Full Northern Exposure: The Rugged Intimacy and Gold-Rush Enthusiasm of the Yukonâ€™s Dawson City Music Festival
When The Persuasions, a cappella icons and fifty-year touring veterans, got out of the bus atop the Midnight Dome overlooking the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers, they broke into tears at the view. Under a midnight sun, while eagle-sized ravens soared overhead, the Persuasions looked down at a tiny town of gold rush-era buildings, where the 2,000 inhabitants of Dawson City waited eagerly for their arrival.
Welcome to the Dawson City Music Festival (July 15-17, 2011; http://www.dcmf.com), dubbed “Canada’s tiny, perfect festival” (Georgia Straight).
The remote Yukon town doubles in size for the festival each year, as visitors fly in on prop planes, drive down the Top of the World Highway, or canoe for ten days up the majestic, northward-flowing Yukon River. Upon arrival, the dirt streets grow dusty from the enthusiastic feet of musicians and audience members exploring the culture, architecture, and good spirits in this gold-rush town. Impromptu jam sessions spring up on all corners, lasting well past the festival’s 2 AM curfew; neither the world-class musicians nor the spirited audience members want to stop playing.
“For locals, it’s insane,” exclaims Tim Jones, festival producer. “Hordes of interesting and arty people descend on our sleepy gold mining town. For visitors, our small size (1200 tickets) creates an incredible intimacy. People get to know the volunteers and the locals. The musicians are everywhere – in the same bars and restaurants as the patrons. You feel a real personal involvement in the community that you‘d never feel at a huge commercial music fest.”
It started, like many Canadian festivals, with a little party—a private goat roast on the banks of the Yukon River, paying its visiting musicians with flakes of gold—that was too much fun to keep quiet about. It grew into a festival able to woo and wow major talent, both established and up-and-coming: Bruce Cockburn, Barenaked Ladies, Jane Siberry, and indie darling Basia Bulat. Bulat was so refreshed and inspired by her time in Dawson that she centered her latest album, Heart of My Own, on the experience.
Artists rarely leave without a story: hitching a five-hour ride on a Porta-Potty truck when their flight was overbooked or playing their way up the Yukon at tiny hamlets with just a gas station and a motel. And sometimes, they decide to stay for good.
“Performers sometimes drop everything and move here,” Jones notes, himself a recent and very willing transplant to the area. “One year, the Ontario alt-country band Jon-Rae and the River came. Right after the festival, they broke up and the singer moved to Dawson City. She got a job with the local First Nations band and organized a powwow the next summer.”
What draws and inspires people is Dawson City’s peculiar Northern spirit: a self-reliant egalitarianism and modest openness bred of a powerful place—grizzlies outnumber people by nearly 3-to-1 in the Yukon—and relative isolation.
The Yukon is a challenging place to keep a band going, with distance and difficult travel a part of life–but the Territory is still crawling with musicians, driven by a local culture built around supporting the arts and live music. In addition to big-name international artists, Dawson’s Festival showcases dedicated, creative musicians, from First Nations singer songwriters to local soul outfits. The Festival is especially fond of the esoteric: Whitehorse’s all-female metal band Carnal Romance take their lyrics from Harlequin novels and will roar and moan at this year’s festival.
At year-round live shows and at the festival itself, it’s not surprising to catch the town’s mayor between a mechanic from the gold mine and a hipster from Montreal in town for seasonal work. Grubby hardworking crews fresh from setting up the stage have been caught singing back-up with a sprightly children’s folk performer. People have been known to crowd surf to bluegrass.
“Dawson has the most enthusiastic and open-minded audience I’ve ever seen anywhere. They are thrilled to hear live music – since it’s so rare up here, after all - and want to hear something they’ve never heard before,” Jones explains. “You’ll have miners and seniors listening intently to a noisy new music ensemble [Bell Orchestre, 2008, featuring members of Arcade Fire] or an avant-jazz sax improviser from Harlem. They’re ready for anything.”