Grand Finale @FirstOntPAC @TheMandevilles @SuzieVinnick

Suzie Vinnick live at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre The last time I presented Six String Nation in St. Catharines was at the Niagara Arts Council common space on James St. The sense I got at the time speaking to the crowd of artists and musicians who gathered to hear the story was that they were a small but mighty group with lots of ideas but few places to play, few places to show, few places to go. A new arts centre had been approved but shovels were not yet in the ground. As I recall, there were a few restaurants and bars in the vicinity but not a whole lot going on in that quaint old part of town. Everything changed when the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre opened just one year ago next week. Designed by the prolific Toronto firm of Diamond/Schmitt, the Centre has already created a whole new vibe in the downtown. And as a facility, there are few rivals in the province - it comprises four separate venues: a 775-seat concert hall, 300-seat recital hall, 210-seat dance/theatre venue, and a 187-seat film house (all of which I could tune into in my dressing room behind the Cairns Recital Hall!) all connected through a glorious, street-facing common lobby bar space. While the spaces are available to Brock University students and for commercial rentals, I was thrilled that on this trip to the Niagara region, the Six String Nation show was part of the Hot Ticket series of in-house programming. In fact, FOPAC was the lead institution that not only brought us in for our big show on Friday night but coordinated our activities with the Niagara Community Foundation for the school and community presentations you've been reading about all week.

Top-flight crew and equipment in the beautiful Cairns space meant I could really relax and stretch out with the presentation, which felt just fantastic (though it's perhaps it was that comfort zone that made me even more emotional in my delivery than usual!). The real thrill, though, was the work of all the musicians who brought Voyageur to life in this great new space.

First up, we kept the "performance pocket" segment in the presentation part of the show in the first half and my FOPAC hosts conceived a brilliant Facebook contest with help from sponsors the Niagara Community Foundation and Thorold Music to fill that slot. Hopefuls posted videos on FB as auditions to be the chosen performer and the winner was local spoken-word artist, Jamie Godard. Backstage, Jamie confessed to me that he had entered the contest a bit cynically. Like many people who encounter the Six String Nation project cursorily, he had kind of assumed it was a relic of patriotic Canadiana and yet his audition piece was decidely critical of many aspects of Canadian policy, action and inaction in areas like the environment, poverty and First Nations issues. So he kind of assumed his entry would be dismissed. But the folks at FOPAC (or whoever the jury consisted of) recognized not only the quality of his work but also that there were more affinities between our views of the Canadian project than perhaps Jamie was aware of and he was selected as the winner. Having seen the full presentation, his piece, "Hey Canada" had more particular resonances than he might have otherwise imagined and it proved to be a sharp and much appreciated start to the musical proceedings of the evening.

The second half of the show started with three tunes from the core writing duo of local band, The Mandevilles. Guitarist Nick Lesyk played Voyageur throughout - occasionally employing a loop pedal for some tasty solos - while singer Serena Pryne gave ample evidence as to why the band has been opening for the likes of Heart and Joan Jett: her voice is the real deal, pure rock and roll / rasp and growl.

And finally, of course, the wonderful and spectacular Suzie Vinnick (pictured). All of the awards and nominations are well deserved. For one thing, her guitar-playing is effortlessly wicked; for another, her own songs (or her co-writes, such as the one with Matt Anderson that was part of her set) sound like they are already part of the pantheon - cut from the same cloth as the classics but uniquely her own; and that voice - I could listen to her all day. She moves from sweet to sassy to searing in the blink of an ear - gentle, powerful, pleading, intimidating - whatever it needs to be to convey the pure emotion of the lyrics. She has long been one of my favourite people I've encountered during my time hovering around the Canadian music scene (along with her long time partner James Dean) so I was thrilled to meet a whole gaggle of her family and friends who turned out for the show as well and they were just as great as she is.

It was an extraordinary week in the Niagara region and I feel like we could have gone on and on for another week or more - perhaps a good excuse for a return visit. None of it would have been possible without the support of all the amazing people in the office at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, starting with Sara Palmieri, who - along with Michael Chess - first encountered the project (and had their portraits taken at the CAPACOA Conference back in 2010 when the Centre was just a hole in the ground); and also to Jordy Yack, Stéphanie Filippi, Kayley Corupe and Lisa Mancini, who did a brilliant job with the flyer. On the production side, big thanks to Rob Robbins and his amazing crew of Ethan Rising, Kevin Watson and Mel on the LX. Thanks also to Jennifer Hunt-Carbonara for looking after us backstage, Nathan Heuchan for handling merch sales and Thelma Forrester (also a teacher at Lincoln Centennial) for Front of House coordination. Thanks also to the ushers who generously stepped in at the last minute to handle volunteer duties at the portrait station, as did Thelma. I hope we will see you all again soon!

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