Yukoners use their sagging detached garages to indulge their passions. In Old Town, Whitehorse that can be tinkering with trucks, building projects, and most often storing their treasures that can’t fit into the small houses.
But beside the weed-covered ditches of Eighth Avenue, the pert sounds of an acoustic brass band pop out of a garage. It’s the weekly practice of The Brass Knuckle Society. Jesse Whitehead lives in the nearby house and is the leader of the band.
“It’s fun to have the juxtaposition of New Orleans or Old World brass in the Yukon,” he says. “It was my ambition when I moved up here. It’s celebratory. It builds community. The tradition is live acoustic music in the street – original, live folk music from around the world. I think it’s important to reach out to people – that’s what we are about.”
Whitehead is a Kootenay boy turned Vancouver musician/cycle tourer. When he moved to the Yukon a year and half ago, he cycled to Atlin to play his trumpet and cornet at the music festival and later paddled to Dawson for their famous July festival.
Then he met a tuba player from Quebec City, Wiliam Auclair Bellemare, and grabbed him to begin building a band. Kristen Range plays accordion while Thibaut Rondel is on alto sax.
“Things really clicked when we met Will Hegsted, tenor sax. He’s the one that brought everybody to the next level. He challenged us every day and by the third practice he wrote a song for us. He inspired us to get shows and be a real band.”
While Whitehead is the organizational leader of the band, they look to Hegsted as the musical director. Hegsted spent the first eight years of his life on a trapline near Frances Lake and says he absorbed music into his bones from his family.
“My dad was a music teacher before I was born. I learned music through osmosis, there was always instruments lying around the house so I spent a lot of time dabbling. I got my first saxophone when I was 10 but only played it seriously in the last four years.”
The band laughs off the hierarchy of who is the boss, and Hegsted himself insists they are all open to ideas and simply throw things together the best they can.
Two months ago, Dawson Creek-raised Josh Regnier and his drums joined the band. His philosophy dovetails with the others. “If we are having fun and dancing around it is really inclusive and others do it,” he says. “It can open you up socially and it’s authentic.”
They say they want to reach out to people, and so on Halloween night The Brass Knuckle Society did. In fact, they reached in – into the homes and ears of Old Town residents as they marched through the streets.
The tuba summoned, the saxophones tempted, and the cornet thrilled us from the edge of the Pioneer Cemetery.
The accordion player was absent and the drummer was late to emerge from the garage. Under the hanging telephone wires Regnier strode down the hard mud of Eighth Avenue to join his band. He had secured his drums with dog leashes and bungee cords.
With a rat-tat-tat of the drums, children and dogs tugging on ropes ran after him. Costumed parents scurried to keep up.
On Wood Street about 75 living souls danced around the gleaming brass instruments. Some were in skeleton costumes on stilts. A finely dressed lady twirled her orange Chinese umbrella over her head. There were paper mache lanterns on poles. A witch in striped stockings kicked her legs up high while children jumped around to the oompah oompah melody.
The five masked musicians in wool suits led the way down Seventh Avenue with a slow tease. Whitehead used his hand to muffle the bell of his cornet to create suggestive notes. It sounded like an eastern European Jewish wedding song as it got faster and faster.
Kids zigged and zagged through the musical mob to trick or treat at each door. Residents stepped onto their porches or yards to peer at the Pied Piper musicians leading a motley dancing mob.
The Brass Knuckle Society paraded us down Fourth Avenue where cars honked at the sight. The cornet, proudly tarnished from a career longer than the life of anyone here, led the way to return us alongside the spruce treed cemetery.
The sky grew a richer black as the costumed crowd lingered to hear a gypsy tune. The stars had crept lower. It seemed they too wanted to hear the celebratory sounds.
“Our band was meant for moments like tonight,” said Whitehead.