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Hungry for Truth

The Holmes Brothers return to the blues' reportorial songwriting strengths with Feed My Soul

Stefan Falke
The Holmes Brothers (Wendell Holmes, center) have come back with an album that takes hard times head-on.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 2/24/2010

The Holmes Brothers

Baltimore Blues Society, Feb. 27, American Legion Hall in Rosedale.

"THE DOCTOR, HE SAID, 'CANCER,' I stopped in my tracks," Wendell Holmes sings over bluesy gospel chords on the Holmes Brothers' new album. "I did not have the answer, but I knew you'd have my back."

Holmes, who has lived in Baltimore County since 1992, did wrestle with bladder cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital a few years ago, but he got through it and has now been cancer-free for a year, he says. He's using these bonus minutes to speak his mind as pointedly and as forcefully as he can. He wrote seven songs for the Holmes Brothers' new release, Feed My Soul (Alligator), more than he's written for any of the trio's previous nine albums.

"The devil tried to kill me with some bladder cancer," says Holmes, who lives near the Golden Ring Mall in Rosedale, "but--praise God hallelujah--I beat it. It was a shot across the bow--it makes you realize that none of us have come to stay. It makes you realize what's important about this life and what's not important. What's important is faith. For me that's Jesus--for you it might be Buddha. Family is important. The Golden Rule is important.

"I'm writing more now than I ever did before. As you get older, you realize that you want to leave a legacy about what your life was about for the archives, so my grandbabes know what their grandpops was up to."

The Holmes Brothers, who perform for the Baltimore Blues Society Saturday, have built a reputation as one of the finest acts in the roots and blues fields, having worked with everyone from Peter Gabriel and Van Morrison to Levon Helm and Rosanne Cash. But Feed My Soul may well be their best album yet.

This time there are no guest stars, no fancy production, and few outside songs. This time, it's just Wendell on guitar, his older brother Sherman on bass, their longtime trio-mate Popsy Dixon on drums, and their new friend Glenn Patscha of Ollabelle on keys--a funky-tight roadhouse quartet banging out their own observations on the world around them.

The lines above, for example, come from Wendell's "Fair Weather Friend," a song that treats his cancer experience not with maudlin self-pity, but with anger at a so-called friend who never visited him in the hospital. "I sat by the phone," Wendell sings with a razor's edge to his tenor, "The phone never rang/ When I was at the end of my rope/ You left me there to hang."

The same edge can be heard in songs such as "I Believe You I Think," a skeptical look at a woman's pledge of love; "Put My Foot Down," a declaration that there are limits to forgiveness; and "Living Well Is the Best Revenge," advice on how to get back at the lover who dumped you. All three songs are ostensibly addressed to fickle lovers, but they could easily be applied to anyone who has done us wrong.

"When people have not lived up to your expectations, whether it's a woman or someone else, it's not necessary to tell them how you feel," Wendell points out. "If you're living well, they get the message. Life is full of situations, and a song like that can apply to a lot of them. It could apply to a woman who left you or a friend who didn't show up at the hospital."

The album opens with two songs--Sherman's "Dark Cloud" and Wendell's "Edge of the Ledge"--that deal with a different kind of wrong. "There's a dark cloud over our land," Sherman sings on the first; "I was saving up for a rainy day," Wendell sings on the second, "Now it's all gone from my 401K." The latter phrase may sound funny in a blues song, but you know Willie Dixon would have used it if he were alive and still writing, and Wendell is committed to making the blues as relevant to current events as the genre was in Dixon's heyday.

"Our country is in a funny situation, and the blues should reflect that," Wendell argues. "Songwriters can say things that a journalist can't, because we can always say, 'Hey, it's just a song.' We can't explain the numbers, but we can talk about how it feels to be in the middle of a bad economy, with things going downhill instead of an upturn. I'm not just commenting on the economy--I'm a part of the economy. It's not Obama's fault that our country is going through a decline. It was his predecessor."

The new album benefits not only from some terrific songwriting, but also from its lean, wiry sound. Patscha's B-3 organ and Wurlitzer piano lend a greasy R&B feel to the knotty grooves tied into the music by Wendell's guitar, Sherman's bass, and Dixon's drums. The sessions were produced by singer Joan Osborne, and her gospel-soul vocals fit comfortably with the harmonies of the two brothers and their old friend, who all hail from Southeastern Virginia.

Osborne, who later had a hit single with "One of Us" and who was the unexpected highlight of the documentary Standing in the Shadow of Motown, met the Holmes Brothers in the '80s when all four were unknown musicians at Dan Lynch's, a Manhattan bar. She also produced their 2001 album, Speaking in Tongues.

"Joan has been a friend of ours for many, many years," Wendell notes. "We mentored her when she first came to New York, and we liked each other from the start. Last year, we did a tour with her all over the States. A producer's job is to bring out the best in the artist, not to try to get something from the artist that's not there or to leave something out that is there. To do that, you have to really know the artist, and she knows what we do."

At a time when the blues often emphasize fast, trebly guitar solos and party-hearty bellowing, the Holmes Brothers offer a welcome alternative of songwriting craftsmanship and vocal harmonies built around strong melodies. The blues were originally an adult music that addressed the challenges of unreliable work, uncertain health, and unpredictable relationships, and Feed My Soul returns to that tradition.

"I've got nothing against the guys who scream and holler--we do some of that, too," Wendell says. "But we're more of a harmony group. We're not just the blues--we have a lot of gospel in our background and some R&B, too. We have some Al Green in there, some Temptations--and some Willie Nelson as well. We can play in different kinds of venues and reach different kinds of audiences. We don't limit our songwriting to 'Meet me behind the barn tonight, baby'--we move on to songs like 'Dark Cloud' or 'Edge of the Ledge,' which I think have more meaning than your run-of-the-mill blues."

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