Doug Cox: The man behind the music

Vancouver Island MusicFest is a world-class festival that attracts up to 10,000 fans daily.

  • Jul. 6, 2016 10:00 a.m.
MusicFest executive producer and artistic director Doug Cox

MusicFest executive producer and artistic director Doug Cox

Robert Moyes

Special to The Record

Just over two decades ago, a gifted slide guitarist and Dobro player named Doug Cox came up from Victoria to perform at what was then known as the Comox Valley Folk Festival, a pleasant little event attracting about 500 attendees.

After repeating that gig the following year, Cox had an epiphany.

“I fell in love with the festival and with the Comox Valley and I moved up here with my family,” he said. After the move, Cox was hired to be co-producer of the festival in 1998, along with Bettyanne Hampton. Things obviously worked out, as Cox – long-since the event’s executive producer and artistic director – is entering his 20th season presenting what is now widely acclaimed as one of Canada’s best festivals.

Now known as Vancouver Island MusicFest, these days it’s attracting up to 10,000 fans daily.

“It’s a world-class festival in a tiny community,” said Cox. “And I’m particularly proud of how a lot of the musicians who come here are blown away by what they find.”

Whether it’s the innovative musical programming on the daytime stages, the beauty of the setting, or the happy spirit shown by the more than 1,300 volunteers, MusicFest is a delight to attend, for performers and fans alike.

A lot of its character is an expression of the man who oversees the running of it. Although Cox can always be spotted patrolling the MusicFest grounds like an amiable general, he gives much of the credit for the event’s success to his long-standing production team of Marcy Jaster, Cresslynn Fay, and Amy James. The four are relentlessly vigilant, checking up on literally everything from whether the porta-potties are strategically sited to the quality of the sound at each and every stage.

“We make the festival run like a well-oiled Swiss watch,” Cox said.

Long known for providing little extras – such as the water-wagon teams who crisscross the grounds refilling people’s water bottles – for 2016 the team is debuting some multi-coloured “shade sails” at the grassy knoll stage to help protect audiences from the sun.

“We want this to be a completely positive experience,” said Cox. “People should feel joy in the music and take pleasure in all aspects of what we offer.”

Their efforts are not lost on the musicians.

Matt Anderson, who takes to the main stage Saturday evening (8:15 p.m.) returns for his third Island MusicFest appearance. He lists everything from the artists to the ambience as reasons for coming back whenever he’s asked.

“Doug does such a great job at getting the acts … there’s always a really nice mix. Always someone on his bucket list and every time I have been there, there’s always someone I really want to see as well.

“And it (Comox Valley) is such a great area too. What a beautiful place for a festival.”

MusicFest’s excellent programming is exclusively down to Cox, a superlative acoustic musician with a large and diverse discography and performance credits with guitar stars such as Ellen McIlwaine, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, and Amos Garrett. So who are some of the non-headliner acts he’s most excited about for this year? Once you get past the punny name, Mandolin Orange is a wonderful acoustic duo that’s a canny cross of old-timey and contemporary country.

“They’re like bluegrass without all the clatter,” laughed Cox. “And these are singer-songwriters who can really play.”

Then there’s Cécile Doo-Kingué, a stunningly good blues guitarist of Cameroonian descent whom Cox likens to a cross between Tracy Chapman and T-Bone Walker.

“She’ll be one of the ‘buzz’ acts at the festival,” he predicted.

Another not-to-miss performer is Peter Case, a brilliant singer-songwriter who started out as a rock hipster in the Plimsouls but gradually drifted into the realms of alt-country and Americana.

“He called us, and it was late in the day, but boy I simply had to say yes,” said Cox. “He has written so many great songs.”

Another catch is guitarist Martin Carthy, a grandfather of the traditional British folk music scene. “He’s never been here before and he is folk royalty . . . a master.”

Carthy will be appearing with his daughter, Eliza, a fiddler who has carved out her own reputation for instrumental excellence. Cox also recommends the Ragpicker String Band, three of the top acoustic blues players on the planet.

“Mary Flowers is as good a guitarist as Bonnie Raitt . . . she should be world famous,” Cox said.

Bandmate Martin Grosswendt is a genius at rural blues guitar in the style of Blind Blake and Charlie Patton. And then there’s the incomparable Rich DelGrosso, literally the world authority on blues mandolin.

