Holy Rolling

The Holmes Brothers aren't sweating the secular/sacred conundrum, just following Jesus' example

Sep 4, 2002 at 4:00 am
The relationship between the sacred and the profane has been a source of contention in the black music community since blues music first reared its ugly, drunken, lascivious head. Blues histories are packed with tales of tormented musicians torn between the temptation of Saturday night and the redemption of Sunday morning.

For New York trio the Holmes Brothers, the debate is much ado about nothing. Since the release of their first album in 1990, brothers Wendell and Sherman Holmes and longtime friend Willie "Popsy" Dixon have been throwing gospel and spirituals into their sweaty stew of blues, R&B and funk. With the release last year of Speaking in Tongues (Alligator), the group upped the gospel ante considerably with a collection of songs steeped in the church.

As they continue to tour the world in support of the album, the group's members see no problem in alternating spirituals with sultry soul and raucous blues. If album and ticket sales are any indication, audiences approve of the decision. "We've never really felt that gospel didn't belong in juke joints and clubs," says Sherman, who plays bass and contributes booming baritone vocals in the group. "Jesus went to the people, wherever they were, so we try to follow that example. As my brother likes to say, Jesus turned the water into wine, not the other way around."

For nonbelievers, Sherman stresses that the band's message is universal. "Really, what it comes down to is bringing the message of love to people," he says. "We think that's important, and we try to do it -- and if that means playing in a blues club, that's where we'll be."

Over the years, the band's members have played their share of blues clubs and juke joints, separately and together. The Holmes Brothers came together as an official unit in 1980, but the seeds of the union were sown in the farmlands of Virginia, where Wendell and Sherman were raised. Sherman says the chief components of the Holmes Brothers' success were established at an early age: a love for music and trust in each other. "We've always been a team, from little on up," he says. "When we were kids, Wendell and I used to operate a lot of farm equipment, and I remember the two of us driving a tractor. One of us would steer and the other would work the gears because neither of us was big enough to do both. So I guess we've always been a team. It comes down to trust. I trust my brother, and he trusts me."

In addition to singing in the choir of their Baptist church, the two boys took up a variety of instruments: Sherman studied clarinet and piano before settling on bass. Younger brother Wendell learned trumpet, organ and guitar. Sherman went on to study composition and music theory in college for a couple of years but eventually dropped out to take a running gig in New York. Wendell joined him there after graduating from high school. Over the next two decades, the brothers jumped from one band to the next, sometimes together, sometimes alone. For a period in the mid-1960s, they were in a band that supported big-name touring artists such as the Impressions, Jerry Butler and John Lee Hooker, but it wasn't until 1980 that it all really came together in an East Village blues joint called Dan Lynch's.

The brothers, now in their sixties, formed a trio with Wendell's longtime friend and frequent bandmate Willie "Popsy" Dixon on drums. In the seedy but receptive environment of Dan Lynch's, the group honed its sound, a sound that's driven by the bottom-heavy rhythms of Sherman's bass playing and Dixon's drumming married to Wendell's expressive ax work. And then there are the vocals: Wendell's broken-glass growls, the way he cries out like a preacher at a tent revival; Sherman's rich, booming baritone, coming on like a modern-day Butler; and Dixon's fragile, gorgeous falsetto. All blend together to form some of the most eloquent vocal harmonies in music today.

Yet despite the obvious ingredients for success, recognition was slow in coming outside the Village club scene. For a decade, the Holmes Brothers played to small but enthusiastic crowds and did whatever was necessary to secure gigs. "In the early days, we did a lot of covers in order to get work. We did whatever was popular," Sherman recalls. "We played some Rolling Stones, some Beatles, a lot of R&B by groups like the Impressions. But we didn't play much gospel in the clubs back then. In fact, we didn't do any."

In 1990, a decade of woodshedding in New York clubs and bars paid off when Rounder Records released the group's debut disc to exuberant reviews and healthy sales. Soon the trio was playing bigger and better gigs, ranging from festivals to late-night talk shows. More albums followed, as did the critical raves, but it wasn't until the group made the jump to Alligator Records for last year's Speaking in Tongues that doors really began opening.

Produced by platinum-selling artist Joan Osborne, a longtime friend to the group, the album somehow manages to be both more mainstream and less compromising than previous efforts. Featuring original tunes alongside songs by Ben Harper, Bob Dylan and classic Philly songsmiths Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the disc is a modern-day soul/gospel classic -- one that very nearly didn't happen. "At first we didn't want to do a spiritual album," Sherman says. "We didn't think we could really compete with some of the gospel acts out there. There are so many powerful singers in that field. But Joan Osborne thought we could do it. We've been friends with her for a long time, and we trust her opinion. So we put it in her hands, and it's worked out pretty well."

That assessment is modest. Since the release of Speaking in Tongues, the Holmes Brothers have seen their stock rise considerably. In recent months they've played huge festivals around the globe, from the United States and Canada to Great Britain and Italy and as far afield as Singapore. The group already has tentative plans to tour China next year, after a slew of gigs in Europe this fall.

First, though, there's the matter of the new album. "We're hoping to do some recording in October before we head to Europe," Sherman says. "We're doing a lot of writing right now and putting some things together. But we better get busy, because I think brother Bruce [Iglauer, Alligator Records' owner] is getting nervous," he concludes with a laugh.

The group expects the new album to be more blues-based than its immediate predecessor, but the trio's musical tastes aren't limited to black music forms. "We listen to John Prine a lot, and Iris DeMent," Sherman says. "Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss are great, too. I like American music in general and roots music particularly. But I listen to a lot of jazz and classical, too. And I love Irish music."

Neither an Irish jig nor a bluegrass breakdown is likely to figure into the next Holmes Brothers album, but Sherman believes that the group's varied influences work their way into the sound, at least on some level. "Those things are all present in our music," he says. "How could they not be? I think a person's experiences can't help but show up in what they do, whether it's obvious to the average listener or not."