The dictum “Land of the Living Skies” losses relevance as a sweeping generalization for Saskatchewan as you head north. Endless fields of canola, wheat and barley are replaced by increasing dense Aspen and intricate waterways, prompting thoughts of Thoreau-esque wilderness. Of all the adjectives that come to mind, perhaps mystical is the best to describe the west side of Prince Albert National Park. Home of the Ness Creek Music Festival, Nesslin Lake and Sturgeon River Ranch, the area exists at the intersection of art and tourism; a secluded cornucopia of artists and outdoorsmen. This unique conglomeration has lead to various joint events, including Banjos & Bison, a rustic outdoor concert attended (by band and audience alike) by horseback.
This particular concert seemed to be doomed from the beginning, and as I drove the winding road to the meet-up point the rain only seemed to quicken. But, serendipitously, the rain seceded as I Draw Slow pulled up in their rental van. A folk band from Ireland, it was the group’s (Louise, Dave, Colin, Adrian and Conrad) first trip to Canada. Joined by a few spirited local ladies who had no qualms with taking control of a horse, the group set off let by a covered wagon pulled by two Clydesdales, which housed the instruments. Also unique about this trip was that it included three generations of Vaadelands: Gord being the man in charge of Sturgeon River Ranch, along with his son Jake and father Ruben.
As the wagon plodded on, talk turned to guitars, banjos and the best way to drink a Guinness. Stumbling across researchers who were studying the local bison population, hope grew that we would catch a glimpse of one, but to no avail. Reaching a clearing, the group pulled to a stop and tied up the horses to grab lunch. Soon instruments were uncased and strings tuned. Louise noted that they had a song called Old Paint, which definitely should be played in front of the two paint horses. As the band came together it was hard not to notice their Cheshire grins; heads swiveling to take in the novel stage. The ethereal enormity of the sound is hard to describe, but the natural acoustics, paired with the beautiful songs, offered an extremely personal experience. The boreal setting, equine audience, and mixture of foot stomping and haunting melodies made for one of the most unique concerts that anyone could hope to attend.
Packing up, there was no shortage of smiles plastered across all faces involved. As we reached the original meeting point, the rain began to spatter down again, as if it had been waiting politely for us to finish. Have I mentioned that the north has a mystical aura? I Draw Slow stuck around for another day to play another small show at Nesslin Lake, offering another amazing show. And while the only bison they encountered was in stewed form, I imagine their trip to northern Saskatchewan is not one they will soon forget. There are many musical happenings in the Ness area, but you will hard pressed to find one that captures the enrapturing spirit of wilderness and artistry that exists as much and Banjos & Bisons. Here’s to hoping there are many more.