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Music Picks

Festivals Are Getting Bigger

Why small ones like Dawson City are still better.

By Elaine Corden 24 Jul 2008 |

Elaine Corden writes regularly about music for The Tyee.

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Julie Doiron at the Dawson City Music Festival. Photo: Andrew Hoshkiw,

With the epic, four-day Pemberton Festival coming up, many in the province are gearing up for a road trip today, off to spend their weekend with over 100 performers, including such marquee acts as Tom Petty, Coldplay, The Flaming Lips, Jay- Z, My Morning Jacket, and more. It's temping to truck up there for all the acts on hand, and indeed, the buzz for this event -- quite likely the largest, most star-studded festival ever to hit B.C. -- is deafening.

But, for anyone who trucked up to last week's Dawson City Music Festival in the Yukon, Pemberton, in all its monstrous, multi-staged glory, might seem like a bit of a let down. Quite simply, the Dawson City Music Festival was a slice of heaven on earth, a small, community-oriented affair that managed to be everything a festival should be -- a celebration of the connective and transitive powers of music, and one that was enjoyable as much for the communion of attendees as it was for any of the acts on the bill.

If you've never been to Dawson City before, you're missing one of our nation's great treasures. Five hours north of Whitehorse, the old, perfectly preserved gold-rush town appears out of nowhere from an unending expanse of hinterland scarred only by the winding Dempster Highway and a few tiny towns. (Of the 32,000 people that live in the Yukon, 25,000 live in Whitehorse, leaving the rest of the land fairly untouched.)

Land of the midnight sun

When we arrived Saturday afternoon, the festival was already in full swing. Banjo-toting musicians roamed the five unpaved streets that make up the downtown, and smiles were plastered on the faces of the some 10,000 people that had ascended to the top of the world for the event. We had, to our chagrin, missed B.C.-based acts Black Mountain and Immaculate Machine on the main stage the night before, but before long, we had Dawson mud up to our knees (for the first time in the festival's history, it rained the whole weekend, a stark contrast to the 36-degree temperatures of last year), and were roaming the streets with the crowds who seemed like old friends.

Music sprung from every corner, and through the cold, managed to find its way into the bones of the under-dressed; the atmosphere of camraderie was enough to stave off any complaints. Wandering through the town, we took in workshops in old churches and perfectly preserved gazebos, where musicians from all over the country were paired together for spontaneous jam sessions. Bluegrass fiddlers stood next to plaintive singer-songwriters, prog-rock musicians sidled up next to country-music enthusiasts. The festival and its idyllic environs foster a sense of brother/sisterhood and peace, leaving one wondering if the Iraq crises could, in fact, be solved through a campaign of carpet-bombing the nation with instruments and sheet music rather than daisy cutters and bunker busters.

Though the rain and clouds made the town's "land of the midnight sun" reputation a bit of a misnomer, the daylight did last through the wee hours, with only an hour of teetering dusk around 3 a.m. On the covered main stage on Saturday, Ontario country-rock outfit The Sadies played a beautiful set at midnight, while just outside, festival-goers splashed around in the mud to the banjo-pickings of a random stranger. By the time the barefoot mud-wrestling broke out, it seemed impossible to separate musicians from audience -- in contrast to so many other festivals, the line between performer and listener was indistinguishable, and it seemed that the artists on hand were just as awestruck by their surroundings as anyone else.

Mud-wrestling musicians

Thougt the skies never did darken, the morning after Saturday's festivities was eerily quiet -- a town-wide hangover being watered away in the enclaves of charming historical homes and hotels with wonderful gold-rush sparkle and charm. Around 1 p.m., tired but grinning faces emerged for another day, and the splashing of mud began again.

At St. Paul's Anglican church, 200 rubber boots traipsed in for back-to-back workshops led by Ontario songwriter and sometime CBC-personality James Gordon. The first, a five-musician jam that explored child-friendly songs, was a charming affair, but the second, a session called "Songs I Wish I Wrote" was positively magical, featuring Gordon, Ontario indie-rocker Hayden, New Brunswick-based chanteuse Julie Doiron, Toronto singer/songwriter Justin Rutledge, Yukon-based Jonathan Ostrander on guitar, and his cohort, Aaron Burnie, of the YT's Three Chords and The Truth on banjo, and, tucked off in the corner, producer David Baxter.

The all-too-short jam-session saw the group of thrown-together musicians waxing poetic about their favourite songs, taking turns on lead while the others did the best they could to join in, with varying degrees of success. Baxter's take on Willie Nelson's "Crazy" was flawed but charming, and Ostrander's cover of Ian Tyson's "Four Strong Winds" was lovingly rendered. Doiron took on Paul Simon's "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," and Hayden did some real justice to Bruce Springsteen's hit "I'm On Fire." The standout, by miles, though, was the relatively unknown Burnie, whose banjo and off-kilter voice treated the packed church to a 200-year-old American traditional called "The Old Maid's Song." Goosebump-inducing, and sung with awe-inspiring compassion, Bernie spun wonder in that tiny church, playing in a humble fashion that personified the whole spirit of the event.

Small is beautiful

Would that I could, this fantastic little number would be this week's music pick, but of course, if was of the moment, and exists only in the snow-globe memories of those who were lucky enough to be there. I suppose then, that my musical suggestion or pick this week is that you head immediately to your calendar and mark down next year's festival as part of your summer plans. Some hotels were already booked for next year's fest, so get on it now.

Dawson City's Music Fest -- small, unpretentious, and, I am sure, the polar opposite of this weekend's Pemberton freak-out -- is an experience that will fill you with national pride, and assure that you never take the north for granted again.

In the meantime, I will leave you with "Little Waltz," from Basia Bulat, one of the last artists to take the stage before the festival came to a close Sunday night. Bulat, who is on the year's Polaris Prize short list, played a beautiful set before seemingly every musician who played the whole festival came on stage for a rousing chorus of "Let the Circle Be Unbroken." Dozens of fiddlers and singers and guitarists sang along with the audience, smiles from ear to ear, mud from head to toe. It was a moment that you never wanted to see the sun go down on -- and, thanks to that midnight and the spellbinding power of Dawson City, it never did.

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