Veteran vocal trio puts the blues in gospel and the soul in country
The Virginia-born Holmes Brothers aren't all related by blood - two are siblings, the third merely shares their home state - but any group of men who have been together since 1979, enduring the shifts of musical fashion and playing a waiting game with success, can surely claim bonds thicker than mere blood.
Sherman and Wendell Holmes were blessed with a musical upbringing not uncommon in the post-War South: singing in the church choir, getting a feel for the blues at home listening to the radio, and mastering the world of sheet music at school. In the 1960s they spent their star-touched apprenticeship with a band called the Sevilles that got to back up such touring giants as the Impressions and John Lee Hooker. Then they endured the Top-40 cover band scene that has sapped the spirit of many a solid musician.
In 1979, they teamed up with Popsy Dixon to found their own group - but for a decade they were known only to the patrons of Dan Lynch's, a New York City blues-centric bar frequented by a number of people who would find fame in the '90s: the members of Blues Traveler; Joan Osborne, who would eventually produce a record for the Holmes Brothers; and producer Andy Breslau, who in 1989 hooked the band up with a long-time-coming record deal at Rounder.
Since then, the group has met with the kind of love usually reserved for foreign musical icons and newly rediscovered legends. They were the first American act to record for Peter Gabriel's pioneering world music label Real World; they've collaborated with Van Morrison and the Jungle Brothers; they've played for President Clinton.
After a string of strong, sometimes thrilling albums, they teamed up last year with producer Craig Street, who put a platinum sheen on Norah Jones and has worked with such up-and-comers as Joe Henry and Cassandra Wilson. Predictably, the resulting album, Simple Truths on Alligator Records, has drawn more attention than most of the half-dozen LPs that preceded it combined.
Like most of their releases, Simple Truths mixes originals with a heavy dose of covers; the musicians' time on the bar-band circuit has obviously left them with a fine appreciation of others' material, even if some of their choices here - Collective Soul and Bruce Hornsby - aren't the most fashionable at the moment.
But their take on Collective Soul's "Shine" adds texture and character to the original. The trio makes the song's pleas for inspiration jump and shuffle; it's a gospel boogie that won't sound dated after Collective Soul's Top-40 lifespan is a distant memory.
They can't do as much for Hank Williams' immortal "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" - and it's not only because the first recording is as perfect as records get. Wendell Holmes' vocal is undeniably heartfelt, but a sluggishly mechanical pace and monotonous drum beat kills the mood. How can you be lonesome with a 40-foot tin soldier standing beside you, beating rat-a-tat-tat into your head? When it comes to solitude, the fellas do much better with "I'm So Lonely," a stripped-down Holmes original that laments "my smile is full of sunshine - but my tears, they fell just like rain."
Given the Holmes Brothers' affinity for the work of other songwriters, it comes as no surprise that their appearance in San Antonio this week is not devoted to their own music. Their show at the Carver Center is titled "A Tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe," and - like the stunning concert a few years back in which Mavis Staples paid homage to Mahalia Jackson - it draws attention to one of the women who ensured that gospel music would endure in the popular consciousness long enough for artists like the Holmes Brothers to perform it.
Unlike Jackson, Sister Tharpe embraced the connection between gospel and the blues. Wielding an electric guitar, she brought soul to bandstands shared with decidedly non-sacred performers like Cab Calloway. That sensibility is obviously not lost on the Brothers, nor on the '60s folk revival star Odetta, who with Marie Knight will fill out the Carver Center bill. When you've been around as much of the music world as the Holmes Brothers have, it would be hard for anyone to convince you that Blues didn't belong in the Gospel, or Soul in Country, or a road-tested cover band in a music hall as fine as the Carver. •
By John DeFore