About midway through the Holmes Brothers’ opening set at B.L.U.E.S. a man shouted from the audience, “Where you guys from?” “New York,” answered guitarist Wendell Holmes, adding that he and his brother had originally hailed from Virginia. But the man who’d asked wasn’t really looking for that kind of answer; you could tell by his dazed, radiant expression that he meant something like, “Where the hell have you guys been?”

The Holmes Brothers have been getting a lot of reactions like that recently. Although they’ve been gigging around New York for decades, and have worked as a unit since 1980, it’s only been in the last two or three years that their reputation has expanded beyond a devoted coterie of New York-area followers.

That welcome development is due largely to the Holmses’ two recordings on Rounder: In the Spirit, from 1990, and their current release, Where It’s At. Those records feature gutsy horns that give the brothers’ resonant harmonies an added dimension. Where It’s At also includes a pedal steel guitar, an instrument the band has adopted as a kind of badge of eclecticism, allowing it to include such unlikely vehicles as Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee.”

For the recent gig at B.L.U.E.S., however, they stripped things down to the basics: guitarist Wendell, brother Sherman on bass, and Popsy Dixon on drums. Chicagoans used to the rowdy sparseness of west-side blues trios might have expected a night of bare-bones revelry. What they got was a full-bodied, sinewy performance that took the listener on a journey through a sizable portion of mid- to late-20th-century African American pop-music history, with a strong dollop of gospel tradition thrown in.

Many performers who attempt that type of all-inclusive mix end up sounding dilettantish, but the Holmes Brothers can segue effortlessly from doo-wop novelty numbers into heart-tearing close-harmony gospel, then charge into roaring rock-and-roll barn burners without missing a beat–and all with unflagging dedication. Stylistic boundaries, even the supposedly unbreachable barrier between the sacred and the secular, are eliminated.

Actually, to bill them as the Holmes Brothers is a little misleading; drummer Dixon is a vital component of the overall sound. His tender falsetto is delivered with a throaty, full-timbred vibrato that often recalls Smokey Robinson. His percussion work is equally distinctive: he manages to be propulsive enough to give the three-piece band a house-rocking impetus yet tasteful enough to stay out of the way.

Dixon’s ability to buttress sweetness with substance is a key to the group’s success. Few singing ensembles can deliver straight blues and R & B in harmony and still retain the gutsiness of the material. The Holmeses pull it off largely because their harmonizing is rich and deep, an aural blending of the darker colors of the spectrum–purples, dark blues–rather than the usual delicate, crystalline rainbow.

Wendell Holmes’s guitar style provides a stylistic meld that reflects the band’s overall approach. He’s obviously indebted to T-Bone Walker and other Texas-California smoothies (especially arresting at B.L.U.E.S. were his variations on the “moaning” style pioneered by California’s Johnny Heartsman). But he embellishes the sophistication with a jagged urgency that sounds as if it were imagined during rush hour in Manhattan, and it’s all flavored with a surprisingly harsh blues edge.

Dixon’s rococo vocal flourishes and less-than-crisp enunciation were initially distracting at B.L.U.E.S.; on some songs, one could barely make out the lyrics. The band’s interpretations also took some getting used to. Saint Louis Jimmy’s “Going Down Slow” is usually sung as a bleak dirge; the Holmeses brought a shimmering clarity to the song, making it sound more like a gospel dream of salvation than a worldly paean to dissolution.

After a while, though, it became evident that this determination to bring a new twist to nearly everything they touch is a cornerstone of the Holmes’ musical philosophy. They’ll “worry” a lyric or a phrase, as a gospel singer does when the spirit hits, stretching and embellishing it until you’re nearly lulled into distraction. Then without warning they’ll pull it all together and deliver an ecstatic punch to the soul.

Probably the most overwhelming component of the Holmes Brothers’ show is their gospel singing. It’s astounding when they first unfurl it in the middle of a set; even Solomon Burke usually saves his gospel songs for finales and encores when he’s working in secular surroundings. At B.L.U.E.S., Wendell warmed things up with a sanctified-sounding spoken intro (“Feelin’ kinda good tonight!”), then without warning the band soared into “Amazing Grace.” Jaws dropped throughout the room. Wendell’s guitar solo sounded as if he’d harnessed the power of grace itself: he poured furious clusters of notes into his phrases with fiery control, sometimes looking as if he could barely keep up with his own fingers.

Even on up-tempo numbers, the band managed to breathe new fire into well-worn material. “High Heel Sneakers” was transformed from a country-ish rocker into a roaring boogie, with the vocals cutting a steely swath through the symmetry of Dixon’s churning four-four beat. Buster Brown’s “Fannie Mae” rocked with dangerous abandon, yet the harmonies were as sweet and mellow as they were on the showstopping rendition of “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby.” A brooding despair lurked beneath the uplift of this Sam and Dave classic, creating the spiritual tension that’s at the very heart of soul expression.

Everything was prelude, though, for the hymn “None but the Righteous,” inserted unexpectedly into the middle of the second set. Wendell dedicated the tune to Willie Dixon and “a young lady named Marie who’s going in the hospital tomorrow,” and as soon as he and his bandmates hit the first a cappella notes a thrill of expectation silenced the audience. The uplifting power of the song was matched only by the ease of inspiration with which it was delivered. The Holmes Brothers don’t extract meaning from a gospel song as much as they let it wash over them, submerging themselves and coming out baptized.

The spellbinding spiritual catharsis of “None but the Righteous” gave way to exultation as the band tore directly into a rollicking “Do Lord Remember Me” that had people dancing and clapping as intensely as they’d been transfixed just moments before. Everyone rode the joyous wave of celebration until suddenly it broke and the crowd was silenced again, as the brothers concluded with a final verse of the hymn. A woman sitting toward the back of the club selling Holmes Brothers T-shirts and tapes wept openly; a man sitting near me did the same.

It’s a further measure of this band’s excellence that they could follow such a moment with a series of Jimmy Reed songs that included a slow-grinding “Baby, What You Want Me to Do” without trivializing what had gone before. Again it was dedication that provided the continuity: the thick, meaty harmonies on “Baby, What You Want Me to Do” overlaid the song’s sensual rhythmic charge to create an urgent, virile celebration of carnal devotion that was no less heartfelt than the spiritual devotion proclaimed earlier.

A knuckle-blistering country guitar workout from Wendell concluded each set; by the show’s conclusion the crowd had been transported several times, in several directions. There was a palpable feeling of uplift, just as there is after a rousing gospel performance, when the evening was over and people began filing out of the club. Rock critic Nik Cohn once suggested that the quality of a society’s pop music is correlated with the overall stability and optimism of the times; if he’s right, and if the current explosion of the Holmes Brothers onto the national scene is any indication, we’re headed for some very good times indeed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.