Sunfest featuring Dierks
Bentley, the Kentucky Headhunters, Gord Bamford, the Charlie Daniels Band, Tara Oram, Chris Young, Jason McCoy and more
When: Today through Sunday
Where: Cowichan Exhibition Grounds, 7380 Trans-Canada Hwy., Duncan
Tickets: $40-$65 (daily); $160 (festival pass)
Not long ago, the Sunfest Music Festival was known mostly as a classic rock affair. But now that the popular Duncan event has made an official switch to country music, the stage is set for it to become one of the most enduring festival highlights on Vancouver Island.
The four-day festival welcomes a solid coterie of country acts to the valley this weekend, including Dierks Bentley, the Kentucky Headhunters, Gord Bamford, the Charlie Daniels Band, Tara Oram, Chris Young, Jason McCoy and more.
In the absence of the once-massive Merritt Mountain Music Festival, which cancelled its 2012 version due to low ticket sales, Sunfest is now the goto country festival in the area - if not the province.
Organizers have responded in kind, with a substantial 2012 offering that is expected to attract its biggest audience to date.
A solid lineup last year (Travis Tritt, Lonestar, Sawyer Brown and others) drew more than 10,000 fans. A crowd of 15,000 is "a possibility" this weekend, according to Annie Andrews, event manager for Sunfest.
"This year, we have taken that next jump up," Andrews said. "There's a lot of country music fans here on Vancouver Island. With the downfall of Merritt, country music fans here want still to listen to their fave artists.
"The attraction is that they don't have to leave the Island to do it."
The big draw is Bentley, a certifiable star in the U.S. who has sent 10 singles to No. 1 on the country charts. The nine-time Grammy nominee will anchor Saturday night's main stage entertainment, while country icon Charlie Daniels - the Grammy winner famous for singing The Devil Went Down to Georgia - will close the festival on Sunday night.
Both players are making their Vancouver Island debut at Sunfest, which should only add to the reverie of 20-plus country acts appearing over two stages on four consecutive days and nights. To accommodate the demand, the number of on-site camping spots was expanded this year, to 850 from 800, another boost to a festival already rich with offerings.
"The campground is very lively," Andrews said, with a laugh. "Fans move into this new little village and make friends all over the place."
Excessive drinking and campground rowdiness, among other things, played a part in the downfall of Merritt, it could be argued. Sunfest organizers have no intention of letting such a fate befall the Duncan event, to the point that a 24-hour security team is scheduled to be on site, in addition to RCMP officers.
This news won't come as a surprise to respectful Sunfest patrons, Andrews said.
"There's definite strict rules and regulations that everyone is given as soon as they enter the gates. We're not the fun police, but we're there to help you deal with a problem."
With everything running smoothly well in advance of the gates opening, Andrews is confident Sunfest will hit the 15,000 mark this weekend. "Next year, who knows?" she said. After all, there's no accounting for the amount of buzz a summer country festival can generate.
"Our campers tend to stay in touch with each other, and when it comes to booking the following year, they say, 'Are you going to be there?' And the response is always, 'Of course I'm going!' "
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