The sun was coming up and the hoedown was going strong.
At first, only a couple people sought protection from the pouring rain on Saturday night at the gazebo on Dawson City’s waterfront. A guy with a banjo was playing lightly until someone began stomping their feet – an echoing drumbeat on the gazebo’s wooden planks that became an invitation.
Soon, more people began rushing up the gazebo’s steps to hide under the canopy. And then more. People kicked up their heals as the stomping increased and the gazebo – an impromptu dance hall for those unwilling to hit their tents – soon hit capacity.
Dresses swirled and the banjo player hit the bluegrass faves, old tunes that demand sweat and every last ounce of your energy. And as the horizon quietly brightened from dusk to the glowing coming of dawn, more than 100 friends and strangers whirled into a frenzy.
The Dawson City Music Festival had done its job.
Many in the crowd had come from the festival’s main stage where they drained as much out of JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound as they could. The Chicago soul group were that night’s closing act, and were dragged out for encore after encore. A performance of the Isley Brother’s Shout like that only comes once in a lifetime.
“Thank you for making this our first international tour,” exclaimed frontman Brooks as he left the stage.
“I’m loving this energy, Dawson, this is amazing,” he said.
Things come together at music festivals. When that many people gather in such a tiny space, spontaneous moments, like uninhibited hoedowns, are bound to happen.
But of course, not everything is ad-libbed. The concert organizers, from producer Tim Jones to every last volunteer, created the right conditions for a vibrant, exciting and stimulating musical celebration.
Beyond its sheer vitality, it’s difficult to pinpoint what, exactly, was this festival focus. But over the course of the weekend, themes emerged at the 32-year-old festival.
First, concertgoers were treated to a kaleidoscopic variety of Canadiana. At St. Paul’s Anglican Church on Saturday, several artists gathered for a workshop on homesickness.
Mary-Beth Carty, half of the folky duo Bette & Wallet, teared up before she decided to play a song about her home in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.
“If I sing a happy song I won’t cry,” she said, as she waited for her musical counterpart, Gabriel Ouellette, to accompany her at the altar-cum-stage.
Diyet, who released her first album just a few months ago, filled the 100-year-old church with her voice. She sang songs about the big city lights that made her miss her home in Burwash Landing.
And Dan Mangan took the room to another corner of the country, singing Pine for Cedars, a homage to the comfort of his home, Vancouver.
The ukelele sure got some rep at the festival. A Saturday workshop at the Palace Grand Theatre saw several artists demonstrate its versatility.
Mark Sasso and Casey Laforet, two amiable ukelele players from Elliot Brood, pumped the crowd into a rocking chorus for Write it All Down for You – no small feat for the tiny stringed instrument.
Tune-yards, the stage name of Merril Garbus’ one-woman show, strummed the ukelele into a trance-like sound with equally captivating vocals, proving that you can’t pigeonhole a traditional instrument. Ever.
Yukon favourite Mathias Kom, from the Peterborough-based band The Burning Hell, had the crowd in stitches with a song about how transients, and Germans, arrive in the Yukon and never leave.
And therein lies the most powerful aspect of the Dawson City Music Festival. As a one-of-a-kind national get-together, the festival serves as a auditory mingling session between Yukoners and everyone else.
For Yukoners, you get that same feeling of running into everyone you know – except that they’ve downed about five more beers than usual.
And for outsiders, the festival is the perfect interface to showcase the territory. Unlike Rendezvous and other big parties, the festival doesn’t depend on hackneyed vestiges of cultural life long past. The festival makes you feel like things happen here. Not 100 years ago, but today.
It does this while embodying the hospitality and love of small-town Canada, the power of tight-knit groups and the creative distance that ambitious artists can bridge.
Just like the old instruments and styles that graced the stages for three days, from soul music to ukuleles, nothing sounded like a re-creation.
This year, with events as simple as impromptu hoedowns in the rain, the festival cemented itself as a go-to event in Canada.
Contact James Munson at