Holmes Brothers Breathe Soul Into Landmark

Legendary musicians give their all for an enthusiastic audience at the Landmark.

Holmes Brothers at Landmark on Main St Landmark on Main Street is having a smoking hot 2009-10 season. There has not been one show this season (that I’ve seen anyway) that has been less than outstanding. Saturday night’s performance by the legendary Holmes Brothers was no exception.

I was a little concerned when they took the stage. These are no youngsters. The veteran musicians have been playing together for 30 years, and playing, in general, for 50. They look like what they probably are … grandfathers. But wow, could they rock.

ell (guitar, piano, vocals) and Sherman (bass, vocals) and their “brother in spirit” Popsy Dixon on drums and vocals. Wendell takes most of the lead singing, but the other two each had their share of lead vocals, plus many of their songs incorporated three-part harmony. In their two hours on stage, The Holmes Brothers played a wide variety of blues, R&B, funk, gospel, country, and even a Beatles cover.

They opened the show with “Fair Weather Friend,” a piano ballad about Wendell’s recent battle with cancer, followed by a rocking version of the traditional “Amazing Grace.” A highlight of the first set was the title track of their newest CD, “Feed my Soul,” a heartfelt ballad with some sweet and tasteful guitar work by Wendell. Wendell is quite the musician — he plays a Fender Strat in the simplest of ways — no pedals, no midi, no fancy effects. He creates his own effects by working the volume knob while picking, to get a sort of “underwater” sound. And as easily as he handles his guitar, he is able to shift to the piano.

Another highlight of the first set was the funky “Got Myself Together,” also from the new album (which was produced, by the way, by Joan Osborne who has herself graced the stage at Landmark in the past). A third song from the new album, “Edge of the Ledge” describes the desperation that sets in during tough economic times — “standing on my head at the edge of the ledge, trying to figure out how to keep my family fed.” Rarely have I heard a song that actually incorporates “401k” in the lyrics!

The rest of the almost hour-long set included a mix of country (a song from their native Virginia), blues, boogie, and a few ballads. I was particularly impressed with Wendell’s guitar work on “He’ll Have to Go” — he was practically mauling his guitar. Vocals from the trio ranged from gruff baritone to Bee Gees-like falsetto. (Interestingly, I’d read an article recently that said that the Bee Gees’ adoption of falsetto stemmed from the influence of soul music style, so perhaps they were actually inspired by The Holmes Brothers).

I expected the hard-working musicians to do what most of the performers do during the intermission — go into the “green room” and rest. But instead, the three walked straight from the stage to the CD merchandise table where they met fans, posed for pictures and signed autographs.

The second set started with an unexpected treat — an interview of The Holmes Brothers by John Platt of WFUV. It was during this interview that the audience learned about the Joan Osborne connection, as well as the fact that several of the band’s albums were on Peter Gabriel’s record label. It also turned out that Wendell had been a Long Island neighbor — living in Great Neck for 10 years. When asked when they might retire, they replied “musicians never retire — they just fade away.”

There was no fading away during the second set, however. It opened with a cover of my favorite (but not well-known) Beatles song — “I’ll be Back.” Popsy Dixon handled the beautiful, heartfelt vocals in their very un-Beatle-like rendition. I loved it. The rest of the set included several gospel songs, a great blues number “Close the Door,” a sweet three-part harmony version of the 1950s song, “Pledging My Love,” and a rocking number from the new album “You’re the Kind of Trouble (I Could Get Into).”

They closed with an audience participation song, the chorus of which was “I had a good time tonight” — and I certainly did. Wendell, Sherman, and Popsy were incredibly genuine, expressing their love for each other and the audience numerous times and clearly striving to give the best performance possible (despite suffering from late season colds/coughs). During the encore, when Wendell sang “God be with you until we meet again,” you really felt he meant it.

After the concert, the musicians again went directly from the stage into the audience … something that I haven’t seen any other performer do. I left the venue thinking this — it’s a shame that people only go to concerts of performers whose work they know. A lot of wonderful music gets missed that way. I was unfamiliar with The Holmes Brothers before this concert, but I have not stopped listening to them since. Take a chance on music.