Fiddle night at the 98 Hotel: The fiddle of Joe Loutchan rules

There is something about that lone fiddle playing in a room: The ambience, the mood, the emotions, all ride on its notes.

There is something about that lone couple dancing in front of the band: Swept up in the music, comfortable in each other and oblivious to the chatter of the room.

It is a world ruled by Joe Loutchan. And, once a week, every Thursday, he rules the 98 Hotel.

His fiddle grabs the room and throws it in the air like a giggling child.

Fiddle players always wear a white hat. And the distressed brim of Loutchan’s shelters his fiddle as he draws his entire body into the bow that pulls clear notes from the string.

Beer is the beverage of choice this night. It is held by regulars hunkering in their tight groups, wearing their uniform of jean jacket and baseball cap; and it is held by the group of out-of-towners (betrayed by clothes that are too casual and too clean); and beer is held by the YTGers, wearing their $100 jeans, who are enjoying a real bar in the real Yukon.

Weekends are busy in the 98 Hotel and so are Thursdays because Northerners love their fiddle music.

“Most Natives love fiddle music,” says Loutchan. “People come from all over the countryside; people come from Old Crow; it’s a friendly bar and it’s the same bunch every time.

“I’ve played Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk and it is all fiddle music; they won’t hire you if you don’t play fiddle.”

Loutchan has played at the 98 Hotel for 30 years. “Merv Bales joined me and it was just the two of us — him on guitar and me on the fiddle — for years it was just the two of us.

“Then a bass guitar player came along, Joe Allain, he’s been here five years so now we got a three-piece going.

“The wife (Nicole Morgan) got learning the fiddle and guitar and filled in here and there until Merv got throat cancer and can’t play in a smoky bar. Now she’s fulltime.”

The tattooed waitress with a ready smile tilts her ear to the stage and pronounces, “It’s 9:30 … I can tell by the music.”

It is actually 10:10.

“It’s the Red River Jig,” says Loutchan afterward. “That’s a must to play if you’re a fiddle player in these parts.”

The song is over and each band member turns as one to pull a long drink from nearby glasses. Loutchan now switches to the guitar.

“I played the guitar before the fiddle, but it wasn’t much of a challenge.

“If you pull a bow over the strings of a fiddle all you’ll get is noise. You need the right pressure, the right angle and the right speed.

“Your hands are going, your feet are going, they have to be tapping to keep the right time with the music.

“The Métis and the French get both feet tapping.

“I have to practise two hours every day or else my fingers will cramp up. I have to keep my hands supple and I have to exercise them because there is a lot of finger-work with the fiddle.

“It’s awkward, everything about it is awkward. It’s the damnest instrument, but once you get it going, it’s quite interesting.”

But Loutchan does not like the fiddle he is playing tonight. He doesn’t like any of them.

“It’s a lifetime curse finding a fiddle you like. I have 13 of them and I’m still not happy with them. There’s always something wrong.”

But there is something about that lone fiddle playing in a room.

“It’s the sound of it. It’s an exciting sound,” says Loutchan.

“As a little kid, I heard fiddle tunes on the radio and I didn’t even know what it was — I just liked the sound of it.

“I am 66 years old and I have been playing since I was 14. I’ve got 2,000 songs. As long as my hands hold out and my fingers hold out, I’ll keep playing.”

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