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Take it to the Bridge 

Holmes Brothers continue their incredible journey as festival headliners

The Holmes Brothers have a pronounced tendency, in both their music and their lives, to shift between the sacred and the secular. The Virginia natives were raised in the Baptist church and schooled in classical music. But brothers Sherman and Wendell didn't waste any time making their way to New York City, where the duo formed a group called the Sevilles and spent the mid-1960s backing up artists like Curtis Mayfield, Jerry Butler and John Lee Hooker.

As Sherman Holmes explains in the following interview, the difference between that small-town upbringing and his adopted urban environment was driven home the first night he arrived.

We'll leave that story for him to tell in just a moment. In the meantime, suffice it to say that Sherman — who'll be 72 in September — abandoned his Virginia State University music studies in 1959 to play bass for soulman Jimmy Jones, leaving behind his clarinet in the process. And when younger brother Wendell finished high school and made the trip north to join Sherman, an electric guitar turned out to be a more compelling and commercially viable instrument than the trumpet.

It was in 1967, a year after the Sevilles disbanded, that Sherman and Wendell met drummer Popsy Dixon, a fellow Virginia refugee, and began their long journey from playing in regional bar bands to establishing themselves as national treasures. They went on to play in various Top 40 bands — sometimes individually, sometimes together — until 1979, when they officially committed themselves to working together as the Holmes Brothers.

With Sherman and Wendell becoming more earnest about songwriting, and all three musicians sharing vocal leads and harmonies, the group began forging an identity of its own.

The trio didn't get its first real break until 1989, when it was signed to roots-music label Rounder Records. Three years and four albums later, the Holmes Brothers were the first American act to come onboard Peter Gabriel's Real World Records. Five years after that, they went out on a Bob Dylan tour as backing band for opener Joan Osborne.

Between tours and television appearances, the musicians indulged their abiding interest in restoring collectible cars and recorded material ranging from the Negro spiritual "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me" to Cheap Trick's decidedly more narcissistic "I Want You to Want Me."

Last year, the Holmes Brothers released Feed My Soul, their fourth album for Alligator Records and 11th overall. Produced by Osborne, it pairs the band's usual ebullience with an undercurrent of seriousness, which the opening track, "Dark Cloud," makes more than apparent.

"There's a dark cloud over our land / An ill wind in the sand," sings Sherman on the first of the two songs he wrote for this album. "And when our children start to die / Their mothers ask you why / Won't you tell me, tell me, tell me, tell me where you stand?"

Like most Holmes Brothers albums, it's all over the place musically, from the flat-out country "Living Well Is the Best Revenge" to a movingly elegiac, impossibly soulful take on the Beatles' "I'll Be Back."

But it's Wendell's "Fair Weather Friend" that, for the Holmes Brothers, proves the most pointed and timely. "The doctor he said cancer, I stopped in my tracks," sings Wendell in the first verse, and he's not lying. The musician was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2008 and, after much praying all around, managed to beat it. (So maybe it's not surprising that the group kicked off its performance in Boston last week with five consecutive gospel numbers before moving on to more worldly concerns.)

"Fair Weather Friend" is followed by "Pledging My Love," a '50s Johnny Ace ballad covered years later by Aaron Neville. While he doesn't recall Neville's version, Sherman says that he and his brother have a long-standing friendship with the Neville Brothers, which isn't surprising given the career trajectories of the two brother acts.

Like the Nevilles, the Holmeses spent many years, and paid many dues, before finding an international audience for their transcendent vocals and electrifyingly eclectic arrangements. In the process, they've crossed — sometimes obliterated — the boundaries between gospel, blues, R&B, doo-wop, rock and funk.

If Duke Ellington was right when he said "there are two kinds of music — good music, and the other kind," the Holmes Brothers are clearly on the side of good. Great, even.

Indy: When you first left Christchurch, Virginia, for New York City, that must have taken some adapting. Those are pretty different places.

Sherman Holmes: Well, it did, but I'm pretty adaptable. And I loved New York from the day I went there. One of the things I liked about it was meeting people from all over the world. You know, it's such a cosmopolitan place.

Indy: Whereas in Virginia, you probably knew everybody's name, right?

SH: Basically. And every family. I lived across the road from a church called Christ Church, which was built probably in the 1600s, you know? It's a white church, and I could go in that graveyard and see white family names that go back to the French and Indian War. And I still knew people from those families.

