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  • By Alan Richard

Rick Holmstrom: SEEING THE LIGHT

Updated: Aug 1, 2021

Rick Holmstrom’s chiming, cutting, blistering guitar is like a duet partner on many of Mavis Staples’ recordings over the past two decades.

Holmstrom treasures his job as Staples’ band leader and all that he’s learned from one of music’s greatest and most important voices since joining her group in 2007. But it’s been the pandemic and year off the road that’s helped the Los Angeles-based guitarist look toward brighter days.

Holmstrom’s own new rock-and-blues album, See That Light, released in March,

features the same trio that now backs Ms. Staples: Steve Mugalian on drums and Gregory Boaz on bass, both Los Angeles-based musicians who’ve played together for years.

“When the pandemic happened, I just decided to jump in the studio with them,” Holmstrom said in an interview.

Playing melodies that resemble much of his material with Ms. Staples in recent years but with sly lyrics that mix themes of regret and hope, Holmstrom sang and played his parts in a separate room in the studio, the rhythm section separated by a glass window for audio mixing purposes.

Holmstrom and the great Mavis Staples

“It was a little weird to go in the studio last spring and summer, but we just masked up and we stayed six to 10 feet apart,” he said.

When he first sent the new album to Ms. Staples for a listen, Holmstrom had to explain a few things first.

With songs called “Losing My Shit” and “I’m an Asshole,” Holmstrom reminded Ms. Staples that the characters in his songs were in a way speaking for themselves.

“Those are things Mavis wouldn’t put in her songs,” Holmstrom admitted with a little laugh.

“But when she heard the record, it cracked her up," he said. "She wrote me a text and told me how much she enjoyed it, and that she couldn’t imagine these songs as ‘I’m a jerk’” or something instead.

Rick Holmstrom's album, 'See That Light'

A music staple

Indeed, Holmstrom confides that Ms. Staples is as warm and loving and funny as she seems on stage. Working with her has been a lesson in music and freedom.

“It’s just been this dream for 14 years,” Holmstrom said. “I’ve had so many musicians tell me I have their dream gig—and they don’t even know how cool it is.”

Not only do Holmstrom and the band get to perform many American soul and gospel classics on stage with one of music’s most legendary voices, but they also spend time with Ms. Staples, who just like her presence on stage, is dedicated, wise and funny, he said.

“She’s an extra grandparent to my kids and any kids in her orbit, and then she’ll say the funniest things on stage,” he said.

“She never tells me (to do) anything musically. She just leaves it up to me,” Holmstrom said. “It’s just whatever you feel, Rick,” she tells him.

“And so, I get to be myself.”

Playing blues, rock, soul and gospel was the last thing on Holmstrom’s mind growing up in Fairbanks, Alaska.

He came to Southern California to play small-college basketball, majoring in business with a political science minor. He’d sneak into clubs with a fake I.D. to see different bands play in L.A.

“Then some friends of mine had a band, and every time I’d pick up the guitars and they’d be like, ‘Dude, you can play!’” Holmstrom said.

His senior year at the University of the Redlands, Holmstrom and his friend Tom Nevins joined the group. “I spent $125 on a guitar, and my future wife and my friends were just laughing at me.”

“The first gig, we played in a house just for beer and I had so much fun,” Holmstrom said. “It was the same feeling you get when you’re a basketball player and it’s a packed gym on a Saturday night.”

Two years later, he joined Alligator Records blues harmonica player William Clarke’s band. The group once backed legendary Chicago bluesman Jimmy Rogers.

“I was about 23 years old. I was so green, I was the worst guy in the band,” he said. “Every day I was just practicing from the moment I woke up… just trying to hang on to my gig.”

Connecting with a legend

Holmstrom played with Clarke’s group for three years until the musician’s untimely death, then with blues harmonica legend Johnny Dyer and Rod Piazza, before connecting with Ms. Staples.

“I only knew the Staple Singers of ‘Respect Yourself’ and ‘I’ll Take You There,” he said, recalling the group’s 1970s R&B smashes on Stax Records, most of which were recorded in Muscle Shoals rather than Memphis.

A friend commented that Holmstrom’s guitar playing “sounded a little bit like Pops Staples—and I didn’t know what he was talking about. I was about 30 years old then.”

A friend made him a cassette tape—yes, it was that long ago, Holmstrom says—of classic Staples’ family tracks from the 1950s and 1960s, including their seminal recordings for their native Chicago’s VeeJay Records, which often featured no percussion—just Pops’ blues-shrouded singing and guitar and his children’s harmonies.

The striking gospel numbers had a dark, mystic al edge to them that made young musicians like Bob Dylan stop in his tracks back then.

It did the same for Holmstrom.

“That became the thing I would listen to driving home after gigs at two or 3 in the morning—‘Uncloudy Day’ and that kind of stuff,” he said.

