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The Gramercy Riffs riff in St. John's. (Paul Daly)
The Gramercy Riffs riff in St. John's. (Paul Daly)

Music

Newfoundland rocks Add to ...

'We were astounded by the energy of the people watching," says Tim Baker, lead singer of Hey Rosetta!. "The excitement, the loudness of them, they're rocking, they're dancing."

"And they're yelling," chimes in Josh Ward, bassist.

They really were, and there's a YouTube video from earlier this year to prove it. Six hundred rocking, dancing, sweaty fans in the Majestic Theatre in downtown St. John's, pushing themselves as close as they could to Baker's mike stand. His voice floats above the clip, but the engine that is driving the song, Red Heart , is undeniably the crowd. When Baker pleads, "Won't you let your red heart show," the crowd demands, "DON'T YOU LET YOUR RED HEART GROW COLD."

It's a heart-stopping rendition of an already heart-stopping song, and it's a world away from the set Hey Rosetta! just finished moments ago on Toronto's Harbourfront, where I ashamedly sat quietly like the rest of the fans (and sometimes clapped). The show rocked, the crowd was polite - the last word that would ever describe the same scene in St. John's.

When the Polaris Prize shortlist was announced, some critics bemoaned its lack of geographic diversity. In the running for the award, which celebrates the best in largely independent Canadian indie music, were acts such as Elliott Brood, Great Lake Swimmers and K'Naan - all talented artists, but all residing within a stone's throw of the CN Tower. Where was the heavy metal from Vancouver or the freak folk from Winnipeg?

At least St. John's orchestral indie rock made the cut. With Hey Rosetta! nominated for the national award, St. John's may be on its way to becoming Canada's next indie rock capital.

At 3,200 kilometres away from Toronto, and at least an ocean apart from everywhere else, the St. John's rock scene is, literally, an island unto itself in a country rife with great music.

Those who make it fall in love with St. John's. Russell Crowe has been known to drop in to O'Reilly's pub for a few songs. The luckier campers at a recent Salmon Festival got to have a few brews with Sam Roberts after what turned out to be an hour-long sing-along to the Montreal singer's catalogue. And the outdoor stage on downtown George Street is sure to feature prominently in the White Stripes' forthcoming documentary of their 2007 cross-Canada tour.

If the sole determinant of a music scene is its geographical ability to network, then St. John's has clearly lost that battle. The choppy ocean waters that divide the island from the mainland are commonly cited for the economic inequalities that have plagued the province in the past. But for a community of musicians and the lucky few outsiders who arrive on the Rock, the far-flung locale is more often its greatest strength.

"The lives that people live here are different from the lives of people who don't live on an isolated island on the Atlantic," says Pahl Schiralli-Earle, a guitarist with the Idlers, a local 11-piece reggae band. "I think that really does something different for the mentality. Every musician tells their story through the lives that they live. And the lives of Newfoundlanders, with weather that's awful most of the year and only nice for a short time and the waves pounding the rock that we're on, creates an interesting history."

The stories differ: You could be like the Mudflowers, a burgeoning all-girl rock trio straight out of high school in Bishop's Falls. Then there's the Gramercy Riffs, an indie pop band about to record its first full-length album. The Idlers recently closed out an evening of the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival before embarking on a West Coast tour. And for many up-and-coming bands, Hey Rosetta! are the gold standard, building a critical rep through playing, playing and playing some more.

The venue and places, though, are the same, and constitute an indie-rock walking tour of downtown St. John's, though depending on where you end up, walking may be tricky.

For both bands and revellers, a night can very well start early and end around 4 a.m. at Holdsworth Court. A tiny deck off George Street acts as a public terrace bridging four separate venues - CBTG's (a wink and a nod to CBGB, its inspiration in New York), The Levee, Distortion and The Bull and Barrell.

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