I've made absolutely no secret of my love for
the music of The Holmes Brothers, dating back to
when their first album, In The Spirit, arrived in my mailbox nearly 30 years ago.
Listening to that album over and over was easily
a life-changing experience for me. My
affinity for their music was cemented the
first time I saw them in person. What a
wonderful group of musicians they were.
Sadly, we lost two of the three primary members
of the group in 2015, guitarist Wendell Holmes
and drummer Popsy Dixon, both
passing away within months of each other.
Fortunately, an array of musicians in the Holmes' home
area of Virginia got the idea to gather at Montrose Studios in Richmond,
to give a voice to the remaining member of The Holmes Brothers. Thus,
The Sherman Holmes Project came together to record the absolutely
fantastic The Richmond Sessions (Virginia Foundation for the
Humanities), undoubtedly one of the best yet lesser-known albums of the
If you're familiar with the music of The Holmes
Brothers, then you know what to expect here --- a very diverse
collection of both contemporary and traditional songs, with heavy
emphasis on gospel, blues, soul, and all kinds of traditional music. Mr.
Holmes wasn't featured as much on vocals on The Holmes Brothers albums,
but here we find that he's still got the vocal chops to handle the
variety of songs selected for this album. All 11 cuts deserve to be
discussed, so settle in for an extensive review of The Richmond
Kicking off the CD is the traditional "Rock of Ages,"
beginning with David Van Deventer's fiddle intro and highlighted by the
exquisite dobro playing of Rob Ickes and banjo from Sammy Shelor. Our
ears get the first dose of the wonderful backup singers, The Ingramettes,
who contribute their melodic voices throughout the disc. Soulful
bluegrass gospel at its absolute best. Ickes also provides the
accompaniment on the Vince Gill number, "Liza Jane." I really like how
Mr. Holmes attacks the vocals on this more subtle tune, showing strength
and range belying his 77 years.
The harmony vocals of The Ingramettes provide a powerful
intro to the Marvin Geye Motown classic, "Don't Do It," a song that's
perhaps more commonly known for The Band's cover version on both their
Rock of Ages and The Last Waltz live albums. It's funky
and soulful, so different from the previous cuts but with that gospel
foundation still very much in place. There's more of an electric sound
here with guitar from Jared Pool and harmonica from Jon Lohman.
Mr. Holmes goes back to his deep gospel roots with the
traditional "I Want Jesus." While I would love to hear brother Wendell
and Popsy harmonizing behind him like back in the day, The Ingramettes
do a fine, fine job, especially Almeta Ingram-Miller whose vocals just
plain soar through the octaves. The sparse instrumentation of guitar,
fiddle, banjo and dobro is extremely tasteful. My, oh my!
We then shift gears completely with the soul classic
"Breaking Up Somebody's Home," although this version gets more of an old
timey / bluegrass vibe with Ickes' sublime dobro, Lohman's harmonica
and Van Deventer's fiddle accompaniment. The backing musicians turn this
chestnut into a completely different song from the oft-covered original.
Rock icon Joan Osborne has always been a big fan of The
Holmes Brothers, having appeared on albums and live performances with
them. Here, she joins in with Mr. Holmes on a cover of still another
soul anthem, "Dark End of the Street." It's elegant in the power of the
vocals and simplicity of the accompaniment. Joan and Sherman really need
to collaborate on a full album while it's still possible. Please.
We head back into the mountains for the Jim Lauderdale
tune "Lonesome Pines," with Mr. Holmes again showing how much he, his
brother and Popsy were influenced by country music. Ickes is just plain
outstanding on the dobro here and The Ingramettes join in to pack a
wallop of soul to this number. Mr. Holmes injects a gospel feeling into
John Fogerty's "Green River," with Ickes again shining on dobro. You all
know the original tune, now just imagine hearing it in a backwoods
church. Yeah, that's it.
We head back down to the riverside with the traditional
gospel number "Wide River," with Mr. Holmes here setting down his bass
guitar and playing very nice churchy piano. This arrangement comes from
the late Maggie Ingram, mother of the leader of The Ingramettes. The
blending of Mr. Holmes' vocals with the backing singers is truly
inspirational, and will have even the most fervent sinners down on their
knees begging for mercy. Say amen, somebody. Not straying too far from
the gospel tent, the next cut is a cover of the Carter Stanley
bluegrass/gospel number "White Dove," with Ickes again treating us to
outstanding dobro accompaniment while Van Devender joins in on the
fiddle and The Ingramettes harmonize with Mr. Holmes.
Closing this superb album is a version of Ben Harper's
"Homeless Child." Mr. Holmes saves some of his most impassioned vocals
for this one. The instrumental highlights here come from the dobro,
fiddle, banjo and harmonica, all tastefully complementing the vocals.
The Richmond Sessions is absolutely positively a
stunningly beautiful album and should get plenty of nominations for
blues album of the year. I know that it'll be at or near the top of my
list. This one would look good under any blues fan's Christmas tree.
--- Bill Mitchell