LIVE: The Holmes Brothers @ Club Helsinki, 7/5/13

Review by Fred Rudofsky

True to form, the Holmes Brothers packed Club Helsinki in Hudson on a Friday night earlier this month. Although no room had been set aside on the floor for dancing, the music for over two hours stirred the soul with originals, diverse covers and a pair of songs which will appear on their next album.

It’s no wonder that “Amazing Grace” takes on such a potent meaning when this trio harmonizes – they have been through everything in their decades together, and the last time they were in Hudson, Irene was making her way up the East Coast. Wendell Holmes led the way, his gruff tenor and impeccable rhythm/lead playing on a Telecaster pulling the full house into his smile of gratitude. Sherman Holmes played bass with superb reserve, letting the fullest notes ring out and offering deft counterpoints to the melody. Drummer Popsy Dixon established a beat that was simultaneously tight and loose, and his ageless falsetto on an extended recap of the first verse and during harmonized interludes drew strong applause.

The shift from the divine to the earthly was seamless. Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man” let the band stretch out and simply rock the rafters, while Sherman Holmes’ “Close the Door” featured a fine lyric about love gone wrong and the optimism of being free. Old blues standards, such as Tampa Red’s “It Hurts Me, Too” and T-Bone Walker’s “They Call It Stormy Monday” sounded fresh in the hands of this band – Wendell hit the volume dials on his guitar to create a pedal steel sound on the former, and Popsy had his drums and vocals swinging in high tempo for the latter. “Feed My Soul,” the title track of their recent acclaimed album for Alligator Records, was prefaced with a classic sales pitch by Wendell: “For 20 Yankee dollars, you can get this album from us tonight. Statistics show that people who get Holmes Brothers CDs have an average lifespan of 99 1/2 years!”

Is there a band on the scene that can match the eclecticism of this one? For those who think vintage country music no longer exists, one listen to the Holmes Brothers’ take on “He’ll Have to Go” must have been revelatory. Likewise, hearing Cheap Trick’s manic “I Want You to Want Me” taken down to a meditative torch song tempo, with Wendell laying down some holy fills on the keyboard, had the uninitiated turning to their loved ones and friends with incredulity that quickly gave way to joy. Popsy sang an upbeat, determined take on the Beatles’ “I’ll Be Back”, and the spirit of Ray Charles filled the venue during Wendell’s heartfelt version of “Come Back Baby.” Closing out the first set with gospel, the Holmes Brothers had dozens singing and clapping, “Glory, glory, hallejulah!”

The energetic second set picked up where the first left off. Wendell declared that the wry blues about indulging in good times and returning (eventually) to one’s home fires, “My Word Is My Bond,” was getting its first live airing and would appear on the next album. “You’re the Kind of Trouble,” a choice cover of a song done by the late Solomon Burke a decade ago, kept the swagger going. Tenderness came just as easily: Sherman’s impassioned “I Saw Your Face,” was dedicated to Mimi, a fan who was celebrating her 80th birthday with friends at a table on the center floor. “Hey Now Baby” allowed the band to show off its virtuoso chops, while another Beatles cover, “And I Love Her,” spotlighted Dixon’s tender falsetto and the band’s flawless harmonies.

Blues and gospel closed out the night. “The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn”, another original due on the upcoming album, ranks among the best in the band’s impressive canon, a moving blues sung with gusto by Wendell. An untitled swinging blues followed, bass notes grabbing the ears. Hanks Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, when played by the Holmes Brothers, transcends genre labels like no other song can– there is an ache in the heart and yet sparks of hope in the soul when hearing them sing it. “Jesus Is on the Mainline” had believers and agnostics on their feet clapping along; whenever Wendell asked, “Did you have a good time tonight?”, everyone in the crowd sang back in unison, without missing a beat, “I had a good time tonight!” Closing out the night with an encore of “God Be with You,” Wendell tapped into his family’s Virginia roots on the piano, trading verses with Popsy and big brother Sherman, with all humming
the lyrics before an ecstatic ending.

Amazing Grace
Big Boss Man
Close the Door
It Hurts Me, Too
They Call it Stormy Monday
Feed My Soul
Got Myself Together
He’ll Have to Go
Hold It
I Want You to Want Me
I’ll Be Back
Come Back Baby
Since I Lay My Burden Down
My Word Is My Bond
You’re the Kind of Trouble
I Saw Your Face
Hey Now Baby
And I Love Her
The Darkest Hour Is just before Dawn
(untitled blues instrumental)
I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
Jesus is on the Mainline
God Be with You (Till We Meet Again)

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