Frank Gutch Jr: The Name Is Holmes— Nick Holmes… Plus Notes
That is how I picture Holmes— tuxedoed, debonair, suave, in control. He started out a folkie— sang with The Serendipity Singers, in fact, though I can hardly hear his voice in any kind of ensemble. It is slightly rough and textured but with a real edge definitely unique. One single by The Singers (“What Will We Do With the Child”) was released with that voice but it did not chart. It did warrant a solo artist contract, though, and Holmes recorded one. It unfortunately never made it to press,
His real break came through Michael Mainieri, the famed jazz musician and producer, who ran into Holmes when Holmes was looking for a producer for that ill-fated album.
I met Michael Mainieri while I was signed to United Artists Records around 1970. I was looking for a producer for my first record and Mike was doing some work with David Lucas in the jingle business. I had been sent to talk with David, but I ended up not going with him as a producer. UA wanted me to go to Nashville instead. The record that came out of that, Hunger Is the Best Sauce, is lost forever. It was not released and I know of no copy in existence. It wasn’t a bad record but it wasn’t much good, either. It did include the song Blue of Blue which Carly Simon recorded, and a few other good songs, but it was made in only four days and United Artists ended up passing on it.
When I returned to New York City, Mike asked me to come look at this ‘rehearsal band’ he was working with. He had them working on some large arrangements he’d put together and wanted me to check them out. I remember the first night I went to one of those rehearsals. It was a dump studio, up two flights of stairs in Hell’s Kitchen. I walked up the stairs and peered through the little window in the door of the room and immediately knew I was in new territory.
See, I was a folkie-turned-rocker. I was still wearing tight pants and acting cool because I had a record deal. Even before I opened that door, I knew these people were a step beyond what I had been used to. When I walked into the room, it was filled with fire. It was quiet because they were between takes, but still the energy was palpable. If it had been my rocker friends it would have been loud and jocular, but this was different.
I mean, the abject pool of horn players alone fascinated me. That would have been Ronny Cuber on baritone sax, Randy and Michael Brecker, Jon Pierson from Ars Nova on bass trombone, Nat Pavone on trumpet, etc. A line of horn players like you have never seen. And when they played, it was like the sound of an in-tune traffic jam and not Blood Sweat & Tears (all due respect). And the women who were hanging around? Brian Cullman would call them ‘the jazz widows’? Whew. The room was strong. Full of the conviction of real drugs, beauty and all the fear that goes on beneath that. Excellent people. All fucked up, and excellently so.
Those sessions were learning sessions for Holmes. Virtual unknowns on the verge were handing him a course you could not buy about music and life.
Those sessions would eventually end up on White Elephant‘s self-titled double-album, one which followed rules only insofar as they served the band’s purpose. Mainieri, in the few articles and interviews I have read about him, considered the band a musical experiment. Its makeup depended upon song, the various jam, and who showed up for the rehearsals for, as Holmes has mentioned to me more than once, there was structure but the structure was loose.
No Nick Holmes on that track. I place it here to give you an idea of the diversity of genre in these sessions. Keep in mind that it is the very early seventies and music was just beginning to really find itself, at least from the perspective of the new music scenes. No, there was a softer side of the band— Nick’s side— which caught my ear and fed my inner being. His songs were deeper than most I was listening to back then and his voice something I began to fall into. The texture, the lyrics, the feel….. And, FYI, that is the late Hugh McCracken on guitar. Now you know why I write of him as much as I do.
Those session were pretty much ongoing for a couple of years. When they wrapped up and Mainieri organized them into an album, it was time for a Nick Holmes solo project. There was plenty of material, all they needed was a plan.
