The White Stripes are one of the world's biggest rock bands. It's only fitting that their summer tour includes some of the biggest venues in North America: New York's Madison Square Garden (capacity: 20,000), Fairfax's Patriot Center (capacity: 10,000), Whitehorse's Yukon Arts Centre (capacity: just over 400).
Yes, you read that right. The same band that can fill the most prestigious arena in the country also played a city whose entire population could fit into that arena.
The band is playing all 10 Canadian provinces and the three territories: Whitehorse in Yukon Territory, Yellowknife in Northwest Territories and Iqaluit in the eight-year-old Nunavut Territory.
"We want to take this tour to the far reaches of the Canadian landscape. From the ocean to the permafrost," Stripes frontman Jack White said in announcing the groundbreaking tour.
It's either the silliest or the smartest move in years by a top-tier band. It probably cost the band thousands of dollars extra to get that far north, and they must have forgone thousands more in ticket and souvenir sales.
But they've gotten many hundreds of inches in publicity and made many hundreds of devoted fans.
To understand just how unusual it is for a band of their stature to play the tundra, listen to the last great shows Northerners have seen.
"Kid Koala, January '07. Before that, Hawksley Workman, December '06. These are about as big names as we generally get," says Whitehorse's Andrew Hoshkiw.
"In the last year or so we've had Kim Mitchell, George Jones and Great Big Sea," says Aaron Foley, who just left Yellowknife. "I think the one that stands out is the Jim Byrnes concert with Steve Dawson and Jesse Zubot ... I would say the biggest band was the Barenaked Ladies, who apparently came north on the 'Gordon' tour" — in 1992.
Yellowknife's John Burridge says, "I could have checked out Canadian acts like Little Miss Higgins — out of Saskatchewan, I think — or the Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir." (Who?)
Dave Brosha of Yellowknife has to go back two years to find a truly memorable show, the alt-rock duo Tegan and Sara. "We get the sporadic '70s rock band, like Trooper, and some Canadian acts like Kim Mitchell and Great Big Sea, but a really well-known band or artist — pretty much never," he reports.
Aside from George Jones and Barenaked Ladies, have you heard of any of those artists?
I've only heard of a few of them — and I'm from northern Canada. Edmonton, to be exact, the northernmost North American city with a metropolitan population over one million.
I know a bit about the concerts such a city gets. My father, a single dad, didn't believe in baby sitters. So when the music lover went to a concert, I got to tag along. We weren't as bad off as the territories. I saw Aerosmith, Genesis, and Def Leppard growing up. (My dad wrote a note excusing me from homework the night of the latter.)
Still, it seemed like the very best artists always passed us by. I remember, as a Beatles-obsessed teenager, when Paul McCartney made his first solo tour in some time. The only Canadian stops were in Toronto and Montreal. We almost made the trek to Quebec, but it was expensive. Instead, we went south to Calgary to see Depeche Mode. Even a synth band couldn't make the trek north.
Mr. Brosha, a professional photographer with a recently published piece in Above & Beyond on the Yellowknife music scene, knows the trek. "The hardcore music fans here are often forced to travel south to places like Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver to get their music fixes," he says. "I myself have traveled south in the past three years to see Coldplay and U2 in Vancouver, and the Dixie Chicks in Calgary."
By the way, when we say "travel south," we're not talking New York to Philly, or Philly to D.C. This is the Canadian Arctic: It takes 20 hours, 26 minutes to drive from Yellowknife to Calgary, according to Mapquest — 27 hours, 20 minutes from Yellowknife to Vancouver.
Is it any wonder even his fellow countrymen bypass Mr. Brosha's home?
"The vast majority of Canadian acts tend to ignore the [Canadian] North, as it's not the moneymaker of the South, so to see a huge American act not be blinded by the monetary aspects, and to offer their music at a reasonable price to thousands of music fans went over so well up here," he says. "I think the White Stripes — through this act alone — have made lifelong, appreciative fans."
Mr. Burridge, a designer and photographer who recently moved to Yellowknife from Ottawa, agrees.
"Many who bought tickets had never heard of the band by name, but bought tickets because of the relative rarity of the event and the promise of a good show," he says. "I never thought Ottawa was a hotbed for touring talent — most acts would go to Montreal or Toronto — but Yellowknife has nothing beyond local tribute bands and the odd original act."
A Stripes fan with high expectations for the band, Mr. Burridge had some quibbles with their show in Yellowknife. The locals were having none of it.
"The sound was kind of scattered and buzzy, probably because the band did not have the luxury of using much of their own equipment or touring gear," he reports. "Certainly, I thought it was a fantastic gesture on the part of the band, but some people refused to hear that I had any reservations."
Before moving to Montreal in May, Mr. Foley ran a Web site devoted to the Yellowknife music scene, which, he insists, is thriving.
"The real lasting benefit to the White Stripes show would be an increased exposure for Yellowknife artists," he says. The Stripes earned even more fans in each city by choosing local artists — including aboriginals — to open the shows.
The Stripes have also played free surprise shows throughout the tour. In Whitehorse, they played a free show in a public park and wandered around town during the day.
"For somewhere like Inuvik, I think it means a lot that the White Stripes really took the time to meet members of the community and to learn from the elders," says Mr. Foley. The last major northern concert was a 1995 Molson promotion in Tuktoyaktuk featuring Metallica and Hole. The beer company "didn't let the community actually take part," he says. "Instead, they flew in people from all over Canada as part of a contest. Needless to say, it didn't go over well."
Mr. Hoshkiw reviewed the show for the Whitehouse Star: " 'Is it OK if we play longer than we usually do?' Jack White asked the beyond-capacity crowd at Monday night's concert in Whitehorse. 'We don't know when we're coming back here.' "
But perhaps more big bands will find their way up there through the snow and ice. Kristy Moskalyk, my sister, lives in Grande Prairie, Alberta, an even smaller town even farther north than the one in which I grew up.
"In recent years with the boom in the oil industry there have been unbelievable acts coming up north," she reports. Bigger acts like the Black Eyed Peas, Papa Roach and Three Days Grace have played there in just the past year.
The far reaches of northern Canada are growing, too.
"Yellowknife, by virtue of the gas pipeline and diamond boom, is already getting a lot of international exposure," Mr. Foley notes.
The Great White North, in fact, could help solve a lot of southern dilemmas: no more need to import oil from dictatorships in the Middle East or blood diamonds from Africa, for starters.
All we ask in return is that you send your best bands up there to play.