Special to The Record
Every July a few thousand music-loving Vancouver Islanders converge in Courtenay for what many regard as their favourite festival of the year. And standing tall amidst that eager throng is Sierd Hortsing, a certifiable maniac who simply can’t live without huge doses of live music.
It’s an addiction that has seen him drive all the way to Portland just to hear singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson . . . and spend five weeks in Africa at the Festival of the Desert in Mali.
Oh, and then there’s ThreeSixtyEntertainment, the boutique company he co-founded a few years ago in order to present the best of non-mainstream bands on Victoria stages.
Hortsing, in short, is a superfan who could not be more passionate about the kind of rootsy, deeply authentic music that gets programmed at Vancouver Island MusicFest.
“I discovered the festival in the late 1990s and I’ve been about 10 times,” says Hortsing. “I go every year that I’m available.”
Like a lot of discerning regulars, Hortsing is more interested in the daytime programming than the glamorous mainstage shows at night.
“It’s the surprises that happen that I really like,” notes Hortsing. “And when they occur, they’re magic.”
One such moment took place last year when rock ‘n’ funk super-group Royal Southern Brotherhood shared a stage with soulful Mexican troubadour Quiqui Escamilla, an unlikely pairing that blew the audience away. Hortsing was similarly wowed a few years before that when neo-soul vocalist Joan Osborne joined forces with Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq. “It was amazing . . . I was absolutely gob-smacked,” declares a grinning Hortsing.
That kind of musical alchemy doesn’t happen by accident. Give the credit to MusicFest’s artistic director, Doug Cox, who’s been a professional musician all his adult life, tours widely with different artists, and is rated one of the world’s best dobro players.
“Doug really understands how to ‘curate’ the festival,” says Hortsing. “As a talented musician he knows great music, and he tends to hire fantastic players on string instruments like guitars, fiddles and mandolins, plus he brings in a lot of exceptional singers.”
MusicFest also gets a lot of praise for its laid-back atmosphere and bucolic setting. “The vibe there is totally relaxed, and the festival is small enough that it’s not intimidating,” Hortsing says. “A few years ago I was at Bonnaroo in Tennessee where there were 90,000 people camping – and it took almost all day to get into,” he recalls. “MusicFest, by contrast, is extremely manageable.”
Affordability, too, is part of the appeal.
“I can spend $150 and hear a lot of bands that I’m really interested in, either because I already know their music or because I’m curious after reading about them,” says Hortsing. “It’s great value.”
So, what acts is a knowledgeable festival veteran like Hortsing most interested in checking out this year?
“I’m really excited about Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba from Mali,” he says. “He is fantastic, an absolute world-music star . . . and this will be the fourth time I’ve heard him.”
Somewhat earthier will be the mashup between the contemporary Mexican sounds of Locarno and the authentic conjunto songs of Los TexManiacs, who are confronting each other in mock Mexican wrestling mode during a daytime session named Lucha Libre!
Also appealing to Hortsing is Cousin Harley, a rockabilly trio featuring guitar star Paul Pigat. Petunia & the Vipers, which Hortsing describes as “a wackily unique good time band,” will cover vaguely similar musical terrain. And in terms of singing, he’s also looking forward to Manitoba’s The Bros. Landreth (“their harmonies are beautiful”) and the three female vocalists that comprise Trent Severn (“gorgeous voices!”).
Although he strives to attend one big music festival each year – from Austin’s South by Southwest to San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass – Hortsing has equal enthusiasm for the less extravagant virtues of MusicFest, which he has seen evolve over the last decade and a half.
“MusicFest is very well run, and definitely of national calibre in terms of the acts it now books,” adds Hortsing. “It truly has become a destination festival.”
–Robert Moyes is a Victoria-based arts journalist with a particular interest in music