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October 2002

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The Holmes Brothers
Righteous! The Essential Collection
Rounder Records

The Holmes BrothersThis new "greatest hits" collection from The Holmes Brothers is appropriately named. The music on this single disc is indeed "righteous." And, yes, it IS "essential."

Brothers Wendell and Sherman Holmes, along with longtime friend Popsy Dixon, burst on the national scene in 1990, after several decades of performing in the clubs and neighborhood joints of New York City, with the incredible In The Spirit album on Rounder. Their invigorating blend of blues, soul, country and backwoods gospel harmonizing dealt a kick in the teeth to the notion that all blues bands sounded the same.

A dozen years later, The Holmes Brothers continue to expand the boundaries of how a blues band should be defined. Their sound is as fresh as ever. 

This collection of 17 cuts is not a comprehensive look at The Holmes Brothers' recording career. It covers only the territory defined by their four Rounder releases, in addition to one cut from the soundtrack to the movie Lotto Land, originally released on the Canadian Stony Plain label. Missing here is anything from their most recent album, Speaking In Tongues, for Alligator Records, or from the Real World gospel release, Jubilation. But don't take that as any kind of criticism of this superb CD.

It would be a stretch to say that their landmark debut release, In The Spirit, changed my life. But it sure made me look at the world a lot differently over the years. No disc has spent nearly as much time in the CD player as this one. It was, and still is, absolutely stunning. 

The Holmes' version of Sam & Dave's "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby" far surpasses any other version ever recorded, including the original. I really mean what I'm saying, it's not just the case of a reviewer getting carried away by the moment. Wendell's gruff vocals, contrasted in harmony by Popsy's beautiful falsetto singing, is absolutely spine tingling.

Another number, "None But The Righteous," from In The Spirit, is truly inspirational. I have seen listeners stop dead in their tracks when hearing this spiritual number coming from the speakers, and even witnessed a few tears from grown men.

Seven of the tracks on Righteous! are taken from the 1997 release, Promised Land. This CD is one that I haven't listened to as much over the years, but the predominance of songs from Promised Land are an indication that I need to pull it to the top of my stack real soon. 

"Got Myself Together," from Promised Land, opens the collection with a funky and spirited song of revitalization, featuring strong guitar from Wendell Holmes.

Just when you start thinking that The Holmes Brothers aren't really a blues band, they take you back to the old homestead with a cover of the blues classic "Fannie Mae," from the 1993 Soul Street disc. This one is given a distinctive Holmes spin with the inclusion of sax and pedal steel guitar.

The Holmes Brothers also have a unique ability to take a song which, in anyone else's hands would be labeled as overly schmaltzy and syrupy, but they add just the right amount of soul and grittiness to push the "fluff" pendulum in the complete opposite direction. The two best examples of this ability are heard on "I've Been A Loser" (the only selection from the 1991 album Where It's At), with its Memphis-style horn accompaniment, and a beautiful arrangement of Lennon & McCartney's "And I Love Her," from Promised Land. The latter serves as still another showcase for Dixon's mesmerizing singing.

Finally, it would be negligent to review this CD without mentioning The Holmes Brothers' dedication to spiritual music. They take many of the old standards and give them a real Saturday night / Sunday morning sound. Included here, in addition to the previously-mentioned "None But The Righteous," are "Promised Land," the stirring "I Surrender All," and "Walk in the Light."

A song with the same feeling as the gospel numbers is the version of Tom Waits' "Train Song," done in beautiful simplicity with only piano accompaniment and Dixon's lead vocals.

Righteous! is an incredible collection by the best blues band of the '90s. For newcomers to The Holmes Brothers bandwagon, it's a very good starting point. For longtime fans, you'll want the CD as a collector's item even if you already have every note recorded by this superb ensemble.

--- Bill Mitchell

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