A.J. Croce, Sherman Holmes, the Ingramettes, Vaneese Thomas, and the Funky Chester Rhythm Section will collaborate for "Family South: The Great Americana Songbook" at Vancouver Island MusicFest, July 8-10. Photos supplied.

Tales from MusicFest: Celebrating the Great Americana Songbook

The Vancouver Island Music Festival is famous for its special “curated” shows that present the music we all love in exciting new ways.

In 2019, one such showcase featured great stars and a group of amazing but little-known studio musicians connected with Muscle Shoals, the name synonymous with the funkiest of soul and R&B sounds.

“That show was put together for us by Andreas Werner, a remarkable musician and band leader,” says Doug Cox, longtime artistic director of VIMF. “I really wanted to work with him again, and this year our theme is ‘Family South: The Great Americana Songbook.’” The show will feature an amalgam of blues, rock, soul, gospel, R&B, and funk.

“It’s mostly black music from the American South, music that’s been touching people for decades,” Cox adds. “And the stage will be filled with incredible musicians to present this amazing legacy.”

One notable star will be Sherman Holmes, last surviving member of the Holmes Brothers, legendary gospel- and blues-focused street musicians whose remarkable rise to fame saw them play and record with everyone from Van Morrison to Rosanne Cash, and who once performed for President Bill Clinton.

“Sherman was last at the Festival in 2010 when he was playing with Joan Osborne,” says Cox. “He’s still making important music today, and has such great authenticity… I can’t wait to hear what he has to contribute to our Family South show.”

An equally storied music veteran is Vaneese Thomas, the youngest member of what is often referred to as Memphis’s first family of soul. (Her father, Rufus Thomas, had numerous hits for both Sun Records and Stax, while older brother Marvell played brilliant keyboards on many Stax classics, and sister Carla owned the 1960s air waves with “B-A-B-Y” and many other tunes.) Vaneese began her own recording career in the 1970s, becoming a stalwart on Geffen Records. She’s also been a backup singer for such superstars as Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson. Her brand new recording, the blues-soaked Fight the Good Fight, has been called a “tour de force” – and the oh-so-talented Vaneese wrote or co-wrote all 12 songs.

Everyone remembers Jim Croce. Get ready to meet his equally talented son, A.J. Croce, a virtuoso pianist and vocal stylist who draws on everything from New Orleans funk to juke joint soul.

Over the last 30 years A.J. has made 10 studio CDs; performed with such icons as Willie Nelson, the Neville Brothers, and Ry Cooder; and co-written songs with the likes of Dan Penn, Leon Russell, and Robert Earl Keen.

New Orleans piano legend Allen Toussaint praised him best: “In such a crowded music universe it is a pleasure to witness triple uniqueness: pianist, songwriter, singer.”

Most of the notable soul and R&B artists seem to have a lot of church in their musical history. And then there are those, like The Legendary Ingramettes, who never left the church at all.

For six decades the Ingramettes have been gospel matriarchs in that thrilling African-American tradition of roof-raising harmonies and soul-stirring vocal solos. Based out of Richmond, Virginia, the truly legendary Ingramettes are renowned for their incendiary live shows, full of the purest gospel fervour. Say amen, everybody!

And anchoring all these artists are the six incredibly talented session players of the Funky Chester Rhythm Section (an offshoot of the hard-rocking Muscle Shoals crew mentioned above). It would literally take another page to list all their credits. Suffice it to say that between them they have played and recorded with everybody you have ever cherished, from The Band, Bo Diddly and Buddy Guy to Frank Zappa, George Thorogood, and Ricky Skaggs.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime show,” adds Cox. “Get ready to be amazed.”

–Robert Moyes is an arts journalist with a particular interest in music.

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