Brendan Kelly had a lot on his mind when he went to the 1 a.m. show at Foxy’s Lounge the morning of October 22.
An avowed country and western music fan, Kelly had been looking forward to hearing one of his favourite singers, Aaron Pritchett.
But just over 24 hours previously, three students at Porter Creek Secondary School, where Kelly is the principal, had suffered serious burns when someone threw gasoline onto a bonfire they were watching.
Two of the boys had been medivaced to Vancouver, while the third was in hospital in Whitehorse.
It was the second tragedy to hit the school that month. Two weeks earlier, another student had died of injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident.
“October was quite a hard month for us, for the families, the community, and the students at Porter Creek Secondary,” Kelly says.
Efforts were already underway to collect items for a silent auction to help the burn victims’ families by the time Kelly and two colleagues showed up to hear Pritchett’s showcase set at the BreakOut West festival.
“After the show I approached him, and told him about the hard time that we were going through and the things we were dealing with at the school,” Kelly. “I thought he might send me a few CDs, or a few t-shirts.”
Pritchett, who says he was “in shock” after hearing the story, has a slightly different recollection of the specifics.
“They asked me if I would maybe get them a picture, or submit a video to the families with my wishes for the boys’ speedy recovery.”
Pritchett’s reaction was, “Well, that’s nothing. I wanted to be able to do more.”
When he sat down with his team, “throwing around a few ideas”, a plan soon emerged.
“I thought, ‘Let’s do this on a more grand scale and try to help these families who have to travel so far, and pay for extra treatment for the kids, and that kind of thing,'” the singer-songwriter recalls.
Pritchett is known for such high-voltage tunes as “Let’s Get Rowdy” and “Hold My Beer”, which earned him Best Independent Male Artist and Songwriter of the Year honours at the Canadian Country Music Awards in 2007.
But he has a quieter side.
“I’ve been going out across the country doing these acoustic shows and raising money for these small towns, everything from building outdoor rinks to raising money for sick kids in the area, or whatever the case was,” he explains.
“I went back to work on Monday, and my phone rang at the school,” Kelly recalls. “And he said, ‘Brendan, this is Aaron Pritchett, and I’m gonna do one better for you. I want to come back and do a benefit show, to help with the healing and help out with the expenses incurred by some of the families.'”
The idea of doing a benefit in Whitehorse was a perfect fit for someone who grew up in northern B.C., far from big-city amenities.
“I thought, ‘Let’s go all out on this one and not worry about costs of our own. Let’s try and help these guys out – maybe bring two or three hundred people out to an event and raise a couple of thousand dollars on this.'”
A few days later, Kelly called Pritchett in Vancouver.
“And he said, “We’re going to use the gym and we’re going to try and stuff in about 1,000 people.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, this is incredible. You’re kidding.'”
Thanks to local donations of air fare, hotel rooms, a rental vehicle, sound equipment and other items, Pritchett and guitar player Scott Smith will be at the school on Saturday, December 3 with a 90-minute acoustic show, beginning at 7 p.m.
“When you’re playing with a band, it’s non-stop songs, and you have to play the hits,” Pritchett says.
“But in these acoustic shows, they’re a little more up-close, so I get to tell all the interesting little stories behind each song, how it was written, and where the idea stemmed from.
“I get to be myself. I try to be as funny as possible, and I get to be all crazy and wacky and the real guy that I actually am,” he adds.
One of Pritchett’s onstage guests will be Maya Poirier, who often performed country songs at school assemblies before graduating from Porter Creek Secondary last year.
“She’s so beside herself it’s not even funny,” Kelly says of Poirier’s reaction to the prospect of sharing a stage with Pritchett.
Kelly himself has gained a new respect for one of his favourite performers.
“It says a lot about his integrity and his commitment to young people in Canada and young people in the Yukon.”
Proceeds from the concert will be used to meet special expenses incurred by the families of burn victims Giles Jim, Dustin Huebschwerlin and Jake Maynard, and the family of Cody Kelpin, who died following the motorbike accident on October 3.
Any additional money raised will go toward the purchase of a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) unit for Whitehorse General Hospital.