The Holmes Brothers at Club Helsinki

Club Helsinki, Great Barrington, Massachusetts Friday, October 22, 2004

On the postcard of “Upcoming Shows in October” that Club Helsinki sent out, I saw that the Holmes Brothers were going to be back in town. This pretty much made my day and I called to get tickets. Thankfully, they hadn’t sold out (I missed seeing them late last June because of this) and so I got to spend last night sitting (and dancing) in a club that holds maybe one hundred and fifty people, listening to some of the most powerfully emotional music possible.

On the same postcard, Club Helsinki listed the Holmes Brothers as a “True Blue Gospel Soul Trio,” and while that may certainly give you a way to categorize the group, that description is merely a hint at the vast catalogue of musical genres to which you’ll be listening when you see them live. It’s kind of like the difference between me telling you “rainbows are red, yellow, etc.” and the rush you get when you see one in the sky.

While the thrust of the evening’s song selection was on material from their latest album, Simple Truths (eight of the night’s twenty-seven songs came from their new Alligator Records release), they certainly didn’t neglect their older material. After a raucous blues opener, they launched right into the Jimmy Reed classic Baby, What You Want Me To Do, flooding the club with their effortless harmonies.

The trio followed this up with two songs from the new album. First came Shine, and yes, that’s the same song by Collective Soul, the one with the chorus, “Oh…baby let your light shine down…” In the able hands of the Holmes Brothers, this number became a driving mix of R&B guitar, country drums and rockabilly bass. Guitarist Wendell Holmes got to show off a bit of his songwriting skills as well with the next tune, We Meet We Part We Remember, which the band played with a dreamy lightness, making the simple and wistful lyrics even more poignant.

If there was any doubt that the group was in anything less than fine form, then it was certainly dispelled with their rendition of Amazing Grace. With Wendell’s guitar taking you on an emotional roller coaster while drummer Popsy Dixon belts out his trademark unbelievably beautiful falsetto lead and big brother Sherman holding everything together with both his bass and his spot on harmonies, I would challenge even the most cynical person to listen and not find faith in the wonders of life.

While a lot of groups use fast tempo songs to pump up a crowd, it’s possible to make the argument that the Holmes Brothers use them to give both the audience and the band a brief respite from the emotionally charged (and draining) intensity they put into their slower pieces like Amazing Grace. So the segue into a hoe down-like Do Lord, followed immediately by the contagious funk of Got Myself Together, gave the band an ample chance to display their wide range of impeccable rhythmic skills. Finishing off this section of the set with Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, they managed to get pretty much the entire club on its feet.

Four more songs from Simple Truths brought the first set to a close. Sherman took the lead vocals on his original song I’m So Lonely while Wendell complimented his older brother’s soulful voice with some equally soulful and stirring guitar work. Popsy once again got the vocal nods on Everything Is Free and Wendell took the helm on You Won’t Be Livin’ Here Anymore. After this sharing of the lead vocal, all three sang He’ll Have To Go in gloriously rich harmonies. And finally, as a reminder to the audience that the Holmes Brothers are all originally from southeast Virginia, each band member got a little musical space in a bit of a country hoe down.

During the “set break” the band stayed on stage while audience members came up and chatted, bought CDs, got things signed or took photographs. I had seen them at Club Helsinki in August of 2003 and it was amazing to hear them talk with folks they had met back then (and earlier!) and catch up on things. One young girl brought a big laugh from the trio when she told Sherman that she’d given up learning the bass guitar in favor of taking up the drums!

The magic of the evening continued through the second set, which started with two of Wendell’s compositions, Run Myself Out of Town from the new CD and The New And Improved Me from their 1997 release Promised Land.

They followed this with the title cut from the CD Speaking In Tongues, featuring Sherman once again on lead vocals, and then a quartet of covers, each showcasing the band’s ability to create song arrangements with both a sense of familiarity and comfort and a sense of newness and immediacy. Their treatment of the Beatles’ And I Love Her recast the song into a hauntingly stirring minor key jazz blues ballad, highlighted by Popsy’s soaring lead vocals, Wendell’s deceptively simple guitar lines and Sherman’s imaginative bass playing.

Hey Bo Didley followed and then the Holmes delved a bit deeper into their country roots with renditions of Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, done as a very tasty blues waltz, and, believe it or not, Okie From Musgokee! If I ever get the chance, I’ll have to ask the group how this came to be part of their repertoire. They obviously enjoy playing it quite a lot and it’s quite a kick to hear the “True Blue Gospel Soul Trio” belting out “… a place where even squares can have a ball…” in perfect harmony.

And it’s that enjoyment that perhaps gives the band its ability to weave a magical spell over any evening, any place they perform. They finished with two riveting songs from their first album, Please Don’t Hurt Me and None But The Righteous, which showcased all the elements that make the Holmes Brothers so special – breathtaking vocals and harmonies, solid rhythms and spellbinding solo work. Both songs, if not, in fact, the whole night’s selection, served as a compelling reminder of how closely all genres of music are related to one another. And watching these three men (and they must all be in their mid-sixties or so by now) drawing pure joy from their music and then sharing it with their audience, is an experience not to be missed.

The band is leaving for a tour of Europe, primarily in Germany and Spain, later this week. If you’d like to see a terrific evening of exceptional music, then check out their schedule at Alligator Records’ website. You can find it here:

Definitely see this band if you’ve a chance. And bring your friends.