Indy: So then you get to New York, where nobody knows you. What's the first thing you did there?

SH: Well, I hitchhiked to New York, and a guy picked me up right away, and gave me a ride all the way to Grand Central Station, right away. I had some cousins there who met me, and we went to this diner. And kids used to steal things off people's cars, like fender skirts and stuff like that. So they took these fender skirts off this man's car, you know, while the man eating soup! Heh-heh-heh. I'm getting ready to go to jail the first night I'm here, you know?

Indy: What were fender skirts?

SH: They used to cover the back wheel opening, and kids would steal them off your car.

Indy: How much were those things worth?

SH: Maybe about thirty dollars. Thirty dollars was a lot of money back then. Man, my first day job, I didn't bring home but thirty-six dollars a week after taxes.

Indy: But you were raised up in the church! Stealing stuff off cars, what would Mom have said about that?

SH: Well, Mom didn't know about it! It was sort of a prank, anyhow. We didn't do stuff that would turn out to be serious. You woulda got in a lot of trouble.

Indy: Probably not a good career move.

SH: Right, right. If they caught you doing it, they would just beat you up. Yeah, there was no calling the police back then. [Laughs.]

Indy: You do a Beatles cover on this record. And, if I've got my dates straight, back when the whole British Invasion was taking place, you would've been in the Sevilles, backing artists like John Lee Hooker and Curtis Mayfield. I'm wondering, with those bands taking American R&B in such a different direction, what was that like for you?

SH: Well, at that time I was young. It was my formative years, you know? And definitely, Curtis Mayfield began to use a lot of different chords. Sweet chords. [Laughs.]

Indy: Sweet chords, did you call them?

SH: Yeah, major ninths and stuff, you know? And major sevenths, especially major sevenths. I'm sort of an Anglophile, I guess. I love England. And the Beatles, to me, a lot of their music is based on English folk music. I'm not talking about the stuff that they got from, uh ...

Indy: Little Richard?

SH: Right, not that stuff. A lot of that stuff was influenced by soul music.

Indy: So when you do the Beatles' "I'll Be Back" and take it in such a soulful direction, you're kind of returning the favor.

SH: Well, we just happened to like the song. We've done a few rock songs on other albums. You know, a song can be arranged many ways.

Indy: One of the tracks on this last record, "Fair Weather Friend," came out of your brother's ...

SH: Cancer.

Indy: Cancer, yeah. Can you talk a little about that experience? I'm thinking that, apart from being able to lend support, you must've had a sense of helplessness.

SH: Right, that's exactly what it was. There was a point where there was nothing I could do. I'm used to solving things, but there was nothing I could do, you know? It was out of my hands. So I think it drew both of us closer to a spiritual center. I did a lot of praying. And I guess it helped. He got better, you know?

Indy: So are you guys back up to 150 days on the road a year?

SH: Well, we haven't been getting that much, because the economy's down. But we're working as much as we can, not as much as I'd like. I could work two weeks out of every month, that'd be fine with me. Two solid weeks.

Indy: Your first album for Alligator was produced by Joan Osborne, as is this one. How did you all first hook up?

SH: I've known Joan Osborne since before she started singing. I knew her — I don't want to say how long — but I knew her from when she was 18 or 19 up through now. And we had a lot to do with getting her singing. We used to run a jam session at a place called Dan Lynch's down in the Village. And our careers took off from there, just as we were getting ready to stop playing.

Indy: How close to stopping did you come? If things hadn't taken off for another year, would you have kept going?

SH: Probably in a couple years I would have stopped, yeah.

Indy: And now you're not allowed to stop.

SH: Right, heh-heh-heh. I don't wanna stop, either. I think that — if my health doesn't stop me — I'll stop when I figure the people no longer accept us. I don't want to get to the point where we're just holding on and nobody wants to come to see me, you know? Yeah, I don't want to do that.

Indy: You're playing a blues fest here. I'm assuming you've played Colorado Springs before?

SH: Yeah, but I don't remember where. I've played so many places.

Indy: Have you ever done the math? We must be talking about thousands of shows.

SH: Well, maybe three or four thousand. I would say at least two thousand.

Indy: And the excitement's never worn off?

SH: Well, it's not like when we were young, when you first get out there, and there's all the pretty girls and all the pretty cars and the little bit of money. Heh-heh. We loved fancy cars as kids, and we still collect cars and stuff. You know, we still have that spirit of life, which I think playing music gives us.

bill@csindy.com

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