It's Only Rock 'n' Roll

By JOHN SWENSON, United Press International   |   May 28, 2003 at 5:00 PM
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Not all the gospel music at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival took place in the Gospel Tent. That fact was brought home with great spirit by the outstanding vocal harmonies of the Holmes Brothers, who combine their gospel roots with rock soul/rhythm & blues grooves, a repertory that ranges through rock, pop and country and a jam-band aesthetic that anticipated the "sacred steel" movement by a decade.

Drummer Willie "Popsy" Dixon, whose powerful falsetto never fails to drive the crowd into a frenzy, delivered one of the most emotional moments of this year's festival when he sang his signature version of "Amazing Grace." Dixon has played with brothers Sherman and Wendell Holmes for more than 30 years.

The band's latest album, "Righteous -- The Essential Collection," is a compilation of tracks from several albums released on Rounder Records when the Holmes Brothers was the house band at the legendary New York blues club Dan Lynch. With steel guitarist Gib Wharton as an unofficial fourth member, the band played many nights until well after 4 a.m.

Musicians flocked to their gigs because they knew the Holmes Brothers still would be playing well after everyone else in town finished their gigs. That's where they met Joan Osbourne, who asked the group to back her up when she opened for Bob Dylan.

Osbourne went on to produce the band's latest studio album, "Speaking In Tongues." She also sings backing vocals throughout the set. The brothers' roots in Christ Church gospel choirs in Virginia are much in evidence on original songs like the title track, "New Jerusalem," "Jesus Is The Way" and "Jesus Got His Hooks In Me," along with traditional material such as "King Jesus Will Roll All Burdens Away" and "Farther Along."

What makes the Holmes Brothers unique, though, is the group's ability to mix its gospel material deftly with songs by the likes of Ben Harper ("Homeless Child," "I Want To Be Ready," "I Shall Not Walk Alone,") Bob Dylan ("Man Of Peace,") and Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff ("Love Train.")

The Holmes boys were brought up by schoolteacher parents who exposed them to traditional Baptist hymns and spirituals, which they sang in the church choir, as well as blues by everyone from Jimmy Reed to B.B. King.

"I started out on clarinet and piano before playing bass," Sherman said. "Wendell played trumpet and organ and guitar. I was a music major at Virginia State University in 1959 when I got an offer from Jimmy Jones, who did the original 'Handy Man,' to come to New York, so I went up there to play with him. Wendell followed me up in 1961 after he graduated from high school and we played around New York. We had our own band, the Sevilles, during the mid 1960s."

The Sevilles didn't survive the psychedelic era, but there was plenty of pickup work backing touring blues and soul musicians, and Wendell met up with Popsy at a gig in 1967. Wendell worked with "Wild" Jimmy Spruill, a guitarist who played on Wilbert Harrison's hit version of "Kansas City" and "The Happy Organ" by Dave "Baby" Cortez. He also was the touring guitarist with Inez and Charlie Fox ("Mockingbird"). During the 1970s Wendell and Popsy worked in a trio backing keyboardist/vocalist Tommy Knight.

When that group disbanded in 1979 Wendell and Popsy hooked up with Sherman, who was playing a regular gig at Dan Lynch's with harmonica player Bill Dicey. By 1980 the trio decided to give it a go and the Holmes Brothers swiftly became Lynch's flagship group. Dan Lynch's bar is gone, along with most of the New York blues bars, but the Holmes Brothers live on, carrying the torch for a scene that knows no boundaries.

"You can call us gospel, blues, country, whatever you want," Popsy said. "We do it all, because we love it all."

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