The Palace Grand Theatre

Yukon: Making music in the Land of the Midnight Sun

Dawson City, Yukon – It’s mud-wrestling night in the beer garden at the Dawson City Music Festival.

Not that you’ll find wrestling listed on the festival’s official program. But thanks to heavy rains earlier in the day, part of the beer garden’s grassy expanse has turned to mud and six especially festive festival-goers are making the most of the opportunity.

With an impromptu soundtrack provided by the band Headwater (playing in the adjacent main-stage tent), the combatants grapple for 30 dirty minutes before security folks intervene.

Later, during a set by Sunset Rubdown, I spy one of the cleaned up (but obviously not sobered up) wrestlers dancing on the plywood floor in front of the stage. When the set finishes, at 2 a.m., I walk with locals and tourists, young tree-planters and middle-aged bikers, urban hipsters and wannabe rockers into the still-dusk-like night. This far north (64 degrees) the sun barely sinks below the horizon in July.

Such are the delights that await music lovers who fly to Whitehorse, drive six hours north to Dawson City and buy a weekend pass to one of Canada’s most perfect, tiny music festivals.

Dawson City, where the Klondike Gold Rush began in 1897 and where 1,800 hardy souls now live, has staged this three-day festival since 1976. Held in July, it brings together mostly Canadian acts performing all sorts of musical styles, from folk, blues and klezmer to hip-hop, indie rock, classical and country.

The music venues are just as varied, and all within walking distance along the town’s wooden sidewalks and dirt roads. The Palace Grand Theatre, opened in 1899, hosts evening performances (I check out the Acorn and Chad Van Gaalen on Friday night) as well as afternoon workshops in which musicians from various groups share the stage.

The First Nations Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre and St. Paul’s Anglican Church, built in 1902, also stage workshops. In the church on Sunday I sit in a pew to listen to a Spanish-flavoured set, then head to the bank of the Yukon River and the outdoor stage to hear Iskwew, a First Nations trio.

In the main-event tent in Minto Park (site of the beer garden) a steady stream of bands grace the stage. Mother Mother, Bend Sinister, Gadji Gadjo—I don’t recognize all the names, but I relish the opportunity to sample their music.

Since this is my first trip north I take breaks from the music to cruise the Yukon River aboard the Klondike Spirit paddlewheeler and to pan for gold at Claim 33, near Bonanza Creek where the nuggets that launched the gold rush were found. I also attend Parks Canada’s Robert Service program, an engaging, 60-minute history lesson held in front of the cabin where the 19th-century Klondike poet lived.

Actor Johnny Nunan is halfway through reciting “The Cremation of Sam McGee” when the sounds of yet another band kicking it into gear come drifting up from the main stage, about half a kilometre away.

When the music festival’s on in Dawson, its presence is impossible to ignore. But who’d want to?

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For more information on the Dawson City Music Festival visit the festival website at www.dcmf.com.

For information on travel in the Yukon visit the Yukon Tourism and Culture website at www.travelyukon.com.

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