Barnacle Bob Hilliard is ubiquitous on the Dawson City music scene.
Since arriving in the early 1990s he’s been a fixture in the bars around town, starting at the Westminster, and also playing in the bars of the Eldorado and Downtown Hotels.
Dawson has two annual parades, Canada Day and Discovery Days, and Bob can be found in both of them, pounding away at a keyboard in his best honky-tonk barroom style. He’s often accompanied by an assortment of musicians, which may include one of his sons.
When there was a public showing of items from the Dawson Film Find back in 2004, Barnacle Bob, as he is generally known around town, provided the live music for the silent films and reprised that performance for the three DVD compilations launched last spring. They are currently part of the video presentations at the Dawson City Museum.
Barnacle Bob also teaches piano through the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture (KIAC), with his current set of lessons full to capacity, running through to March 3.
When KIAC organized an album of Dawson performers last winter, producer Nathan Tinkham made sure to include him. His improvisational pieces opened and closed the project. During the album-launch concert at the Palace Grand in July, he opened both sets.
What he hadn’t done yet was release his own album, but now he’s solved that problem by issuing two on the same night.
The first is filled with the sort of honky-tonk tunes that you might hear him play in the bars. The second, called Barnacle Originals, contains 17 tunes recorded in his home studio at Henderson’s Corner.
The albums include such songs as “Jesus died Cuz’a Bankers,” “Mr. Mumbles,” “Song for the Walrus” — and others are that are simply called “Piano Improv.”
Barnacle’s launch concert was the back two-thirds of an evening called The Great 88, held at the Odd Fellows Hall on January 24 and featuring the sound of Parks Canada’s 1869 vintage Bechstein grand piano, on loan to KIAC.
The evening had two purposes. The other was to raise funds for the continued maintenance of the piano, which requires some care after 145 years.
Barnacle opened the evening with an impromptu tune, seeing as how – as is often the case with KIAC events – this one was late getting started, and he apparently decided it was time to get the show on the road.
He warmed up the crowd, and soon thereafter three more Dawson pianists played for the audience.
Angela Van Nostrand contributed “Etude in C Minor” by Henri Bertini; “Waltz in A Flat” by Johannes Brahms; and “Georgia on My Mind”by Stuart Gorrell and Hoagy Carmichael.
Fred Osson, better known for his saxophone playing, was next up to the keyboard with “Nocturne No. 2″by Chopin.
Tiss Clark closed this portion of the show with “Rhapsody Op. 79, No. 2” by Johannes Brahms.
The remaining hour-and-a-bit was all Barnacle Bob, and he ran through material from the albums and other favourites, including his totally non-piano rendition of Stan Rogers’ “Northwest Passage,” with appropriate chorus harmonies from certain folks in the audience.
Those looking for a different Barnacle in action will find him performing in the hall again with his jazz trio on February 6.
As the man says, there’s no end to the kinds of music you can play on a piano.
After 32 years teaching in rural Yukon schools, Dan Davidson retired from that profession but continues writing about life in Dawson City.