Mike and I started picking out players for the small record which would be Crooner. During this process, Steve Gadd had showed up. He was a hometown friend of Tony Levin, both from Rochester, NY. It was a hard decision. Donald (MacDonald) was my dear friend by then and although he had already been through the first of his open heart surgeries, I could not cut him out of doing my record. Steve was so cool about it. I mean, Steve was immediately the best drummer in town when he came on the scene, but I stuck with Donald. It was the right choice. And similarly, it might have hurt Warren Bernhardt‘s feelings a little, I decided to use Mainieri as my piano player. Because Mike does not play piano, he has to play very simply and that was best. So it was myself, Mike, Donald, Tony and Hugh McCracken on the basic tracks.
We recorded at the Record Plant with Jay Messina as engineer. He was Jack Douglas‘s engineer and had been White Elephant‘s main man at the console even before I got there. On a side note, it was through Jay that we got to rehearse White Elephant in the big room at A&R Studios.
With respect to myself and the others, I for one did not know how to make records. I learned a great deal from Mike as we charted songs. We needed charts. These were not normal blues songs. When we handed out the music and started finding our way, it was not quite working. Great players, great engineer, great studio, but nothing was happening. I remember Mike taking me aside one day and asking how I felt. I said, fine. He said, yeah, good, but if the singer ain’t singing, nothing much is going to happen. During the recording of ‘Take Your Time,’ I finally got it. I had better start putting out and putting out fast. People were getting bored. So on the next take, I hammered it. Perhaps a little too much, but I noticed that the band came alive. Ever since then and to this day, when I take the mic, especially with one of my songs, I know it’s my party and I give the guests all I’ve got.
If I had been compiling a best of list back then, Soulful Crooner would have topped it. There is something in the way the album was recorded which placed it in a category of its own. Back then, I was hardly a jazz enthusiast, preferring just about anything else, but somehow those minor chords reached inside and turned me inside out. From that point on, I talked Nick Holmes with anyone who would listen, and let me tell you that I found very few. The cool thing was that when I did find someone, they became friend for life, for it was lonely navigating life without reinforcement for the important things. It’s like being in Oregon and having a hankering for Ballreich‘s potato chips. When you find someone you can suffer with, it forms a bond.
I lived with those two albums for decades before I happened upon another person who appreciated Holmes as much as did I. I had written a piece about Holmes and posted in on the Net and waited. Months later, I received an email from the aforementioned Brian Cullman (the comment re: ‘jazz widows’ at the start of this monologue?). Email me, it said, so I did. Thus began a long running series of back and forths which told me not only more than I had ever known about Holmes but actually put him in touch with me. Frank, meet Nick. Nick, meet Frank. That was one of the most important introductions I have ever been given.
The monologue now a dialogue, Cullman and I began sharing information about all sorts of music and a number of musicians of real worth— Ollabelle, Byron Isaacs, Glenn Patscha, Barry Reynolds— musicians I had minimal knowledge of at best. A whole new world opened up. But we never stopped talking about Holmes.
Holmes pitched in himself with news that he had not been idle during those decades, that he had released two albums— The King of 26th Street in 2000 and Low Ball in 2007. As if to prove it, copies arrived in my mailbox not long thereafter. They aren’t all that great, he implied when he sent them. Maybe they both weren’t Soulful Crooners but they were good. Damn good, in fact. The first song I became attached to was much lighter than anything from Crooner. Stranded in Chelsea is a study in the meeting of humor and drama, lyrics slapped together as much for the lightness of mood as anything. It’s about a girl and I think I’m in love. “The first time I met her/she was out with some beautiful boy/I’m not sure which one was prettier/It wouldn’t matter to me.”
Whereas Crooner felt like a whole work, 26th Street is more of a collection of songs which stand on their own, good songs all. Some are as good as he has written.
Evidently it took him another seven years to put together and release Low Ball, another album with gems peppered throughout.
I really don’t know how I had missed those two except that I think all of the search engines hate me. I type Nick Holmes and they try to sell me Nickles Homes or some such bastardization. Damn autocorrect.
