Western shines in star-studded Junos opener

The biggest stage in Canadian music was tinted purple Sunday night as Western alumni and students kicked off the 2019 Juno Awards with a surprise “once-in-a-lifetime performance.”

Broadcast from London, the DJ duo Loud Luxury – comprised of Joe Depace, BA’14 (Popular Music Studies), and Andrew Fedyk, BA’15 (Political Science) – opened the annual show with a live performance of their Juno-nominated hit Body.

Stealing the show, however, was a choreographed performance from the Western Mustang Band and Mustang Cheerleaders, approximately 130 students in total, drumming, dancing, flipping and culminating in leading Junos host Sarah McLachlan on stage.

“It was the best opening ever – no doubt,” said Orin Isaacs, Musical Director for the 2019 Juno Awards show. “Just think of it – we had the hottest act in the world doing their hottest song in their adopted hometown with their alma mater’s marching band and cheerleading team performing as they sing.

“It is hard to line up those kind of stars. Think about that for a sec – it has nothing to do with music, but everything to do with the universe lining up.”

The five-minute surprise performance was something new for the ceremony.

Clever cold opens have been a recent trademark of the Junos. In 2017, legendary rocker Bryan Adams and comedian Russell Peters opened the show in Ottawa with a skit featuring a prime minister cameo and stand-up routine. In 2018, crooner Michael Bublé opened the show in Vancouver with his patented combo of corny and charming with a backstage song-and-dance number.

But the Junos had never seen a production quite like 2019.

“We have had big opening numbers, super creative openings. But this is the biggest opening we have ever had – in terms of number of people and complexity of movement,” said Isaacs, who has been involved with the Juno Awards show since 1994.

It is hard to imagine a better place for so many eyes to be on the Western name at one time, said Terry Rice, Executive Director (Marketing Communications).

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for everyone involved,” explained Rice, who led the Communications and Public Affairs efforts behind the scenes. “From the Don Wright Faculty of Music to the Mustang Band and Cheer Team, even for the staff involved, the whole Junos experience has been huge.

“Awards shows are a nod to excellence – so there isn’t a much more exciting place for Western to showcase its excellence. We don’t get that opportunity very often. This is the Super Bowl of the Canadian music industry. To have such a presence at the music event of the year was simply incredible.”

The performance was seen by hundreds of thousands across the country – 10,000 people packed into Budweiser Gardens, thousands more streamed the event online and a national TV audience estimated at more than a million for CBC’s broadcast. Additionally, social media has become an important part of the awards show experience, Rice said, so do not discount the thousands upon thousands more who followed along and commented on the show from home.

Preparations for the show opening started weeks ago and involved hundreds of hours from Western students and staff. Rehearsals were held in Alumni Hall, until show weekend, when dress rehearsals were held Friday and Sunday at Budweiser Gardens. All of this was done under a thick veil of secrecy; every student and staffer signed a non-disclosure agreement saying they would not offer any details of the show in advance.

After the performance, students stuck around and acted as seat fillers during the program that saw Loud Luxury bring home one award for Dance Recording of the Year for Body.

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The whole effort has been “a huge proof point” for the university’s famed student experience, said Christine Stapleton, Director (Sport and Recreation Services).

“The opportunity for our students to work with award-winning choreographers, music directors, producers. These are the best people in Canada who do what they do. What is cool is, these professionals were equally impressed by our students – impressed by their talent and work ethic. Does anything better sum up our students? And to be able to share that from coast to coast to coast was just another way of sharing what our student experience means.”

Stapleton understands what kind of attention a national stage can bring an organization, as she has seen the Mustangs football team in back-to-back Vanier Cup during her tenure. But the Junos were a different audience, a different level.

“Sport can be big. Absolutely. But this was a different place to showcase Western,” she said. “Here was an event that recognizes the greatest musicians and artists of this country – and we got to open it with our people, our athletes. It was very exciting.”

When tapped to open the show, Loud Luxury proposed the idea for Western to be part of the group’s performance. They wanted a marching band – and what is a marching band without cheerleaders. What happened next was a “total team effort” involving students and staff across campus.

Organizers were quick to credit the work of Quinn Fleming, Director of Western Mustang Band; David-Lee ‘Trace Tracey, Head Coach of Mustang Cheerleaders; and Dan Durack, Event Coordinator, Sport and Recreation Services.

“These folks made my job so easy, especially for something so massive,” Isaacs said.

Budweiser Gardens posed a unique challenge for the production, as the facility is about half the size of the normal venue that hosts the show.

“We have never done something of this size at this scale. The performance was one thing – and it was great – but the logistics were wild,” Isaacs said. “What people see on TV is really only half the battle we have fought. And this Western bunch has been amazing and at our side, helping figure out everything.”

In the weeks leading up to the performance, Durack, who also serves as administrator for the Western Mustang Band, balanced production company demands with student schedules, reconciled rehearsal needs with available campus gym times, all while trying to have the least impact possible on the students’ academics.

“It took a few emails to accomplish that,” he laughed.

But the biggest challenge was keeping the whole thing a secret.

“The students had so much excitement about this project – we all did. It was so hard for them to bottle that energy up for weeks and weeks, for them to have to keep it a secret, not tell anyone at all. Social media was so tempting. Their enthusiasm was about ready to burst.”

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Live event production can be a series of hurry-up-and-wait moments, followed by changes to what you just memorized, then more waiting, then more changes. Through it all, the students were eager professionals, Durack said.

“Our students were so adaptive, so open to the changes that came with preparing for live television – things changed so fast, always making tweaks to things, here and there, little things. It was so cool to see how the students just handled it all so well.”

Stapleton credited a team effort for the success. “We aren’t able to do anything – anything – without everyone at their best. It is one thing to get the opportunity – it is another thing to blow people away. We blew people away tonight.”

Western President Amit Chakma also celebrated the show-starting success Sunday night.

“My proudest moments as a university president have come when I get to see our amazing students shine. If you are not lucky enough to be around these young people every day, you simply do not understand the level of skill and talent that call our campus home. The Junos were a wonderful, exciting stage for our students. They showed the whole country what we have known all along – Western students are among the brightest stars out there.”

In addition to the show itself, Western was featured prominently throughout Junos Week, including a pair of Friday performances by Stephan Moccio, BMus’94, and a Music + Video Game Collision conference hosted by Popular Music Studies professor Jay Hodgson.

The Juno Awards are presented annually to Canadian musical artists and bands to acknowledge their artistic and technical achievements in all aspects of music. New members of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame are also inducted as part of the awards ceremonies.

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