BY ROBERT MOYES
Special to Black Press
The Americana genre encompasses traditional music styles such as folk, country, bluegrass, blues, roots, gospel, and most things singer-songwriter.
And these days it’s safe to throw in some rock, rockabilly, and R&B, too. The Vancouver Island Music Festival (VIMF) has always booked lots of great Americana acts, and this summer they are bringing up a trio of bands that qualify as true royalty.
Many people of a certain age recall The Blasters, the glorious neo-rockabilly wrecking crew from California who sang about “American Music” with blistering joy. That band blasted apart in the late 1980s, and out of the wreckage emerged co-founder Dave Alvin, who went on to become one of the most thrilling guitarist-singer-songwriters on the non-commercial music scene. Album after album, Alvin crafted amazing songs and performed them with a brilliant, kick-ass band known as The Guilty Ones. Their galvanizing live shows were and are unforgettable.
“Dave is a real road warrior and one of my favourite artists,” says Doug Cox, longtime artistic director of VIMF. “He’s a killer guitarist, a wonderful singer, and he writes songs that seem like they’ve been around forever.
“I’ve been trying to get him up to the festival for years and years but it’s never worked out till now.”
Even better, Alvin is bringing a special guest star: renowned Texas singer-songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who was one of the founding members of the legendary Flatlanders along with Joe Ely and Butch Hancock. Alvin and Gilmore have been buddies for 30 years but only recorded their first album, Downey to Lubbock, in 2018.
“It is so great that these two are performing together and telling some great stories,” Cox says. “It’s only the second time they’ve ever toured together. We are so lucky to get them.”
And we segue from earthy to the divine, courtesy of Nikki D and the Sisters of Thunder, an all-female gospel sextet led by incendiary steel guitar star Nikki D. She is a master of “sacred steel,” which evolved in certain Baptist churches and features fervent solos on a lap steel guitar in place of the more traditional organ.
One of the standouts at last year’s VIMF, Nikki D was an important part of HER Majesty, a showcase of amazing female blues singers and players. She also appeared on several daytime stages, where her ferocious riffing and sultry vocals were simultaneously intense and uplifting.
“Sacred steel is a male-dominated world and Nikki is the only female practitioner of note,” says Cox. “She is just a fabulous player… with feel, soul, and heart.”
Last year Nikki came alone but this year she’s brought her band, which will complement Nikki’s Hendrix-like blues blasts and huge grooves with gospel-quartet harmonies and the unstoppable power of an old-style Baptist revival meeting. In short: sheer joy! (Nikki will also be leading the Sunday morning gospel session on the main stage, which is unfailingly a foot-stomping/hand-clapping weekend highlight.)
Expect the frenzy to get distinctly funky when New Orleans superstars Galactic take to the stage. Known for their upbeat party attitude, Galactic are as blended as a Bourbon Street daiquiri thanks to their jam-band mix of jazz-funk, rap, acid-jazz, and New Orleans-flavoured R&B.
Formed nearly 30 years ago, they originally favoured the slinky, rhythm-centric sound of the legendary Meters, but have latterly developed more modern and varied ways to guarantee a butt-shaking good time. From tastefully exuberant horn solos to the powerhouse vocals of lead singer Anjelika Jelly Joseph, this band knows how to party. And their not-so-secret weapon is longtime drummer Stanton Moore, who is the driving, rhythmic core of their irresistible funkiness.
“Moore is a drummer’s drummer,” enthuses Cox. “He’s a New Orleans legend.”
The 2023 Vancouver Island MusicFest runs July 14-16 at the Comox Valley Exhibition Grounds in Courtenay. For more information, or tickets, visit islandmusicfest.com
–Robert Moyes is an arts journalist with a particular interest in music