Tales from MusicFest: The sweet, down-home sounds of ‘Americana’

Asleep at the Wheel, Los Texmaniacs among legendary acts coming to the Comox Valley

Robert Moyes

Special to Black Press

“Americana,” one of the most loosely defined musical genres, covers everything from modern bluegrass and old-timey tunes to Tex-Mex, country blues, and much of the output of all manner of singer-songwriters. Island MusicFest has always championed Americana in all its forms, and has a particularly diverse and talented lineup this year.

Possibly the most exciting act that’s been booked is Austin’s renowned Los Texmaniacs, who are making their third appearance at the Festival. Formed in 1997, these are probably the most revered practitioners of Tejano music, but in addition to the old-time polkas and other dance-happy traditional styles, they’ve created a unique “Texas gumbo” comprising elements of blues, rock, country, and jazz. Typically a quartet, the Texmaniacs are bringing along a number of special guests. Informally known as the Lone Star Amigos, they include singer-songwriter Tish Hinojosa, legendary organist Augie Meyers (best known for his work with Bob Dylan and Doug Sahm), down-home blues master Johnny Nicholas, nationally acclaimed vocalist Rick Trevino, and the full-throttle roar of San Antonio’s celebrated Westside Horns. Wow!

JN TXMC better mix 33019 from Jay Curlee on Vimeo.

Continuing with the Mexican theme is a special project by singer/guitarist/songwriter Tim Williams. Primarily known as a blues practitioner, Williams grew up in a part of California rich in Hispanic culture and he always had an affinity for Mexican music. A regular attendee at the Zihuatanejo International Guitar Festival, in 2017 he performed a chance duet with Jossy Gallegos (from nearby Petatlan) and their voices and spirits meshed perfectly. The result was the landmark CD Corazones Y Murallas (Hearts & High Walls), a poignant and insightful look at the hardscrabble lives of Mexican workers on both sides of the increasingly fraught Mexico-U.S. border. (MusicFest’s Doug Cox readily admits that a lot of the Hispanic programming at this year’s Festival is his way of pushing back against the harsh and racist policies of Donald Trump.)

You really don’t get much more legendary than Asleep at the Wheel, the preeminent western swing band that invariably whips audiences into a frenzy of foot-tapping ecstasy. Founded by Ray Benson nearly a half-century ago, Asleep has released 25 records and earned an impressive 10 Grammys – well-deserved accolades for a crew of exceptional instrumentalists and singers. Long rated one of the best live acts performing anywhere, Asleep is celebrated for its irresistible combination of countrified blues, swing, and traditional fiddling that Benson memorably described as “jazz with a cowboy hat.” And long-ago alumnus Cindy Cashdollar, one of America’s greatest Dobro and steel guitar stylists, has rejoined the band for the current tour.

Asleep at the Wheel – Hot Rod Lincoln from WCCC.TV – City of Waco on Vimeo.

Few, if any, American cities can match the musical high spirits of New Orleans. And few New Orleans bands can match the funky exuberance of Cha Wa, a horn-driven street band whose colourful Mardi Gras-style costumes reflect the 100-year-old tradition of African-American men marching in Native American dress – an eye-popping street style more recently popularized by such Crescent City legends as The Meters, Dr. John, and The Neville Brothers. Cha Wa has now taken up this mantle and is currently at the forefront of this amazing lineage, brilliantly keeping alive a unique tradition of dance-ready brass bands.

And let’s end with the heavenly voices of the Hamiltones, a Grammy-nominated trio of R&B and gospel singers (whose gorgeous harmonies helped Ry Cooder present a triumphant, incandescently soulful mainstage show last year). These “backup” singers will be appearing front and centre with their own band and a unique show that has won them a huge audience via their viral videos and late-night TV appearances. “These guys have their own sound, and we didn’t really see what all they could do when they played with Ry,” says Cox. “They are the epitome of classic soul and gospel and it was natural to bring them back.”

***

Vancouver Island MusicFest runs July 12-14 at the Comox Valley Exhibition Grounds. To check out the entire lineup, and to buy tickets, visit https://www.islandmusicfest.com/

–Robert Moyes is a Victoria-based arts journalist with a particular interest in music

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