Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Taking Nothing For Granted: The Holmes Brothers' Brotherhood

The Holmes Brothers have just released their 11th album and these veteran musicians keep getting better with age. For the record, there are only two Holmes brothers, Sherman and Wendall. They grew up in a musical house in Christchurch, Virginia, nurtured by their parents who were schoolteachers. The boys took an interest in music beyond the Sunday morning Baptist hymns and spirituals by tuning to blues artists such as Jimmy Reed and B.B. King. Those influences took a creative hold of Sherman and Wendall who make a beautiful sound deeply rooted, but not confined to, gospel music.

By 1967 after apprenticing with John Lee Hooker and the R&B group, The Impressions, Sherman and Wendall Holmes met Popsy Dixon, who not only played the drums, but could also harmonize perfectly with the Holmes Brothers. Their meeting proved musically fruitful, if not financially so. Twelve years later, the Holmes Brothers band officially debuted, but it took another ten years for their first full-length album to arrive called, In The Spirit (Rounder, 1989). In typical fashion, it took them 20 years to become "an overnight success." They've never looked back. With each successive album on Rounder, and more recently Alligator records, The Holmes Brothers continually surround themselves with excellent sidemen and first-rate producers. The full power of their music is fully realized and irresistible. Brotherhood [Alligator] captures the trio in excellent form with a spirited record of gospel-flavoured soul that takes nothing for granted. The album opens with the slightly ironic "Stayed At The Party" (a little too long), a tune that grabs your ear upon the first downbeat. This song is the real deal featuring Wendell Holmes on lead vocal and the sweet harmonies of his brothers, Sherman and adopted brother, Popsy. It's the definitive Holmes Brothers sound grounded in R&B and instantly meaningful.

Brotherhood benefits from three producers, Glenn Patscha, Chris Bruce and Hector Castillo. (All three play on the record.) Unlike their previous albums, this CD has a much looser feel. Each track is bright, buoyant and inspired, no matter what the song. Their take on Ike Turner's "You've Got To Lose" is particularly good as well as "Soldier of Love" a genuine gospel number fashioned for contemporary audiences. That tune is equally matched by Wendall Holmes’s original called, "Darkest Hour." It's a blues number with lyrical organ accompaniment from Glenn Patscha. The album closes with a killer version of "Amazing Grace," shaped by the history and sincerity of The Holmes Brothers, of which most fans, including myself, have become accustomed. It’s a regular song in their set list, but was first recorded on Jubilation (RealWorld, 1992) I think most fans will prefer this version.

Brotherhood is a mighty fine record for its unifying force and inspiration.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra.

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