A Story About The Holmes Brothers

Update: Wendell Holmes died today from complications due to pulmonary hypertension. This isn’t surprising since he posted this open letter a few days ago. In honor of his life, I thought I’d re-post the piece I wrote in January when we lost Popsy.

Willie “Popsy” Dixon died on Friday of bladder cancer.  For those who don’t know, and I fear that is way too many people, Popsy was the drummer and one of the singers in the Holmes Brothers.  He was the non-brother, but he was a brother.  I spent the whole weekend listening to their music.  It’s really great.  They have been one of the most consistent bands of the last 20 years.  Every time they released and album, it was worth picking up.  They move effortlessly from blues to country to gospel to soul to rock to zydeco.  They do ballads and rockers and everything in between.  They do originals and very cool covers.  The covers range from the expected, like Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man”, to the surprising, like Collective Soul’s “Shine”.  As I listened, I kept thinking about the one time I saw them live and got to meet them.

A lot of the details are kind of foggy.  I know it was sometime between 2000 and 2003 because I was working at the Simsbury Borders at the time.  The Holmes Brothers were playing a show in Bushnell Park.  I don’t know who, but someone was trying to start a blues festival or blues series.  My best guess is either Black Eyed Sally’s, a Hartford bar that specializes in blues and BBQ, or WCCC, a local radio station that had a weekly blues show at the time.  They might have even been working together.  Anyway, as always seems to happen in Hartford, the idea was solid, the intentions were good, but the execution was awful.

If you know anything about Hartford, this won’t be a surprise.  They didn’t advertise the event at all.  Hartford likes to keep their events secret.  There is a marathon in Hartford every year.  No one knows about it unless they listen to the traffic reports and get curious about why all the roads are closed.  I am a big fan of blues in general and The Holmes Brothers specifically, but I had no idea they were going to be in Hartford.  I found out when my regional events coordinator called me.  We didn’t have a booth at the event, or any lead time, because I know we didn’t have any large quantities of product, so I’m guessing the organizers didn’t order product or there was a shipping problem or something (Which reminds me of another story about the Mingus Band.  Maybe I’ll tell you sometime).  Or maybe we were just going to hand out event calendars.  Like I said, the details are a little foggy.  What I do remember for sure is that I was there for Borders in some capacity and almost no one else was there.

I was there a little while before the show was supposed to start and just kind of waiting off to the side of the stage for something to do.  There were a couple of other people involved with the show nearby when the Holmes Brothers came over and sat down.  This show was shaping up to be a complete disaster.  There was no audience to speak of.  The band had every right to be annoyed, if not furious.  But they were completely charming.  They were friendly and chatty.  They asked us questions about who we were and actually listened to our answers.  Then, it was show time and they went on stage and played.  And they really played.  It didn’t matter that no one was there.  They put on a show.

For me, that is what I’ll always remember about the Holmes Brothers.  And I think it’s why Popsy’s death hurts a little more than most celebrity deaths.  We didn’t just lose a great singer and musician.  We lost a consummate professional and a truly kind soul.

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