Then in 2005 and 2006, her manager began speaking with Holmstrom about backing her on gigs. Ms. Staples, who’d recorded solo albums sporadically since 1969, working with Prince, Curtis Mayfield and Ry Cooder, the latter producing Ms. Staples’ excellent 2007 album of blues songs and civil rights anthems, We’ll Never Turn Back.

After a year or so with Ms. Staples, Holmstrom and the wonderful combo of drummer Stephen Hodges and bassist Jeff Turmes were backing her for what became her 2007 live album at the Hideout, a cozy club inside a little house on Chicago’s Northside. Among those in the audience: Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.

“I met Jeff at the Hideout when we recorded the Live: Hope at the Hideout record, in the dressing room,” Holmstrom said. “We had a pretty good night. It was a spirited place.

“Later, I heard that Jeff drove home that night and called his manager and said, ‘I want to work with Mavis and I want to use her band,’” he said.

The result was 2010’s You Are Not Alone, one of the best albums of the past decade in any genre. Staples sounds more assured and soulful than she had in decades, soaring on remakes of early Staples Singers songs such as “Don’t Knock” and “Downward Road.” On the latter, Holmstrom’s guitar gets swampy as Ms. Staples beckons listeners to follow a difficult, rewarding path.

On the rest of the album, Ms. Staples also covers perfectly selected songs by the Rev. Gary Davis, John Fogerty and Allen Toussaint. I especially love the cover of Little Milton’s “We’re Gonna Make It,” a duet with longtime singing partner and unheralded R&B legend Donny Gerrard.

Among those stunners is the title track on You Are Not Alone, Tweedy’s ballad written for Staples, with a beautiful, folksy melody and remarkable lyric that sounds like the kind of prayer she’d offer for a neighbor, a friend, for a kid across town—for the whole world.

Tweedy was smart to use Ms. Staples’ band on the record, Holmstrom said. “I think it gave Mavis a level of comfort, knowing she was recording with the same people she traveled with and was playing with on stage.”

If it had been Tweedy’s regular bandmates, “it would have been a fantastic record, too, but it would have sounded like Wilco with Mavis Staples,” Holmstrom said.

Music with Mavis

Holmstrom and Ms. Staples’ regular band only played on portions of her more uneven follow-up, One True Vine, which still has many wonderful moments. Ms. Staples duets with Gerard on Sly Stone’s “I Like the Things About Me,” originally covered by the Staples Singers.

There’s also a cool take on George Clinton’s “Can You Get to That” and Ms. Staples’ beautiful rendition of Washington Phillips’ otherworldly 1920s gospel-blues, “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today.”

Holmstrom and Ms. Staples' regular band contributed to about half the songs on the Jeff Tweedy-produced If All I Was Was Black from 2017 and virtually all of the Ben Harper-produced and written We Get By from 2019.

Ms. Staples' work with her regular group is some of her very best work, especially when backed by singers like Gerrard, and over the years with Mavis’ sister Yvonne from the Staple Singers, Chavonne Stewart, and previously featured Vicki Randle of Branford Marsalis’ Tonight Show band.

Holmstrom and bandmates are front-and-center on another of Ms. Staples’ most inspired sets, 2016’s Livin’ on a High Note, on which an array of left-of-center songwriters providing tunes for Staples—Valerie June, Benjamin Booker, Neko Case, Ben Harper, Jon Batiste and others—brought together by producer and songwriter M. Ward, best known from the group She & Him.

“We played on that whole record,” said Holmstrom, remembering he had to help Ms. Staples learn songs for High Note while on the road for dates with Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan.

“Matt Ward, he’s so chill, he just basically would let us record and record and record and hash things out,” Holmstrom said. “The fact that he let us kind of hash it out meant it made the songs sound like us.”

Harper’s “Love and Trust” and Benjamin Booker’s “Take Us Back” are now concert staples, as the backing singers plead, “Mavis, take us back. Mavis, take us back.”

The uplifting title track by cosmic-blues Memphis singer Valerie June, who says some of her lyrics and melodies come to her in dreams.

Holmstrom and the band also backed Ms. Staples on her excellent 2018 album, Live in London, on concert versions of many of her best solo songs, including her classic, super-groovy version of David Byrne and Talking Heads' “Slippery People.”

On that poignant track, Holmstrom's short, searing guitar solos fit snug against Ms. Staples' and Donny Gerrard's funky vocals.

“That's the way it is and the way it's always been,” Ms. Staples sings on another of the live album's protest anthems. “Who told you that?”

Longtime bandmates bassist Jeff Turmes and drummer Stephen Hodges amicably departed the group in early 2020, so Holmstrom brought in his L.A. friends Mugalian on drums, who’d already filled in with the group a few times, and bass player Boaz who’d played with Mugalian for years.

The rhythm section is now complimented by singers Gerrard and Saundra Williams (half of the Daptone duo Saun & Starr who also backed the late Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings).

Learning from each other

Before the pandemic sent Ms. Staples home to Chicago, the events of 2019 and protests against police violence had weighed heavy on the band’s minds.

