“We’re the Holmes Brothers,” announced guitarist/pianist Wendell Holmes. “Old people,” wryly added his younger brother, bassist Sherman, as he stood beside him onstage Friday at the Van Dyck while drummer Popsy Dixon laughed behind them.
“We’ll be rockin’ and rollin’ soon, but first we’re going back home,” continued Wendell, then started up “Amazing Grace” at a syrupy tempo, a Gospel classic a lesser band would have sped up or played later to climax a show with its can’t-miss uplift.
But these three greybeards, from Virginia via Manhattan, played by their own rules, as usual. They mixed sanctified gospel from the church with down-home blues from the juke joint and country from the radio, even classic rock songs, seemingly from Mars.
After “Grace,” they did rock, but they did so from the pulpit, with “Lord Remember Me,” then swaggered into the juke joint with “Big Boss Man” and cruised into hard country with “He’ll Have to Go.” They mixed all these flavors on a run of originals: the rocking “Close the Door and Walk Away,” Wendell’s saved-from-cancer Gospel thanksgiving “Feed My Soul,” the ribald claim “You’re the Kind of Trouble,” the new, rollicking “Drivin’ in the Drivin’ Rain” and the church-y “Soldier of Love.”
They turned Cheap Trick’s explosive guitar workout, “I Want You to Want Me,” into fervently slow blues that worked wonderfully despite its bold oddity, and they followed with the Beatles’ “I’ll Be Back Again,” at standard tempo but set afire by Dixon’s falsetto.
After conventional turns on “Come Back Baby” and “Since I Lay My Burden Down,” they stayed close to the original tempo also on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Green River,” powered by Sherman’s burly baritone. A departure-less encore of “God Be With You” took everybody back to church, many standing by then.
The less-than-capacity crowd took its time getting into the spirit, though every solo and most exceptional vocal flourishes got big applause. Later, fans gave hearty shout-outs and the brothers responded gratefully.
Wendell’s guitar and piano got the only solos and earned them while Sherman’s steadfast bass and Dixon’s four-square drums held the groove straight down the road. Wendell often gave several prismatic views of a song when he soloed, one episode using the volume knob for wah-wah effect, the next with fast strums outside the first pickup, the next a spray of chords and finally a straight-on statement, though often sped up, of the melody. Instrumentally, they packed plenty of punch, and not just for old people — the Holmes Brothers are a singers’ band more than anything else.
They seldom blended voices long in straight melodic statements, but more often split the lyrics into shards of feeling, echoing and answering, commenting and coloring. The emphatic staccato of Wendell’s tenor, the mellow growl of Sherman’s baritone and the unearthly stratospheric leaps of Dixon’s falsetto put the band’s unique stamp on everything. They made ordinary songs sound better than good and the good or great songs sound celestial — and they utterly owned every lyric, and every groove.