On a Friday night last month, they performed in Dawson City’s no-frills Pit lounge.
The next night, they entertained the black-tie set for two hours at the Commissioner’s Ball, then found a house party and kept playing until 5:30 the next morning.
They’ve popped up for spontaneous sessions on street corners, the Superstore parking lot, and even aboard the Whitehorse trolley.
“They” are the seven members of the Brass Knuckle Society, which has become a Yukon musical icon since its formation less than two years ago.
“We’ll play for anybody in any situation,” says bandleader Jesse Whitehead.
“We’ll play for your nephew’s bar mitzvah, if you want. Whatever, we’re into it. We just want to play music for people who want to hear it.”
The group – also known as the Knuckles, or just BKS – was inspired by the two years Whitehead spent playing trumpet in a Vancouver ensemble called the Carnival Band.
“It’s a community band where you don’t have to be able to play music at all to join. Their intention is to create a safe space where people can come and perform and do their thing,” Whitehead explains.
“I became really excited about this style of music, which is live, acoustic folk music from around the world, with lots of original compositions.”
Whitehead moved to Whitehorse in 2012, determined to start a band that would play in the tradition known as “honk” music.
“It’s not jazz per se, it’s not klezmer per se, it’s just live brass music,” he explains.
“I’d seen how responsive audiences are to this kind of music. It’s a spectacle, you know; it’s loud, it’s exciting, you’ve got big, shiny instruments. People really respond well to it.”
His first recruit was William Auclair Bellemare, a tuba player he met at a Skillshare event. For a while, the two got together in Whitehead’s basement to play Carnival Band compositions.
“That didn’t go very far,” he admits. “I mean, a trumpet and a tuba is not really a foundation for doing things. Then we just kind of picked up musicians along the way.”
Those new members included alto sax player Thibault Rondel and Whitehead’s girlfriend, Kristen Range, a classically-trained piano player who learned accordion to join the band.
A big turning point came when Will Hegsted, a tenor sax player who had studied music in Nelson, B.C., came on board.
“Will introduced the notion that we could write our own music, which is where we’re at now,” Whitehead says. “We play about one third originals and about two-thirds covers.”
The move to playing original music got off to a shaky start when Hegsted showed up at a rehearsal with a klezmer-influenced tune he ad composed, called “Barge Dance”.
“We played it through once and it was terrible,” Whitehead recalls. “But we put it together in a cohesive way, and now it’s one of our favourites, for sure.”
The Knuckles’ repertoire now includes about eight of Hegsted’s compositions, as well as four by Whitehead, one by Bellemare, and one by the band’s newest member, trombonist Colleen McCarthy, who joined about four months ago.
“She’s also a music student, and she has written our most compositionally interesting piece,” Whitehead says.
“It’s called ‘A la Prochaine’, and it combines kind of John Williams with a klezmer style. It’s more of an overture that’s like this really slow, beautiful movement and then turns into a dance party at the end.”
The seventh Knuckle is Josh Regnier, who works in student engagement at Yukon College and took over drumming duties about a year ago.
“He’s an amazing individual and an amazing drummer, who just exudes positivity,” Whitehead says. “He took us to the next level in terms of musicianship and in terms of exposure to the community.”
Sadly for diehard BKS fans, the group is about to wind down – for a time, at least – while several members move on to other things.
Regnier has accepted a position with a non-governmental organization in Israel. Whitehead and Range are moving to Vancouver, where he will study nursing at the University of British Columbia.
Rondel and his partner recently opened the Café balsam restaurant at the Takhini Hot Springs, which makes it difficult to commit evenings and weekends to performing.
“Life gets in the way of musical aspirations, and that’s kind of where we are at this moment,” Whitehead says.
But the Brass Knuckle Society won’t be fading away quietly.
“We wanted to celebrate our accomplishments and all the work we’ve put in over the last two years, and see if we could leave a bit of a legacy going forwards. So we’re going to do that in the form of a live recording.”
The band’s Last Honk concert will take place Wednesday, July at the Old Fire Hall.
It will consist of all original tunes written by members of the band, with a live album tentatively set for release this fall.
Tickets at $15 are available at Dean’s Strings and at the venue. Doors open at 7:00 p.m.