OTTAWA - The typically conservative Juno Awards went radical in the nation's capital on Sunday, with William Shatner presiding over an awards telecast that boldly upended the audience's expectations again and again by celebrating some unlikely candidates.
Shaggy-haired Saskatoon southern-rock throwbacks the Sheepdogs — toiling in anonymity only a year ago — and Toronto-based indie songstress Leslie Feist won three awards each in a splashy gala where few of the supposed "locks" actually snapped into place.
Feist's response to winning artist of the year characterized the unpredictable atmosphere. Flushed, she staggered to the stage gingerly after spending a minute sharing her surprise with her entourage.
"I just need a second," she marvelled as she finally stepped to the microphone, covering her mouth with her hand and shaking her head from side to side.
"I'm just in shock.... I guess all I can really do is try to express some genuine gratitude. I can't believe I'm standing here."
"I'm straight up grateful," she added. "Thank you."
Anyone familiar with the Junos' usual rhythms was similarly gobsmacked. Even with only seven awards handed out Sunday (the rest were distributed at a dinner gala earlier in the weekend), few of the evening's outcomes could have been predicted.
Among the surprising results? The Sheepdogs, who rose to fame after winning a contest initiated by Rolling Stone magazine, beat out Nickelback, Johnny Reid, Hedley and City and Colour — four outfits with 19 Juno wins under their collective belt — to claim the prize for their bluesy amble "I Don't Know."
While Feist is a veritable Juno favourite (she's now got 11 of the little crystal statuettes), her top artist award was a shock because her contemplative fourth disc, "Metals," wasn't nominated for album of the year, and the 36-year-old had already lost out to City and Colour's Dallas Green for songwriter of the year.
And electronic producer Deadmau5, thought to be a titanium lock for dance recording of the year after winning the category four years in a row heading into this show, also lost. Toronto's Dragonette and Paris house DJ Martin Solveig edged the Niagara Falls, Ont., product out with their deep-burrowing earworm "Hello."
As a result, Deadmau5 went without a Juno this year despite three nominations.
"Oh my God! Holy oh my God. Oh boy," said singer Martina Sorbara, obviously struggling to find words. "Thanks for everybody who supported us, all our fans, to know that you're listening makes us so proud and we're so grateful."
Even Michael Buble's victory for album of the year for his yuletide smash "Christmas" raised eyebrows. Although Buble has won the prize twice in the past (in 2006 for "It's Time" and 2010 for "Crazy Love") and his latest disc's retro fireside vibe warmed millions of family gatherings this past holiday season, Drake's moody opus "Take Care" — which won rap recording of the year on Saturday — attained drastically more critical plaudits while also somehow becoming a downcast smash in its own right.
Buble also beat out Nickelback for that top album honour, meaning the reception greeting the divisive Hanna, Alta., rockers at this year's Junos was as chilly as the grey, drizzly climes outside Ottawa's Scotiabank Place.
The 12-time Juno winners didn't nab a single award this year out of four nominations, a shutout that should surprise even their myriad critics since the group's last collection of radio-ready sludge-rockers — 2009's "Dark Horse" — earned three Junos, including album of the year.
Of course, on a night packed with surprises there was one exception to prove the rule: 18-year-old pop sensation Justin Bieber claimed the fan choice award for the second year in a row. In a pre-recorded message, even Bieber seemed unsurprised by the efficiency of his army of highly mobilized fans.
"What's up everybody? This is Justin," he said, a tad redundantly given the shrill screaming ricocheting through the arena.
"As we all know I have the best fans in the world, so this award is basically for all my fans. This is just yours."
Bieber wasn't the only marquee artist missing in action. Drake, Buble and triple-nominated punk-pop princess Avril Lavigne (a product of nearby Napanee, Ont.) were similarly absent.
Shatner — over the top at the best of times — had to work extra hard to offset the show's relative lack of, ahem, star power.
The 81-year-old Shatner opened the show with boundless energy, or at least volume.
After introducing himself as "recording artist William Shatner," the actor poked light-hearted fun at Deadmau5 — intentionally mispronouncing his moniker — as well as Hedley, Carly Rae Jepsen and Sarah McLachlan.
"I've been to three Lilith Fairs," he barked at the Vancouver-based chanteuse. "I came for the music, I stayed for the wheatgrass smoothies."
Soon afterward, he strapped on a sunburst Les Paul and made no effort to pretend as though he was really playing it while sing-shouting a few bars of several well-worn Canuck classics, including Bryan Adams' "Summer of '69," Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Takin' Care of Business" and Rush's "Tom Sawyer."
He also gamely participated in comedy sketches with Nickelback and Hedley, playing the role of the delusional hanger-on, deadpanning his intention to become Nickelback's fifth member.
"We change the name of the band to Shatner and Nickelback," he tells the band, straight-faced. "Or Shatner and the Dimebags. After all, I'm upping your value."
While Shatner also managed to make off-colour references to a steady string of revered Canadians (whether claiming to have knocked back absinthe with Margaret Atwood or "Jagerbombs" with Rita McNeil), he mostly made fun of himself, playing up a cartoonish version of his persona — a hard-partying, swaggering, staggering egomaniac desperate to appear young and hip.
Yet given that Shatner really is more than a half-century older than last year's host — 25-year-old Drake — the Junos seemed to try to compensate with youth in other ways.
A medley of dance and R&B numbers gave a group of emerging pop artists including 19-year-old Alyssa Reid, Mia Martina and Anjulie the chance to ever-so-briefly strut their stuff by performing a fragment of each of their hits, a musical tour that might have incited aural whiplash if not for how instantly recognizable each of the tunes were.
And while Deadmau5 left a Juno Awards bash without an award for the first time since 2007, he closed the show with a performance that featured the icy vocals of 24-year-old electro-pop singer Lights — fitting given the kaleidoscopic flashes popping out from the stage — and rapper MC Flipside.
Then there was the 28-year-old Mangan, meanwhile, one of the show's big winners.
On a night characterized by upsets, Mangan's victory for new artist of the year was one of the most predictable results — after all, he entered with a quartet of nominations and considerably more industry goodwill.
Yet the affable and relentlessly modest Vancouver singer/songwriter still wore a look of shock as he rose to claim his trophy.
"I feel like there's a certain amount of chatter around the best new artist award every year going to ... artists on their second or maybe third albums," said Mangan, whose "Oh Fortune" was, yes, his third album.
"I would like to look at like this ... it takes time to do anything that's worthwhile."
Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee Blue Rodeo shared a similar sentiment. After a moving performance of "Lost Together" with a capable assist from Sarah McLachlan — prompting a richly deserved standing ovation — co-frontman Jim Cuddy made reference to the decades of hard work that led to the distinction.
"We have travelled a very long and beautiful road and this country has given us so much," said Cuddy, struggling to remain composed. "We've met and played for amazing people, seen some beautiful things, and we've had so many unforgettable experiences.
"But the true measure of our success is in this room, all the friends I see out there, all the friends I know are watching. We've always, always from the beginning felt supported and appreciated in this country and we are extremely grateful to be able to make music together with all of you. Thank you."