An Appreciation of Whitehorse
Story by Gord Ellis, Photo by Lyle Bell
Whitehorse is one of the great Canadian acts of our time. Maybe of all time. The pedigree of husband-andwife duo Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland is second to none, and they both are superb songwriters, singers, and multi-instrumentalists. I’m an unabashed fan of the duo and wanted to share a little love for them here. My first brush with the duo was in January of 2008 (pre-Whitehorse) when Luke Doucet and the White Falcon was the opening act for Blue Rodeo on their Small Miracles Tour. I’d heard some of Doucet’s music already and was especially taken by his song “Broken One” which was a devastating—yet somehow empathetic—break-up song from his classic solo album Broken (And Other Rogue States). I’d also heard some of McClelland’s solo music and knew she had some formidable pipes and songwriting chops. Her vocals on a Jesse Cook cover of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” were exquisite. Yet, I wasn’t prepared for the chemistry Doucet had with McClelland—who was his background singer and bandmate in the White Falcon—at the concert. Yes, they were married, but not every musician couple are also awesome as bandmates. These two were. They smouldered on every song they shared, and McClelland would strap on a Telecaster or acoustic while Doucet shredded his Gretsch. It was a fantastic show and a very strong opening band for Blue Rodeo. My takeaway was they were amazing together. Fast forward a few years and Doucet and McClelland have formed a duo they call Whitehorse. It didn’t come as a surprise, really, but in many ways was a bold move. They could have been the Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland duo and trotted out their various solo songs in concert. Yet it quickly became evident that Whitehorse was both a fresh start and slightly different animal than what the two artists had been doing up to that point. It was tough to pinpoint exactly what was different, but the songs they were putting out had a different vibe. Songs like “Devil’s Got a Gun” and “Out Like a Lion” featured the couple’s perfect harmonies and hooky arrangements. Doucet’s idiosyncratic guitar playing was still at the fore, but it felt like a move into new territory. Whitehorse became a hardworking touring act, with Doucet and McClelland crisscrossing the United States and Canada as a two-person band. They were hardly the first duo to use instrument looping on stage, but they took it to a whole other level. In 2018, Doucet and McClelland came to Thunder Bay again, but this time as part of Sarah McLachlan’s backing band at Bluesfest. They added their distinctive vocals and musicality to McLachlan’s set, but I left wishing that Whitehorse would return to the city for their own gig. That almost happened in 2020, when the Sleeping Giant Folk Music Society booked them for a gig. Then the pandemic stepped in and stopped nearly all live music. For the next couple of years, Whitehorse fans would only be able to see the duo on social media, where they would do a weekly song from their living room. Great performances, but not the same as live and in person. Then, finally, this past spring, Whitehorse was able to tour Northwestern Ontario, and brought their amazing act to a number of communities, including Atikokan, Greenstone, and Thunder Bay (thanks again to the SGFMS). And what a show it was. The duo was clearly happy to be playing live and soaked up the love they received from the audience. McClelland was resplendent in a skin-tight silver rock star top, while Doucet chose a flowered cowboy shirt and Stetson. With a drummer in tow, the power trio rocked out with a wide selection of Whitehorse songs and a cover of the Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris song “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning.” Whitehorse is touring this fall and if you haven’t seen them yet, they play Winnipeg in September. They are worth the drive.