Gordie Tentrees was one of the first Whitewater Wednesday jammers I ever saw.
Back in 2000, shortly after I moved to Whitehorse, Tentrees was still finding himself. But after a couple years of dedication and perseverance, he became a great player and singer-songwriter, taking inspiration from folk country legends such as Fred Eaglesmith and John Prine.
Since then, he’s produced three albums with a full band and done several tours of North America and Europe. Earlier this year, near the end of a 75-day tour, he played a solo concert at Livegraphy Studio in Helsinki, Findland, which he record and has released as Naked in Scandinavia.
This is the way to appreciate Tentrees: an intimate and stripped-down show, his gruff voice matched by his fingerpicking on acoustic guitar and dobro, lightly accompanied by harmonica and a porch board bass, a contraption that amplifies his foot-tapping for a steady bass rhythm.
Tentrees uses this intimate staging not just to sing his songs, but to talk about them, to put them into context for an audience that may not be familiar with life in Canada, let alone the Yukon.
“Has anyone heard of the Yukon?” he asks his quiet audience. “Has anyone heard of Ontario?”
Taking advantage of this, Tentrees stretches the truth about Northern Canadian life.
“You have to wrestle grizzly bears to start your vehicle,” he explains.
He also exaggerates the lawlessness of Dawson City and the Westminster Hotel (aka “The Pit”) as an introduction to his song, “Dawson City”.
This is the only song where he’s accompanied, being joined on vocals and melodica by the Scandinavian-Yukon singer, Sarah MacDougall, who also performed on the tour.
The intimacy of the setting gives Tentrees an opportunity to be more serious, explaining the tragedy behind his song, “Death & Dust”. A neighbour mistook one of Tentrees’ friends for a burglar and shot him.
The song is haunting, a simple melody with mixing images of innocent farm life and death.
He’s also able to tell the story of his old boxing coach, Everton “The Angel” McEwan, who knocked out 87 men in a row. “They called him ‘The Angel’ because right before he’d knock you out, he’d smile at you. He was real nice about it.”
Not to discredit his usual band members, such as the excellent guitarists Ken Hermanson and the late Aylie Sparks, who played on Tentrees’ first album 29 Tons of Freight, but listening to Tentrees play solo reveals him to be a great guitarist.
On “Farm Boy”, he rocks out a dobro blues riff that can hold its own with some of the best blues musicians in the Yukon. On “Alfred” he plays a folksy riff that displays his skill but never overpowers. “87 Men” features a Dylanesque harmonica intro.
And as he sings his songs in a soft voice, allowing the lyrics to speak for themselves, the effect is almost angelic, albeit an angel who will smile before knocking you out.
Outstanding Tracks: “Farm Boy” and “Death & Dust”.