About 9 kilometres outside Chisasibi sits an evacuation site known as “High Ground”, where residents can flee to in the unlikely event that the dam upstream bursts. On July 26, it provided a different kind of refuge for music lovers – Eeyou Istchee’s first concert since the pandemic brought live music and other gatherings to a halt in March.
In late June, the community’s social distancing committee received permission from the emergency operations committee to hold an outdoor concert after a talent show was ruled out because of concerns about sharing microphones. The Fort George Rockers headlined the gig following drumming group Heart of the Land and fellow rockers Cree Rising.
“The whole show was memorable,” said Oliver Rupert, the Rockers’ rhythm guitarist and vocalist. “We’ve done a lot of things throughout the years, but this was our first drive-in concert. It was totally different. You could hear people honking in their vehicles after each song.”
Organizers limited attendance to 105 tickets, given free to community members, to prevent overcrowding. Attendees were provided with two parking spots – one for their vehicle and a second called their “zone”, where they could watch the show from lawn chairs or dance at a safe distance from others.
“It’s a different reality holding an event when we have to follow all these protocols,” said Nellie Bobbish, programs administrator at Brighter Futures, one of the organizing groups. “We had rules that we attached to the tickets that everybody followed. It was a good hot day too – the weather was perfect. There were people of all ages. It was exciting.”
To better ensure proper distancing and other safety precautions, the road to High Ground was blocked before the concert and a combination of security staff and first responders were on site. It was the first time a show had been held there and it took two days to transport the stage from the arena and assemble it.
While the pandemic has been particularly devastating to the concert industry, drive-in concerts have emerged as a popular solution to sustaining live music across the continent. Public safety measures have hindered not only performances but also the ability of musicians to rehearse together.
“We only got together three days before the show and sat far apart when we rehearsed,” Rupert told the Nation. “It was kind of strange. Even on stage we marked the spot we would sit or stand.”
Although the Fort George Rockers hadn’t rehearsed since January, months after the passing of lead guitarist and vocalist Roger House, their long history together enabled them to quickly brush off the cobwebs and get rocking. They have been a fixture of the local music scene for nearly 50 years, well known for their timeless mix of Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival covers.
“They have a real long history,” said film producer and Nation co-founder Ernest Webb. “Back at Fort George Island they used to play the community hall. The only light would be one bare red lightbulb. They have a real following around the bay – I was probably 10 years old [the first time I saw them play].”
Webb has floated the idea of making a movie about their legendary 1974 tour of Cree communities by canoe. Then known as Red Cloud, they piled their entourage and equipment into three 24-foot canoes for an ambitious two-week tour of Wemindji, Eastmain and Waskaganish.
“When they first left Chisasibi, they came across a big rainstorm,” Webb recalled. “When the rain subsided, they stopped at an island out on the bay and took apart their guitars to dry them off. They continued onto Wemindji, pulled up their canoes, went straight to the community hall and plugged in, playing music in their hip waders.”
Rupert called the tour an unforgettable experience, remembering one day paddling towards Eastmain when a storm’s updraft forced them to spend the night on the shoreline of another island.
“We had to stay overnight between Wemindji and Eastmain, so we were sitting around outside all night,” said Rupert. “We’d built a temporary teepee. It was getting to dawn in the morning and a beluga whale swam by near the shore. That was most memorable.”
With most of this year’s festivities now cancelled or postponed, the Fort George Rockers remain open to potential invitations. According to Cree Rising’s Facebook page, they had “such fun with the legends” that they would love to embark upon a tour of the Cree Nation together.
“There’s always a possibility of anything happening,” responded Rupert. “We were thinking if other communities would do the same thing – it would be fun. We asked the other band to come up and play with us at the finale – we completely forgot about the distancing.”
While Chisasibi’s social distancing committee had previously held virtual concerts from performers’ homes during the pandemic, they recognize that people are eager to come together and are working on creating future events. For those unable to attend the High Ground concert, a live feed was made available on the local cable channel and Facebook page.
“It’s good to see people together but apart,” said Bobbish. “I want to say thank you to all who came. We’re thinking of drive-in movies, just looking to find a permit to do that. We’re looking forward to our next event – we don’t know what that will be yet.”