For a city whose tourism market depends on perpetually re-enacting the late-19th century, the Dawson City Music Festival has always given the tiny community a foothold in the modern world.
The 31-year-old music festival is a lasting symbol of the late-1970s “reinvention” of Dawson City, said mayor John Steins.
About 35 years ago, scores of young people—Steins among them—began descending on the sleepy mining town.
It was only a matter of time before the city’s new cadre of free-thinking tent-dwellers had designs on a music festival.
A small group of organizers collected $3,900 in donations from local businesses, with the promise that all profits would be donated to the city’s recreation fund.
After a weekend of performances including “Cockney Cowboy” Paul Hann and Canadian folkie David Essig, organizers found themselves sitting on a $1,000 profit.
“There’s a picture of me somewhere handing a ($1,000) cheque over to the mayor of the day,” said Steins.
Dawson might otherwise be a geographic footnote, at least to the continent-away centres of Toronto and Montreal.
However, the festival has transformed the Gold Rush relic into a well-known spot on the national cultural scene.
“Our little festival has gained a lot of traction in a lot of different places,” said Steins.
Located far from the standard Canadian festival circuit and unable to pay big city rates, Dawson nevertheless remains a coveted gig.
First off, Dawson City offers its performers individual soundchecks: a rare commodity in the fast-paced festival circuit.
The festival’s homestyle hospitality is like no other.
A typical Canadian festival performer would roll into town in their tour bus, be put up in a hotel and served a tray of backstage cheese and crackers.
Desperately short of hotel rooms, all musicians are billeted in the homes of local Dawsonites.
No caterers are to be found; all snacks and meals are cooked by festival volunteers.
“You’re having a barbecue with the city of Dawson every day,” said festival producer Amy-Lynn Karchut.
Hundreds of kilometres from anything, Dawson City foots the travel bills of its performers—also a rare festival perk.
“In order to subsidize travel we spend pretty much every cent we have,” said Karchut.
Pile all the perks together, and festival organizers are routinely deluged with more than 400 annual applications.
This year, “it’s at least that; it’s endless,” said Karchut.
The Barenaked Ladies, the Great Lake Swimmers, Bruce Cockburn and the Crash Test Dummies have, in past years, fallen under the Dawson spell.
Staying close to the festival’s “something for everybody” mantra, this year’s 21-artist lineup looks like a musical gumbo.
Ottawa’s the Acorn promises the soft-edged, toe-tapping folk so well-received in Dawson’s Palace Grand Theatre.
Mix piano virtuosity with puppy-cute whimsy and you’ve got Coeur de pirate (Pirate heart), the indie stage name of Quebec singer-songwriter Beatrice Martin, also featured at the Palace Grand.
With Gadji-Gadjo, finger-breaking clarinet teams up with accordion, fiddle, guitar, upright bass and percussion to churn out the wickledly-fast folk music of Eastern Europe.
The sextet also slots in trace quantities of jazz, classical and rock.
Montreal’s Socalled was a hip hop artist before he got into klezmer. Now, he does both. Dressed in earthtone cardigans and with a full frock of black curls, Socalled can be seen calling out sharp white-boy rhymes overtop samplings of Yiddish theatre recordings.
Sunset Rundown are the festival’s most obvious ambassadors of the Montreal indie scene.
Old-style Vancouver-based folkies Headwater, and the haunting banjo of Interior BC’s Elena Yeung fit in snugly amidst Dawson’s unpaved streets and rustic saloons.
Aboriginal influence arrives courtesy of Iskwew (pronounced ‘is-kway-yo’). Through a cappella and traditional drumming, the three women of Iskwew perform original songs in the tradition of Plains, West Coast and Northern Interior First Nations.
Even classical has edged its way onto the Dawson City schedule.
Piano trio Triple Forte presents a full slate of chamber music coupled with renowned local soloists..
Whitehorse’s own Crash the Car and children’s performer Lana Rae have also been counted onto the festival lineup.
As always, expect Dawson’s “Harmonica George” McConkey—a festival fixture since day one.
By nightfall, the evening’s main stage will host a full complement of dance-worthy blues, country and rock.
Kings of a cappella the Persuasions will be playing Thursday night in Dawson, but not during the festival itself.
Still, the Brooklyn-born quintet is sticking around, and may drop in on the occasional workshop.
With only 1,250 ticketholders, Dawson’s festival maintains an unprecedented level of intimacy.
(The Calgary Folk Music Festival, on the other hand, regularly pulls in 12,000 spectators. The Vancouver Folk Music Festival brings in 30,000).
Hitting the dance floor late on a Friday or Saturday evening, spectators can often find themselves bumping against the stage’s opening acts.
Among other Canadian festivals, Dawson City remains a bargain, said Karchut.
Last year’s Pemberton Festival in the small town of Pemberton, BC, counted 40,000 spectators and artists ranging from the Tragically Hip, Coldplay and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
A star-studded lineup, sure, but spectators soon found themselves swamped with extra fees.
Camping was at a premium and spectators were forced to buy food and water onsite.
The Dawson City Music Festival, by comparison, feels like a wedding reception.
Food and drink pass liberally through the festival gates—and beers are sold at reasonable festival prices.
“The point of this festival isn’t to make money at all; it’s to break even,” said Karchut.
Unlike many of its contemporaries, the Dawson City Music Festival isn’t the brainchild of a savvy promoter; it’s success rides on the back of Dawsonites, and Dawsonites alone.
“I see it as an expression of something the community does together,” said Steins.
Any city can gather a bunch of musicians into an outdoor tent, but few become as consumed by their music festivals as Dawson.
“Try and find a hotel room on music festival weekend; it takes over the city,” said Lloyd.
More than 500 volunteers are on hand to run security and the beer garden, another 300 work the tech side.
Throw in the cooks and tent raisers, and “close to 1,000” volunteers staff the festival, said Karchut.
Not unremarkable in a city whose winter population plunges to less than 1,300.
Natural forces have yet to exterminate the revered event.
Rains have occasionally doused the festival’s outdoor venues.
Last year’s rains caused spectators to gingerly step around the beer garden’s steadily deepening mud pit.
By late evening, an inevitable spate of Woodstock-esque mudsliding had broken out.
Even 2004’s raging forest fire season wasn’t enough to stop the music.
Burning embers rained down on Dawson City, and smoke was so thick that the airport risked closure.
“The only way we would cancel the festival is if the town is evacuated,” said then-producer Dylan Griffith to the Yukon News.
“The whole city was filled with smoke, but during the festival, somehow it dissipated,” said Steins.
Spectators flock to the festival with equal vigour.
“I’m constantly shaking my head worrying about selling tickets, which is not something you had to worry about in Dawson,” said former festival producer Dominic Lloyd, who now organizes events in Winnipeg.
The Klondike Highway remains the most popular lifeline to the late-July festival—but festival revellers have also been known to take the trip by water.
Canoeist and kayakers have made the Whitehorse to Dawson journey, paddling ashore just in time to catch the inaugural Friday afternoon concert at the Dawson City gazebo.
“In the past, people have tried to build rafts,” said Karchut.
Contact Tristin Hopper at