Special performers all, handpicked by a passionate “curator” who brings a music scholar’s knowledge to everything from African blues to zydeco and Tex-Mex. And at a time when festivals are increasingly commercialized ventures, with swarming crowds more interested in a party than the music itself, MusicFest offers something increasingly rare.

“Our mandate is to celebrate excellence in roots and global music,” said Cox. “And at its heart, it’s meant to be a great community event.”

–Robert Moyes is a Victoria-based arts journalist with a particular interest in music

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The opening day on Mount Washington this year was Dec. 4. Screenshot
Mount Washington opens on time, COVID-19 protocols in place

“We’re super excited - it’s been six months in the planning.”

After holding recent meetings socially distanced but in person at Isfeld Secondary, the board of education was back meeting via Zoom because of recent pandemic restrictions. Image, screenshot
Most parents approve of schools’ handling of pandemic, says Comox Valley superintendent

Schools forced to adapt to COVID-19, including finding alternative to regular theatre production

The Gnarly Craft Fair is going virtual this year. Photo by Kim Stallknecht
Gnarly Youth Craft goes virtual

The virtual fair will be open until Dec. 19 and features talented youth aged 9 -19 years

Lake Trail Middle School in Courtenay has closed again due to a threat Friday (Dec 4). File photo
Lake Trail Middle School closed for the second time in a week due to threat

On Nov. 26, the school was closed for a day while a similar incident occurred.

Comox Valley singer-songwriter Helen Austin, and Cincinnati’s Paul Otten are Big Little Lions. Photo via biglittlelions.com
Big Little Lions earn Canadian Folk Music Award nomination

Duo featuring Comox Valley singer-songwriter Helen Austin keeping busy during pandemic

Pickleball game in Vancouver on Sunday, November 8, 2020. B.C.’s public health restrictions for COVID-19 have been extended to adult team sports, indoors and outside. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
711 more COVID-19 cases detected in B.C. Friday

‘Virus is not letting up and neither can we’

Beefs and Bouquets
Comox Valley Beefs & Bouquets for week of Dec. 2

Beef to deer hunters; bouquet from a store owner to shoppers

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Demonstrators, organized by the Public Fishery Alliance, outside the downtown Vancouver offices of Fisheries and Oceans Canada July 6 demand the marking of all hatchery chinook to allow for a sustainable public fishery while wild stocks recover. (Public Fishery Alliance Facebook photo)
Angry B.C. anglers see petition tabled in House of Commons

Salmon fishers demand better access to the healthy stocks in the public fishery

(Hotel Zed/Flytographer)
B.C. hotel grants couple 18 years of free stays after making baby on Valentines Day

Hotel Zed has announced a Kelowna couple has received free Valentines Day stays for next 18 years

Farmers raise slogans during a protest on a highway at the Delhi-Haryana state border, India, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rejected the diplomatic scolding Canada’s envoy to India received on Friday for his recent comments in support of protesting Indian farmers. Tens of thousands of farmers have descended upon the borders of New Delhi to protest new farming laws that they say will open them to corporate exploitation. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Manish Swarup
Trudeau brushes off India’s criticism for standing with farmers in anti-Modi protests

The High Commission of India in Ottawa had no comment when contacted Friday

Nurse Kath Olmstead prepares a shot as the world’s biggest study of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., gets underway Monday, July 27, 2020, in Binghamton, N.Y. U.S. biotech firm Moderna says its vaccine is showing signs of producing lasting immunity to COVID-19, and that it will have as many as many as 125 million doses available by the end of March. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Hans Pennink
Canada orders more COVID vaccines, refines advice on first doses as cases reach 400K

Canada recorded its 300,000th case of COVID-19 on Nov. 16

Apartments are seen lit up in downtown Vancouver as people are encouraged to stay home during the global COVID-19 pandemic on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. British Columbia’s deputy provincial health officer says provincewide data show the most important area B.C. must tackle in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic is health inequity. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marissa Tiel
Age, income among top factors affecting well-being during pandemic, B.C. survey shows

Among respondents earning $20,000 a year or less, more than 41 per cent reported concern about food insecurity

Victoria-based driving instructors are concerned for their own and the community’s safety with the continued number of residents from COVID hotspots in the Lower Mainland coming to the city to take their driving road tests. (Black Press Media file photo)
Students from COVID hotspots travel to Vancouver Island for driving tests

Union leader calls on government to institute stronger travel ban

Most Read