Holmes Brothers' latest album showcases rock 'n' soul

Jay N. Miller

When music writers are faced with compiling annual best-of-the-year lists, the smart ones immediately check to see what the Holmes Brothers have released.

Starting with 2001’s “Speaking in Tongues,” the trio with the stripped-down sound and the gospel-tinged vocals have released some of the most indelible music on the planet.

The Holmes Brothers have a new album, “Feed My Soul,” which continues that string of successes.

The new album was produced by Joan Osborne, a longtime friend of the band who also produced “Speaking in Tongues.” She kept the arrangements simple and focused on the threesome, while adding the judicious support of keyboardist Glenn Patcha in building a subtle foundation for their melodic tunes. Osborne adds backup vocals on nine cuts, while another old pal, Catherine Russell, sings harmonies on three more.

“We’ve known Joan for a long time, long before either of us was even making records,” said Sherman Holmes, as the band drove to a gig in Iowa. “My brother hosted a blues jam at a New York City club called Dan Lynch’s. A lot of musicians came through there, and when Joan came to New York to study film production, she began dropping in and singing. It’s funny how life turns out.”

Bassist Sherman Holmes and his brother, guitarist Wendell, grew up in Christchurch, Va., and were performing from an early age, often playing juke joints at night and then Sunday morning church services. While blues and gospel permeate their music, their sound is more like the rock ’n’ soul of Chuck Berry and Wilson Pickett.

After years of session work and playing in other bands, the Holmes Brothers began working under the family name in 1979. By then they had met Popsy Dixon, a fellow Virginian, whose drumming and singing made him an immediate friend. They’ve played and toured with a litany of titans, from Bruce Springsteen to Peter Gabriel to Bob Dylan. They released their first four albums on New England’s Rounder Records. Since 2000, they’ve been on Chicago’s Alligator Records, the premier blues label, with the last four albums all earning accolades.

Over the years, the Holmes Brothers’ albums have always contained gems, whether it was their cover of “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?” on 2007’s “State of Grace,” or the Willie Nelson tune “Opportunity to Cry” and Wendell’s evocative original “We Meet, We Part, We Remember,” both from 2004’s “Simple Truths.”

The new album is no exception, with dazzling covers, like the slowed-down take on Johnny Ace’s old doo-wop hit “Pledging My Love,” or the dreamy re-imagining of the Beatles’ “I’ll Be Back,” sung by Dixon. Among the nine originals on the CD, Sherman’s “Dark Cloud” is an uptempo rocker that looks at contemporary times, while the jaunty and uplifting “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” finds Wendell providing a superb blend of humor and depth.

“We have probably been doing ‘Pledging My Love’ since we began playing together,” said Sherman. “Once we started doing it, it kind of fell together right into our style. We had not done it lately, for a couple of years or so, but when you’re a group like us – not depending on making the Billboard charts – we do songs we really want to do.”

Wendell also has written one of the year’s most affecting love songs, “Feed My Soul,” a stripped-down soul ballad containing lyrics like, “When I think you’ve given all, you start all over again.”

“Words are a powerful weapon, or a powerful tool,” said Sherman. “We usually sing lead on our own songs, when we write them. Writing that way is easier because you’re able to tailor the song to the singer, especially if it’s yourself.”

If there’s a tangible sense of resilience and uplift on the new songs, that is no mistake. While there is still plenty of Holmes Brothers roadhouse grit, and that tart humor – check “I Believe You, I Think,” Wendell’s ode to a dubious lady – the heart and soul quotient is even higher than usual. A clue might be seen in Wendell’s “Fair Weather Friend,” which chastises a pal for not being around in tough times. Wendell was diagnosed with cancer in 2008 and had some rough patches but is doing well now.

“Oh, yeah, he’s doing fine,” Sherman said, “in fact, he’s driving right now. But that song is a true story, after my brother’s cancer test came back, you know, some people don’t know what to do in a crisis like that. Some people are not strong enough to step up when you need them. But that person and Wendell worked it out and they’re still friends. Life is for learning.”

The Holmes Brothers have a busy slate of summer gigs across the country, and in July they’re off to Denmark for a week, then an October string of dates in Austria and the Czech Republic.

“We’ll play whatever venues will have us,” Sherman said. “Sometimes it’s a big arena, like when we toured with Peter Gabriel, and sometimes we sing at churches. We have a big concert coming up with Simon and Garfunkel. Right now, we’re concentrating on our own touring, and this album seems to have some momentum.”

The three guys in their van driving across America seem to love their work, and all that proximity doesn’t jeopardize the band’s cohesiveness.

“We are family, literally and figuratively,” said Sherman. “We do everything together, even share our holidays.”

The Patriot Ledger