Though gospel, soul, and blues share deep roots, surprisingly few artists can simultaneously occupy all three genres without sounding strained or insincere in at least one. But guitarist and keyboardist Wendell Holmes, bassist Sherman Holmes, and drummer Willie "Popsy" Dixon are among those few, making music that combines the simple dignity of a whitewashed country church with the abandon of a smoky, neon-lit sweatbox. On 1997's Promised Land (Rounder) the Holmes Brothers provide a fair approximation of their live set, mixing up the sacred and secular: the title track is a testimonial, with the resonant harmonies and visionary poetry of a venerable black spiritual but the frenzied energy of modern funk, and "Start Stoppin'" is a 12-bar blues workout with grinding Jimmy Reed-style rhythm guitar, delivered in Wendell's ragged, churchy howl. The heart of the Holmes Brothers' work is their spiritual quest, though, and they sometimes make following the Lord sound more harrowing than all the betrayals, violence, and dissolution of the archetypal blues life. Their new disc, the all-gospel Speaking in Tongues (Alligator), opens with "Homeless Child," a barrage of hip-hop drumming, pounding bass, razor-sharp soul guitar licks, and caterwauling harmonica; raving like a prophet, Wendell demands, "What is left for the homeless child?"--and we understand that it's our souls that hang in the balance if we turn away. But for every threat of hellfire, there's a promise of joy: The jubilant title tune describes religious ecstasy ("You got me shaking my head, lifting my hand, Lord let me understand it") to a driving pop-blues cadence sparkling with soul chords. And a popping, roiling version of Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "Can't No Grave Hold My Body Down" is pure holy boogie--this body isn't just going to ascend to glory, it's going to dance all the way there. Saturday, March 31, 10 PM, FitzGerald's, 6615 Roosevelt, Berwyn; 708-788-2118.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stefan Falke.