Holmes contacted me not long after I received those two albums that he was thinking of getting back together with Mainieri for a new album. I couldn’t get back to him fast enough to let him know I thought that was a capital idea.
In 2012, Holmes entered the studio with old friends Jay Messina at the knobs and Michael Mainieri producing and on vibes, Tony Levin on bass and Steve Gadd on drums (with Michael Bacon on cello, Sid McGinnis on guitar, Pete Levin on keys and Dave Mann on sax) and came out with Sonar. There was talk of promotion and we threatened to send ideas back and forth but it never materialized. The music is there, but if there is one blemish on the psyche of Mr. Holmes it is that if he is not ready, he does not do. I understand it. I have a hard time writing if the words have to be squeezed through a toothpaste tube. Holmes must have tubes at every corner.
The sad part of that is that the music is there, waiting to be discovered. It is not going away any time soon, either.
One thing about knowing people like Holmes is that you occasionally get inside information and occasionally access to unreleased tracks. Not long after the release of Sonar, during one of the Brian Cullman dialogues, Cullman let drop that Holmes had allowed him access to an early acoustic version of Blind Blind Blind that he thought I would appreciate. I dig what I assume is a more upbeat album version largely because of the guitar, but now have that curiosity.
Ah, but to get to the point. What brought all of this up is that I received a package from Mr. Holmes just this past week which contained three CDs— Sonar, a brand new album titled Hurricane Alley, and an album he recorded with friends under the moniker Seaweed titled The Next One. No notice they were coming, no hoopla. They just appeared. Sonar, of course, I already knew. I am presently absorbing the other two. The Seaweed project is not just Holmes but a collective of friends and is what I would label island music, though I have not heard it enough to really be sure. Hurricane Alley is definitely Holmes. I plan on some road trips with those two at the top of a stack of need-to-listen CDs. I do my best listening in the car. More on the results later.
Just so you know, all of the Nick Holmes albums written about here are available at cdBaby (click here), except the Seaweed and Hurricane Alley albums, which shall be released soon. The White Elephant album is available from Amazon (click here).
Notes….. Glitterbeat Records is opening up a whole world of international artists to us and more people should be watching and listening. Here is the latest in a long string of excellent albums coming out via the label, a band calling itself the Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra. Worth it for the layers of percussion alone.
Hymn For Her just posted a video of the first track from their new album Drive ‘Til U Die, scheduled for release on August 12th. They reach back to the fifties for their roots and do it right nicely. If you like this, they have a few other outstanding albums you should check out.
A handful of years ago I wrote a review of Carsie Blanton‘s album Buoyed By Love, a very positive one I might add, and started a short conversation with her, to wit, what do you have to do to get people to listen to your music. Sounds boring, I know, but it is a question almost every musician asks. I can’t remember exactly what we said but it was something like you have to have persistence and work your ass off and I can attest to the fact that she has done just that. I don’t know if she was already immersed in art and music scenes in Philadelphia, which she calls home, but she certainly is now. Now when people ask that question, I just point to Blanton. She has scrapped for everything she has received and that alone is worth the price if admission anywhere in the arts world. This is the first video of three to help promote her next album.
First time I heard Johnny Clegg, he was fronting a band called Juluka. I had heard African rock before but never like what they did. Clegg somehow fell off my radar over the years but he is now back. New album and all. Here is the first song released from that album.
My God, has it been this long since I first hear Carl Anderson‘s Wolftown? Five years? And it still sounds as fresh as it did back then. I pull this album out whenever I really want to lay back and listen. A beautiful piece of work.
I never thought of Austin as the center of psychedelia but Dirt Road to Psychedelia makes an argument hard to dismiss. I perked up when one of the first people talking about the old days was Powell St. John, who junked San Francisco and went back to Texas rather than struggle with the Hippie music scene and the incumbent negatives. Very interesting documentary with excellent interviews well worth checking out. After all, THEY were there!!!
Frank’s column appears every Tuesday
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“Frank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at one time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.”