With nearly 100 performances on tap through the weekend, MusicFest is simply too big for one attendee to swallow whole, so those wanting a wide sample of music through the weekend will need to break the schedule into easily digestible pieces. Allow me to offer an effective starting point. Here are five artists from a list of dozens of potential highlights you won’t want to miss at MusicFest.
1. Bobby Rush. A trio of appearances by this living legend (including a conversation with Holger Petersen on Saturday afternoon) will showcase the abundant talents of this Grammy Award winner, whose Chicken Heads remains a staple of the funk-blues genre. His main stage set on Friday with a full band will be a treat, but Rush’s solo concert at the intimate Woodland Stage earns my highest recommendation. A performer with a legacy this rich does not visit Vancouver Island very often.
2. Asleep at the Wheel. Fans will have several opportunities to see members of this Texas collective in action, but there is no excuse for missing their set that closes out the main stage on Saturday night. Ray Benson (who founded the group in 1969) leads the way for Asleep at the Wheel, but the eight-piece group is no vanity project, with several stars-in-waiting. The band’s inventive mixture of Western swing, classic country, and barn-burning bluegrass is legendary in many circles, with nine Grammy Award wins to hammer home the point. Wear your dancing shoes for this one.
3. Ostwelve. Ronnie Dean Harris is the Vancouver performance poet and rapper behind Ostwelve, who will play five sets at MusicFest. Harris made national news for non-musical reasons earlier this month after administering CPR successfully to an unconscious black bear cub near Lytton a move that wasn’t out of character: The Langley resident and Indigenous musicologist has been rallying for the well-being of the world in and out of the music business for more than a decade, and will continue his educational efforts with The Art of Being a DJ workshop on Sunday.
4. The Hamiltones. Fans who caught Ry Cooder’s set during last year’s festival will no doubt remember The Hamiltones, who joined the singer-guitarist for his memorable turn. This sweet-singing trio from North Carolina is returning on the strength of its own reputation this year, and will add a sheen of soul and gospel to various stages this weekend. The workshop Sing in Harmony on Saturday and a Gospel session on Sunday will push the trio (known for its collaborations with singer Anthony Hamilton) into the spotlight on its own merit.
5. Colin James. Though it seems redundant to put Colin James on this list — he’s a seven-time Juno Award winner and chart-topping blues rocker, after all — the Vancouver performer has found an extra gear of late. His appearance at last year’s Laketown Rock festival in Lake Cowichan was incendiary, and arguably one of his best in the area in well over a decade. With several chances to shine on site this weekend, including the headlining slot on Friday night, don’t count out James. He could steal some thunder from his U.S. counterparts.