The Holmes Brothers
Meditative soul revival
Though you might call the Holmes Brothers blues or soul revivalists, there's a quietness about their music that Wilson Pickett in his prime would never have tried to get away with. The blues original "I'm So Lonely" on their latest album, Simple Truths, has the delicacy of a Japanese koto piece. You hear in their music not the church-spawned fire of soul but magnificent song selection and the unique subtlety of interaction that occurs when good musicians distill a range of material they know well down to a small-group format. The Holmes Brothers are about texture, and the matching of texture to song - things that may not blow you out of your seat but can move you profoundly. Vocally, they carry forward the restrained, bluesy, and wise sound that Bill Withers had at his best.
Simple Truths, in support of which the Holmes Brothers come to the Ark on Tuesday, March 2, is a tip of the hat to country music and the affection with which it was held by the great black musicians of the 1960s and 1970s. Although it would seem unthinkable today for the likes of 50 Cent to cover one of Alan Jackson's hits, nearly all the major soul and urban-blues artists, except James Brown, released at least one album of country material, and Simple Truths contains covers of four country classics ("I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "He'll Have to Go," "If I Needed You," and the young Willie Nelson's searing "Opportunity to Cry" in a vocal-and-piano-solo reading), plus a version of "Everything Is Free," a composition by the alt-country songwriters Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.
Hank Williams's "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" is beautifully set off with quietly booming electric guitar chords in the instrument's lower register, evoking the infinite solitudes of the lyrics. The spareness of country lyrics makes them the perfect introduction to the meditative world of the Holmes Brothers, drawing the ear to the way
Sherman and Wendell Holmes, plus drummer Popsy Dixon and sometimes one or two other backing musicians, make much of a few instruments.
In addition to country music, Simple Truths includes versions of songs by Bob Marley, Willie Dixon (if you thought there wasn't anything more to find in "Big Boss Man," think again), Collective Soul ("Shine," given a peppy shuffle beat), and others, along with several originals, including a flawless Philadelphia-style makeup number called "We Meet, We Part, We Remember." Each piece has its own carefully detailed sound and a characteristic interaction between the other musicians and Dixon, who's the kind of supple, graceful percussionist you just don't hear anymore in the machine age.
For the Holmes Brothers, blues and soul are more than styles, more even than essential qualities. They're classic modes of expression, endlessly flowing fountains that enable musicians to try to carve out perfect works of art. The Holmes Brothers are classicizing revivalists of the first order.
[Originally published in March, 2004.]