According to Andrew Laviolette, who makes up one half of folk duo the Bryant Crooks, one phrase kept echoing off of the sloping tent walls that covered the main stage at this year’s Dawson City Music Festival: “This is the farthest north I’ve ever been!”
Located six hours northwest of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Dawson City is an isolated town with a population of only 1, 319 people. Every summer during the third weekend in July, the small town swells beyond capacity to accommodate visitors and musicians for the Dawson City Music Festival. Having just completed its 34th year, DCMF welcomes folk, blues, soul and country music acts from across Canada and the United States. This year, it ran from July 20-22, and although there was talk of a decreased turnout compared to past years, festival passes quickly sold out.
While the great North may have been uncharted territory for most of the bands on this year’s lineup, Laviolette, a self-taught guitarist and songwriter, has been living in the land of the midnight sun with his girlfriend and bandmate, Kirsten Poenn, since Sept. 2011. The Bryant Crooks were born that winter, with the goal of being able to play this year’s festival.
It may be surprising to some that both festival-goers and musicians would make the long trek north to attend DCMF. With past guests that include the Constantines, Rich Aucoin and Julie Doiron, one may wonder if it’s the intimacy of the town, combined with the breathtaking scenery surrounding it, that compels people to make the trip.
“Dawson has a great community,” said Poenn, Bryant Crooks’ fiddlist and vocalist. “People seem to want to be really involved. I’ve also been really impressed by the arts scene in Dawson; like how a town this small and remote has managed to put on so many events. I think it’s because the people are so receptive and willing to help out, and that can also be said for the festival.”
Performances were held at five locations within a few blocks from one another, so it was easy to hop between venues. Along with nighttime concerts at the mainstage, there were plenty of daytime activities – including a Kids Fest – and a no-alcohol policy inside the venues, which meant that the whole family could enjoy the festivities.
This year’s lineup – as in previous years – was solid. Familiar faces included Toronto’s Bruce Peninsula, who delivered three powerful sets over the course of the weekend; Midland, Born Ruffians, who had the crowd begging desperately for an encore; Montreal’s Canailles, whose engaging performance undoubtedly won over plenty of new fans; and Saskatoon’s country-folk act Deep Dark Woods.
In a proud display of the Yukon’s intimate connection with its aboriginal peoples, the festival welcomed the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in singers from neighbouring Moosehide Village, as well as Vancouver’s Cris Derksen. The cellist, whose music is inspired by her Cree ancestry, played a mesmerizing experimental, electronic set that captivated the audience.
A rare treat was an appearance by Detroit R&B legend Andre Williams, who played alongside Chicago band The Goldstars.
While Dawson City Music Festival was a blast for both show-goers and bands alike, the Bryant Crooks had the unique experience of being both participant and observer.
“I shared the stage with some of my favourite musicians: Doug Paisley, members of Bruce Peninsula, and a cellist, Cris Derksen, from Vancouver, at the Palace Grand,” said Laviolette.
As for Poenn, the chance to play in a more professional setting made the experience all the more special.
“It was amazing,” she gushed. “We had the best sound we’ve ever had because we played in a room with beautiful acoustics, we had great equipment and we had a very knowledgeable guy doing the sound for us. We’re not used to that; we’re used to playing in noisy bars. It was really refreshing.”
It may be easy for artists to become enchanted by the natural beauty and friendly people of Dawson, but Poenn and Laviolette stressed that it is much easier being a visiting musician than a resident one.
“It’s not like being a musician in a city where you can grow and start to play bigger shows,” Poenn added.
While the little northern town is certainly not the most fertile ground for a band to lay its roots, perhaps the most charming part of this story is that in the midst of a harsh, lonely winter, nestled in a small cabin by a frozen flow called Bryant Creek, a very talented twosome managed to find theirs.
The Bryant Crooks will be launching a cross-Canada tour this fall, starting in Dawson City and ending in Thunder Bay, Ont.