Sunfest country music festival in the Cowichan Valley

The country music festival at Laketown Ranch in the Cowichan Valley lasts until Sunday. Cast members 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, country music festival Sunfest certainly lived up to its Friday nickname.

The weather did wonders for the overall atmosphere, although there’s nothing like a breeze blowing across the grounds.

Despite the sweltering heat, those in attendance were alert and began their pilgrimage to the main stage around 6:00 p.m. for a strong set from Alberta performer Madeline Merlo.

Earlier it would have been just too hot as the Laketown Ranch was under its own heat dome for the first two days of operation.

The festival kicked off with a big night of activity on Thursday, drawing 6,000 fans for Dallas Smith in a star-making set. It was one of the largest premiere-goers in the festival’s more than decade-long history, said festival manager Mike Hann.

“An opening night like this sets the stage for the whole weekend.” The temperatures were also record-breaking, which made the audience figures all the more impressive.

Hann said on-site gauges peaked at 38C on Friday, hours before thousands of fans saw a headlining set by Guess Who’s Randy Bachman and Bachman-Turner Overdrive.

The overwhelming heat (made bearable by water stations, water showers and fog tents) did not result in an increase in medical emergencies on either Thursday or Friday. Though beer is a way to beat the heat, there hasn’t been an increase in calls, which required RCMP officers on the ground, Hann said. Members of the department echoed this sentiment. Hann said calls have dwindled in recent years as the site found its personality. “The crowd was unbelievable. Really respectful. I think this is a testament to our participants who have learned how to do the Sunfest and to our organizing team who have refined our processes every year.”

Sunfest, the third major event to be held at Laketown Ranch this summer, was preceded by Laketown Shakedown and Laketown Rock, two rock-based festivals.

Targeting the demographic that lives and breathes the hugely popular country genre, Vancouver Island’s lonely festival is now a separate entity, leading to a camaraderie between audiences and performers.

Merlo was besieged by autograph seekers during their set, while Smith – the former frontman of Vancouver rockers Default – was greeted like a hero. The big draw this year is American star Darius Rucker, the former Hootie and the Blowfish singer, who is performing today, but Canadian acts always hit Sunfest well.

One of Friday’s home (via South Africa) highlights was Orville Peck. The genre-bending crooner, who performs in a mask adorned with a sequined veil, added serious flair to Friday’s program. Though he had an odd fit that led to Bachman (who was booked two weeks ago to replace last-minute canceled Billy Currington), the diversity was welcome.

Hann said he was happy with the results so far in terms of participation. While most of Canada’s major festivals have failed to meet visitor expectations, Sunfest has skyrocketed.

“That’s a big compliment.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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