It was strange that one of the most exotic acts at the Dawson City music festival was also the most local.
At the stroke of midnight July 18, three figures mounted the Dawson main stage decked out in the best of 1898 Klondike finery — two men in black three-piece suits and a woman in girdle, garter and colourful can-can skirt.
Their faces were painted with wild, voodoo-like patterns, and they bore a bizarre mix of instruments — funky slap bass, guitar and accordion.
They produced extremely unconventional groove, put to French lyrics and emitted with an almost feral intensity.
The Dawson City festival program, forever cursed with describing musical groups in only 100 words, describes the Whitehorse-based band, known as Soir de Semaine, thusly: “A little splash of folk, a hefty glug of funk, three fingers of rock and a shot of reggae.”
“Remember to print that — it’s a great description,” advised bassist Alain Desrochers, who is himself often at a loss to describe the band’s unique sound.
Being an over-the-top French-speaking band, Soir de Semaine members are well aware that they stand out amid the acoustic-folk-ridden Whitehorse music scene.
It is a difference that they cultivate to its fullest possible extent.
“We know that we’re strange, so we push that button as much as we can,” said accordionist and flautist Marie-Maude Allard.
Gaudy makeup and period evening wear aside, the band also draws upon a rich stable of theatrics reminiscent of the Cirque-de-Soleil, and high-energy audience participation.
“Every time we play, it’s like Halloween,” said Desrochers.
“For me, it’s like Christmas,” said Allard.
Behind all the high-energy whimsy of the band’s three younger front-members — Desrochers, Allard and guitarist Pascal St-Laurent — lies drummer Marc Paradis and general percussionist Cory Chouinard, the two elders of Soir de Semaine.
Contrasted with the 20-somethings fronting the act, the two percussionists are late to middle-aged.
“It’s kind of a funny band in that way; usually bands are all the same age — or at least born within the same decade,” said Paradis.
“I could be these guys’ dad,” he added.
It may be their age, or their rhythm-keeping professions, but the two are sage beacons amidst an ocean of madness.
“These guys provide the creativity and the energy; Cory and I try and instill a sense of calmness,” said Paradis.
A publicity photo on the main page of the band’s website adequately portrays the band’s intergenerational nature: Desrochers, Allard and St-Laurent stand in full makeup, with Allard and St-Laurent both mischievously sticking out their tongues.
Chouinard delivers a normal-looking smile at the back of the group, a solitary painted eye in the middle of his forehead.
Paradis stands to the side, clear of any face paint, bearing a kind, tolerant smile.
Before he came aboard, Paradis described the band as “out of control.”
“It was OK — but it wasn’t very musical,” he said.
Paradis and Chouinard’s role is to take the zaniness of the other members and channel it into an appropriate context.
The two elders have definitely got their hands full.
Desrochers is known to throw a barrage of beach balls into the audience, ensuring that their performance is well framed by cascading multicoloured spheres.
For one particular song, Allard runs screaming onto the stage in a loosened strait jacket. Desrochers and St-Laurent then quickly grab her, secure the jacket’s straps and position her in front of a microphone.
Introducing band members at Dawson City, Desrochers held up a red rose when his name was announced. Then, with a quick flick of a lighter, the rose vanished into a ball of flame.
Keeping the audience guessing is a large part of the band’s credo — imbuing the musicians with an aura of delicious unpredictability.
“Je veux que le monde soit surprise (I want the audience to be surprised),” said Desrochers.
For one show, the group installed a small pyrotechnic set-up at the front of the stage.
Several songs into their set, a misinformed technician ignited the charge without warning, setting off an unexpectedly large explosion.
The musicians and the audience trembled in the face of the thunderous shockwave as it rolled through the venue.
“It scared the shit out of me,” said Paradis.
For a moment, the smoke cloud clung to the front of the stage before roiling into the crowd, causing them to gasp for air.
At this year’s Alsek Music Festival in Haines Junction, Desrochers smashed an acoustic guitar on stage. But he failed to wait until the song had ended.
“I learned that it’s very hard to continue playing music without an instrument,” he joked.
And through it all, the percussion cleanly soldiers on.
“People my age, when they get a band together, they don’t bother to do all this extra stuff,” said Paradis.
“These guys have a real desire to entertain, any idea they get, they’re not afraid to try it,” he said.
Needless to say, the whimsical French craziness of Soir de Semaine is extremely popular with young children — which jives quite well with the band members’ choice of day job.
During the week, the band’s three flamboyant non-percussionist minstrels morph into elementary school teachers.
Allard is a teaching assistant and Desrochers is a gym teacher at Whitehorse Elementary while St-Laurent teaches throughout the city at different schools.
The band often performs for school children, which means the gigs are extremely heavy on audience participation.
Between animal noises, acting and singing, the children work almost as hard as the performers.
Soir de Semaine attributes much of its entertaining prowess to working with children — in many ways, a group of rambunctious elementary school kids can be very similar to a rowdy music festival crowd
“For me as a gym teacher, it’s all about knowing what people want, when and how … and we’re all about taking our skills from education and bringing it to the stage” said Desrochers.
By the way, it also works fabulously in reverse.
Being Ziggy Stardust-esque rock stars is apparently an ideal way to command the respect of preteens, ensuring demigod status in the halls of Whitehorse Elementary.
In August, Soir de Semaine will embark on a mini-tour in cities in and around Quebec.
Allard, Desrochers, and St-Laurent travel to their home province every year, so it just made sense to haul along Chouinard and Paradis for some gigs, said Desrochers.
In a whirlwind nine-day visit, Soir de Semaine will be making stops at Montreal’s famous Les Francopholies festival, then at Quebec City for the festival of New France, followed by a smattering of smaller venues throughout Sherbrooke, Ottawa and Montreal.
More information is available online at soirdesemaine.com