Rock, Roll & Soul

Rock, Roll & Soul

Rick Holmstrom's dynamic trio rocks Cafe 322 Friday before hitting the road again with Mavis Staples

By Bliss Bowen 02/23/2012

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Last year, gospel/soul icon and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Mavis Staples won her first Grammy for the Jeff Tweedy-produced “You Are Not Alone.” But for all the justifiable kudos Tweedy’s received for his impact on her career, the most powerful weapon in Staples’ musical arsenal for the past five years has been her backing band, the core of which is guitarist Rick Holmstrom’s trio. Holmstrom, drummer Stephen Hodges and bassist Jeff Turmes have played together in various configurations around the LA blues/roots scene for the better part of 20 years.


Listen to Staples’ older albums alongside “You Are Not Alone” and 2008’s Grammy-nominated “Live: Hope at the Hideout,” on which the trio also performed — it’s clear they’ve toughened up her music. Grooves are deeper, the playing funkier and tastier; the music’s pushed and pulled in more dynamic, rhythmically interesting directions. Holmstrom’s Telecaster tone and watery tremolo sound evoke Staples’ influential father, Pops Staples. 


They used to play in an eclectic lineup called Brohondo that “tried to make this ambient type of soundscape stuff,” Holmstrom says. “That’s where I started using the trio more. … It’s this natural thing, super nimble. We don’t play where everybody else plays; we just leave that hole open, and the music has more weight because of it.”


Playing with Staples has affected his own music — and not just via calls he gets from blues singers asking for his widely respected combo’s backup.


“If we’re playing somewhere like the Boston Symphony Hall,” he explains, “we have to play kind of quiet compared to a club. Play little amps and play quiet. So our loud is like somebody else’s soft or medium. It just became honed with Mavis.”


Holmstrom will play with his trio Friday at Café 322 in Sierra Madre and with instrumental ensemble the Gimme 5’s Sunday at the York in Highland Park. At Café 322, expect to hear material from two new albums he’s almost finished recording.


“I think Jeff [Turmes] and I have been writing better and better songs over the past five, six years,” he says. “Then all of a sudden you’re thrown in the studio with somebody like Jeff Tweedy, and he walks in with a song like ‘You’re Not Alone,’ and Turmes and I look at each other and go, ‘Wow.’ It gives you that extra dose of reality that there are people out there writing extremely touching songs. We’ve done little runs with Neko Case and Jolie Holland, and we’re [touring] with Bonnie Raitt this summer. So we’re constantly around songwriters. In the blues world, that wasn’t so much the case; it was great players who were able to cop a certain style. But traveling with Mavis, we’re around people who are making new music right now. It’s really cool.” 


Rick Holmstrom Band plays Café 322, 322 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre, 8 to 11 p.m. Friday. No cover. Info: (626) 836-5414.


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