Holmes Brothers next up on Fanny Hill in Snowmass
August 4, 2010
SNOWMASS VILLAGE – It’s hard to capture the spiritual realm much better than the Holmes Brothers did in their recording of Tom Waits’ “Train Song,” from the 1997 album “The Promised Land.” Over Sherman Holmes’ gospel piano chords, Popsy Dixon, the band’s drummer, sings of misdeeds and sorrow (“I fell down at the derby/ And now the night’s black as crow”), facing consequences and the possibility of redemption (“Now I’m sorry for what I’ve done/ And I’m out here on my own”), and you can practically see and hear and feel that train – a variation on the locomotive found in Bruce Springsteen’s “Land of Hope and Dreams,” Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” and Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Gospel Train.” With Dixon reaching with all his might for notes on high, and brothers Sherman and Wendell Holmes adding a foundation of vocal bass notes, sin and the sinner, the idea of hell on Earth and a glimpse of heaven come into focus. Even if, in Waits’ lyrics, this poor sinner is never going to see the Promised Land (“It was a train that took me away from here/ But a train can’t bring me home”), it sure does exist.
That’s nothing, says Wendell Holmes. Back when the Holmes Brothers recorded “Train Song,” Wendell was feeling fine and, despite how heavenly the band’s soaring vocals could bring a listener, he didn’t really know a whole lot about the holy spirit. And then two years ago came the diagnosis of bladder cancer, and doses of the poisonous radiation and chemicals that aim to kill just enough of the flesh to keep the body standing and the soul alive. That was enough to kick Holmes into a higher gear.
“Any time the ‘C’ word is mentioned, it’s a shot across the bow and makes you think about your mortality,” the 66-year-old Holmes said from his home in Rosedale, Md., just outside of Baltimore. “I thought I was going to live forever. Having bladder cancer, I thought I’d better get to writing more songs, and express things that were right from my spirit.”
The result was “Feed My Soul,” a new album that gets right to the heart of things, and calls things as they are. Not coincidentally, it features more songs written by the Holmes Brothers than any previous album, including seven by Wendell who, in the past, was just as likely to pluck a tune from the catalogue of the Beatles or ancient gospel as he was to write his own.
“Feed My Soul” opens with “Dark Cloud,” written by Wendell’s older brother, that sets the album’s truth-seeking tone: “There’s a dark cloud over our land/ … Won’t you tell me, tell me where you stand?” What follows isn’t always pretty; the overall theme could well be human frailty and failings. But it is always about the significance of life.
“It’s no more, ‘Meet me behind the bar, baby.’ That’s not good enough anymore,” said Holmes, who is fully recovered from cancer, and who accompanies the Holmes Brothers in their first Aspen area appearance in more than a decade, on Thursday, Aug. 12, in the Snowmass Free Concert Series. “When I was younger, it was the beat, the rhythm that got me. It seemed the more scandalous the lyrics were, the more I liked it. Now I realize that stuff is so superficial. As I mature, I want my music to mature.”
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Wendell and Sherman grew up in Christchurch, Va., where their parents, both schoolteachers, welcomed the boys’ interest in music. The brothers both sang in the church choir – an influence that hasn’t faded, even as their music-making took place farther and farther from the house of worship – and played a variety of instruments. At Virginia State University, Sherman began to get a formal education in music, but as the ’50s came to a close, he headed to New York City to start earning money playing music. Wendell joined him in New York soon after, and in the mid-’60s the two found another Virginian, Popsy Dixon, to form a bar band specializing in Top 40 hits.
Late in the 1970s, the threesome began forging their own identity, and started appearing under the name the Holmes Brothers. In the ’80s, they played a key role in the nascent jam-band scene – an odd resume item for a group of black men who, at the time, were heading into their 40s. But the Holmes Brothers appeared often at the Dan Lynch Blues Bar, in the East Village, and were instrumental in relaunching the club’s jam sessions. Among the regular players were singer Joan Osborne, and the members of Blues Traveler.
“It was a gold mine for the owners, and also for many of the musicians,” Holmes said. “It was one of the few places where you could get together and play. It opened up a lot of doors for us.”
The Holmes Brothers didn’t need any assistance in keeping themselves open to various styles of music. “New York City is a melting pot,” Holmes said, downplaying the idea that there was anything odd about the Holmes Brothers being part of the jam-band scene. “Race doesn’t play any part in what kind of music we play. There’s nothing I love more than country music. There’s nothing I love more than rock ‘n’ roll. Just because I’m black doesn’t mean I can only sing the blues.”
Over the last few years, the Holmes Brothers have seemed intent on showing just how broad their tastes and skills are. “Speaking in Tongues,” from 2001, was their hardcore gospel album, with songs like Bob Dylan’s “Man of Peace,” Ben Harper’s “I Want to Be Ready,” Wendell Holmes’ “Jesus Is the Way,” and another train song, the O’Jay’s “Love Train.” (The album, like the new “Feed My Soul,” was produced by Osborne.) But for 2007’s “State of Grace,” the group went mostly country, with pedal steel and mandolins, covers of Hank Williams and Lyle Lovett, and a magnificent version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising,” done Cajun-style. They also threw in “Three Gray Walls,” a shot of ’50s pop, and an ethereal take on Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me.” The Blues Foundation named it the Soul Blues Album of the Year.
“Feed My Soul” isn’t so much an exploration of style as of a state of mind, a state of the soul. In the wake of Wendell’s cancer, the band was interested in taking a close, hard look at things. The title track is purely devotional, an appreciation of Holmes’ wife of 36 years. But “Fair Weather Friend” questions the inner strength of a companion who never came to see Wendell in his time of need.
“I was taking radiation and chemo and puking my brains out. I thought, maybe he just didn’t know how to react to his friend being so sick,” Holmes said. The song doesn’t spare on the criticism, but Holmes is now trying to see what might have been behind his friend’s poor behavior. “I’ve been more forgiving. As I’ve gotten better, I’ve gotten better.”
With cancer behind him, Holmes isn’t sure want kind of songs come next. He’s just begun writing for a new album, but can’t say if it will be touched with post-cancer anger, or relief that the disease has been eradicated, or grace for the years he has ahead of him. Or politics, a subject the Holmes Brothers haven’t examined in depth.
“I want my message to be life’s message,” he said. “And that means it changes all the time. What happened yesterday isn’t necessarily going to happen tomorrow, so I want to change with the times. Maybe I’ll write about Barack Obama being the first black president. Or what’s going on with the economy. Or maybe the Tea Party.”