches, featuring humility, humour and sage advice for their songwriting peers. Venne drew chuckles by citing himself as an example that “If you have no voice, no charisma, no nothing, except this (songwriting talent), you can have fun. You can make a living. You can leave a mark.”
Neil Young referenced those comments in his speech, stating that "I know I can't sing." He reflected that "I love to write songs, and I'm still writing all the time. Songs keep coming; they don't care about awards and accolades. I was scared to come to this event in case that all ended."
Young also reaffirmed his love of Canada, stressing that "I have never been a citizen of anywhere else."
In his well-conceived speech, Bruce Cockburn reflected upon his early transition from the pursuit of jazz composition and into songwriting. He declared that "art is about sharing the human experience," adding that "In a world increasingly defined by fakery, we together have pulled off the greatest trick ever: We spread the truth."
A house band put together by artistic director Matt Zimbel featured members of Manteca and laid down solid accompaniment for most of the featured vocalists.
Visual projections were used as effective backdrops, with images ranging from historical footage of Montreal to a wall upon which the names of victims of police violence in Canada and the US were inserted while Whitehorse delivered a passionate version of Neil Young's protest classic "Ohio."
Other performance highlights including Blackie and the Rodeo Kings' version of "If I Had A Rocket Launcher" and kd lang's take of Neil Young classic "Helpless," one that earned a standing ovation.
It was left to Arkells to close out the night in rousing fashion. They brought out Alex Lifeson to guest on "Cinnamon Girl," while the predictable yet effective final tune was a massed version of Young anthem "Keep On Rockin' In The Free World," with the Massey stage crammed with more than 30 of the guest singers and musicians.
Here is a list of all the performers and presenters:
Arkells, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Damien Robitaille, Daniel Lavoie, Don Ross, Eh440, Élage Diouf, Elisapie, France D'Amour, Florence K, Hawksley Workman, Jessica Mitchell, Julie Payette, k.d. lang, Lisa LeBlanc, Randy Bachman, Ruth B., Tom Powers, William Prince, Whitehorse and Yann Perreau.
A post-Gala reception at The Ritz-Carlton was sponsored by Distribution Select. Those spied in convivial form included Bruce Cockburn, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Marc Jordan, Sylvia Tyson, Daniel Lavoie, Whitehorse, Arkells and a Who's Who of Canadian publishers, agents, and other music industry VIPs.
At the Gala, The CSHF announced that 2017 will mark the first year of The Slaight Music Emerging Songwriter Award. Sponsored by Slaight Music, the award has the overall objective of encouraging and supporting the development of two songwriters who are on an upward trajectory of their careers and will be highlighted at the Induction Ceremony. The first two winners are fast-rising stars Jessie Reyez and Charlotte Cardin.