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Vancouver Island Music Festival

Best fest in the West takes over Courtney- Comox this weekend.

Every July for 18 years, the Courtenay-Comox region has been a Mecca for music lovers — particularly those who like their folk festivals on the rootsy-bluesy side. Produced by ex-Victorian Doug Cox, the Vancouver Island MusicFest (July 6 - 8) is well run, nicely sited on fairgrounds complete with a swimmable stream burbling through a bordering grove of trees, and boasts an adult beverage garden with great views of the main stage. Oh, and the performers are pretty damn good.

Although the festival is always a don’t-miss-it proposition, a couple of this year’s headliners have created a particularly intense buzz of anticipation. First there’s England’s Richard Thompson, a peerless singer-songwriter who hasn’t been heard in these parts for far too many years. (For those unfamiliar with the too-little-known Thompson, his songs can be droll japes or acerbic short stories, while his guitar playing is so virtuosic that Bonnie Raitt, after hearing him live, declared she was going home to break her wrists.)

An equally exciting draw is legendary country singer Emmylou Harris: a 12-time Grammy winner with a dazzling 40-year career who has never been to the Island before. Other headliners include Canadian lower-case icon k. d. lang and revered musician-activist Buffy Sainte-Marie. The beguiling, plaintive-voiced retro-folkies the Be Good Tanyas are back on the circuit, while “mound of sound” bluesman Matt Andersen – who was just starting to get some profile when he debuted at the festival several years ago – will bring his wildly soulful solo show back for an encore. Sure to attract a huge crowd are The Sheepdogs, the Juno Award-winners who won a battle of the bands to become the first unsigned act to ever make it on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine. And there will be intense interest in what art-pop shaman Laurie Anderson is up to these days.

Of course, one of the notable pleasures of a festival is discovering great musicians you’ve never heard of; happily, Doug Cox is a gifted talent scout. One of the world’s best dobro players, Cox performs all over the world for much of the year. Thanks to jam sessions and backstage word-of-mouth as well as catching amazing performances at giant “music fairs” like SXSW in Texas, Cox recruits impressive new talent every year. Asked to list some “don’t miss” unknowns, Cox instantly names Sam Baker, the so-called poet laureate of Austin, Tex. “He’s amazing, he’s like a Guy Clark,” says Cox. “And Shakura S’aida is an exceptional blues singer with a powerhouse band and a guitarist like Jeff Beck.”

There will be tasty finger-style guitar playing from both Alan Jossul and Steve James, while Victoria’s own Juno winner, guitarist Bill Johnson, will be blasting some serious electric blues from the stage. If “outlaw indie country” is more to your liking, check out New Country Rehab for a brave new take on an old-time sound. Fans of the crazed Celtic rock popularized by the Peatbog Faeries should open their ears for Sketch, the latest project of ex-Peatbog drummer Iain Copeland. And jazz aficionados needn’t despair — Toronto’s legendary Shuffle Demons are on the prowl again, introducing a new generation to their explosively inventive “bop rap” improvisations.

In short, a banquet of great music in an idyllic setting, with the pleasure meter set on “full.” Or, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson: When a man is tired of the Vancouver Island MusicFest, he is tired of life. M

by Monday staff