During the Klondike Gold Rush, Dawson City saloons were gathering points for people far from home and famished for entertainment.
Good-timing dance-hall girls, like Klondike Kate Rockwell and Diamond Tooth Gertie Lovejoy, made enough of an impression that their handles are still known. But less familiar are the piano players who scrambled north with the rush and produced the tunes that kept the Klondike kicking up its heels. Even the rag-time kid, the pianist in Robert Service’s “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” isn’t given the dignity of a proper name.
Over time, pianos in Dawson bars fell silent, replaced with jukeboxes, high-fidelity sound systems, and karaoke machines. The gold- rush custom of piano pounding appeared doomed. Until Barnacle Bob Hilliard arrived in town.
“From the time I was 9 years old, I had it in me brain I was going to play music,” says Hilliard, 59, holding court outside the Midnight Sun Lounge. The shaggy-haired six-footer is smoking a hand-rolled cigarette and taking a 15-minute break from what he’s done for the past 18 years: playing piano in a Dawson pub.
Locals and tourists have long warmed to Hilliard’s ragtime, honky-tonk, and country- rock performances, played with the same fervour as a dog digging for a bone and sung in an ear-snatching vocal style that’s equal parts baritone, black coffee, and forty-grit sandpaper.
And while Hilliard’s shows are well-known for what they areundefineda buoyant happy- hour soundtrack--tonight’s gig is different for what it’s not: occurring at the Westminster Hotel Tavern, the gold-rush-era beer parlour half a block away, where Hilliard’s shows were a fixture for nearly two decades before he ran afoul of the new owner and was let go.
“He wanted it kind of straight and narrow, and I can’t really do thatundefinedI owe it to my fans,” Hilliard says, with a chuckle. “I love the joint, but it is what it is.”
Barnacle Bob was still little Robert Hilliard, age 4, when, literally by accident, he took his first steps on the figurative road north that would lead to him becoming a notable Yukon ivory-tickler.
Hilliard’s uncle, Bill Smith, was a player in the Toronto Maple Leafs system, but an off- season mishap left him with broken legs and an abrupt end to his playing career.
It was during a hospital visit that Smith, suddenly finding himself with no plans for the upcoming hockey season, uttered nine words that would draft Hilliard’s life map. “He said, ‘I’m goin’ to the Yukon to be a poet.’ And I never seen him again,” remembers Hilliard, who was left hankering for the land that could attract a favourite relative.
Before his fantasy destination could be realized, Hilliard had a difficult childhood to navigate, one spent between his mom’s home in Montreal and his dad’s in Toronto, each in rough parts of town.
His life changed, however, when his father, a skilled musician himself, bought his son a piano for his ninth birthday.
“I wanted to play the trombone like [my dad], but he said, ‘No, you gotta learn the piano first,’” Hilliard says. “As soon as I got into it … that was it…. As a matter of fact, I think it kept me outta jail. I had buddies who were getting into trouble, but I was too busy playing music.”
Within a few years, Hilliard was proficient on the piano, trombone, and flute, and a card-carrying member of the Toronto Musicians’ Association. By his teens, his professional music career was in full swing as Private Robert Hilliard, reservist and trombone player in several Toronto-area military bands. “But I’m not a military guy,” he says. “I’m a bandsman. Bandsmen are bandsmen.… We’re kind of a different bunch.”
Hilliard’s transition to the civilian music life began in a friend’s early-’70s basement band. At the time, Hilliard was more serious about the trombone, the flute, and playing military parades, but covering acts like the Beatles and the Doors led to a vocation-altering revelation: “I came to realize that anything I want to say I can say it with the piano,” he recalls. He soon gave up wind instruments, left school (“The old
man signed the papers and everything”) and scoured the “Theatrical, Musical Talent” sections of local newspapers, teaming up with bands looking for pianists for hire. For several years, Hilliard hit the road, playing clubs and bars both close to home and not. When the gigs ended, he’d return to his newspapers, looking for the outfit that would take him on his next road adventure.
Hilliard moved three time zones closer to his Yukon dream in his early 20s, finding himself first in Vancouver, where he played for food and beer at an English pub on Robson Street, and later on Vancouver Island, where the young musician bought a
boat and fished for a living.
