By Skyler Isaac
Established in the year 2000, the Blue Feather Music Festival is a familiar event to Yukoners. For 17 years the festival has been wrangling many talented and well-known blues and rock performers up to the Territory.
The festival is always heavily attended, and locals begin to brim with excitement weeks beforehand. You can hear the murmurs of which bands are coming and who’s going to be at the event this year at almost every street corner and grocery store lineup.
The sad story behind the festival’s inception is also fairly well-known: Jolie Angelina McNabb was a First Nations woman who tragically committed suicide. Upon her burial, Elders of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation bestowed upon her the name Blue Feather Eagle Woman. From there her widowed husband Gary Bailie created the Blue Feather Music Festival in her honour.
But that’s the story of why the festival exists.
It is with heads full of professional curiosity that the Shakat team decided to put together a story about how the festival comes to be each and every year. What follows is an insider’s perspective on what it takes to bring together an entire festival.
Every year, the Blue Feather Music festival is pulled together entirely by volunteers, some of whom have been involved in the process for all seventeen years of the event’s existence, ever since they were mere youth.
The festival takes place at the Yukon Arts Centre every year on the first weekend of November.
The lobby is empty when we arrive, save for a handful of Arts Centre security guards with nothing to guard. We make our way past the ticket booth, past the bar, and eventually backstage.
From here we get a nice view of the stage proper. The drum kit is all set up, just waiting for someone to occupy the seat behind it and bring it to life. Rows of guitars are lined up in the dark. Multi-colored lights attempt to shine through a synthetic fog that has filled the stage, obscuring the equipment in a dramatic haze. In less than an hour, magic will be made.
There are a surprisingly small amount of people around, despite the fast-approaching start time. But it isn’t long before we encounter and flag down a tall man in a volunteer shirt and ask him a few questions about his experience.
“I’ve been the Stage Manager for four years,” says John MacDougall, an older gentlemen with a brown beard that shifts to white as it cascades down his chin, “But I’ve been involved in other aspects of the festival for eight years.
“My role really starts a couple weeks before the show. Each of the outside bands always send in information for how many performers, microphones, and drums [they have], stuff like that. So I get that information, look at it and see if we have the equipment that’ll match what their needs are.”
After a few minutes of conversation, John’s son Solon came over and spent time talking about his contributions to the festival.
“My dad brought me along when he came to do tech for Blue Feather about eight years ago,” he begins, “and I’ve come back every year since. So I’ve kind of grown up doing this [tech work].
“[My job] entails doing sound checks for all the bands, and setting up their equipment. Also moving stuff around and tearing down after [the festival].
“When I first started, it was mostly just local bands playing. But over the years, Gary’s been able to get some bigger bands from farther out. It’s just gotten bigger and bigger.”
The next pair to speak up is Gord and Claire Campbell, a father/daughter duo who have a history with the festival’s creator. “I work with Gary up at Kwanlin Dün,” says Gord, “so this is my fourth or fifth year, and my second year helping out backstage.”
“[I’m] volunteering,” continues Claire, “moving things around backstage. This is my first year doing it.”
Claire and Gord are part of the team responsible for moving equipment around between sets, thus preparing the stage for the next band on the playbill. Thankfully, there doesn’t seem to be much of a time commitment required for the pair. “We just got here at, like, six-thirty,” Claire chuckles (The music starts at 7 PM).
Gord explains a bit more of the appeal of volunteering: “We [both] have backgrounds in music,” he says, indicating his daughter at his side, “we like to play music. So it’s a nice extension to come up here and help.”
Having the opportunity to see the inner workings of a larger festival could certainly prove beneficial for any musician, whether they’re up and coming, or already established.
One such musician is Driftwood Holly, who decided to become involved behind the curtain after witnessing it last year. “This is my first time volunteering,” he says, “I saw the whole show last year, and it was quite remarkable. The energy of the festival was…very…it [got to my] heart, you know?”
