Folkies dig roots at Dawson City fest

It’s the Tuesday before the Dawson City Music Festival and producer Dylan Griffith is breathless. That’s not surprising.

It’s the Tuesday before the Dawson City Music Festival and producer Dylan Griffith is breathless.

That’s not surprising.

The guy’s juggling a festival with more than 20 performers, 400 volunteers and more than 1,100 spectators.

“Dawson City is like the romantic, renegade bastard child of the Yukon,” said Griffith.

“It’s definitely a draw for the people that come up here.”

Billeted at local houses for the weekend, the artists become part of the community.

“It’s a really different experience for them,” said Griffith.

With emerging acts from across the country heading north for the three-day fest, Dawson’s goal is not to score big names, said Griffith.

“Established artists are, rightly so, more expensive than emerging artists.

“And the talent that we bring up is equal or superior to more established talent in Canada.

“They’re excited to be coming up — it just makes sense.”

ShoShona Kish, of the band Digging Roots, is looking forward to the festival’s legendary “epic jam sessions.

“As soon as I said we were going to Dawson people started saying, ‘Oh man, you’re going to have so much fun, it’s so crazy,” she said in an interview from Barrie, Ontario.

Digging Roots began in the late ‘90s when a “strange guy” showed up unannounced on Kish’s doorstep.

“I came home and he was sitting in my living room,” said Kish.

“I was like, ‘Wow, who’s that and what is he doing in my house?’”

That “strange guy” turned out to be Raven Kanatakta.

“You haven’t seen Raven yet, but he’s pretty gentle on the eyes,” Kish added with a laugh.

The pair chatted for a while, then grabbed their instruments and auditioned for the Ottawa Folk Festival.

“We jumped on stage and ended up beating out 150 performers and getting our first gig together at the folk festival,” said Kanatakta.

“Needless to say there was some chemistry happening,” said Kish.

When they scored that gig in the late ‘90s, they’d never played together before.

Years later, in 2004, they formed Digging Roots and have been touring the country, even earning a gig at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC.

Imagine what they sound like now.

“It’s our own little cultural experiment,” said Kish. “How can we mess with the acoustic sounds and the traditional elements of music and force it out the small end of a speaker.

“This is probably going to end up a lyric, but our music is like our blockade.”

Dawson’s organizers conspire with other festivals across the country — such as Folk on the Rocks in Yellowknife — to bring acts north.

They work on booking together to save on airfare.

“It’s fantastically expensive to bring bands north from the west, but it’s even more fantastically expensive to bring them up from Ontario.”

Some acts proved more difficult to score than others.

In order to get Chirgilchin — a group of musicians from Tuva — to Dawson, Griffith had to write its Canada Council grant.

“We booked a large chunk of their Canadian tour just so we could have them play here,” said Griffith.

“To get them back to Canada took some fairly drastic measures, but we’re all happy — I’ve been hearing nothing but raves from the festivals they’ve already played.”

Why go to all that trouble?

“When you see them, you’ll understand,” said Griffith. “That’s the only way I can explain it.”

While some acts will use the fest as a springboard to bigger and better, others see it as a chance to reconnect with their northern past.

The “banjo songster” Old Man Luedecke started at the fest years ago as a summer student, washing dishes at Klondike Kate’s part-time.

He met his love in the Yukon and spent a year and a half writing songs and performing at the Snake Pit.

Two “fantastic” records later, he’s back to play the festival, said Griffith.

On the more raucous end of things, there’s Jon-Rae and the River from Ontario, and BC band Ladyhawk.

“I’m very excited to see them both,” said Griffith. “It’ll be good times in the old tent this year.”

The festival needs between 300 and 400 volunteers to happen, which means almost everyone in the community contributes something.

“It’s a ridiculously large festival for such a small town,” said Griffith.

Now sold out, there were 1,100 weekend passes on offer this year.

That’s up a couple hundred from years past.

To combat underage drinking and over-consumption, festival organizers pulled the beer garden out of the main tent.

That change also meant they could sell more tickets because they no longer had to follow the Yukon Liquor Corp.’s capacity rules.

“We’ve been really cautious about growth,” said Griffith.

“Dawson is known as ‘Canada’s tiny perfect festival’ and we want to keep it that way.”