For fans, Sunfest more than a festival: It’s country-music heaven [gallery]


Sunfest was a town unto itself Saturday, with its own hospital, general store, fire department and RCMP detachment — all to accommodate the 50,000 revellers expected to pass through the country music festival’s gates.

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“We call ourselves the biggest town between Langford and Nanaimo,” said Erin Richards, marketing manager for the four-day festival.

“We’re our own township, at least for the weekend.”

The Sunfest Coiuntry Music Festival, which comes to a close tonight with a set by Grammy Award nominees Little Big Town, is a behemoth. Situated on a 172-acre parcel of private land in Youbou, near Lake Cowichan, the festival site is super-sized in every regard, from its stage — the largest permanent structure of its kind in the province — to its nightly headliners.

Oklahoma-raised country star Toby Keith was the big star Saturday night. The crowd, estimated at 15,000 when Keith was on stage, was on par with last year’s Carrie Underwood set, attendance-wise. But, while Underwood brought glitz to her first-ever Vancouver Island appearance, Keith brought an outlaw sensibility to his.

His stage featured a massive truck grill with “Built Ford Tough” across the front, the first of many unabashedly American sentiments. (Keith and the automaker have a long-standing relationship, which accounts for the cross-promotion.)

The audience wasn’t over-the-top at first. That might have had something to do with the electricity from Ontario favourite Tim Hicks, who gave a rollicking performance with songs about Canadian beer and Tim Hortons. But Keith reeled off a string of frat party favourites — Red Solo Cup, Wacky Tobaccy, and Beer for My Horses — and the Sunfest faithful came around.

Overall, the crowd appeared to be remarkably well behaved on Saturday. Part of the festival’s new harm-reduction program, intended to help keep festivalgoers safe, includes campground hosts who index the name of each person in the campground area. With more than 2,200 campground sites, the job is a big one, with round-the-clock staff.

But that didn’t mean the party vibe was dampened. At the Get Lucky campsite, a collection of 13 tents and trailers showcased the fun-loving side of an extended family from Campbell River.

Susan Lorentz and several generations of her family spent the better part of a year creating Lucky Lager-themed ephemera — hats, cups and shirts, and even a dance floor constructed from beer cases.

“We went to ball tournaments and beer gardens and have been getting their boxes for the past year,” Lorentz said. “But the tape is melting because it’s so hot.”

The heat tapered off as the day progressed, saving many revellers from a sunburnt trip to the first-aid tent. The energy remained high at La Capilla — Spanish for the chapel — a popular campsite run by Tanya and Matt Swann of Port Alberni.

The couple, which operates a construction company, hauled a trailer full of materials to the festival, crafting a makeshift building outfitted with a full bar and fire truck siren.

“You can come hang out, and we give free drinks to people of legal age,” Tanya Swann said. “We love the socializing part of it. We have regulars — we’re like the Cheers of Sunfest.”

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