Sunfest Country Music Festival in the Cowichan Valley

The Country Music Festival at Laketown Ranch in Cowichan Valley continues through Sunday. Performers include Madeline Merlo, Randy Bachman, Orville Peck and Darius Rucker.

LAKE COWICHAN — With temperatures in the Cowichan Valley hovering around 34C for most of the afternoon, the Sunfest country music festival certainly lived up to its moniker on Friday.

The weather did wonders for the overall atmosphere, despite the lack of anything resembling a breeze wafting through the site.

Despite the sweltering heat, attendees were attentive and began their pilgrimage to the main stage around 6 p.m. for a solid ensemble from Alberta artist Madeline Merlo.

It simply would have been too hot to do at an earlier stage, with Laketown Ranch under its own heated dome for the first two days of operation.

The festival kicked off with a big night of activity on Thursday, attracting 6,000 fans for Dallas Smith in a star-studded setting. It was one of the biggest opening night attendances in the festival’s history for more than a decade, festival director Mike Hann said.

“When you have an opening night like that, it sets the stage for the whole weekend.” Temperatures also hit record highs, which made the crowd count all the more impressive.

Hann said gauges at the venue peaked at 38C on Friday, hours before thousands of fans watched a headliner set by Randy Bachman of Guess Who fame and Bachman-Turner Overdrive.

The searing heat (made tolerable by water stations, plumb showers and misting tents) did not lead to an increase in medical emergencies on Thursday or Friday. Although beer is a way to beat the heat, there hasn’t been a proliferation of calls requiring RCMP officers on the scene, Hann said. Members of the detachment echoed this sentiment. Hann said calls have dropped in recent years as the site finds its personality. “The crowd was amazing. Really respectful. I think that’s a testament to our attendees, who learned how to do Sunfest, and our organizing team, who refined our operations every year.”

The third large-scale event held at the Laketown Ranch site this summer, Sunfest was preceded by Laketown Shakedown and Laketown Rock, two rock-based festivals.

Vancouver Island’s only festival for the people who live and breathe the wildly popular country genre is now an entity unto itself, resulting in camaraderie between audience and performers.

Merlo was besieged by autograph seekers during her set, while Smith – the former frontman of the Vancouver rockers Default – was given a hero’s welcome. The big draw this year is American star Darius Rucker, the former singer of Hootie and Blowfish, who performs today, but Canadian artists still do well at Sunfest.

One of the local highlights (via South Africa) on Friday was Orville Peck. The genre-blending crooner, who performs in a mask adorned with a sequined veil, added a serious twist to Friday’s programme. Although it was an odd fit leading up to Bachman (who was booked two weeks ago, to replace last-minute cancellation Billy Currington), the diversity was welcome.

Hann said he’s happy with the results so far, in terms of attendance. While most major festivals in Canada failed to meet attendance expectations, Sunfest soared.

“That’s a big compliment.”

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Toya J. Bell