By James KeastFirst Nations elders danced with African nomads. Rich Aucoin had four-year-old kids screaming "We are not dead! We are undead!" exactly 12 hours after he held sway over a crowd of drunk adults chanting the same thing. Tanya Tagaq scared the crap outta me. The RCMP threatened to shut down a house party entranced by the Afrobeat groove of Mr. Something Something. And the sun never went down.
Dawson City is an historic town (almost an historic recreation of a town) of about 2000 people that doubles in size in summer months, but for one weekend was invaded by rock bands, folk singers, improv players and scores of music fans who all came 500 km. north of Whitehorse to the biggest annual party in the territory.
CBC North hosted the first official event of the weekend, a low-key offering that featured the solo charm of Shotgun Jimmie, who's quirky stage banter was a perfect ice-breaker before Simone Downes (aka 100 Dollars' Simone Schmidt) and Toronto banjo player Chris Coole offered up some smokin' playing and daytime murder ballads as Coole & Downes. ("In this one, the guy's already done in so it's okay for the kids," Simone offered at one point.) Amelia Curran offered a glimpse of her spare playing and beautiful storytelling too.
The evening main stage offered more volume from Shotgun Jimmie when he was joined onstage by Attack in Black bassist Ian Kehoe and Ladyhawk drummer Ryan Peters, who tore through a more rock'n'roll oriented set before Edmonton's Shout Out Out Out Out showed the bouncing, writhing crowd how an intense set of electro house can be unleashed by a live band. Rich Aucoin melds film loops, synth presets and boundless enthusiasm but got a hand this night from a first-time co-collaborator in Minotaurs' front-man Nathan Lawr, who stepped in on drums having never played with Aucoin before. Lawr was immediately left alone on stage as Aucoin dove into the writhing crowd to lead one sing-along after another. The sun was still shining when that mayhem cleared ― it was two a.m. Less than 12 hours later, Aucoin was back doing exactly the same set (without Lawr and minus a particularly curse-heavy closing number) at the KidsFest show hosted by CBC superstar Mamma Yamma; the kids managed to co-ordinate Aucoin's "dance under the parachute" trick much better than the adults had.
An afternoon of showcases and workshops included a meeting of nomadic minds. Niger, Africa's Etran Finatawa ― made up of two nomadic ethnicities, the Wodaabe and the Tuareg ― played a showcase with the Kaska Drummers, of the local Kaska Dena First Nation, held at the community centre of another First Nation people, the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in. After a tentative start of trading off traditional songs, collaboration between the two rhythm-oriented groups sprung up, and several First Nations elders led a spontaneous dance, joined in by members of Etran Finatawa. (DCMF producer Tim Jones, who deserves more credit for creating a positive, supportive vibe than he will get, told me that elders from three different First Nations were in the audience, a watershed for local communities.)
A loud, sloppy blues punk performance from bass and drums duo Whitey Houston, at a gazebo near the fork of the Yukon and Klondike rivers, was a perfect scuzzy palate cleanser, a dose of low-brow hilarity to balance out the cultural high-mindedness.
An evening at the Palace Grand ― a beautiful tall narrow theatre space ― started with Amelia Curran, who was effortlessly charming singing songs about herself, her feelings and her job. A more formal set by Etran Finatawa ― including the radically different regalia of their two communities ― showcased some adept multi-rhythmic grooves (including getting the audience to clap in 5/6 time) and remarkable guitar playing. Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq ― pregnant and clad in a long, skin-tight black dress ― was joined by veteran improvisers Jesse Zubot (violin) and Jean Martin (drums). After warming up by showcasing the repertoire of sounds typical to throat singing, the trio launched into a 40-minute piece of improvisation that was intimate, sensual, terrifying, beautiful, ugly, shrieking and cathartic. Only about half the audience took on Tagaq's implied "leave if you must, but if you're staying you're coming with us" journey; those who did were left shaken and amazed.
Back on the mainstage, Afrobeat band Mr. Something Something had nothing but a party groove on their mind, and Dawson City shook and shimmied in unison. Yukon Blonde's name alone may have burdened them with unfair expectations on this, their first-ever trip to the North, but their long-haired early '70s AM radio sound was a perfect match for a crowd more than happy to embrace them.
As day two turned into day three, surely the locals tired of us wandering about in a happy daze, commenting again that "it's still light out" ― as it was for the late night party sounds of the Stampeders, as it was for a house party set by Mr. Something Something, as it was wandering home at 5 am and then the next afternoon for a meeting of the African-minded members of Mr. Something Something, the Minotaurs and Etran Finatawa. That happy glow will certainly last in the hearts of those who danced and partied ― first-timers and locals alike ― in the land of the midnight sun.