But admiration for the festival and all it stands for isn’t the only thing that drew him here: “Volunteering is always a very good way to [learn] something. I’m good at performing, but the tech side is kind of my weak point. So to see how it’s built up…gives me a lot of information for my show later. What I can do better and what I should not do.”
After parting ways with Holly, we make our way upstairs to the sound booth. Once inside, we are greeted by several dauntingly complex-looking soundboards. It is nestled among these pieces of equipment where we find a young Lighting Assistant by the name of Jenelle Cousins.
“When an act comes on,” she says, explaining her responsibilities, “I have to turn down the lights and make the stage look at least a little appealing [and] making sure the lighting goes smoothly. Yeah, just making sure the stage looks lovely.
“I got involved with the festival when I was about eight years old,” she continues, “I met Gary and he asked me to come hang out and flip some switches for him. I started out with Gary going, “Switch this switch. Okay, now switch this one.” Gradually I just got around to doing it by myself. So for the last couple of years, it’s just been me solely doing it.”
Located in the same room is a bearded man with a serious look on his face. This is Carl Schmidt, who is in charge of Front Of House Audio, and he looks like he knows a thing or two about the backstage business. It’s no surprise, then, when he begins regaling us with his experiences with touring.
“My history in this field…I’ve been doing it for a lot of years,” he says with a self-deprecating chuckle, “I don’t know if I want to say how long, but most of my adult life I’ve been involved with all sorts of things, such as touring with Las Vegas show bands, doing jazz and folk festivals, I did the Roadside Attraction tour with The Tragically Hip.”
Carl’s role seems to require a lot more preparation time than some of the other volunteer positions. “The work that goes into this festival starts probably a couple of months before we even get to the venue, with Gary starting to choose artists. Sometimes he asks me if there’s someone who’s up and coming that I think might fit in with the festival. I usually get here two or three days before the festival and then it’s a matter of setting up and miking the stage and doing sound checks for the bands before the show even starts.”
All sorts of volunteers, from all walks of life, put in a lot of effort in order to bring the musical vision of Gary Bailie to life each and every year. And all that hard work is far from unappreciated. Once the final note has been played, and once the final piece of equipment has been packed away, Gary himself buys the beer and gathers as many of the festival’s participants as he can, including some of the performers, for quite the after party. This is Gary’s way of showing his appreciation for all the time and sweat that the volunteers have put into the event.
But it’s not just Bailie who acknowledges the work and passion that makes its way into the festival. Even the bands, most of whom have never previously attended Blue Feather, can tell that it’s something special.
The members of Philip Sayce’s band are polite, down to Earth, and humble as can be; quite different from the hard-hitting and emotionally-driven blues-rock in which the band specializes. They seem genuinely happy to be here.
Dusty Watson, drummer for the group, had this to say about the festival: “[We admire] the fellowship of it all, and the volunteers. For some of them, this was their seventeenth year [of working on Blue Feather]. It’s so great, Gary and these volunteers coming together and creating this event that can bring the whole community together [to] just celebrate life, you know? It was really beautiful. It’s a great experience.”
But not all of the performers were first-timers. The festival has lured the members of Digging Roots back to the Yukon four times over the years. “We love coming here because it’s a beautiful place,” states ShoShona Kish, the group’s lead vocalist, “It really feels like a privilege to be here. We also come because we believe in what [Gary] is building here.”
And really, the same can be said of Yukoners in general. We do believe in the Blue Feather festival. Proof of this can be found in the form of another small anecdote from Dusty Watson:
“We were wandering around downtown, and we met a man who was wearing his 2003 Blue Feather shirt. He told us about how proud he is to have been able to watch it grow [through the years].”
So, that’s what it takes to bring together an entire music festival. A couple dozen hard-working volunteers who are passionate about what they’re doing, months of planning and booking musical acts, and of course, the promise of free beer.
The Blue Feather Music Festival is something unique; A gathering of passion and hope created from the ashes of despair, an event arranged and put together entirely by a group of volunteers, and one of the best musical experiences that the Yukon has to offer.