MusicFest in Comox Valley a big deal — ‘not just a bunch of hippies and a party’

Laurence Juber shared some of his acoustic guitar magic with a few hundred appreciative fans Saturday at Vancouver Island MusicFest.

Emmylou Harris reacts to a welcome from the audience at Vancouver Island MusicFest 2012.

Emmylou Harris reacts to a welcome from the audience at Vancouver Island MusicFest 2012.

At the Woodland Stage tucked behind the main thoroughfare at the Comox Valley Exhibition Grounds, Laurence Juber shared some of his acoustic guitar magic with a few hundred appreciative fans Saturday at Vancouver Island MusicFest.

The Grammy Award-winner and former member of Paul McCartney and Wings included in his set renditions of the Pink Panther and Live and Let Die, along with Beatles’ tunes I am the Walrus and While My Guitar Gently Weeps. He closed with the Jimi Hendrix classic Little Wing.

“Gotta’ give them what they like — what they know — and mix in my own stuff,” said Juber, a Los Angeles resident who was scheduled to perform on the same stage last year but needed to cancel due to a family tragedy.

Juber became acquainted with MusicFest artistic director/executive producer Doug Cox while teaching at a guitar camp — the same one where Cox met BettySoo, a resident of Austin, Texas, who performed at MusicFest 2011.

“I think this is one of the best festivals,” BettySoo said. “Things are mixed up so much, and that makes it really fun as an artist and it makes it fun as a listener,” she said after hosting a Songwriters Choice session at the Grierson Stage with fellow Texan Sam Baker, two members of the Juno-winning Sheepdogs, Tricot Machine of Montreal and Richard Thompson — ranked among the top 20 guitarists of all time by Rolling Stone Magazine.

Other headliners included Grammy Award winners k.d. lang and Emmylou Harris, Canadian icon Buffy Sainte-Marie and avante-garde performance artist Laurie Anderson.

But aside from the quality and variety of musicians spread over three stages, the highlight for Cox is watching the festival come together.

“There’s so many people here that have been doing this long enough that we’re able to change pages very quickly with the volunteers when we need to,” Cox said. “We have this great team of people. The performers sincerely think of this as one of THE festivals to come play now.

“This little gem that we have here in the Comox Valley is becoming known around the world as one of the best.”

For the first time in its 18-year history, MusicFest completely sold out in advance. About 10,000 people attended each of the three days, 60 to 70 per cent coming from outside the Valley.

One man came all the way from Peru to see Harris. There were also several Australians who visited because of the festival.

“The economic impact of that is huge,” said Cox said, who has conducted a survey on music festivals in Western Canada. “We’re the only festival that pays for its site, and we’re one of the few that receive no funding from municipalities.”

He noted some support from the Comox Valley Regional District such as water and electric upgrades at the Exhibition Grounds.

“But when you look at our economic impact versus their support, it’s very, very low compared to other communities in Canada,” Cox said.

The festival lost money last year but Cox figures it at least broke even this time around.

“I think we’re perhaps the largest cultural tourist destination on Vancouver Island at this point. The fact that we’re bringing roughly 6,000 visitors into the Comox Valley for our weekend — it’s time for the municipalities to sit up and take notice.

“We’re not just a bunch of hippies and a party. This is big business now.”

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