By James Pouliot
---- — A gospel-blues trio known for nearly 40 years of music is gracing a Newburyport stage this weekend.
The Holmes Brothers will perform Saturday night at Belleville Congregational Church as part of the Belleville Roots Music Concert Series.
The band is composed of brothers Sherman and Wendell Holmes, joined by Popsy Dixon on the drums. The trio’s 12th and latest album, “Brotherhood,” is a tight mix of jazzy solos; soulful guitar; and the bluesy vocal play between Wendell’s gravelly tones, Sherman’s smooth baritone and Dixon’s flying falsetto.
The band’s sound combines a number of classic Southern elements.
“We play all kinds of music; it’s a mix of everything: gospel, blues, country, whatever we throw in the pot,” Sherman Holmes said. “I think it represents rural America. Southern, rural America, a lot of it does gospel, ‘Amazing Grace’ and some of the real blues songs we do.”
The group’s take on “Amazing Grace” shows the members’ range: The song “evolved” over the course of many live repetitions, Holmes said, before making it to the album as a blues-inspired exchange between the three “brothers,” as each takes on a verse in his own style, guiding the bass, guitar and drums through improvised rhythms.
The brothers got their start in a Virginian farming community called Christchurch, living along the same road that George Washington took to accept Gen. Charles Cornwallis’ surrender in the Revolutionary War. Christchurch is a close-knit community with ties to the ocean: Residents were primarily fishermen, farmers and oystermen, making their living off the Virginia soil and water. The Holmeses were no different.
“When we got out of school in the summertime, we worked,” Sherman Holmes said. “That’s what was the school vacation was, really: to help farmers bring in their crops. ... We were driving tractors as little boys. Nine, 10 years old, we’d be out in the field.”
The two brothers were musical from the start, singing in the church choir and taking piano lessons from a young age — Sherman even majored in clarinet at Virginia State University before dropping out to join singer Jimmy Jones, best known for “Handy Man.”
They turned their music into a job: A cousin of theirs owned the local “juke joint” and recruited the two blues brothers to fill in when he couldn’t attract the big bands. It wasn’t long before the two took their act on the road.
“I left Virginia in 1959,” Sherman Holmes said. “I left to go to New York for one semester and never came home until about 40-some years later. I started playing music, playing all over: doing all the club scenes and all that stuff.”
The two brothers played with several bands after the younger Wendell completed high school, then formed a short-lived group called The Sevilles in 1963.
The Holmeses came out of The Sevilles with another “brother-in-spirit,” Dixon, who shares their love of genre-blending and brings a soaring falsetto to the mix. Though they often moved apart to play with different bands, the three men stayed close and eventually came back together to form The Holmes Brothers in 1979.
The band spent years playing backups for other bands, Sherman Holmes said, until the late 1980s, when they hit upon a winning strategy: blues jam sessions at bars. They would find failing bars and offer them a deal: The band brings more customers into the bar with a jam session, then takes a third of drink revenues as payment. Meanwhile, the bar reaps the rewards of increased business and status.
According to Holmes, the band achieved notoriety by combining this strategy with festival work and press releases until it was picked up by Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records. From there, the three have expanded their operation to record with music legends like Willie Nelson and Van Morrison, eventually taking their act overseas to Europe and Africa, where they received a warm welcome.
“We had no trouble; music is the international language,” Sherman Holmes said. “We were playing with everyone from Gypsies to country-western people.”
The Holmes brothers and Dixon are just as close in private as in public. They live within miles of each other in their hometown of Christchurch, which is now known as Saluda, and the three spend their time boating and “driving fast cars,” Sherman Holmes said. Though the elder Holmes is 74 years old, he has no intention of stopping his music anytime soon.
“When the people don’t respond to us anymore, then I’ll have to stop,” he said. “Other than that ... it’s working, but it’s like having a license to steal. You enjoy going in, and you enjoy going home. ... I’ve got a job where you clap when you’re on the job and you clap when you leave!”
If you go
What: The Holmes Brothers
When: Saturday, 8 p.m.
Where: Belleville Congregational Church, 300 High St., Newburyport
How much: $30 in advance, $35 day of the show. $10 for ages 18 and under. Tickets available at church office on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Belleville Thrift Shop on Wednesday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon; Dyno Records, 1 Middle St.; and www.mktix.com/bc.
More information: email@example.com or www.bellevillechurch.org/roots.php