Thursday, October 15, 2009
On the phone from his home in Saluda, Va., Sherman Holmes sounds like a young man, amused and invigorated by life, even though, as he quickly acknowledges, “I turned 70 last week.”
The bass player and vocalist for the Holmes Brothers, who have won critical and popular acclaim for their blend of gospel and roots sounds, is looking forward to visiting Monterey this week – the band plays the Golden State Theatre Oct. 18 with Joan (“One of Us”) Osbourne and scrappy singer-songwriter Paul Thorn (so scrappy, in fact, he took on Roberto Duran in a televised boxing bout in 1987 before turning to more peaceful pursuits).
Sherman just got off the plane from a visit to New York, where he and his bandmates finished their new album, due out early next year and produced by Osbourne. “The title of the new album is Feeding My Soul, with a lot of original material by my brother, Wendell, who just survived cancer,” Holmes says. “We’ve worked with Joan before, and it’s always a good experience. We knew each other from New York. My brother and I and another guy had a running jam session at Dan Lynch’s bar on 14th Street. Joan wandered in one day and we became friends.”
Themes of redemption – and unusual arrangements of surprisingly eclectic material – are nothing new for the resilient group, which has covered everything from Bob Dylan’s “Man of Peace”’ to Lyle Lovett’s “If I Had A Boat,” Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny) About Peace, Love and Understanding” and an amazing version of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me.”
“We just slowed it down and made it our own,” Holmes says about the last choice. He chuckles when asked if he ever heard what the Tricksters thought of the cover: “No.”
Deciding to record “Peace, Love and Understanding,” made most famous by Elvis Costello, “had a lot to do with the war in Iraq, and George Bush’s tenure, and things that were happening then,” Holmes says.
Asked if he is more encouraged by the Obama’s presidency, he pauses: “I’m hopeful, but it looks bad in a lot of ways. I see so much hate, and there’s so much on the man’s plate. He’s not going to solve all these problems, and people shouldn’t expect him to. But I think the Nobel Peace Prize and all that shows that he’s made America become more respected in the world.”
The Brothers have performed for Bill Clinton and Al Gore, but have not yet been summoned by Obama.
“Maybe we’re too old for him,” Holmes laughs.
The band started out in the modern equivalent of the chitlins circuit, as a group called the Sevilles, briefly backing up Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions and playing with singer Jimmy Jones (“Handy Man”).
“After the Impressions and some of the other groups we worked with did their thing, we became the headlining act the next week at the Apollo,” he recalls.
The veteran bass player started out studying music theory and composition at Virginia State University.
“I went to school to study music education to become a teacher, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do,” he says. “I was a clarinet major in college, and haven’t played clarinet since I left, either. Piano was my minor, but I got my hand smashed up a little bit. I can still play piano, but not like I want to, so I switched to bass, which seemed like the easiest instrument. I still try to play the bass like I’m doing the bottom to piano… I do know a bit about chord structure.”
His favorite jazz musician?
“Miles Davis – I love the way he plays. He doesn’t do a lot of vibrato, and has that natural tone.”
Coming up, were the Holmes Brothers influenced by gospel groups like The Staples Singers?
“They were more contemporaries… not to say they didn’t influence us, but we also listened to people like Sly and the Family Stone and, going back, Jimmy Reed, Hank Williams. We listen to a broad spectrum – I just like music for music’s sake. I would say we’re an American roots group.”
He says the group has been enjoying rehearsals to get ready for the tour, and seems unfazed by the rigors of the musician’s life, fortified by reading material for the tour bus. (This trip, he’s taking The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe.)
“I’m like a road warrior,” he laughs. “Some people call it ‘road dog,’ but I like ‘warrior’ better.”
Holmes says the Brothers are trying to get the word out on the Internet, but admits his own involvement is limited. “I don’t deal with Twitter too much. I dial up people I admire, and watch their videos. These days, I’ve been checking out Billy Preston.”
THE HOLMES BROTHERS, JOAN OSBOURNE AND PAUL THORN play 8pm Saturday, Oct. 18, at the Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey. $20-$59. 372-3800, www.goldenstatetheatre.com