Among perpetual restrictions, lockdowns, policy changes and general COVID-19 exhaustion, we can hardly fail to notice that the Yukon’s usually-vibrant music scene has somewhat dimmed lately. That said, it certainly hasn’t flickered out, and nowhere are the sparks quite so tenacious as at a certain local open mic.
The Whitewater Wednesday Jam, like so many creatures and creations endemic to the north, is an evolutionary tour de force, navigating and adapting to an ever-changing landscape. Now in its 25th year, this popular local jam is the artistic brainchild of long-time Yukoners Peggy Hanifan and Barry “Jack” Jenkins, who initially started it on Mondays at the Kopper King.
Over the years, they have operated the event under several names and out of even more locations, but always with the same drive — passionately showcasing, inspiring and encouraging local music.
“Many things make the Whitewater Wednesday Jam special to me,” Hanifan said, “but mostly it’s getting to meet so many local musicians and [musicians] from all around the world. One of the best things is the fact that we have musicians who have never performed live before and musicians who are established and celebrated locally and from afar. There has rarely been a jam where somebody new hasn’t arrived on the scene.”
Currently housed at the Local Bar, the Jam is based on a somewhat traditional open mic format, where prospective performers show up early and sign up for a three-song slot on stage. Often the jam is closed with a longer set by a feature performer. Musicians of any and every caliber are welcome and encouraged to perform, which makes every night a unique experience. Hanifan and Jenkins are proud of the Jam’s dedicated supportive clientele, who always encourage musicians to feel safe and comfortable on stage.
“I love the variety of music you can hear, like folk, classical, country, rock, reggae, jazz, punk, rap, just about anything goes,” says Jenkins. “We’ve made good friends, met their parents and kids, and celebrated birthdays.”
This welcoming, family-type atmosphere has always been present at Whitewater Wednesday, where musicians usually mingle, dance, borrow instruments and form impromptu, off-the-cuff jam groups. However, due to the onset of COVID-19 and subsequent safety protocols, much of this structure has had to change. Initially the jam was halted for several months, until a solid plan could be put into place. Once it opened again, performers were asked to bring their own mics and instruments. Then an upswell of cases initiated another temporary closure.
“As the COVID waves go up and down, so have the Jams… The last thing we ever wanted to do was have the Whitewater Jam make people sick from COVID,” Hanifan said.
She and Jenkins have been following protocols closely and intend to continue doing so, in order to keep the Jam operating on as normal a schedule as possible. For her and Jenkins, it’s crucial that music, and a place to play it, remain available to Yukoners.
“I have always felt in the roughly 40 years I’ve lived here, that live music has always been an amazing opportunity for local musicians. Living far from the big cities and having the amazing talent and musicians we have in the Yukon, it was so convenient to choose a genre and a venue when it was plentiful before the pandemic,” says Hanifan.
For her, the lack of live music lately has proved depressing and changed the artistic shape of the city. But her optimism clearly outweighs this temporary musical drought.
“I know we are all tucked in our homes playing music, learning new songs, and hoping we can get back to our venues soon.” Indeed, “soon” is just around the corner for the Whitewater Wednesday Jam; Hanifan and Jenkins have just announced their next event will be March 2, and are thrilled to be continuing at their latest jam home, The Local Bar.
“Darla and her staff are incredible. Another wonderful treat is having Roly Mitton doing sound every week,” says Hanifan. “Here’s something people might not know: Roly started with me at the jams at the KK 25 years ago, and we’ve come full circle.”
This coming week, the stage will be graced by local punk-ska band, Mister Bigly; the feature slots have already been booked out to the end of May, and it looks like a (cautious) full steam ahead is in the cards for Whitewater Wednesdays.
Understandably excited for the return of live music, Hanifan and Jenkins are taking it all in stride, fuelled by their unfaltering dedication to the Jam and continued optimism for the future of the Yukon’s music scene.
“Jack and I have been together for over 20 years, this show is our baby,” says Hanifan. “We will continue to nurture it and watch it grow. Our only long term goal is to keep on keeping on the way we have these last 25 years.”
For more information and to keep up-to-date on the Whitewater Wednesday Jam, visit the Facebook group page, “Whitewater Wednesday Night Jam.”
Willow Gamberg is the owner of Road Dogs Music Supply and The Lab Rehearsal Studios in downtown Whitehorse.