Vancouver Island Music Festival reaches milestone

Silver-anniversary edition this weekend features 95 performances ranging from Canadian classic rock to honkytonk

IN CONCERT

What: Vancouver Island Music Festival featuring Colin James, Tom Cochrane and Red Rider, Asleep at the Wheel and more
When: Friday through Sunday
Where: Comox Valley Exhibition Grounds, 4839 Headquarters Rd., Courtenay
Tickets: $119 (Friday) and $129 (Saturday and Sunday), $220 for weekend pass; children 12 and under admitted free
Information: islandmusicfest.com

A few months ago, Doug Cox strolled through the open expanse of the Comox Valley Exhibition Grounds, the longtime home of Courtenay’s Vancouver Island Music Festival. The event’s artistic director eventually stopped at the spot where his main stage will sit for the duration of his festival this weekend, and took a deep, contemplative breath.

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Twenty-five years of memories came flooding back.

“I thought about the music that has hit that little field in that little spot over 25 years, and it’s mind-boggling,” Cox said of MusicFest.

“It’s really amazing to think of all the people that have come through and stood at that spot, especially knowing that lot of them are gone now, too.”

Emmylou Harris, Ry Cooder, John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Lyle Lovett, Buddy Guy, Graham Nash, David Crosby, Bonnie Raitt, Roberta Flack, Los Lobos, k.d. lang and thousands more have performed at the festival over the years.

Cox was largely responsible for booking them all, but he doesn’t ever take sole credit for such things. The magic that comes into play each year is a result of a variety of factors, not the least of which is the support of a devoted MusicFest fan base, he said.

“The same circle of people in our campground has been coming for 20 years, from all over North America. There’s these little circles of people who come and have a reunion every year, and I have nothing to do with that. People have met and been married at MusicFest, just about everything you could think of. We have people who have spread ashes of their loved ones because it meant so much to them, the memories of being here with family members. It doesn’t get better than that.”

MusicFest is heading into another winning weekend with its current edition, which features everything from Canadian classic rock (Colin James, Tom Cochrane and Red Rider) to Hall of Fame honkytonk (Asleep at the Wheel). With an impressive 95 performances from 350 musicians on tap starting Friday, MusicFest is celebrating its silver anniversary in style, with an expected daily attendance of 10,000.

Cox, a Juno Award nominee, has been at the job long enough that many who play his festival are friends by this point. And he books what he knows his audience will appreciate, even if they do not know the artists beforehand. He satisfies the needs of his audience with a few big-name headliners each year, but their continued support has given him the confidence to go out and explore. What he often comes back with are configurations of artists unique to what has become one of the best festivals in the province.

“My goal as we keep doing this festival is to be able to call on my friends and basically say: ‘What do you want to do?’ We’re looking for something totally unique to our festival. That’s where my heart is, that’s what is really exciting. As an artist and producer and festival guy, that’s the fun stuff.”

He has delivered on cue this year. More than dozen performers will be on stage for an exclusive Saturday night set by the Muscle Shoals Allstars, a group of studio-session giants. Included in the lineup are players who played on some of the biggest hits in the history of modern music, including efforts by Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Aretha Franklin and Paul Simon.

“They don’t ever tour — they are studio guys,” Cox said. “But this is such a unique adventure for them, they agreed to do it. I can truly say you will never see this lineup anywhere else. It’s not just a bunch of guys on tour trying to sell a record.”

Cox put together a second all-star group for the festival, Danny Kortchmar & Friends. The resumés of the group led by guitarists Kortchmar and Waddy Wachtel and bassist Leland Sklar features a who’s-who of rock ’n’ roll, with collaborations with Jackson Browne, Don Henley, Carole King, James Taylor, and Keith Richards topping their list of accomplishments. Fans obviously can’t be in all places at once, so Cox created Woah, Guitar! to help ease their pain. The Sunday afternoon workshop of MusicFest artists features Wachtel, Kortchmar, Colin James, Robben Ford (who played with George Harrison), Amos Garrett (Maria Muldaur), Tommy Talton (Allman Brothers), and Ray Benson (Asleep at the Wheel), among others.

“My favourite complaint is when people get mad because they can’t go see everything,” Cox said with a laugh. “That’s the biggest compliment you could get.”

Cox one-upped himself this year and added a seventh stage at the Comox Valley Curling Club, which is situated on site and will offer everything from salsa classes to a DJ workshop. This degree of care and attention is what sells MusicFest out each year, but that’s both a good and bad reputation to have, according to Cox.

While camping sold out two months ago (there are spots available off-site, and within walking distance, at Puntledge Campground), there are still day tickets available for the festival itself. That runs contrary to the public perception that all tiers of tickets are unavailable, he said. “Sold out is a really dangerous phrase. The minute you say you’re sold out [of any ticket tier], people automatically make the assumption they can’t come. Because we have sold out in previous years, people make that assumption right away. We’ve been hearing for months from people that they thought we were sold out already.”

The end goal is to make sure everyone who is interested in coming has the opportunity to attend. Cox is eager to share what MusicFest has to offer, as residents of the Comox Valley have had a hand in its success. “As the festival world becomes more and more commercial, people always ask me: ‘What’s the magic? Why are you still able to do what you do?’ The real reason is we are a community festival.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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