Special to The Record
The Vancouver Island MusicFest is just six weeks away and, while many last-minute details are still being finessed, the musical programming at the heart of the festival has been finalized – much to the relief of artistic director and executive producer, Doug Cox.
Although clearly proud of this year’s marquee names such as John Prine and Serena Ryder, Cox is more excited by several collaborative projects that are unique to the festival.
“So often when performers come out to play they are focused on selling their latest CD and that can get a bit boring,” says Cox. “I’m much more interested in one-of-a-kind collaborations that can take artists outside their comfort zone and into a highly creative situation… one which can make them sweat a bit,” he chuckles. “It’s the spontaneity that creates truly stellar moments, those surprises that are unexpected and totally memorable.It’s great for the musicians and also for the audience. That’s when live music is at its most thrilling.”
As an example, Cox refers to Los Texmaniacs, the superlative Tex-Mex band that wowed the crowd in 2015. According to Cox the band called him up and begged to return because they had had such a blast last year. But Cox didn’t want just a repeat, so asked them to reach out to some of their Austin musical buddies to form a one-time-only supergroup to take the mainstage. And boy did they oblige, joining forces with roadhouse Texabilly queen Rosie Flores, legendary keyboardist Augie Meyers, and the incomparable Alejandro Escovedo.
“Rosie is a phenomenal country/rockabilly performer with an authentic sound,” says Cox. “Aside from her great voice she’s not just another ‘girl with a guitar’ – she’s a real guitar player…one of Austin’s leading lights.”
Meyers, probably best known for his work with Doug Sahm and also the Texas Tornados, has been making important music for decades.
“He’s a modern songwriter who explores the whole palette of blues, Latin, Tex-Mex, early rock ‘n’ roll, and country,” notes Cox. “He’s brilliant and doesn’t really fit into any category.”
Another returning group is Ontario’s 24th Street Wailers, a quintet of young musicians enamoured of the rollicking black music of the 1940s and ’50s, especially jump blues. Throw in lots of R&B and some rockabilly and the Wailers have a sound so potent it should be bottled and sold under licence.
“They’ve really become sweethearts of the festival,” grins Cox. “They’ve been here twice and both times they broke CD sales records. It’s really exciting to see a Canadian band get this good.”
As with the Texmaniacs, Cox has booked a whole slew of mature musicians to complement the youthful energy of these hard-touring superstars-in-the-making. The rootsy Canadian guest stars include celebrated bluesman Jim Byrnes and his sometime collaborators, gospel group The Sojourners; rockabilly guitar star Paul Pigatt, a festival regular; and Rich Del Grosso, the world’s living authority on blues mandolin.
“It’s great to get a bunch of artists to come out and do something special, akin to an old Stax R&B touring revue,” Cox says. “It’ll be a fun challenge for the Wailers to figure out how best to back up all these fantastic players.”
Listening to the passion in Cox’s voice, it’s clear you’d be well advised not to miss these shows that only happen once.
“It’s what it’s all about,” he asserts. “This is the real magic of the festival.”
–Robert Moyes is a Victoria-based arts journalist with a particular interest in music
“He’s enormously influential as a keyboardist and as one of the fathers of the modern Tex-Mex groove,” explains Cox.
And then there’s Escovedo, who originally came out of the punk scene, but has always displayed remarkable depth and breadth in his music-making.