The Juno Awards party train left Toronto Friday morning (March 31), heading to Ottawa, Canada's capital city, loaded with 400 members of the music industry, nominees, media, contest winners and the promise of live performances, a gourmet lunch and free-flowing wine and beer.
As hip-hop star Kardinal Offishall -- best known for his hit "Dangerous," with Akon -- said over the speakers as the train pulled in four-and-a-half-hours later, "This was my first Juno train experience and I must say that I'm a little bit drunk and full of food and alcohol, but I love it and I will be back."
The Juno awards will be handed out at a gala dinner Saturday night, with the remainder on the Sunday televised broadcast, co-hosted by Bryan Adams and comedian Russell Peters, after Michael Buble dropped out to care for his 3-year-old son, who is recovering from cancer treatment.
This is the third time the Juno Awards has been held in Ottawa; the ceremony has moved province to province since the early 2000s. It's particularly special because 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation (the year Canada became Canada).
The Juno Express -- so dubbed in homage to the famed Festival Express train that took Janis Joplin, Grateful Dead, The Band, Buddy Guy and more across Canada in 1970 -- left Union Station at 9:20 a.m. after its guests were treated to a continental grab 'n' go breakfast in the Via Rail Business lounge prior to departure.
Boarding was slightly chaotic, when a designated "Car 1" didn't exist and some people were left standing until seats were found in a car allotted for baggage. Meanwhile, farther down in the other six passenger cars, programming began with the singing of Canada's national anthem, "O Canada," then an acoustic performance by Halifax group Neon Dreams, whose "Marching Bands" feat. Kardinall Offishall had chart success in 2016.
At 11 a.m., it was first call for alcohol, as servers moved up and down the cars offering wine from Jackson-Triggs and beer from Steam Whistle. Dining began courtesy of top chef Nick Liu of Toronto restaurant DaiLo, and live music continued with 15- to 20-minute sets from world music album nominees Okavango African Orchestra; Juno Master Class talent search winners the Lytics and Neon Dreams; and last year's Juno double-nominee Scott Helman.
In the Virgin Mobile-sponsored "red carpet" lined car, as bare trees and snow-patched land whisked by outside the windows, Neon Dreams -- which has a good eight performances during Juno Week, including the gala awards -- spread out in three rows in the cramped quarters (the soundboard was on a luggage rack between cars), Adrian Morris on djembe, Matt Gats on guitar, who both opted to sit, while soulful singer Frank Kadillac stood on his seat, playing three songs, wrapping with their second single, "Find A Way."
"Hogwarts Express," Kadillac quipped when they were done, before moving to another car for a second set.
"I thought I was gonna fall so many times," the singer later tells Billboard in the tame, lame "Car 1" that missed out on all the action in the other cars. "My stomach was getting sick," he laughs. "It was so shaky. But it was fun."
Helman, who toured the U.S. in 2015 with Walk Off the Earth for his debut EP, Augusta, and has a new album, Hôtel de Ville, out on Warner Music Canada in May, was simply on the Juno train for some promo (he was nominated for two Junos in 2016). He performed over the weekend at a MusiCounts charity event and the Playlist Live: Canada's 150th (Canadian artists sing Canadian classics concert).
Unlike Kadillac, he chose to sit for his songs, starting with Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" ("that was about a train so it made sense," he said) followed by new single "21 Days," inspired by his producer's zombie invasion dream, and now about "all my own fears." When he announced "one more song," someone yelled out "Bungalow," his 2014 hit, but the 21-year-old said, "I'd rather sing a new song."
"It's not up to me. I could sit here all day and play," he said, tuning his guitar and talking of a recent video shoot for "Kinda Complicated," filmed in "this really crazy place in California called Slab City" in the desert. "I've been singing this song to a camera for about four days and I'm really excited to be able to play it." He says it's about relationship that "somehow worked for a little bit."
He then squeezed in "Bungalow," before going to chat with Billboard in the adjacent car. "I never really get a chance to sit when I'm performing. Not like I prefer it but in a scenario like that where there's so few people, I feel like when you sit down it equals everybody."
Unlike Neon Dreams' Corey La Rue, who felt a little uneasy with his first time on a train ("I'm from Halifax. We don't have subways. We walk."), Helman says he's always on a train. "I like being able to watch what I'm going through. I don't really like flying very much. "But he reveals he's been sick for four days. "I've got everything. I've got a virus and the whole shebang, so I've been chugging water and sleeping for four days so I don't really know what's going on.
"I'm good by now. I've had it for a while so it's not contagious," he quickly assures, lest anyone is worried about him infecting 400 Juno-bound travelers.
At around 2 p.m., the Juno Express pulled into Le Gare Centrale in Montreal, where up the escalator a red carpet welcome has been rolled out, with CARAS president Allan Reid at the top, greeting people.
"It's 2017. We did the Juno train in 2003, 2012. This is a whole new level this year," he told Billboard. "Everybody who's getting off this train has a good smile on their face and may have been indulging before they got here. But its kickoff to Juno Week, thrilled to be back in Ottawa."
While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, alas, was nowhere in sight (he will likely be at the awards), the Mayor of Ottawa, Jim Watson, was, and MusiCounts' Band Aid recipients the Hillcrest High School Band provided the entertainment (speeches from the Juno Host Committee and a performance from The Algonquins of Pikwakanagan's all-female hand drummers Wild Flower started a tad too late, as most of the arrivals had already left for their hotels).
Of course there was a huge bar full of beer and wine and servers handing out flutes of bubbly. As Kardinal had summed it up, before we disembarked, likely speaking for a lot of people. "If you see me this weekend and I have a glazed over look in my eyes, just help me out. Just give me some food or water and I'll be your friend for the next 24 hours."