Holmes Brothers blend blues and Bible

On Friday at The Egg, Scrapomatic singer Mike Mattison said with both truth and loyalty that the “tr

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For Gazette music writer Brian McElhiney’s preview of this show, click here.

On Friday at The Egg, Scrapomatic singer Mike Mattison said with both truth and loyalty that the “transcendent Holmes Brothers are keeping American music alive,” adding that “it has a knife at its throat.” Judging by Thursday’s spirited display, it’s pretty healthy, with a Bible in one hand and a bottle in the other, as Scrapomatic did its share of transcending in a short opener.

Just consider the transcending it takes for Mattison, a Harvard English lit major now living in Brooklyn, to evoke the sound of ancient Delta bluesmen, with soaring sound, bulletproof conviction and utter originality. “Lotus,” about a neighborhood Chinese restaurant, may be world’s only blues song citing Kung Pao, with a harmonized bebop/skat chorus.

Guitarist Paul Olsen is a very good singer, but in a band with a great one (Mattison), it took some effort to balance things. Lead guitarist Dave Yoke managed this in secret weapon style. Two guitars aren’t always better than one, but Olsen and Yoke linked beautifully, both playing finger-style. Olsen more than held his own at the mic in his own “Hook Line and Sinker.” But few singers anywhere in any style or any time could match the might of Mattison’s falsetto in “Crimefighter” and the declamatory punch that powered “I Belong to the Band,” the Rev. Gary Davis cover they saved to close their set.

Scrapomatic sang new songs that sounded salvaged from some ancient jukebox, but the Holmes Brothers —soulful graybeards a generation older — played ancient songs in often startling ways. We knew they’d sing blues and gospel, but they still surprised. Before sitting behind his drums, Popsy Dixon came up front for a slow, majestic “Precious Lord” before they rocked “Since I Lay My Burden Down,” setting a slow/fast pattern they carried through their 90 minutes on the Egg’s Swyer stage.

Dixon’s simple, four-square drumming locked tight to Sherman Holmes’ hyper-active bass, but Wendell Holmes’ guitar riffs, evoking Pops Staples and Curtis Mayfield, pushed the band, hard or soft.

He had tricks deluxe — odd chord voicings, blistering single-note runs, drops and explosions. But the effect felt somehow unfancy, sincere, in service to the songs. The Holmes Brothers don’t care where their tunes come from. What’s important is where they take them, what they do with venerable earthy or sanctified numbers, claiming them as their own, blues-shouting and testifying at a crossroads where chapel and juke joint rock in harmony beside the road.

They tossed tunes into their blender of blurred styles, and startling stuff poured out. The country classic “He’ll Have to Go” got the blues in a big way, Wendell tugging the volume knob with his pinkie to fade riffs in and out. They scuffed the grief off “Stormy Monday” and the pain of abandonment off “Come Back Baby” taking both to church. They went deep with the Beatles’ “And I Love Her” and “I’ll Be Back” and played some things straight: the blues “I’ve Got a Bad Feeling” and the gospel-shout one-two set-closers “Jesus On the Main Line” and the blessing “May God Be With You.” And they made everything stick.

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