[live review] Power trio: The Holmes Bros. at the MFA

The Holmes Brothers

Maybe it was because they were especially energized by the hefty Boston Community Choir that opened the show, and by the racially mixed audience they drew. But the Holmes Brothers - the venerable, nearly unclassifiable roots-music trio from Chistchurch, Virginia - chose to begin their set in the Remis Auditorium with gospel. Five gospel numbers in fact, starting with some free-tempo testifying from Wendell Holmes before slipping into the first chorus of "Amazing Grace." Then it was their peerless three-part harmonies (a joy throughout the one-hour set), a lyrical, surprise-filled guitar solo from Wendell, and drummer Popsy Dixon taking a chorus of his own with what has to be the sweetest gospel falsetto this side of Aaron Neville.

Generally, you could call the Holmeses a blues band, but there was some biting rockabilly in Wendell's guitar playing, urban soul in brother Sherman's muscular, nimble electric bass, and rock, jazz, and funk in Popsy's cross rhythms. "We gonna be rockin' and rollin' in a minute," said Wendell, settling behind the keyboards, "but right now I got the Holy Ghost."

The sold-out show was scheduled for the outdoor Calderwood Courtyard, but forecasts of late thundershowers moved it indoors. Which was a drag - you can't beat the oasis-like picnic atmosphere of these courtyard shows, of which this was the first in the summer series. And, with clear skies at 7, it seemed silly to relocate. Still, the Holmeses, after doing a quick blog broadcast out in the courtyard steam, were perhaps relieved to play with some AC. Moving from gospel to the first rock number, Wendell explained the shift in mood: "Jesus turned water into wine, not wine into water." They kept it rockin' - hard, sweet, and pretty - including the country-ballad standard "He'll Have To Go" and their own medium-tempo shuffle "Feed My Soul" (the title track from their latest Alligator release), then offered a gospel coda. By time the crowd poured out of Remis's back exit, it was raining. Pouring, in fact.


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