We all have our reasons for coming back to the Vancouver Island MusicFest. For some it’s the music. For others it’s the people, or the amazing atmosphere of cooperation and common beliefs.
For Campbell River’s Eric Benson, volunteering for MusicFest 2012 was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to turn an old, crushing disappointment into a dream come true.
An accomplished singer/songwriter, Benson comes from Cambridge, Ontario. He spent time in Detroit as a teenager before heading west and settling in Campbell River in 1982.
“I always packed a guitar around with me, played a few chords,” he says. “I couldn’t sing, and I pretty much destroyed people’s songs when I tried to sing them, so I had to write my own if I wanted to keep singing.”
That philosophy has carried Benson a long way. He’s released four CDs with another on the way. He’s hoping one of his recent compositions might be picked up by a major recording artist. There’s always something new in the works.
“You just got to keep going,” he explains. “It’s something I’ve always done and always wanted to do.”
But that drive and determination took a beating a little more than 10 years ago. At the time, Benson was signed to a record label with connections to a number of major U.S. recording artists. Plans had come together to hit the road with a band, opening shows for Emmylou Harris, but at the last minute the plan fell apart when another band got the nod.
“We had a whole set put together and a band ready to go,” he recalls. “It all fell through, a big disappointment.”
Fast forward to last year, when Benson volunteered to work on backstage security at the urging of friends who’ve worked backstage at MusicFest for a number of years. Up until then, he hadn’t had much experience with the festival.
“I was actually at the MusicFest maybe 10 years ago, just went there for a couple of hours and wandered around, took in a couple of the acts, but I was on my way to Victoria so I couldn’t stay,” he says. “Last year’s MusicFest experience was way, way beyond what I had expected. It was quite a thrill.”
Of course the line-up had something to do with Benson’s decision to volunteer.
“Emmylou Harris was one of the headliners, so I was thrilled to get a chance to be that up close with one of my idols. It was terrific. I was in the pit out front when Emmylou was performing. Security had let three people into the pit to sit down on these low seats to watch Emmylou. I saw this lady in front of me with a plate of food and I thought ‘she looks familiar.’ I took a second look and here it was Buffy Sainte-Marie.
“I got to hang out with Buffy Sainte-Marie for about half an hour backstage. I met her band, another thrill of a lifetime. My music teacher in Grade 7 was kind of a hippie and just totally in love with Buffy Sainte-Marie, so she would play her albums all the time for us. And here I was walking on the grounds of the MusicFest talking with Buffy Sainte-Marie.”
A friend of Benson’s had given him a photo of Emmylou, taken at the Edmonton Folk Festival in the 1970s. Benson had been instructed to get the photo signed. Backstage after her performance, Benson showed Harris the photo and asked if she’d sign it.
“She looked at it, and she pulled it really close, and said ‘Oh my God! You have to come to my trailer.’
“Next thing you know, I’m sitting on a couch in Emmylou’s trailer. I got a picture taken, she signed my shirt, gave me a big hug. We didn’t discuss this missed opportunity. She didn’t know who I was, but for me it was almost full circle, that I’d missed this opportunity years and years ago and here I was sitting on a couch in her trailer talking with her.
“It was really a dream come true. It was quite amazing.”
Benson will be back at MusicFest this year, even though Emmylou won’t. He admits he’s hooked on the MusicFest experience and jumped at the chance to volunteer for MusicFest 2013. He says he’s coming back not only for the musicians performing on stage.
“This was just amazing,” he says. “It wasn’t just all this non-stop talent, but afterwards, all these people in Security backstage, most of them were musicians, and very talented musicians. After the last performance, the audience would leave, we’d clean up and then head back to our campsites, get a fire going, set up chairs and everyone brought out a guitar or a violin, banjoes, mandolins. I was stunned at the amount of people who were accomplished musicians that worked this festival.
“So it was just non-stop music. I was in Heaven.”