Vancouver Island MusicFest Unites Master Musicians, Eclectic Upstarts, and Bohemian Good Times

Held in a lush valley, on the banks of a river and surrounded by mountain views, the Vancouver Island MusicFest (July 8-10, 2011) blends the feel of a funky little festival in the woods with the high-caliber production and programming of a major musical event.

Big names from bluegrass, rock veterans with stacks of gold records, eclectic global performers often call up festival director Doug Cox, himself a very busy touring musician who fell in love with the area after playing there. They insist they bring their latest project or get a chance to try out their latest idea.

“Though we’re always open to new performers, we have a number of yearly visitors, people who play regularly but bring different collaborators or bands with them,” Cox notes. “Some are so excited to return they’ll go and charter flights.”


Musicians return for the legendary hospitality—artists are treated to fresh-caught seafood brought by local fishermen, massages, childcare, you name it—and because Vancouver Island MusicFest has gained a reputation as a musicians’ festival. “Our fest has reputation as a place where musicians just want to hang out,” says Cox. “Artists drop their guard and relax because of where we’re located and how we do things. They take more chances, and it can be magical.”

Though maintaining a strong roots and acoustic streak, line-ups are filled with intriguing wild cards (rapper K’naan, Grupo Fantasmo). Performers, following the grand Canadian festival tradition, hang out on “workshop stages,” jamming together, and interacting with audiences. Past festivals have tossed free-form guitarist Bill Frisell and eclectic string maverick David Lindley together, and incited prog rock king Adrian Belew and Inuit innovator Tanya Tagaq to collaborate on the fly.

“I spend at least half of the year on the road touring, so I’m exposed to a lot of music scenes first hand,” Cox explains. “I try not to hire musicians if I haven’t met them. It’s important that they show up and are decent human beings who want to play, to chat with volunteers and fans. “

Cox books with a deep sense of the history and evolution of North America’s genres, seeking out icons and neglected figures alike. The line-up often includes musicians you’ve heard but never heard of, master players who’ve contributed to wildly popular rock records or beloved performers bidding farewell to the touring circuit. The festival saw Bo Diddley’s last Canadian show and Little Feat’s final performance before the passing of Richie Hayward.

Though chock full of quality music and historic moments, the festival, which evolved out of a hippy renaissance fair a decade and a half ago, still keeps true to its quirky bohemian origins. Visitors camp on site, swim in the nearby river, and dig into song circles and workshops until the evening’s big show starts.

Past years have seen bagpipers followed by gyrating modern dancers snaking through the family-friendly camping area. First Nations elders open the Festival with a blessing, and masked performers and circus acts liven up the MusicFest’s wooded fringes. Local painters come, easels at the ready, and paint the festival. It’s a kinder, gentler Burning Man.

There’s a village vibe, as vendors circle the mainstage tent, right there as part of the festival action, and everything from yoga sessions to social support is offered to patrons on site.

In all its offerings, the MusicFest remains committed to environmental stewardship and community connections. “We are one of the greenest festivals in North America,” Cox states, “and our staff has pushed to reduce MusicFest’s footprint to the point that now, volunteers bring wagons with water around the site, to avoid the ubiquitous plastic bottles.”

Though some locals were initially skeptical, the MusicFest has turned the Valley’s economically and socially diverse residents—military families, hippies, professionals with young children—into audience members. The festival attracts hundreds of local sponsors and thousands of local volunteers. It gives back to the community, offering local scouts and other community groups the chance to gather recyclables on site and thereby raising considerable sums.

“We try to have all the elements of a harmonious community, but quietly, so that it’s not preachy,” Cox notes. “People can just come to hear the music, too. That’s the solid core of our festival: good music.”


Guest post via WMNW