by Mark Augustine
In a performing career that has lasted over thirty years, brothers Wendell and Sherman Holmes, and their “brother-in-spirit” Popsy Dixon, have painstakingly crafted their own blend of American roots music. The Holmes Brothers are exceptional musicians, but their truest power lies in the interplay of their voices. When working in three-part harmony, they are capable of incandescent beauty.
Brotherhood is the tenth studio album by the Virginia-bred Holmes Brothers and their fifth on Alligator Records. But there is something strange about the conversation surrounding Brotherhood. It is being marketed as being focused “almost entirely on [the Holmes Brothers] blues heritage.” Certainly, the blues runs as a current throughout everything The Holmes Brothers write, perform, or record. And there are plenty of times on this album where the Brother’s blues prowess is on full, unmitigated display. Gone for Good is the first time we get a taste of this, and it’s a classic, you never knew what you had, 12-bar holler. It’s also the seventh track on the album.
[pullquote]When working in three-part harmony, they are capable of incandescent beauty.[/pullquote]
We hear this side of the brothers a few more times, and to great effect. The insistent, bitter waltz of “Darkest Hour” is a spine-tingling gut-shot. But these “entirely blues” moments are fairly sparse.
To be completely clear, this is in no possible way a criticism of the quality of the album. Because Brotherhood is an absolute joy. In fact, if a group as prolific as The Holmes Brothers were to focus their powers on any single genre of music, it would be criminal.
[pullquote]There are not many people that can recall this Stax-era power with so much authority and so much success as Wendell, Sherman, and Popsy.[/pullquote]
Brotherhood opens with two gospel numbers – “Stayed at the Party” and “I Gave up All I Had” – that shimmer with organ and vocal fanfare. They move into some rock grit with a cover of Ike Turner’s “You’ve Got to Lose” and the Wendell-penned “Lickety Split,” saturating us in reverb and fuzzy guitar.
Shifting gears again, the brothers give us “Soldier of Love,” which recalls the hypnotizing soul of 70’s era Curtis Mayfield. They flex this muscle again later with a cover of “My Kind of Girl,” a song recorded by William Bell and written by Booker T. Jones. Songs like “My Kind of Girl” showcase the three-part harmony for which the Holmes Brothers are held in such high regard. There are not many people that can recall this Stax-era power with so much authority and so much success as Wendell, Sherman, and Popsy.
The album ends with their rendition of “Amazing Grace,” which is what the Holmes Brothers usually use to open their live performances. Coming in at nearly eight minutes, it’s the longest song on the album. It may also be its most jubilant. That seems a strange proposition at first; but when you hear it, it makes so much sense. It’s as if the brothers are extending you an invitation to celebrate the life of the album with them. When Popsy breaks into his falsetto, I dare you not to shiver.
Brotherhood is not a blues album. It’s a Holmes Brothers album – and that’s a good thing.
To see how moving The Holmes Brothers can be even within the most restricted capacity, watch them perform as part of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series.