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If I Were a Rich Man

It took 21 years for the music industry to discover the Holmes Brothers, and Sunday's Blues Festival openers still aren't exactly used to the good life

By Mike Connor

It's almost a shame to think of how long it took the Holmes Brothers to get "discovered." It took the band 21 years to get a record deal with Rounder in '89, thanks to some connections they made in an East Village club called Dan Lynch's, a club where they hosted jam sessions throughout the '80s.

"By the time I got to Dan Lynch's, man--this is around '78--I thought we were just in the autumn of our career," says Sherman Holmes. "I didn't know a new career was going to take off, not by a long shot, it hadn't even crossed our minds. So here we are, wondering why we here and how we got here."

15 years later, Sherman and Wendell Holmes, along with drummer and backup vocalist Willie "Popsy" Dixon, have released seven albums and played in 45 countries around the world, finally enjoying some of the good life they deserve. And after all, isn't that how it should be? A band spends years and years and years refining and expanding its musical vocabulary, marinating in the savory juices of life and acquiring that special, aged flavor that gets better with each passing year; then they get rich and famous and coast happily into the sunset. Booyah, no?

Consider the folk music. As David Rudder explained in Calypso Dreams, the practitioners of any "mother" music--calypso in Trinidad, Celtic in Ireland, the blues in the U.S.--can keep doing it right up to the moment that death comes a-knockin'. Not that the Holmes Brothers are ready to kick, but they ain't no spring chickens neither, and you can hear the years in every note they sing.

They can play the blues, R&B, funk and soul, and they play them all well, but it's their singing that sets them apart from the rest of the pack of up-and-comers playing twice as fast at half their age. Like Taj Mahal and Ray Charles, or even Tom Waits for that matter, there's a sweet, gritty authority somewhere in their voices, laying claim to the blues in a way that leg men like Frankie Moreno may never be able to do.

"Well I guess because we rough and raw, man," explains Sherman Holmes from his home in Christchurch, Va. "I guess we just play it based on how we feel, you know, we don't necessarily use somebody else's version."

But they definitely use other people's songs. Their newest album, Simple Truths, features tunes from a diverse range of legendary artists--more country than blues this time around--including Hank Williams ("I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"), Townes Van Zandt ("If I Needed You") and Willie Nelson ("Opportunity to Cry"). Their version of Gillian Welch's ballad "Everything Is Free" is a classic case of outdoing the songwriter like Hendrix did with Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower."

But the best moment on the album is an original effort, "We Meet, We Part, We Remember," a tune that sounds like a nod to Al Green and the majestic, soulful vocal harmonies of Motown. Brought to the attention of Rounder Records by Joan Osborne (who, no matter what anyone else says about her, delivered a stunning performance in the recent documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown), the Holmes Brothers have since gone on to record with Van Morrison and Alison Krauss, among others. But perhaps more curious are the actual gigs they've played--including a gig for President Clinton. "One of our producers was working for the Clintons, you know, in his campaign and stuff," says Sherman, "so we had an inside track. We performed at the Rockefeller compound up in New York, it's a big huge complex, you know. We actually played up in J. Rockefeller's house up there."When I ask him if it was a posh affair, Sherman starts chuckling--an impossibly rich and devious cackle that spelled the beginning of the end of serious musical discussion: "As F. Scott Fitzgerald said, the rich people are very different from you and I."

"The whole thing about rich people is," he says, getting all nice and warmed up, "it looks like the more money you spend, the less you get. The food don't look right to me, I mean for instance me and my manager went to dinner out in California, a very expensive dinner, and man, I had a 8-ounce steak, couldn't have been more than 8 ounces. And I counted the french fries--man, there was eight french fries! Come on, man! You know? They call 'em hand-cut. I don't care if they're hand-cut--they're sliced! Know what I mean? That and a bottle of mineral water, Pellegrino, which you can buy anywhere, and a bottle of wine, that meal was a hundred and eighty dollars. Come on here, man! I don't care how much money you got, I hate for somebody to gyp me outta my money, ya know?"

Then suddenly, he waxes a bit philosophical: "But people will pay this money, I guess, to be away from everybody else."

But if money and fame drive most people into ivory towers, it's safe to say that the Holmes Brothers will continue to walk among us ... as long as we continue to show up.

"We got a repertoire of a couple hundred songs," boasts Sherman, "so we can play whatever a gig calls for, we can do an all gospel show, we could do an all country show, we could do all R&B, or all blues, whatever you want to pay for!" Just don't expect them to play secular music at a gospel show, even if you might think it could be fun to shake things up.

"We will mix gospel in a blues show in a club, but never in a gospel show will we bring in secular music," says Sherman, with an admonishing tone creeping into his voice. "I don't think that's too appropriate."

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From the May 19-26, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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