LAKE COWICHAN — With temperatures in the Cowichan Valley hovering around 34 C for most of the afternoon, the Sunfest country music festival certainly did right by its moniker Friday.
The weather worked wonders for the overall atmosphere, despite the lack of anything resembling a breeze wafting over the site.
Stifling heat notwithstanding, attendees were attentive, and started their pilgrimage to the main stage around 6 pm. for a strong set by Madeline Merlo.
It simply would have been too hot to do so at an earlier juncture, with Laketown Ranch under a heat dome of its own for the first two days of operation.
The festival got underway with a big night of activity Thursday, drawing 6,000 fans for Dallas Smith in a star-making set. It was one of the largest opening-night attendances in the festival’s decade-plus history, said festival manager Mike Hann.
“When you have an opening night like that, it sets the stage for the whole weekend.” The temperatures were also record setting, which made the audience tally all the more impressive.
Hann said on-site gauges peaked at 38 C on Friday, hours before thousands of fans watched a headlining set by Randy Bachman of the Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive fame.
The overwhelming heat (made tolerable by water stations, plumbed showers, and misting tents) did not lead to an increase in medical emergencies on either Thursday or Friday. Despite beer being one way of beating the heat, there was not a proliferation of calls requiring the on-site RCMP officers, Hann said. Members of the detachment echoed that sentiment. Hann said calls have dipped in recent years, as the site finds its personality. “The crowd was unbelievable. Really respectful. I think that is a testament to our attendees, who have learned how to do Sunfest, and to our organizational team, who have refined our operations each year”.
The third large-scale event held at the Laketown Ranch site this summer, Sunfest was preceded by Laketown Shakedown and Laketown Rock, two rock-based festivals.
Vancouver Island’s lone festival catering to the demographic which lives and breathes the hugely popular country genre is now an entity unto itself, which results in a camaraderie between the audience and artists.
Merlo was besieged by autograph seekers during her set, while Smith — the former frontman of Vancouver rockers Default — was given a hero’s welcome. The big draw this year is American star Darius Rucker, the former Hootie and the Blowfish singer, who performs today, but Canadian acts always do well at Sunfest.
One of the homegrown (by way of South Africa) highlights on Friday was Orville Peck. The genre-blending crooner, who performs in a mask adorned with a sequined veil, added some serious flair to Friday’s program. Though he was an odd fit leading into Bachman (who was booked two weeks ago, to replace last-minute cancellation Billy Currington), the diversity was welcome.
Hann said he is pleased at the results thus far, where attendance is concerned. While most major festivals in Canada have been failing to meet attendance expectations, Sunfest has soared.
“It’s a great compliment.”
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