There were times when Nemaska’s music festival felt like a good karaoke night in some lonesome out-of-the-way dive. Which was fun because, who doesn’t love dives and karaoke?
Nothing would happen in Cree land if it didn’t start late. Which is why Roger Orr is nervously prowling the stage 45 minutes after the scheduled start time of five o’clock. “I feel f**king good, ready to rock’n’roll!” lies Orr. At six o’clock, the amps crackle to life and the soundcheck starts.
The show begins at seven and an opening prayer is offered up to the gods of rock’n’roll. Emcee Nick Wapachee, dressed in a gaudy pinstriped white suit and matching fedora, introduces the first act.
Orr, his act honed sharp by hours of karaoke in his basement, is up first. He sings a few of his own compositions and a Neil Young cover. There aren’t many to catch his performance, but you wouldn’t know it given his enthusiasm. He’s into his act as if he were opening for the Neil Young himself. Orr leaves the stage to a smattering of applause. But the night is young.
People are still arriving and the sun dips when Eastmain’s Northern Medicine Drummers gather around a drum and sing a song you’d never hear in a karaoke club.
Waswanipi rapper Jaylyfe’s beats draw the young’uns to the front of the stage. His rhymes are the typical boasts of ghetto rappers heard every day on the radio and TV. The kids love it.
Our first karaoke moment happens when local singer Sigouin Wapachee comes on. She sings like an angel with eyes not unlike Rihanna’s. Later that night she sings with Gary Jolly, doing a great version of Eminem and Rihanna’s Love The Way You Lie. Angelina Brien of Mistissini comes on with her young son. The boy’s barely audible but at least he’s cute standing there in the lights.
The mood changes when Midahimin from Chisasibi appear. They perform a heavy version of U2’s Where The Streets Have No Name. They’re cool, relaxed and tight as if they’ve been doing this job for years. But for some reason, the shy Nemaska crowd hangs back far from the stage.
The night is clear and cold and people are wrapped in blankets. Claude McKenzie comes on with his guitar and the crowd moves towards him. Two Kashtin hits and one new song is enough to leave them hollering for more. It takes the likes of McKenzie to get Nemaska to warm up. The emcee hushes the crowd with the promise that McKenzie will be back the next night.
A half a Kashtin is a hard act to follow but Night Switch were unfazed and held their own. Brothers Lance and Daniel Knight, and drummer Dominic LaPlante – three Crees from Saskatoon – have been playing together for five years. Their sound is Kings of Leon, Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Strokes. Daniel challenges the crowd to come to the stage again but few do. These guys are no cover band and perform a string of original songs that aren’t appreciated.
The disappointing crowd redeem themselves when headliner Joey Stylez joins the trio. I leave with the sound of young girls screaming in delight to Joey’s onstage antics. At one point, he has the brothers doing push-ups onstage.
Saturday night is almost a repeat of the previous night with a few karaoke acts scattered throughout. Tom Polson and Hazel Gunner of Mistissini are painful to watch as Johnny Cash and June Carter, but they make a valiant effort. After their performance, Nick Wapachee struggles for kind words and manages a diplomatic sentence. Rachel Hester of Mistissini is good karaoke gone gospel.
The Darryl Hester Band with guitarist Anthony Moses, formerly of CerAmony, and bassist Paul Napash, blow an amp but soldier on. They return later with Claude McKenzie doing Kashtin’s greatest hits. It’s like the early ’90s and McKenzie charms the audience when he comes back for an encore sporting a Nemaska hockey jersey.
Waskaganish’s comedy duo Queenie Steven and James Jonah come on and steal the show as a constantly bickering old Cree couple. Jonah’s old man brings home a huge bag of dog food for the grandchildren thinking that it’s cereal. Steven’s old lady has been invited to a “music vegetable”. She attempts to abandon her old man, berating him to take a bath. He refuses so she powders his stinking feet with a whole container of baby powder. The pair’s obvious love of Elders shows in their act and is dead on.
Laughter almost leads to crying when disaster nearly strikes. Jeremy Polson, a 15-year-old from Waswanipi, comes on dressed in a short skirt, high heels, a wig and full makeup. He’s Tina Turner. A few beats after “Proud Mary” jumps tempo, Polson slips on the baby powder and crashes to the floor, nearly rolling off the stage. Somewhat disoriented he gets up in obvious pain and finishes the song. After years with Ike, that’s something Tina could easily do.
The festival ends with two rap groups from Toronto. M3G and Point Blank drove hours to get here, running out of gas on a lonely stretch of the James Bay highway and probably stopping at mostly white towns, getting stared at. They come on with drinks in their hands and get the crowd going by showering them with CDs. They end their set with the question: Where’s the after party!?
And the rest is Nemaska party history where everyone gets rip roaring drunk. That, after all, is rock’n’roll and that’s why we like it.