Sitting in a booth on the third level of Dawson’s whimsical Palace Grande Theatre, a friend to my left said he felt “just like Abraham Lincoln, before he was assassinated.”
The feeling of occasion overcomes you in Dawson’s famous playhouse.
And that magic finds its way into every corner of the Dawson City Music Festival.
Organizers bill the event as “Canada’s tiny perfect festival” and the sales pitch is refreshingly honest.
The town’s gold-rush facade, its far-away setting, its gritty folk and streets, its Yukon scenery and raunchy saloons all conspire to make you itch for a gunfight at high noon, and a rock concert at night.
But please, don’t tell anyone south of 60 about the Dawson City Music Festival.
What makes Dawson’s festival so perfect, so enchanting, is that it’s our Yukon secret: a first class music festival in our favourite Yukon town.
Now pass me a Chilkoot.
Dawson’s festival always mixes elements of musical strangeness and obscurity with more popular and accessible acts.
Unless you monitor the Canadian music scene with a microscope, you will hear unknown Canadian talent in Dawson.
This year’s festival didn’t fail.
But still, nothing could prepare me for Toronto’s Owen Pallett, known to many by his stage name, Final Fantasy.
Pallett is likely best known as the guy who plays strings for Montreal’s Arcade Fire.
After watching a workshop at the riverside gazebo Saturday afternoon, I struggled to describe his solo music to friend’s who had yet to hear him.
“He’s a violinist … but not like you’re thinking,” I said.
“He uses electronic gadgets to loop small bits of songs. He keeps building and building them into these layered arrangements.
“I think he’s a genius.”
I said this after watching Pallett construct an entire Mariah Carey song, beats and all, with his violin and his electronic pedals.
He was playing at a cover-song workshop, after all.
Pallett’s headline show later that night at the Palace Grande was, understandably, a bit harder to describe in a sentence.
Witnessing him weave crude thumps on the body of his violin, with screams into its electric pickup, and intricate melodies bowed on its strings, all into a musical climax, is a haunting experience.
You don’t listen or watch a Final Fantasy show, you submit to it and allow Pallett to etch emotions into you with his bow.
Several people commented they had to close their eyes to experience it all.
Pallett’s one-man technique of building song element loops into complex arrangements was the cutting edge at this year’s festival.
Mihirangi, a singer-songwriter from New Zealand, layered airy voice texture loops with beats spit into the mike with Bjork-like melodies, then danced across the stage twirling poi in her hands as her music continued to play.
Looping technology enables musicians to create a performance bigger than playing an instrument or singing.
The other act I’ll be describing to the unlucky ones who didn’t make it to Dawson was decidedly low-tech in comparison.
But the cowboy-psychedelia-meets-punk-meets-shock-rock of Victoria, BC’s Hank & Lily impressed nonetheless.
Imagine a Western-themed vaudeville act, in which a woman plays a damsel in distress while also playing an electric saw, the drums while standing up, and screaming baby-voiced lyrics.
To her side stood Hank, playing a guitar and singing distorted lyrics … into a gas mask.
Hank and Lily scared the heck out of me, and I loved it.
Though I missed their shows, Death In Venice and Scotch were also on everybody’s breath this weekend.
So was beer.
But thankfully, the smell wasn’t too strong: The beer gardens were separated from the main festival tent, leading many to concentrate on the music rather than the alcohol.
It was an inspired decision.
At times I caught myself wondering why the Dawson City Music Festival isn’t bigger.
Could there be a cooler music festival in Canada, I thought?
It isn’t hard to see how Dawson’s music festival could be the next big thing on the Canadian music fest circuit.
But then I realized Dawson’s obscurity and smallness are what make it so perfect.
It’s a miniature weekend festival, tucked away into the northern exotica of the Klondike, known only by those few souls who venture north in search of adventure.
Let’s hope it stays that way for years to come. (TQ)