Step off the map and float at Bengough, Saskatchewan’s Gateway Festival

July 26, 2017

There’s something you may not know about Saskatchewan. First, what you probably do know: it gets made fun of a lot among Canadians for being the flattest province. Why that remains a reason to tease prairie people about it continues to be a mystery. But there are also huge swaths of it that aren’t flat. In fact, southern Saskatchewan, not far from the Montana border, is home to a place called the Big Muddy Valley, a badlands that harbours Castle Butte (elevation: 60m). Since the ice age, the giant rock formation has stood in Canada’s own big sky country, providing a landmark for First Nations people and the North-West Mounted Police. There are a few signs cautioning people to be careful when climbing up it—and believe me, there is no easy way to the top—but other than that, and some ragged looking ranch houses pock-marking the valley, the area is vast and deep and feels like it’s on the edge of the world in that way that only empty prairies can. The only living things in sight, besides other pilgrims to the big rock, are indifferent cows and curious prairie dogs. Maybe a coyote if you’ve got quick eyes, but they’re gone as fast as they rise up out of nowhere, loping back into a dusty, blonde and grey blur.

And there’s something else you might not know about Saskatchewan. Only about a 20-minute drive from the Big Muddy Valley lies the town of Bengough (pop. 337). For the most part, it’s a pretty typical prairie town. Its got a weird motel, a “drug store” that sells everything from toy water guns to Roughriders gear, and a little cafe that only takes cash but has no ATM, so you gotta walk over to the credit union to grab your dough. The people who live there are friendly and charming and smile and wave at you when you walk down the street, and let you cut in line at the Co-op if you’ve got less things to buy than they do. There’s a gorgeous outdoor pool right beside the barn-shaped rink. And just a bit south of that, the Gateway Festival has been making noise on a weekend in late July for the past 13 years.

And damn, it’s a party. The festival now regularly brings out more than 20x the population of the town, and with no noise restrictions (seriously) they can keep the revelry going deep into the night once the main stage acts are done, and things end when the last band finishes sometime after 2 a.m. or whenever everyone’s packed it in for the night. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? Well, to Creative Director Michael Dawson’s memory, the only actual incident that ever happened was when two dudes threw down and one of ‘em got socked pretty bad. “We once had someone get punched by someone that he knew,” Dawson tells me in the RV that doubles as the festival’s on-site office. “That’s the only tale that’s gotten back to me in five years.”

Library Voices at Gateway Festival. Photo credit: Matt Williams.

That’s because, Dawson thinks, people are genuinely at Gateway for the music, which isn’t always the case at music festivals, as much as one might believe.

“Everyone who comes to this festival, whether or not they’re familiar with a lot of the artists beyond the headliners, are all very much about the music, which is kinda what works,” Dawson says. “There’s a lot of people sitting in the sun baking all day to discover new stuff. The party happens because people are here to enjoy it. It’s not a reckless party with debauchery. We’ve never had any troubles. The campground is left in a matter where people are able to tidy it up the next morning. It’s a pretty respectful event all around.”

This year’s festival featured Canadian rock ’n’ roll royalty in both Friday and Saturday’s headlining sets, with 54-40 and Tom Cochrane capping off those nights, respectively. The former ended their set with an end medley that included Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” and the latter had the whole crowd singing along to none other than his mega-hit “Life is a Highway.” But the real discoveries happened before the sun went down. With Dawson—a co-founding and now sometimes member of Regina’s off-kilter indie pop group Library Voices—at the helm, the festival’s programming is far more diverse than you’d expect for an event that, along with awkward, eager teenagers, counts old dudes wearing “Keep Calm and Carry Guns” shirts in attendance. Sure, there’s the sort of fare you would expect, like Jess Moskaluke, who’s flawless Friday set may have confirmed she’s the closest thing we have to the next Shania Twain. But there was also Calgary’s Nice Horse, who are down home as home cookin’, rowdy as hell, and so much fun it feels dangerous. Cosmic country pickers The Sadies were blistering, as usual. And a smattering of highlights from not-so-country artists, like Basia Bulat’s lean takes on her mesmerizing 2016 record, Good Advice; Factor and Kay the Aquanaut’s left-of-the-dial hip-hop; Lindi Ortega’s simmering outlaw country, complete with a righteous cover of Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line”; Saskatchewanites The Garrys’ blissful surf rock; and another Saskatchewan champion, Megan Nash, who first delivered a chilled out poolside set solo, then floored with a rollicking, horn-blasted show with Bears in Hazenmore backing her up, and then came back to save the day when a generator blew on the main stage, dropping crowd pleasers like Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and Shania Twain’s “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?” on top of her own stunning originals.

