Wednesday, July 12, 2006


July 15, 2006
By Larry Leblanc, Billboard Magazine

TORONTO - In 2003, when local band the Weakerthans signed to U.S label Epitaph, frontman John K. Samson penned a tongue-in-cheek homage to the hometown he shares with Neil Young. It was called "One Great City" and featured the chorus of "I hate Winnipeg."

That might seem understandable when you come from a western Canadian city where temperatures average below freezing from mid-November through March, dropping most nights below minus 24 degrees Celsius. (Approximately 11 below zero Fahrenheit.) Despite this frosty backdrop, the prairie city's music scene is heating up.

"There's a lot of good things coming out of Winnipeg," says Steve Blair, Toronto-based director of A&R for Warner Music Canada. "Musicians there are unbelievably creative. Isolation has lots to do with it."

The capital of the province of Manitoba, Winnipeg has a population of slightly more than 700,000—and a diverse label scene. Notable local operations include hardcore labels Smallman Records and G7 Welcoming Committee, roots imprint Dollartone Records and ska/reggae label Bacteria Buffet Records.

"People deride Winnipeg for the climate," says singer Nicky Mehta of roots-styled act the Wailin' Jennys, "but it makes you aware of your place in a larger picture; there's a sense of 'hunkering down.' "

Mehta's band is signed to Vancouver label Jericho Beach, but last year inked a U.S. deal with Minnesota-based folk specialist Red House Records, which on June 6 released its sophomore set "Firecracker."

Several other local acts have signed direct U.S. label deals during the past 18 months, joining longer-established names such as the Weakerthans, folk-roots fusion band the Duhks (Sugar Hill) and thrash-punk act Propaghandi (Fat Wreck Chords).

Other acts fished from the local talent pool by U.S. labels include rock act Inward Eye (J Records), singer/songwriter Alana Levandoski (Rounder) and hardcore bands Comeback Kid (Victory) and Burnthe8track (Abacus/Century Media).

Although none of those acts has racked up eye-popping sales yet, some of their figures are still respectable. The Duhks' self-titled sophomore album has sold 38,000 in the United States since its February 2005 release, while Comeback Kid's "Wake the Dead" has sold 53,000 in the same time frame, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Other Winnipeg acts with domestic followings in Canada include roots-styled artists Nathan (Nettwerk) and James Keelaghan (Jericho Beach Music), rockers Waking Eyes (Coalition) and Novillero (Mint) and country act Doc Walker (Open Roads). These acts have emerged from an abundance of local venues, the best-known being the Zoo, Winnipeg's premier rock club for three decades.

Local booking agent Todd Jordan of Paquin Entertainment Agency suggests the scene's strength partly comes down to Winnipeg being so isolated. "The nearest interesting Canadian city is Calgary," he notes, "and it's a 14-hour drive. Toronto is 24 hours away."

However, Winnipeg acts are becoming increasingly visible on national and international stages. Comeback Kid recently concluded a 27-date North American tour; Levandoski performed at a Canada Day event June 30 in London's Trafalgar Square; the Wailin' Jennys are currently touring the States; and Novillero has just taped an episode of the USA Network TV series "Monk," in which the members appear as themselves.

Local insiders credit complementary development services offered by Manitoba Film & Sound and the Manitoba Audio Recording Industry Assn. with aiding the emergence of the new Winnipeg scene. Both bodies were launched in 1987.

MARIA executive director Sam Baardman has one further positive piece of news for A&R execs admiring the Winnipeg scene from afar. The city is not yet crawling with reps from rival labels. "Our bands are going out to where the A&R people are—all across the States and in Canada," Baardman says. ••••

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