‘Best’ in blues today comes to NMU

Jordan Beck

“I’ve been everywhere before, including the Upper Peninsula,” said Wendell Holmes, guitarist/pianist/vocalist for blues/gospel/soul trio the Holmes Brothers. “I’ve played in 50 different countries, and all 50 states.”

Sherman and Wendell Holmes and “brother-in-spirit” Popsy Dixon have played with Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, Patti Smith, Lou Reed and more. (Photos courtesy of Holmes Brothers Blues Band)
Sherman and Wendell Holmes and “brother-in-spirit” Popsy Dixon have played with Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, Patti Smith, Lou Reed and more. (Photos courtesy of Holmes Brothers Blues Band)

Performing what Holmes describes as “American/Southern roots music,” the Holmes Brothers have gone from a group of kids playing gigs at their cousin’s juke joint in Christchurch, Va. to an internationally-known force in the blues world. During the 30-plus years they’ve appeared under their current band name, they’ve recorded with the likes of Levon Helms and Van Morrison, won the Blues Foundation award for Band of the Year and released 11 albums to critical acclaim. A 12th, “Brotherhood,” will be out on Tuesday, April 1.

Before that, however, they’ll be coming back to the Upper Peninsula. Accompanied by Marquette-based opening act Harp, Hart and Bones, the Holmes Brothers will play Friday, Feb. 14 at the University Center as part of the Northern Nights concert series.

Dan Truckey, director of the Beaumier Upper Peninsula Heritage Center, said the Holmes Brothers were an early favorite for the committee in charge of selecting artists for Northern Nights.

“They have a great reputation as one of the best rhythm and blues acts in the United States today,” Truckey said. “They’ve got a great sound, and music that people can dance to and enjoy.”

In addition to blues, the Holmes Brothers’ sound also incorporates elements of gospel and country.

“Just come out, see us old men perform and enjoy an evening of authentic roots music,” Holmes said.

Harp, Hart and Bones have also made a point of staying true to their roots, said resonator guitar player and vocalist “Cousin” Bill Hart. In fact, the latter third of their band name was derived from percussionist Randy “Da Bones Man” Seppala’s heavy use of rhythm bones. While that choice of instrumentation may seem unusual now, it was inspired by the jug bands that were crucial to the development of blues.

“[Jug bands] began at the turn of the century, and they became really entrenched in the ’20s in Memphis,” Hart said. “That Memphis jug band sound was extremely influential in the early days of blues, even though the instruments were very homely.”

Even if potential concert-goers have little experience with the musical styles presented by the Holmes Brothers and Harp, Hart and Bones, there’s still a good chance that they’ll enjoy the show, Hart said.

“If they don’t have a history for the blues, we’ll give it to them,” Hart said. “We like to provide a frame of reference for the music we’re playing. We’ll try to be as brief as we can about these things, but people really appreciate hearing the history behind these songs.”

“There’s something about the rhythm that people respond to,” Truckey said. “That just seems to connect to people. Blues is about the struggles of life, but it’s also music you can dance to.”

While blues music has been evolving since the late 19th century, the style has survived into the 21st thanks to its emotional honesty, Holmes said.

“The blues, like any other genre of music, is authentic,” Holmes said. “And authentic music lasts forever.”

The Holmes Brothers and Harp, Hart and Bones will perform at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 14 in the Great Lakes Rooms at the University Center. For more information, email the NMU Ticket Office at www.tickets.nmu.edu or call (906) 227-1032.