Eric Church headlines Sunfest Country Music Festival this weekend

Amenities at Laketown Ranch in Lake Cowichan include space for 8,000 campers, expanded shuttle service

IN CONCERT

What: Sunfest Country Music Festival featuring Eric Church, Emerson Drive, Dallas Smith, Dustin Lynch, Meghan Patrick and more
When: Thursday through Sunday
Where: Laketown Ranch Music and Recreation Park, 8811-2 Youbou Rd., Lake Cowichan
Tickets: $69 (Thursday), $109 (Friday and Saturday), $149 (Sunday), or $269 (four-day general admission)
Note: Children 12 and under are free with paid parent
Information: sunfestconcerts.com

‘I would strongly recommend that if people are thinking about coming they get tickets now, for Sunday especially,” said festival manager Mike Hann of Lake Cowichan’s Sunfest Country Music Festival, which gets underway tonight. “I can feel the buzz, moreso than any other show I’ve ever been a part of.”

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Sunfest is expected to hit its peak Sunday for a headlining performance by Eric Church, the 41- year-old country star and seven-time Grammy Award nominee. The North Carolina native is the cover story of this month’s Rolling Stone magazine — the second time in four years he’s made the front — and during the interview much is made of his classic rock roots, which should play well with the Sunfest faithful, Hann said.

“He’s such a crossover act. A lot of people who aren’t necessarily country fans know who he is, because he sounds a bit of rock ’n’ roll. He brings a [Bruce] Springsteen element to a lot of his performances.”

Hann said the singer’s Everyman appeal has made him a favourite of country music supporters all over North America, and his booking could be a turning point for the festival held at the massive Laketown Ranch Music and Recreation Park. He’s only playing 16 shows over the summer, making his Sunfest appearance all the more special. “It’s not often you get an artist of that calibre, on an upswing like that, playing an outdoor show in the summer around here,” Hann said.

Temperatures at Laketown Ranch hit 36 C on Monday, which is a good problem to have for organizers of Vancouver Island’s biggest annual festival. Steps are being taken to keep festivalgoers safe, however, but those who attend Sunfest each year already have their problem-solving methods, according to Hann. “Some people build their own worlds, they come in on Wednesday and they set up. But some people want to go see the lake or the river. We’re doing shuttle loops within Lake Cowichan and on-call out to Youbou, and we have partnerships with local adventure companies that allow you to take in lake life during the day when it’s hot.”

The most dedicated Sunfest fans, who often arrive Wednesday and leave Monday, are potentially on site for five nights and six days. Hann and the team at Duncan’s Wideglide Entertainment, which produces the event, satisfy eager patrons who purchased early-access camping passes with a kick-off party Thursday. Nearly half of the campers who come to the event check in on Wednesday, so attendance at the 10-band event on Thursday, which includes main stage headliners Aaron Pritchett and George Canyon, is robust.

“On Friday and Saturday, campers pretty much trickle in. Most come Wednesday or Thursday. People are super keen.”

The festival drew in the neighbourhood of 13,000 fans last year for Toby Keith’s performance, who joins Keith Urban, Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood, Dierks Bentley and Little Big Town on the list of esteemed Sunfest alumni. Sales totals thus far suggest 10,000 people will be on site for main stage sets by Dallas Smith and Emerson Drive (who play Friday) and Dustin Lynch and Brett Young (who top the bill Saturday) through the weekend. As for the audience totals on Sunday? Hann didn’t want to put a number to it, but he suspects Church will draw the biggest attendance in festival history.

Sunfest’s third year at its 172-acre Laketown Ranch location (it was previously held at the Cowichan Valley Exhibition Grounds) will feature some new additions. The site will be teeming with guests — the festival’s nearly 2,000 camping spots, with four people per site, put about 8,000 people in the camping area alone — so a second goods-and-services area, named the Hilltop Hub, was established on the upper portion of the site, servicing campers with a second set of plumbed showers, flush toilets and first-aid services.

That was perhaps the most effective addition this year, in terms of the customer experience, Hann said.

“We’ve taken a lot of the amenities people loved on the lower level, and have taken them to the top campground. It’s smack dab in the middle of our upper camping area, so that’s pretty exciting.”

An expanded on-site shuttle service will also please attendees, many of whom wore themselves out walking between the main stage and their camping spots in previous years. “We’ll be doing big loops with tractors and trailers, to make sure people who are staying in the back part of the property have the option to hop on a trailer and get a ride to a junction.”

In the same area, a fourth stage will serve as an unlicensed “wind-down” spot for those still buzzing from the main stage music.

“It’s all enclosed, so we won’t sound-pollute. It’s all housed in a walled tent, so it’s basically a place for people who aren’t ready to shut it down to gather, rather than going off to have parties where they shouldn’t be having parties.”

Sunfest is on private property, but organizers pay attention to the needs and wants of the entire Cowichan Valley.

“We get feedback after every event we do, and we take it seriously,” Hann said.

“We listen, and we evaluate what we can do to address certain things. We have really great support from the communities of Lake Cowichan and Youbou, but we get constructive criticism, too. Just as we do with customer service, in these cases we listen and we try and do what we can to improve with every event and move forward in the best direction.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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