How Frostbite got its groove back

Frostbite is going back to its roots, says artistic director Eric Epstein. When the festival first came to being in 1979 in the current home of the Transportation Museum, it was one of the only gigs in town for Whitehorse's...

Frostbite is going back to its roots, says artistic director Eric Epstein.

When the festival first came to being in 1979 in the current home of the Transportation Museum, it was one of the only gigs in town for Whitehorse’s cabin-fevered community. From the get-go, the spirit of Frostbite was explosive.

“People would come after months of holing up and shake it all off in this huge dance party,” said assistant artistic director Andrea Burgoyne.

“People would fall out of love, people would fall in love,” said producer Patrick Singh.

“There’s Frostbite babies – people who have been conceived at Frostbite – you get the idea,” he said.

The term “Frostbite widow” even found itself into local parlance. The vortex of Frostbite is known to suck husbands away from home for extended period, leaving wives temporarily stuck at home with the kids.

Frostbite may be just one in a whole catalogue of Yukon-based music festivals (Alsek, Dawson City, Sunstroke), but what sets Frostbite apart from its summer counterparts is the shared bond that winter has bestowed upon the festival’s assembled citizenry.

“Because we are a midwinter festival, the people that are really here are the ones that have been through the dark and 40 below,” said Frostbite president Michael Bellon.

“That what really makes it this extra release for people; the sun’s coming back, this is really the beginning of the end of winter,” he said.

A carousing binge in the midst of still-high heating bills, frozen locks and cold, dead automobiles.

“We drain the sound and technical companies; they don’t have any gear left after we’re done with them,” said Singh.

For visiting performers, spending three days in a vacated college playing to an appreciative, chilled audience offers a level of unbridled intimacy and audience response.

“There’s no cattle fence, we don’t have the crowd to a point where we need to fence them in,” said Bellon.

Performers need not retreat to the wings after their last encore. Often, they will exit off the front of the stage, joining the crowd to catch the next act.

The “fun” factor of Frostbite allows festival organizers to draw upon an incredible web of talent, even when faced with the constraints of low-funding and isolated locale. In the off-season, the Frostbite inbox becomes jammed with requests from performers Canada-wide hoping to get “frostbitten.”

Revisiting roots had has Epstein combing the North American music scene for the spiritual and musical embodiments of roots.

The Gallus Brothers mix steel guitar, banjo, juggling and Gay Nineties’ costumes into an act rife with 19th-century vaudeville charm.

Guitarist Amos Garrett may very well be roots incarnate. He’s a renowned studio musician whose riffs have graced the vinyl grooves of everyone from Jesse Winchester to Stevie Wonder to Bonnie Raitt. Yet, Garrett’s dynamity blues mastery has consistently evaded the direct glare of the spotlight, giving him an everyman stage appeal.

Pop-modsters Novillero bring a Brit-pop sound, pleasing both the dancers and the ear-cocked wallflowers.

Singer-songwriter Roxanne Potvin is only 26, but assails audiences with an honest, sultry blues seemingly imbued with the ghost of Dinah Washington.

Once the kids have all gone to bed, Wax Mannequin will unleash a one-man performance of sheer solo extravagance. Often known to be joined only by a complex network of pedals allowing him to loop his own guitar and vocals, Wax Mannequin weaves a whimsical, yet surging torrent of “psych folk.”

In past years, the festival has netted a number of famous musicians on their way to the top.

Sarah McLachlan and Ani DiFranco are both Frostbite alumni. Fifteen years ago, the Rheostatics even made an appearance.

“People were actually not that keen on them,” remembers Epstein.

Many musicians are still billetted, a hark-back to the days when every Frostbite performer found lodging in the spare rooms and couches of the Whitehorse citizenry.

Of course, a town jammed with amateur musicians stands only to benefit when it receives a concussive injection of visiting troubadours.

“People would be living with musicians, playing with them in workshops, and spending a long weekend of really getting to know each other and being exposed to outside musical influences,” said Bellon.

It’s a four-day party really, because the music begins just as soon as performers check into their Thursday night billet, he said.

Musicians are selected partly based on their ability to gel with Frostbite “experience.”

“You want people who play well with others,” said Epstein.

Of course, Frostbite is also a who’s who showcase of Whitehorse’s resident musicians. For many, the second week of February has long been seared into their gig calendar.

“A lot of locals would often get together and make a new band and try to come up with original stuff, and practise for weeks on end because they got a gig at the festival,” said Bellon.

“It encompasses the whole community when it works well,” he said.

Twenty-three local acts are sprinkled into the Frostbite line-up, including classical guitarist Nicholas Mah, blues singer Dennis Allen and rockabilly crowd-pleaser Sasquatch Prom Date.

Beyond a tent and some portable potties, summer music festivals don’t require a lot of infrastructure. Frostbite’s need to hold the festival indoors naturally imposes absurd logistical constraints.

Space constraints in previous years have forced a city-wide festival, with venues spread throughout the Whitehorse neighbourhoods. An equalizing sentiment, but by festival’s end, organizers had been barraged with complaints on the difficulties of traveling between venues.

“If you can’t walk from one end of the festival to the other in 10 minutes, it’s too big,” said Bellon.

Yukon College and the Yukon Arts Centre become a hilltop musical fortress, enveloping a staggering range of styles and performers. The festival’s four stage venues may be running, at the same time, jazz, indie rock, reggae and old-style country.

Of course, being entirely indoors, Frostbite attendees are given very little opportunity to actually get frostbitten – unless they make the short, frigid dash between the Yukon Arts Centre and Yukon College.

“Maybe you’ll get a chance to see the northern lights,” said Bellon.

Contact Tristin Hopper at

tristinh@yukon-news.com