Friday, February 22, 2013

Monster Truck vs. Walk Off The Earth: JUNO 2013 Breakthrough Groups

2013 JUNO Awards: Breakthrough Band Nominees:
Walk Off The Earth & Monster Truck

Weighing In With Two Amazing Breakthrough Groups From The Hamilton Area

Hamilton's Monster Truck (MT) is up for a 2013 JUNO Award against Burlington's Walk Off The Earth (WOTE) in the Breakthrough Group category with three west coast nominees sharing the honour: Yukon Blonde, The Pack a.d. and Hey Ocean!

I have the deepest respect musically for all five bands. Each one has its own unique brand of creative energy, honesty, work ethic, musical genius, abundant energy and yes, they all know how to party! It's a tough category to judge a clear winner because each group brings its own strengths to the table. Hence the "awards show curse:" when the JUNO is presented, it will surely seem awkward and arbitrary.

MT and WOTE perfectly illustrate what is fantastic about being a musician around this western end of Lake Ontario. There is abundant space and infrastructure to provide all the possibilities for a huge variety of music.

They are two very different bands; a possible reflection of where they're from.

Burlington, being a relatively sedate bedroom community, exudes stability, organization, and middle to upper levels of income. The city has a tradition of encouraging and supporting music, and hosts the annual Sound of Music Festival. It is the home of Canada's world-famous marching band, the Burlington Teen Tour Band.

Hamilton by contrast is more complicated, with a gritty industrial history, and rougher edges. Hamilton's industrial life, ethnic mix and the fact that for decades international acts of all genres have been playing here has had a unique and powerful effect. I like to think of it as a rich and fertile soil in which country, blues, roots, R&B, punk and rock bands continue to spring up in new forms. The city is being reborn as artists claim their space and contribute to the revived, evolving economy.

Both cities and both bands have a beautiful musical soul.

So if the decision were between MT and WOTE, who should take the JUNO?

The key question to answer is: What constitutes a true breakthrough?

Definition (The Free Dictionary):
  1. A productive insight
  2. Making an important discovery
  3. A penetration of a barrier
Merriam-Webster adds: A person's first notable success.

The numbers favour Walk Off The Earth. Their YouTube event for Someone That I Used To Know (35 million views in two weeks and now well over 146 million) was just sick. It's incomprehensible to imagine how much viewer attention that represents. The appearance on Ellen kept the momentum going. And the spillover effect with those viewers clicking into their existing repository of clever and high-quality videos, fun songs, tongue-in-cheek style continues on a massive scale.

Last year WOTE toured the world, entertaining hundreds of thousands with an exciting show filled with great music and unconventional, entertaining antics.

What strikes me about WOTE is the massive amount of creative energy that comes out in their videos and in their music. They are all about fan engagement. Before the viral video they had a rich fan base and already had lots of stuff figured out when it comes to marketing and creating content. So can they honestly be considered a breakthrough act? Did they discover something new? Hard to say. It could be argued that someone (a celebrity with tons of Twitter followers) discovered them, and their resultant success can still be connected to that.

Recently WOTE performed a live-to-internet show from one of the band members' living rooms, charging pay-what-you-can (minimum 10 cents; how's that for ground-breaking marketing?). They even transformed Sarah Blackwood's birth announcement into an opportunity to engage and involve their audience: "We'd like to announce a new member of the band."

The downside of WOTE which could work against their JUNO hopes is simply this. Their YouTube hit got overplayed on the radio, and there was some listener fatigue. To most people, WOTE is still just all about that one song Five Peeps One Guitar. Does the general public want it to be over already? Everything they have done since the big hit, as interesting and original as it is, lacks a unifying musical focus.

WOTE is not interested in establishing themselves within any particular musical niche, but continue to make the music as it comes, mining the talent of all the band members, doing some (more) covers, and using guest artists to keep things fresh. It's hard to see what they stand for musically. (Does that even matter? Probably not.)

Trying to do too much? Perhaps. But you can't blame them for the reality of waking up in the morning and being preoccupied with how best to reach out to their 1,152,526 YouTube subscribers!

Steve Kiely, Jon Harvey, Jeremy Widerman
Monster Truck is simpler to wrap your head around, but only because they don't (yet) have over a million fans breathing down their necks. Safe to say MT might actually breathe a sigh of relief with not having to morph into a band that tries to cross genres and please everyone.

That's why MT is perfectly matched with the burly hometown Hamilton image where rock bands have to cut the crap and deliver the goods. In this respect, MT is a true breakthrough. So many rock bands come and go in The Hammer it's impossible to keep count.

But MT is all about creating the essential hard rock experience that reaches back to the seventies and forward from there to the nineties. It's hard to get it right, but they have pulled it off with excellence and hard work. Attribute it to the musicianship and wisdom of Jon Harvey (vocals and bass), Jeremy Widerman (vocals and guitar), Brandon Bliss (vocals and organ), and Steve Kiely (vocals and drums). MT has been winning fans by touring incessantly across Canada, interrupted only by enough time to record new audio and video.

MT should be top contenders for the JUNO on the basis of their nation-wide touring record. The JUNOs are, after all, a symbol of Canadian achievement. Which band is most representative of a Canadian breakthrough?

Keep in mind that MT has seen some significant nods of approval, getting opening slots for Deep Purple and Slash last year. Fan comments imply that MT kicked the shows into gear with their full-on opening set, winning over new fans and silencing skeptics.

It isn't fair to compare the online presence of MT with WOTE. The MT guys are so freakin' busy  travelling (by road), delivering their music face to face in live venues that, short of cloning themselves or giving up much needed sleep, they just can't put it all out there to the same extent. Still, over 9,000 Facebook fans is significant! Everything they do put out there is honest and real, and doesn't taste like someone's slick marketing idea.

I want MT to win this. There is something noble about what they are doing that is JUNO-worthy. It has to do with their focus on performing in their chosen genre with excellence. To me, that is a breakthrough musically speaking. To hit the road hard in the Canadian tradition (meaning: drive a shared van for days on end) is important. And after all that, the tunes are gutsy, the hard rock style is true and they bring all of their strength and showmanship to every show. Monster Truck is one of the hardest-working bands in Canada today. They're breaking through as I write this.