“My son tells me, ‘There’s one thing I can’t figure out,’” says Hilliard. “‘When you were a fisherman on the coast, they called you Piano Bob. And now that you’re a piano player, they call you Barnacle Bob.’” (Frank Buck, a Dawson friend, gave Hilliard the name as much for his favourite libation, rum, and propensity to play pirate as his fishing background.)
After a long day on the ocean, Hilliard would retire for cocktails at Painter’s Lodge, a fishing resort outside of Campbell River. It was there he met Bruce Gardiner, the person who would permanently influence his musical style.
“Still to this day the best piano player I ever heard…. This guy had people singin’ and jumpin’ around,” says Hilliard, noting that Gardiner’s set list included a collection of songs, like “Ain’t She Sweet” and “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue,” that Hilliard would later absorb into his own repertoire. “I told him, ‘Bruce, I’ve gotta steal some stuff off ya. I can’t help it.’”
The performance-enhancing chops learned from Gardiner proved handy luggage when Hilliard’s opportunity to follow his uncle’s trail north finally arrived.
“When I split up with my second-to-last old lady, everything was in turmoil,” Hilliard says, before retelling the history in brief bullet form. “Let the bank have the boat.... Quit feelin’ sorry for myself. Got my [act] together and said, ‘Well, here we go.’”
In 1992, Hilliard arrived in Carcross, the first Yukon town he encountered, and landed at the Caribou Hotel. There he met keyboardist Wendy Perry, who became a long-time musical collaborator. They played local shows and engagements in Whitehorse, until Perry booked a six-week stand in Dawson City. At the end of their Klondike run, Perry was anxious to keep moving.
But after 20 years of playing high-budget rooms, cavernous clubs, and backwater bars with names like “The Blood Bath,” Hilliard had found in Dawson kindred spirits, the ideal setting for his pub-piano style, and, most importantly, a home.
“I said, ‘Nah, this is it. This is where I am,’” he recalls. “I fell in love with the people. I fell in love with the [Westminster],” where near- nightly shows in the Tavern were an easy sell for then-owner Duncan Spriggs.
For the first time in several decades, a jangly honky- tonk piano was playing in a Dawson bar, and, like their gold-rush predecessors, Westminster regulars discovered the sound was a worthy backdrop for the timeworn Tavern. And for visitors who wandered in during Hilliard’s performances, Barnacle Bob hammering at the piano was the authentic northern experience they were looking for.
“Probably one of the best gigs in the Yukon, right there,” he says.
These days, Hilliard has a somewhat steady engagement at the Eldorado Hotel playing a newish ebony upright. “It’s a nice piano to play,” notes Hilliard. “All the keys work”--something he can’t say about the 1913 piano at the Westminster. “It’s got about four knocked out of ’er right now.”
“My friends all miss me,” Hilliard says of the Westminster crowd. “Me and the joint, we moulded together, you know.
“It was pretty much 20 years between me and Duncan. In the bigger picture maybe it’s about right.”
Hilliard’s filling his new-found time exploring his other abiding love: recording original music, which he does on a 24-track portable studio in his home outside Dawson, at Henderson’s Corner. “I’ve been doing a lot of composing over the years. Before I decompose I better put it out.”
He’s also cultivating a family tradition: sharing his love of music with his children, including, most recently, his youngest son, Erin, 11, a member of the local elementary-school band and a budding performer in his own right.
“[Music] is my God. It’s also in my genetics,” he says. “I have four sons now and they all play music among other things. So it’s a natural.”
Hilliard recognizes he might be one of the final trail-hardened honky-tonkers who’ve honed their skills on the road rather than in the conservatory. That and the fact he’s approaching a point in life where most people are more farmer than pirate underscores the reality that the gold-rush practice of pianos in bars is at risk of once again going dormant. But this old buccaneer, the piano-thumping throwback, still has plenty of puff in his sails.
“I’ll always be an entertainer,” he exclaims. “Hanging out in bars, playing piano: honky tonkin’, which I love to do.”
“I feel sorry for the young guys,” he adds, reflecting on the next generation of performers finding their way, “’cause it was a helluva ride.” Y