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Hot weather, hotter music at Vancouver Island MusicFest

Bonnie Raitt and Mike Finnigan belt out a tune.  - Terry Farrell
Bonnie Raitt and Mike Finnigan belt out a tune.
— image credit: Terry Farrell

Scott Stanfield and Terry Farrell

Record Staff

Vancouver Island MusicFest invariably promises a weekend of memorable moments — and surprises. For instance, at the 20th edition of the annual gathering at the Comox Valley Exhibition Grounds, Colin James made a guest appearance alongside Bonnie Raitt at the Concert Bowl to close out the Saturday program.

Earlier in the evening at the other end of the fairgrounds, the Royal Southern Brotherhood blew the roof off the Barn. The band features Cyril Neville of the Neville Brothers and Devon Allman, the son of Gregg Allman. Though together just a few years, the band has already performed in 30 countries.

“We are a toddler in the musical world,” said Allman, one of two guitarists in the band. “We’ve been hitting it hard since Day 1. The fact that Cyril plays percussion is like the icing on the cake. Any time you get two drummers, two guitar players, there’s going to be that comparison (with the Allman Brothers lineup). It wasn’t by design. Cyril’s a bad ass singer, but he also happens to play percussion.”

The other guitarist, Mike Zito, also provides vocals alongside Allman and Neville. Such diversity, says the 39-year-old Allman, is a strength of the band.

“You get sick of one cat or one thing, it’s always moving,” he said.

The Courtenay stop was a one-off performance for the Brotherhood, which played other parts of Canada earlier in the year. It just returned from Norway. After MusicFest, it was off to Montana. While touring, Allman manages to spend a couple days at home in St. Louis, enough time to wash his clothes and hug his son.

Family tour for some

The husband and wife duo of Allison Russell and JT Nero take a different approach to parenthood. The singers/songwriters of Birds of Chicago tour with six-month-old daughter Ida Maed in tow. Tour manager aunt Susie babysits while mom and dad are on stage.

“Proper Irish name. We found out we were pregnant in Belfast,” Nero said. “I’m Irish on my mom’s side.”

Nero — who performed at the 2010 MusicFest with Po Girl — figures he and Russell spend more time with their daughter on the road than if they were working 9 to 5 at home.

“It’s a great little traveling family unit,” he said. “Like any first-time parents, you figure it out as you go.”

Volunteers make it happen

Aside from the array of quality performers, MusicFest is driven by an army of dedicated volunteers, from people at the front gates to those dishing out water to dehydrated fans.

Ron Lewis has been a MusicFest volunteer for at least 15 years. He used to donate his time parking cars. He now works at the bike lockup, a complimentary service.

“They (cyclists) appreciate what we do,” he said. “It’s really growing. It started about five or six years ago with just a few bikes, and they really developed it.”

By Saturday morning the area had contained about 300 bikes.

“We encourage people being green and cycling out here,” said fellow attendee Matt Bourget, a campground volunteer at previous festivals. “It’s all nice people. No problems.”

Carmen Russell of Comox has been tending the parking lot the past four festivals, where she has met an assortment of interesting people. This year it was Bonne Raitt. Two years ago, she met Emmylou Harris and k.d. lang.

When asked what she likes best about volunteering, Russell paused a moment before responding: “Happy, happy, happy.”

First-aid kept busy

MusicFest volunteer paramedic co-ordinator T.J. Moore said that for the most part people came very well prepared for the unusually high temperatures.

“We have certainly had our share of visitors to the festival complaining of heat-related issues, but for the most part, people have appeared to have got the message beforehand, to come prepared,” he said.

And for those who didn’t, festival organizers made sure there was plenty of hydration sources available - from sprinklers at booths and drinking water taps strategically placed onsite, to portable water carts mulling throughout the grounds.

“The festival has had 20 years to learn, and over that 20 years we have made sure that we improved every year,’ said Moore, who added that heat was not the only problem this year.

“The hornets are out in force this year. We have had a number of nests found, so we have had a bunch of guys out bombing nests as soon as they are found - but surprisingly, with the number of nests we found, we haven’t even had as many hornet stings as we had in the past.”

Woldwide talent

Artistic director/executive producer Doug Cox was all smiles, as the show was coming to an end, Sunday evening.

“Wow. It‘s been an amazing weekend,” he said.

The 2014 edition was Cox’s 17th as the musical director, and his far-reaching connections provided music fans with talent from as far away as Zimbabwe and Korea this year.

“I just love music,” he said as explanation for his ability to draw talent from all over. “I listen to a lot of music. That’s the real answer. I feel like we are representing world-class music, from all over the world and that’s important to me.

“There will come a time that I won’t be the right guy to be doing this, because as I get older I will probably lose touch with a chunk of the population, but thankfully it hasn’t happened yet.”

High praise

MusicFest marketing manager Susan Wood had high praise for her production team.

“Doug’s magic at bringing people together to create a musical experience like no one has ever had before is so special … the diversity is remarkable. He is so gifted at it, and so humble about it.”

And now for the long off-season.

“I think it’s a week they get off,” said Wood, only partially tongue-in-cheek. “But really, the behind-the-scenes people – Marcie Jaster (operations manager and performer services), Cresslyn Fay (production manager), Doug Cox – they have probably started (planning for 2015) already. They have already had a meeting to discuss what we need to do next year, so I don’t think the planning ever stops.

“The refinement over 20 years has just been remarkable and I think that next year is just going to be a little better than this year.”

 

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