Down Holmes at Tropical Heatwave

The Holmes Brothers headline at WMNF's music fest

For about a half-hour, Wendell Holmes has been talking about his life, his music, his family and other sundry topics. He mixes avuncular friendliness with moments of preacherly flourish. Then comes the briefest lull in the conversation, and Wendell blurts, "Ask me if I believe in Jesus."

OK. "Do you believe in Jesus?"

"Yeah, man, I'm a believer in Jesus."

The Holmes Brothers — guitarist Wendell, bassist Sherman Holmes and drummer Popsy Dixon, all of them singers — are one of the most eclectic roots-oriented outfits on the American music landscape, but the bedrock of their sound is gospel.

How else could a band take a venerable power-pop tune like Cheap Trick's "I Want You To Want Me" and morph it into a gospel ballad? The song retains its simple secular lyrics, but when filtered through the Holmes Brothers' rough-edged Southern vocal harmonies, it could even be interpreted as a love letter to the Lord.

This is quite an accomplishment, and Wendell is clearly pleased with the band's rendition. "I Want You to Want Me" came to be on the Holmes Brothers' new album State of Grace (Alligator) when its producer, the estimable Craig Street, got together with session keyboardist Glenn Patscha; they picked up a couple of guitars and started brainstorming ideas for songs to put on the new record.

"[Glenn] played the first chord in a country style, and I said, 'I'm taking it,'" Street said in a phone interview. "'But we won't do it as a country song — we'll do it as a gospel tune.'"

Street brought Cheap Trick's original "I Want You to Want Me" to the Holmes Brothers, who had never heard it. "We said, 'I don't know. We do a lot of things, but it's really not our cup of tea,'" Wendell remembers responding.

So Street picked up Wendell's guitar, set the amp with a little vibrato and played it slowly. "Now imagine if Curtis Mayfield played the thing," Street said to the Holmes Brothers. "He showed us a way to make it our own," Wendell says. "Now people love it in live performance."

To the Holmes Brothers, a song is simply a song — without a genre encoded in its DNA. That's what allowed "Bad Moon Rising" to get the zydeco treatment and Nick Lowe's "(What's so Funny 'bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" to transform into a midtempo country number on State of Grace. "We don't like to put music in a box," Wendell says.

Their egalitarian approach to music began as youngsters in Christchurch, Va. Although they grew up in a religious household, secular sounds were not painted as devil's music. "My parents were teachers, educated people with master's degrees," Wendell explains. "They were very open and liberal when it came to encouraging us to pursue what we wanted to do as musicians. We heard a lot of blues, a lot of country, some jazz."

Wendell's wife of 34 years was his grade-school sweetheart. "Her uncle was a great guitar player, and when I was a kid I'd sit up under him and learn," Wendell says. "And the whole family was great gospel singers."

Older brother Sherman left to study music at Virginia State University but in 1959 headed off to New York to play in a band led by Jimmy Jones (of "Handy Man" fame).

Wendell joined Sherman in the Big Apple, and the two played in several bands during the '60s. In '67, they encountered Dixon in a club. Looking for a drummer, they also found a guy with a lovely falsetto that fit perfectly with their vocal harmonies. It wasn't until 1977, Wendell says, that the Holmes Brothers became a solid entity.

The following year, Sherman took a side gig: a Sunday music brunch at Dan Lynch's, a place on 14th Street and Second Avenue in Greenwich Village. "My brother said, 'Why don't you and Popsy come down and see what happens?'" Wendell recounts. "It just grew and grew, up to four, five nights a week. We could walk out of there with eighteen or nineteen hundred dollars in a night, a lot of money back in the '70s and '80s. It was the only bar I ever worked in that actually gave the band a percentage of the take — not just a percentage of the door, but the bar, food and everything."

Dan Lynch's evolved into a meeting ground for New York's blues community and nascent jam-band scene. Singer/songwriter Joan Osborne and future members of Blues Traveler became regulars. Word got out around the city that the Holmes Brothers were definitely a band to see. Record labels sniffed around, offering minor deals, but the Holmes Brothers didn't sign until producer Andy Breslau brought them to the Rounder label.

The trio has never sold a lot of records, but has built a dedicated cult audience and never hurts for gigs. Audiences get treated to just about the entire pantheon of American music, all spiced up by those remarkable harmonies — not stacked to perfection like the Beach Boys, but a ragged, soulful assemblage of voices that retain their distinct character even when blended together.

"Everyone wants to know if we practice those harmonies," Wendell says. "No, we don't practice those harmonies. It comes natural. It comes out of the Pentecostal church. I think it also helps that we all do some lead singing. Nobody feels like they're the straw that stirs the drink."

About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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