Going to town
The Holmes Brothers at the Ark
by Whit Hill
After a surfeit of sad, pretty, reflective, brainy, wordy, sarcastic, traditional, way-out, and heartfelt folk songs, the Holmes Brothers simply took their places onstage at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival, opened their mouths, and took 3,000 folkies to town. Wendell Holmes (guitar and voice), Sherman Holmes (bass and vocals), and Willie "Popsy" Dixon (drums, percussion, and vocals) have been playing music together - music they believe in, music that reflects their faith - for almost forty years. It shows. It shows in their ineffable power, their ease and unselfconsciousness, and what appeared to be a simple, pure love of playing music for people.
Rooted in gospel, but equally at home playing country, blues, R&B, and funk, the Holmes Brothers kept their audience wondering what they'd pull out for their first song. How cool to hear them dive into Collective Soul's Shine. Dolly Parton did a bluegrass version of it a few years ago, and it's just an undeniably interesting song; the Brothers made it their own.
Wendell and Sherman Holmes grew up in Virginia, singing and playing in their cousin's juke joint on Saturday nights and then in church on Sunday. In 1959 Sherman moved to New York, and Wendell followed soon after. In 1968 the brothers met Dixon, and a band was formed. They've played together ever since, all over the world.
Nobody sings like the Holmes Brothers - nobody. They layer their sound like a soul-drenched linzer torte. Wendell puts down a confident, growling lead; Sherman adds his beautiful, gut-stirring baritone; then in comes Popsy. What can you say about Popsy's falsetto? There's something so utterly perfect about a grizzled guy slamming on the drums and singing so high, so rapturously. It's delicious.
They sang "Put Your Sweet Lips a Little Closer to the Phone," a rousing version of "Amazing Grace," and maybe one more, and then their set was over, way too soon.
The Holmes Brothers light up the Ark on Saturday, April 22.
[Review published April 2006]