Can you imagine Mahalia Jackson improvising a soulful ode to a young billy goat? No. Could the Rev. C.L. Franklin have made a viral-video hit out of Drake’s chart-topping “Hotline Bling”? No. And could contemporary gospel music’s reigning star, Tasha Cobbs Leonard, get away with singing Marvin Gaye’s lascivious “Sexual Healing” within the holy confines of a Baptist church?
But the Hamiltones have done all these things and more. Beginning as background vocalists for R&B singer Anthony Hamilton, moving into work with roots legend Ry Cooder, and now branching out on their own, the Hamiltones are blurring the lines between the secular and the sacred with the same kind of aplomb as their heroes Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke. They’re a phenomenon that could only have been born in the American South, where the African-American church remains a vital source of strength and community, but they’re already going global thanks to their combination of vocal agility, effusive humour, and faith.
“We don’t necessarily write about salvation or hope,” Tony Lelo explains in a conference call with his bandmates J.Vito and 2E from their home state, North Carolina. “But, you know, through our songs the message of love is a message of God. Our god is a god of love, so when we sing about love, we’re just singing about the love that God gives us, and teaches us how to give to other people. We use our music as an avenue to just express love, and the different languages of love, and the different situations that you go through in and out of love.”
And when the three sing about bling, billy goats, and blunts? Well, they’re just having a good time, something the Hamiltones intend to share with this weekend’s Vancouver Folk Music Festival crowd.
“It’s going to be a 60- to 75-minute, action-packed show, full of a lot of crowd participation and a lot of stuff that you can carry home, mentally and spiritually, that is good for the soul in a world that’s full of a whole lot of hate,” 2E relates. “That’s what we’re all about. When you come to a Hamiltones show, it’s all about the experience of having fun. So, more than anything, we just look forward to bringing a great time to wherever we are.”
The Hamiltones play the Vancouver Folk Music Festival’s main stage at 9:45 p.m. on Sunday (July 21). For more information, visit www.thefestival.bc.ca.