Friday: 8 a.m., Altria Stage.
Saturday: 6:15 p.m., Community Foundation Stage.
Sunday: 3:45 p.m., Dominion Dance Pavilion.
Listening to the Holmes Brothers' music, you might hear a bluesy juke joint of the past, shored up by a youth spent singing in the church choir.
But listen closer and you'll hear a whole lot of gratitude.
Ask guitarist Wendell Holmes and he'll simply tell you that their Southern roots music, developed over 35 years with brother Sherman on bass and spiritual brother Popsy Dixon on drums, and drawing from Jimmy Reed, Jimi Hendrix and Richmond's own the Harmonizing Four, "is not to be denied."
The man eating the cherry popsicle to soothe his throat while he says this isn't boasting, because hired ears from NPR, Rolling Stone and The New York Times have said the same thing. "We're blending different things — soul, the Piedmont sound, blues, gospel, country and western, rhythm and blues — but they're all similar. It's all American music," Holmes says. "I'm a great lover of bluegrass music. Wish I could play it."
Citing Jim Reeves' 1959 hit, "He'll Have to Go," as one of his favorites and proof of his fondness for country music, Holmes name checks the Carter Family and Roseanne Cash, with whom the band has collaborated. "Our music blends everything together," he says. "Some of it comes from slavery, some from the civil rights movement and some comes from these times."
Reliably, the Holmes Brothers always start their shows with "Amazing Grace," an acknowledgment of the gratitude they feel for having been fortunate enough to play music their whole lives. From there, Holmes says, "we go right into the blues" before ending with the 1882 Christian farewell song, "God Be with You Till We Meet Again."
Just as reliably, he says, Sherman and Popsy always want to eat before a performance while Wendell prefers to eat afterward — preferably a big T-bone steak or fried catfish.
All three band members sing the goose-bump-worthy three-part harmonies that are integral to the band's sound, blending Wendell's gravelly voice — "I stayed at the party a little too long, smoking for 50 years," he says. "Now I got a little emphysema." — with Sherman's rich baritone and Popsy's thrilling falsetto for deeply soulful music that sounds as if it's been around the block a few times.
The Folk Fest show will be a celebration of the release of their latest album, "Brotherhood," which Holmes calls a natural continuation of their 2010 record, "Feed My Soul," about Wendell beating cancer twice.
"Brotherhood" is my favorite of all our albums. It's bluesier," he says. "It's a love album, but more down to earth. No more 'meet me behind the barn.' It's more 'thank you, Jesus.'" Part of the reason it's special to him, he says, is that it has more original material than in the past: six of Wendell's songs and two of Sherman's.
That cancer was "a shot across the bow" to Holmes, making him realize what really mattered in life and who was superfluous. Family was not. "I'd rather play in the basement of my house for my wife and daughters because that's where I have the best performances of my life," he says. Beyond those walls, he says it matters not whether he plays for five people or 5,000.
"Oh, wait a minute," he interjects, first commenting on how tasty that cherry popsicle was. "My second favorite place to play is the Richmond Folk Fest." If anything is apparent after talking to Holmes, it's that whatever he's doing at any given moment is the best possible thing he could be doing.
"I think it's good for audiences to see old people still doing their craft," the septuagenarian says. "I want people to see it as a good show. I want them to see it as an authentic show. I want them to see it as a show from the heart. I want them to walk away feeling good that they got to see the old Holmes Brothers play today."