Blues Guitarist/Mavis Staples Bandleader Rick Holmstrom Steps Forth Solo On ‘See That Light’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Solo albums from singer-songwriter and distinctive blues guitarist Rick Holmstrom have stretched out over three decades and three labels often spaced years apart. After at least two solo albums in the 2007-2012 period with M.C. Records, Holmstrom now returns with his first self-released album on his own label, LuEllie Records, See the Light.  The label takes its name from his two daughters.  Holmstrom has, of course, been more than sufficiently busy for 13 years as bandleader for Mavis Staples. Sidelined from touring in a year that held much promise (tours with Patty Griffin, Norah Jones, and Chris Stapleton to name some), Holmstrom was at first disconsolate but eventually found some solace by turning to his guitar that he plays with that signature Pops Staples tremolo, and in many places with an unleashed rock and roll approach. 

He turned to his regular bandmates Steve Mugalian (drums) (Lucinda Williams, Harry Dean Stanton, Chuck Prophet) and Gregory Boaz (bass) (Dave Alvin, Mick Taylor, John Mayall) for this tight trio recording. It’s convenient as all three live in southern California and they recorded at Kevin Jarvis’ Sonic Boom Room in Venice.  Holmstrom doesn’t mince any words with his song titles, some that you’re not likely to see had he recorded with a recognized label. Consider “Losing My Shit” and “I’m An Asshole” as the prime examples. Many of the songs were written while on tour, just waiting for a chance to be recorded while a few others were inspired by spending time at home like we all have for the past several months, in his case, reconnecting with his family.

Already some singles have released such as the upbeat syncopated opener “Take My Hand.” Holmstrom confesses to be uncharacteristically depressed during the lock-down but one wouldn’t guess it from this opening salvo. In fact, the album is essentially about one trying to come to grips with the current state. He explains, “The main thread, as I see it, is in the songs, or the stories. We’ve got a person here who’s struggling; who’s afraid to wake up to the truth, afraid they’re losing their shit; can’t find work; looking for love under a freeway overpass in San Bernardino; trying to convince a fair-haired hotel clerk to see the bright lights of Fresno; while anxiously trying to navigate an existential dystopian crisis; feeling like a loser; and an asshole; that the world is passing them by; and that they might be better off calling it quits. But in the end, a four-year-old points her finger up at the night sky and asks: ‘See that light? What its name and how do you know?’ It’s the child’s joyful eye that restores this guy’s hope.”

The chorus to “Losing My Shit” when he exclaims “Here I am” reminds of Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” and evokes a similar bleakness, further punctuated by his careening, echoing guitar lines. Most of the music belies the subject matter, however.  “Got to Go” is a heavy blues stomper while “Don’t Wake Me” takes a snappy retro groove and, ironically carries a joyous vibe considering that the protagonist is begging his lover for forgiveness. “Lonesome Sound” (‘like a cold rain falling on an old tin roof”) is also a single with a throwback, pop-oriented sound accented by his sharp guitar solo.  

The second half kicks off with the shuffle “I’d Rather Be a Loser,” a taste of vintage rock n’ roll. “I’m An Asshole” appropriately brings the album’s rawest sound while “Come Along” opens and closes with a sweet inviting soul and with vivacious rock sandwiched in between. “Keep It Hid” is down-home blues with its resounding chorus of “That Ain’t Right” breaking through infectious tremolo guitar that yields to a piercing solo, the most indicative of his signature guitar sound of any cut on the album. “Waiting Too Long” is a Chuck Berry-like rocker and the closer, referenced at the end of his quote above, “Joyful Eye,” is the closest we get to his gospel-like backing for Mavis. Yet, it too, carries a retro upbeat vibe, serving as a bookend to the opener. 

This, more than Holmstrom’s previous solo efforts, represents Holmstrom the songwriter with the lasting takeaways being the broadening of his blues palette to early R&B and pop. Yet, like any Holmstrom effort, his guitar work is first-rate and usually steals the show. 

Photo by Greg Vorobiov

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