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Two of the weirdos they met at the storied bar were Len Kunstadt and Gib Wharton, the latter a Texas-born pedal-steel player who sat in with them and soon joined the band. Pedal steel is rare--to say the least--in soul and blues, but it made the band unique, particularly when they added such country cornpone as "There Goes My Everything" and Hank Williams' "I Saw the Light" to their repertoire.
As for Kunstadt, he'd married legendary "classic" blues singer Victoria Spivey, and they started the low-budget Spivey label. Skewed, cut-and-paste covers, production values miles below lo-fi, and vinyl softer than Velveeta hallmarked Spivey's LPs in the label's prime, when Victoria's cronyism could still reel in Lonnie Johnson, Willie Dixon, Big Joe Williams, and even a young Bob Dylan for living-room recording sessions. One of these is quite rare, an effort by harp blower Bill Dicey and the Holmes Brothers, although it's not as rare as Wendell Holmes would like it to be.
"I hate that record," he says. "I'm surprised you know about it. We recorded it on a li'l ol' four-track machine right in Dan Lynch's, and the sound was terrible! I played it once and never played it again."
It was at a jam in a club called Wonderland that Popsy met a real record man, Andy Breslau, and invited him to hear the Holmes Brothers at Dan Lynch's. He was impressed enough to juice their signing with Rounder, which released their debut In The Spirit in 1990. Its mix of blues, soul, gospel, and tight but unostentatious musicianship was a hit with blues critics, who chided society for letting them go undiscovered for so long. In 1991 they issued the follow-up Where It's At, and the next year they hooked up with Gabriel.
"We were doing a Benson & Hedges Blues Festival," remembers Wendell. "Peter Gabriel had--I guess you'd call 'em scouts--there, and they hooked us up with him. He invited us to a 'recording week' at his [Real World] studio in Bath, England. There were musicians from all over the world there--Africa, the Laplands--and the Holmes Brothers were there as 'R&B guys from the states'. We cut a compilation album (A Week in the Real World) with some other people, and then everybody had the chance to record the album of their choice, so we did Jubilation. Peter was always there during production, and you wouldn't believe--he's just a down-to-earth, regular person. But man, that studio's fabulous! They say it cost 20 million bucks to build, and I can believe it."
It was again through the connections of Breslau that the three got involved with Lotto Land, a shaky little movie shot on the fringe of Brooklyn's Park Slope in which four people (including Wendell as "Milt") find love despite the hardness of their 'hood, all to the tune of fluid, citified soul from the Holmeses. It's a wistful if chatty flick, and it's not completely fanciful to compare Wendell's role to jazzman Dexter Gordon's in 'Round Midnight. Both played themselves in a large sense, but brought credible, intuitive acting to the table. (One rather humorous flaw: When Milt faints in a basement, Wendell proves he's a far-from-convincing pratfaller.)
With the release of the Lotto Land soundtrack, the Holmes Brothers had made five CDs in not quite five years. Such prolificacy would've depleted many bands, but Promised Land is their strongest display to date. Wendell wrote five songs, Sherman two, and Popsy's take on Tom Waits' "Train Song" is breathtaking. Past distractions have been avoided: There is no weepy, distracting pedal steel and no tacked-on horn sections. Virtually all the instrumental work is by the core trio, and their musicianship is deliciously sparse, their self-containment all the more remarkable for the broadness of their palette. Their diversity has been more of an advantage than a straight blues hardline would be.
"Up until recently, blues wasn't a big thing in New York," says Wendell. "It's only in the last few years that there's been a 'blues scene' with clubs like Manny's Car Wash and Terra Blues. All those places make it a much better place than it was for guys like me and my brother's generation. Although we worked all the time, [it was] because we could do black Top 40, country and western, gospel, and whatever it took to do a lot of club dates. We had day jobs from time to time, but I supported myself mostly on my music, and so did Sherman--it was always, always the highest priority."
With a sly laugh that might've come from Lotto Land's Milt, Wendell adds, "That's one thing that's not likely to change!"
The Holmes Brothers play Poor David's Pub on Friday, April 25.