In my current suburban dad existence the things I used to be on top of take longer to find me. So it was almost two months before word of Wendell Holmes‘ passing made its way onto my radar screen. He was only 71.
Wendell was the guitar player in The Holmes Brothers, a blues trio–sometimes a quartet–that played for more than 30 years. While the band was formed on the verge of the 80s (1979 to be exact), Wendell’s career had begun in the 60s when this New Jersey-born, Virginia-raised tastemaker started playing professionally.
I remember my first encounter with the band, although at the time I didn’t know who they were. A club, The Beat, had opened in Port Chester, the middle- to lower-income town down the road from our campus in a so-upmarket-there-isn’t-even-a-town ‘burb. Someone said there was a band playing so we piled into the Rabbit and toodled off to see what was happening.
Port Chester was, and probably is, forever on the verge of gentrification. It lies nestled between Greenwich, Connecticut and such luminary Westchester towns as Rye, Harrison and Rye Brook. We spent a lot of time in town–the packie and the pizzeria were there and a spanking new Pathmark opened over by I-95, drawing us like flies to sherbet.
During my years in the area there were still factories on the Post Road, most notably the 8-story or so Life Savers building. So we knew that on Tuesdays the town reeked of Butterscotch and that Friday the air was infused with Peppermint. Soon after we left the building was sold and converted to condos with Long Island Sound and (from the upper floors) distant New York City views,.
Port Chester had and has all the things hipsters always want–old buildings with character, a walkable, albeit small, downtown, public transport, nearby colleges (including an art school) and comparatively low rents. So a club made perfect sense.
In my memory The Beat was a long, narrow space on a side street. We entered to find no stage. Instead there was a simple drum kit, two amplifiers and a couple of guitars on the floor towards the back of the space. We grabbed beers and soon three African-American men uncoiled themselves from bar stools and made their way to the instruments. Then, without a word, they proceeded to rip in to a 20-minute long version of Stevie Wonder‘s Superstition.
The band had three members, Wendell on guitar, his brother Sherman on bass and Popsy Dixon on drums. All three members sang, often in harmony. Most often Sherman took the lead, especially on the more boisterous numbers. But Popsy Dixon had an ethereal falsetto that particularly soared on church songs. There was a lot of going to church at a Holmes Brothers show.
The band, then and any time I ever saw them, was tighter than stretched Spandex. There was a complete absence of flash that I associate with blues players. They stood there, they played, they sang. They played some more. They sang some more. And so on, ultimately playing their asses off.
Wendell played a particularly tasty style of guitar. His lines, almost always lyrical, contained hints of country, gospel and jazz as well as gut-bucket blues. I’ve learned he also played piano and that always helps explain fine musicianship.
I moved to the City (for non-natives, that’s local dialect for Manhattan as opposed to the boroughs) soon after graduation. You could still get into a major-act show for under $10 and pay $2.50 for a beer once inside. Or you could go to any number of venues, all now gone, with free music: The Rodeo Bar. Delta 88.
Or the Dan Lynch.
The nearby photo, from 20 years ago, gives you an idea of how what is now an urban Fantasyland looked until quite recently. Make no mistake, the Dan Lynch was a glorious toilet with restrooms and an ambience that made CBGBs seem refined.
But they booked blues acts regularly and The Holmes Brothers were the de facto house band. That photo on the first album’s cover, seen above, was taken at the bar looking at the inside of the glass block windows seen in the bar’s, ahem, beauty shot.
I saw the band there at regular intervals until life events drove me off the island. The last time, at some point in the late 90s, the band was a quartet. They’d added a guitar player and were as tight as ever. While I never saw them live again I continued to buy their records and press them upon the unsuspecting. Because they were fearless in the songs they covered the entreé was often easy.
The Dan Lynch and the neighborhood’s days were numbered: the former laundromat next door had been transformed into an upmarket cocktail lounge as long ago as that last visit. Popsy Dixon died earlier this year. Sherman plays on.
The best thing to do with these things is to let the music speak for itself. Wendell shared his gift. The least we can do is appreciate it.
The Holmes Brothers recording career started on Rounder,a label known for control issues and wanting to get paid. So that part of their career is missing. There’s still plenty of great stuff to listen to. This is just a sample.