One of the major delights derived from sitting in on a live taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio comes when the program presents two acts, seemingly removed from each other as well as from the stereotypes that dog their respective genres, performing in peak but unassuming form.
Such was the case with a charming bill earlier tonight at the Lyric Theatre that featured The Holmes Brothers, a group generically labeled as a blues band despite obvious its reverence for vintage soul, gospel and juke joint rock ‘n’ roll, and Chatham County Line, a quartet that borrows generously from bluegrass instrumentation but operates largely as a folk group.
The Holmes Brothers – real life siblings Wendell (on guitar and keyboards) and Sherman (bass) with longtime pal Popsy Dixon (drums) – remain ageless wonders. All three are in their ‘70s and revealed a natural affection for groove, soul and harmony. The three shifted vocals on four tunes from their new Brotherhood album, from Sherman’s rustic tenor lead on the lean blues excursion Drivin’ in the Drivin’ Rain to Wendell’s playful piano stride on the gospel-esque Stayed at the Party to Popsy’s syncopated percussion and low vocal pleading on Soldier of Love.
But the killer was a classic – a version of Amazing Grace led by judicious vocal whoops from Wendell and an otherworldly falsetto finale from Popsy that translated into serious testifying.
Chatham County Line, which has issued a decade’s worth of progressively minded string band music on the Yep Roc label, found a lot to like within bluegrass tradition without outwardly sounding like a bluegrass band. Singer Dave Wilson and mandolinist John Teer dressed songs from the band’s recent Tightrope album – specifically, the lightly driven Should Have Known and the spry jamboree tune Tightrope of Love – with elastic harmonies, while Wilson’s guitarwork on The Traveler possessed a delicate, autoharp-ish quality.
But this wasn’t a retro minded troupe. Instead, the band deemphasized bluegrass’ fondness of speed and soloing in favor of strong ensemble instrumentation anchored by bassist Greg Readling and story songs, like the cross-generational war requiem Hawk, that possessed the narrative detail of a fine folk ensemble.
That said, one of the program’s highlights occurred when Chatham County Line banjoist Chandler Holt was given roughly 90 seconds to “go cosmic” with a rollercoaster solo that succinctly showcased his technical prowess with being unduly flashy. The biggest reward wasn’t the vocal response from the audience in front of him but the very obvious approval from The Holmes Brothers at his back. All three beamed not like a pack of discerning blues elders but like a group of eager students cheering on a youthful comrade.