East Coast Music Awards
in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island (February 2006)

This past February, Charlottetown's number came up once again to play host to the annual East Coast Music Awards (and the weekend full of non-stop activity that comes along with it). With nominated and non-nominated artists playing at every opportunity -- everywhere from the corners of coffee shops to the city's biggest stages -- the ECMA weekend represents eastern Canada's biggest, busiest few days of music.

A long weekend of conferences and showcases leading up to a gala awards show sounds eventful enough, but there's always much more happening. Indeed, the best thing about the ECMA weekend is the sheer volume and variety of live music. The official ECMA showcases only represent the tip of the iceberg, as a wide assortment of unofficial showcases give countless musicians the chance to show their stuff.

Chief among the unofficial events are the East Coast Unauthorized "No Cases" showcases. Set in motion during an ECMA awards stop in Sydney 11 years earlier, the No Cases regularly occur in parallel with the official ECMA weekend and offer a bastion of exciting independent artists that tend to exist away from the ECMA radar. But that in itself is only a beginning, as seemingly every bar and restaurant in the host city plans shows in hopes of drawing in a share of the buzz.

In Baba's Lounge, for example, a quick 20-minute set helped get people talking about the Museum Pieces. Although they already had a stunning folk-rock album (Philadelphia) under their belts from their time as a quartet, the Museum Pieces had since transformed into something different. Now a duo, Tyler Messick and Andy March dropped jaws in the tiny bar, catching a modest crowd off guard with an odd psych/rock/folk mix full of jagged but memorable guitar lines and melodies.

Among official ECMA showcase performers, Este Mundo was one of the most enjoyable. Led by composer Paul Bernard, the trio melds a variety of guitar styles into an exotic mix that's both moving and technically impressive. Between the trio's spirited performances and Bernard's explanations of his compositions, it felt almost like attending a lecture from a cheery and engaging academic (in a good way, of course, and with far more musical interludes).

Perhaps the greatest confluence of curious locals, No-Case enthusiasts and excited industry types was at the Sportsman's Pub on Saturday night. Cape Bretoner Carmen Townsend and her Shakey Deals seemed to be everywhere during the weekend, creating a stir via both official and unofficial showcases, but it was hard to touch the electricity at this particular show. A veteran of the East Coast scene who has just been starting to gain recognition, Townsend -- like many great East Coast songwriters at some point along the way -- was a regional winner and finalist in the Canadian Songwriting Competition.

Here she played that winning song -- the exuberant "Sweet Little Bird" -- and more, quickly drawing the audience to full attention. Her raw and distinctive voice is clearly the centerpiece, but her and her bandmates give the rootsy compositions a propulsive energy that's as irresistible as Townsend's singing. Her between-songs banter, more loose and endearing than you're likely to find on the ECMA gala stage or anywhere else, easily won the crowd over. Somewhere behind me, an industry fellow slapped his colleague on the back and announced, "Isn't she a case!"

After four full days, the gala awards show represented both the climax of the weekend and a chance to finally take a breather. Among the noteworthy award-winners were J.P. Cormier (Folk Recording of the Year), Joel Plaskett (SOCAN Songwriter of the Year, Male Artist of the Year) and Mary Jane Lamond (Female Artist of the Year).

The 2007 East Coast Music Awards weekend is scheduled for Feb. 15-18 in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

by Sean Roach