Laidback, pretty, and a whole lot of fun — that’s Vancouver Island, a huge, forested island off the coast of the Vancouver, British Columbia’s mainland. Folks here love to play outside, in and on the water. They also love gathering to hear live music. The sunny summer months are ideal for sitting on a picnic blanket with friends and listening to the latest bands, dancing with the crowd until the stars come out, or sitting back among the flowers and trees to savour classical favourites. Here are some of the island’s best musical gatherings.
Royal Athletic Park and around Victoria
The very last event of the concert season calendar may well be the year’s best. The island’s biggest musical shindig is August and September’s genre-blending Rifflandia. It’s four days of lounges, DJs, parties, and music on 18 stages. Venues might include a rooftop tent at Royal Athletic Park, the Capital Iron night stage, of the city streets around Victoria. Rub elbows with locals and discover some of the 150 talented international and Canadian performers. Spanning hip-hop, alternative, pop, rock, house, R&B, blues, and mash-ups of everything in between, past headliners have included Courtney Love, Astrocolor, DiRTY RADiO, Jurassic 5, and De La Soul. Check out the eclectic, local-minded artisan market in Royal Athletic Park, too, with an emphasis on vintage, upcycled, and handmade goods. Weekends often sell out, so get your tickets in advance.
Vancouver Island Musicfest
For a long weekend in mid July, eco-friendly, volunteer-powered Vancouver Island Musicfest takes over the fairgrounds in pretty, seaside Comox. World-class acts play on six stages, with a vast list of headliners that has included the Barenaked Ladies, Bruce Cockburn, and Emmylou Harris, covering everything from contemporary to rockabilly. Each stage has its own personality: the Concert Bowl for big bands and dance performances; the workshop stage for jam sessions and song circles; and the Crossroads for workshop sessions like songwriting and Q&As with the artists. Dancing here is a must, as is onsite camping in the tree-lined setting. Sign up early, though, if you want to get a ticket and a campsite.
TD Victoria International Jazz Festival
Strong line-ups distinguish the 10-day late June-early July TD Victoria International Jazz Festival, one of the longest running in the city. It’s big: 85 concerts (including 25 free events) on 13 stages around town, 35,000 fans, and 350 performers, including 73 bands, playing jazz, blues, roots, and worldbeat in all forms. Impressive local, Canadian, and international talent includes the likes of Serena Ryder, the David Murray Infinity Quartet with Macy Gray, Nikki Yanofsky, Bettye LaVette, and Herbie Hancock. Another option is mid June’s Victoria Ska Fest, North America’s longest running, over five nights at multiple venues. It’s a showcase of the world’s best in ska, dub, reggae, jazz, dancehall, and punk. Designed as a for-the-people fest, some shows are free. Past acts have included Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, Tanya Stephens, Chicago Afrobeat, Mos Def, and Fishbone.
Sooke River Bluegrass Music Festival
You know it’s camping season when the laid-back Sooke River Bluegrass Music Festival rolls around. Everyone's are welcome at this Father’s Day weekend gathering, celebrating 15 years in 2017, in the scenic oceanfront community of Sooke on the island’s southern tip. The roster of locals and visiting talent host 20 performances on the open-air stage. There's also a Big Top Square Dance, lots of food options, and a market. Try an instrument workshop and join a jam session. The fest happens at on the woodsy Sooke River Campground set right on the water, about 45 minutes from Victoria. Bring along a chair or picnic blanket and your swimsuit for a dip in the river. The beach is also nearby.
Aboriginal Cultural Festival
Royal BC Museum, Victoria
A showcase of local First Nations talent, the June Aboriginal Cultural Festival always coincides with National Aboriginal Day. It’s colourful, educational, high energy, and authentic. The three days celebrate Songhees, Esquimalt, and other First Nations’ culture, heritage, and values, with traditional music, storytelling, dance, food, and art. Highlights include Alex Wells, a world hoop dancing champion, and the kick-off ceremony, during which the host chiefs arrive by canoe in Victoria’s Inner Harbour. Not only is it a free event, the action takes place at the Royal BC Museum’s outdoor plaza stage in downtown Victoria. Combine a visit to see the museum’s acclaimed collection of Aboriginal art and artifacts with some festival performances.
Blooms, Music and Fireworks!
Butchart Gardens, Brentwood Bay
First, there’s the flora — the 55-acre world-renowned Butchart Gardens, an enchanting landscape of trees, flower beds, shrubs, winding paths, gurgling fountains, and vined pavilions, accented by romantically wild English-style. Then, there’s the classical music performances, which take place outdoors on the lawn. Finally, there’s the fireworks, choreographed to the music, that crackle and boom and light up the night sky. The Blooms, Music and Fireworks! concert series goes on all summer on Saturday evenings and concerts are included with regular garden admission. You can either reserve a VIP chair or bring a blanket, or lawn chair, and sit on the grass. But arrive early to secure your spot at this popular event, which dates back to the 1970s.
After the music ends, be sure to sample all of Victoria’s top offerings — from whale watching and fishing, to shopping and museums.