Jess Moskaluke at Gateway Festival. Photo credit: Matt Williams.

Across from the pool Saturday afternoon, Nash, who grew up in a tiny village west of Moose Jaw, explained just why festivals like Gateway, which take place in more rural, off-the-beaten-music-festival-path places, are so important.

“There was this one pal of mine who played in a punk band, and he was two grades above me—so eons in high school, right?—but I eventually went to a show of his, and it was really inspiring” Nash says. “It’s also part of why I like to go to small towns. I feel like maybe there’s a kid like me with weak ankles that can’t play hockey, that doesn’t know where they fit in, and it’s really important that there’s some arts and culture presence in their life, right? To know that it’s a route. So I think it’d be pretty sweet to be a kid here in Bengough and to be able to go check out the diverse bands. Also, from a female perspective, to see a lot of women on stage—this festival has a decent amount of female-identifying performers. That’s really important too, for the rural youth to see people doing it. That’s what I needed. I needed my buddy playing sweaty bass in his underwear in a hall in Moose Jaw to be like, ‘I can do it, too! He’s from my village!’”

Megan Nash at Gateway Festival. Photo credit: Matt Williams.

Not only was Nash inspired by the music that was born out of her small town to start playing herself, but she’s made a career out of it. Even rarer, made that career living in Saskatchewan—where the seclusion and lack of noise violation issues provides an ideal creative situation for her—and not absconding to an industry centre like Toronto or Montreal. Indeed, despite what the ratio of media coverage from certain provinces to others might imply, music happens everywhere, and there are advantages to living and creating in places like this that are nowhere to be found in bigger cities.

“The scenes are people,” Dawson says. “There aren’t really scenes that are music scenes. No matter what genre it is, people are really supportive of it. It’s quite phenomenal, the support the artists have for each other. There isn’t a lot of influence. If you’re in Vancouver or Toronto, the scenes there will be a sound. It fosters a sound and people start doing a similar thing. Like in the world, psych-rock became a huge thing and garage rock became a big thing. But here it’s great that people are able to kind of find their own voice, and do that. Without any intent of making a diverse lineup, just looking at artists who are actively working hard and putting out new records this year, it sort of runs the gamut from Francophone to hip-hop to Megan [Nash] to Marshall [Burns] from Rah Rah who’s got this new country project. They’re all just doing a thing true to themselves. There’s not a lot of influence. I don’t see a lot of Saskatchewan artists setting out to emulate a sound or ‘make it.’ They’re looking to make what comes out of them. Which I think is fairly unique. Not that it doesn’t happen everywhere, but there’s not a wave of a whole bunch of artists in one genre doing a thing.”

There’s a lot of the unexpected in the arts and culture in the Land of the Living Skies. But it’s often that the greatest discoveries take a more powerful search to find—a foray into unknown places, a step off the map, or a long drive. Like the Big Muddy Valley and Castle Butte, things strange and impressive lie deep in the hidden corners of Saskatchewan, and the Gateway Festival is just one of those places if you can find them.

About the Author

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is a writer and photographer. Born and raised on the Prairies in Winnipeg, he’s slowly made his way farther and farther east, spending a few years covering music in Toronto before running clear out of country and ending up on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. In between, he’s made numerous detours, interviewing and photographing countless artists across North America and beyond. He heads up Amplify’s Instrumental series, where he talks with musicians about the relationships they’ve formed with their most important tools.

The National Music Centre Mailing List

Subscribe to receive news, updates and special promotions.