VANCOUVER ISLAND MUSIC FESTIVAL
Where: Comox Valley Exhibition Grounds, 4839 Headquarters Rd., Courtenay
When: Friday, July 14 through Sunday, July 16
Tickets: $129-$139 daily ($240 for weekend pass; children 12 and under admitted free) from musicfest.tickit.ca
Every artistic director of a music festival has a shortlist of acts they would move mountains to book.
Doug Cox of the Vancouver Island Music Festival is no different from his peers, in that regard. The artistic director has a shortlist of performers he’s wanted to bring to Courtenay for some time, but for a variety of reasons, be it timing or budget, those dreams don’t always become a reality.
That doesn’t stop him from trying, and during his 25 years at the helm of the Comox Valley event, he’s secured everyone from Little Feat, Allison Krauss, and Emmylou Harris to John Prine, Graham Nash, and Bonnie Raitt. Cox’s must-have list will be one name shorter Friday night when two-time Grammy Award winner Sarah McLachlan closes the festival’s main stage.
That he was able to have her involved, while keeping the prices of daily tickets reasonable, is a significant coup. “We’ve been trying to get her for years,” he said. “This is the year she agreed to come. She gets what we do.”
McLachlan’s appearance is just one of four concerts she is playing this summer, which speaks to Cox’s standing in the artistic community, and the touring industry’s appreciation for his annual three-day event. Musicfest, as it is known, is one of the top artist-friendly events in Western Canada, thanks to a supportive Comox Valley Folk Society board.
“We are a non-profit organization. It is not our mandate to make money,” Cox said. “Our board always says it is our mandate to break even and have some fun. That’s what we’ve always said. We’re not here to clean up.”
The for-profit music industry has other ideas, which makes life difficult for smaller festivals. The post-COVID festival world is difficult to navigate at present, even for someone like Cox, a Juno Award nominee with more connections than an airport. Artist fees have never been higher, and if Cox wants to build a roster of any renown, he has to pay prices well beyond his reach.
“It’s a different world now.”
Cox always manages to beat the odds, and his 2023 roster is full of highlights, from singer-songwriters Rickie Lee Jones, Dave Alvin, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore to New Orleans funk collective Galactic and roots and blues performers Bros Landreth, Lindsay Beaver and Brad Stivers. At various points through the weekend, up to 18 musicians at a time will be on stage for workshops.
“We have some extraordinary musicians here this year,” he said. “I can’t wait to see what happens.”
He expects to have 10,000 people on site each day, including staff, performers, and volunteers. There’s a core group that doesn’t miss a festival, and that gives Cox some assurance the festivals will go off as planned. Having a deep connection to the surrounding Comox Valley communities doesn’t hurt, either.
“We have 1,200 volunteers. And it wasn’t hard to get them. They are family, this is their event. Some of our volunteer crews are now being run by the children of the people who started them. It’s pretty amazing to watch.”
He said it feels like Musicfest is finally back to normal, after skipping 2020 and staging an online-only edition 2021 edition. Camping is also sold out this weekend, a sure sign that the Musicfest faithful has returned en masse.
Work began on site at the Comox Valley Exhibitions Grounds last week, and will continue days after the last act has performed on stage. It is at this point, with generations of families raised on Musicfest coming together, that the real spirit of the festival shines through, Cox said.
“As I get older, I’m realizing that the music part is wonderful. But the festival is the week before and the week after for a lot of people.”