On the road, Ms. Staples often has the news on in her hotel room and follows current events carefully.

As bandleader, Holmstrom usually makes up the set list for Ms. Staples’ shows and can adjust when necessary.

The police killings of George Floyd and others weighed heavily on the iconic singer whose performed at events alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Sometimes, Holmstrom will ask if she’d like to sing “Why Am I Treated So Bad?” or maybe the spiritual “Wade in the Water” at that night’s show.

Mavis Staples, at right, performs in Nashville, with Holmstrom on guitar, joined by her band and guests.

“I’ve learned so much, because just being around Mavis and Donny, and Yvonne Staples when she was with us for so many years,” Holmstrom said.

“We step onstage and it’s a good feeling, making music together, living on a bus together, traveling on planes together, learning from each other,” he said.

Holmstrom and Ms. Staples played as a duo at a 50th-anniversary celebration of the Civil Rights Act at the LBJ Presidential Library at the University of Texas in Austin and have played before speakers such as President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama.

“It was a quite a feeling backstage with Rep. John Lewis, Julian Bond, Andrew Young, Bernice King and Mavis, and they made me feel like I belonged.”

Through Ms. Staples, he even met Congressman Lewis. “She said, ‘I want to introduce you to Rick, and I know that he’s read your book.’”

“If that’s not a learning experience, I don’t know what it is,” Holmstrom said.

Solace in music

Holmstrom’s own new record leads off with “Take My Hand,” his guitar playing a blues streak that’s immediately recognizable. The song would sound at home on a Mavis Staples album.

It’s followed by surf-rock-meets-jump blues of “Look Me in the Eye.” Those first two songs are about love but borrow words and phrases that also fit songs about freedom and justice.

“Don’t Wake Me” has that signature Holmstrom-style riff heard on many of Mavis’ records—another love song that seems to borrow words and phrases that also seem to fit songs about social justice.

“Lonesome Sound” has a great blues melody about feeling “like a tumblin’ weed” who’s “lost it all and trying to find my way back home.”

Then there’s the aforementioned “Losing My Shit,” a slower turn that resonates as a pandemic blues.

Holmstrom in fact worked on the songs for his new album for years, although many seem to speak to the paranoia and gloom of the past two years.

“When I was first playing this stuff for my wife,” Holmstrom recalled, he remembered her saying that “this really does feel like you just wrote it yesterday.”

The guitarist often begins songs by jotting down a lyric or melody that comes to him while he’s traveling, in an airplane or hotel room. “Some people are really good at getting up and saying, ‘At 8:30 this morning, I’m gonna write a song.’ I’m not that.”

“If I’m not on the road with Mavis, I’ve just got a Telecaster with me,” which is loud enough even without an amplifier to work on a melody while he’s in a hotel room.

“You can hear enough just to get the idea of what you’re going for,” he said.

Holmstrom’s trio worked out the songs at a regular gig at a small, dark bar called the Liquid Kitty, owned by a former punk-rock drummer in the band Lawndale, setting up in the corner.

“We would basically play in there on Sunday nights whenever we were home,” he said. “It was this great workshop for trying new ideas out and polishing things.”

Holmstrom, at right, with his bandmates

One night, he was loading up for one of those shows when his daughter, who’s now 14 but was smaller then, asked him about a light in the sky—maybe a star, a distant planet or even a plane from nearby LAX.

“And then driving to the gig, I started thinking this melody and this chorus came out,” he said. “Somewhere in the course of that night, I started playing this really simple C and A-minor progression.”

“At the very end of the night, I sang what I had of that. I probably had a little vodka in me at that point,” he said. “That was one that almost didn’t make it. I thought, nah, it’s only two chords. It didn’t feel finished.”

The rest of the band liked it, and it became the album’s closing track, “Joyful Eye.”

“It seemed like there was so much darkness and sad, dreary characters,” on the album, he said. “Joyful Eye” and the upbeat rocker “Waiting too Long” added some hope. (Listen to more of the album here.)

Holmstrom counts his blessings even during a pandemic that’s hit Southern California hard. His family is healthy and lives in Venice Beach.

He hopes to be back on the road with Ms. Staples and friends later this year. At least for now, the group is set to play July 17 at Wrigley Field in Chicago with Chris Stapleton with The Highwomen (led by Brandi Carlile) and The Dirty Knobs, led by Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Holmstrom’s also been working on an instrumental record for his own label, marking 25 years since his first solo album, 1996’s Lookout! (Be sure to check out Holmstrom’s 2014 album Cruel Sunrise, featuring Ms. Staples, and his other records.)

He wants that next album to be pure fun.

“If you reach for The Meters or the M.G.’s… That’s what I’m aiming for,” he said. “That’s the plan, that’s the hope.”

(In this NPR Tiny Desk Concert, Mavis Staples and Rick Holmstrom perform songs from her album, You Are Not Alone.)

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