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