So, if you’re a touring musician who’s spent decades on tour, what do you do when the world grinds to a halt, depriving you of both great joy and your primary source of income? Well, you might sulk for a spell. Then, if you’re Rick Holmstrom, you pick your guitar back up and start banging out those tunes that you wrote on the road. The guitar player’s newest album, See That Light, details some of the less glamorous aspects of a life of travel, as well as a little bit of hope for the future.
Holmstrom’s “grown-up” job is serving as bandleader for the peerless Mavis Staples, which involves arranging accompaniment to one of our greatest living singers. Having seen his band perform, I can attest to the fact that Holmstrom’s work is energetic, tasteful, and just plain fun, and his guitar playing stood out, even while on stage with Ms. Staples. In his own setting, though, Holmstrom believes in simple and strong – his band is nothing more than guitar, drums (Steve Mugalian) and bass (Gregory Boaz). Of course, this makes recording an album during a pandemic much simpler and safer, but it also lends a gritty, grimy gusto to Holmstrom’s songs. The topics are pretty straightforward, too – honesty, anger, loneliness and even a moment or two of joy. The Stones-y lead track, “Take My Hand,” asks for what enforced isolation eventually delivered – a chance to slow down for a moment: “Stop this train, conductor, let me off/I’ll take a bus.” “Look Me in the Eye,” full of good old-fashioned reverb, longs for nothing more than a genuine moment or two – “Bring me back to/The way it was before I lost my mind.”
With all of that time and introspection, though, doubt can creep in. “Losing My Sh!t” starts off with a plaintive guitar line before the band kicks in, and Holmstrom reflects a frustrated man’s lonely nadir – “I see no room between some and none/Since how lately I’ve come undone.” And “I’m An A$$hole” (definitely NOT the similarly titled, bragadocious Denis Leary tune) is a cowbell-led, riff-filled stomp through self-loathing – “Another bridge gleefully burned…Another page already turned.” This particular a-hole may not be proud of himself, but he’s not apologizing, either.
The most fun on See That Light comes in “Got to Go,” a syncopated Southern rocker which begins with an aborted proposal at a La Quinta and ends up in a tryst with the motel’s clerk – “I don’t believe in much these days/But I believe that she and I got to go.” Apparently, all of life’s troubles can be cured, or at least forgotten, with a night in Fresno. If that’s not in your immediate future, though, might I suggest the lesson in the record’s final track, “Joyful Eye.” Here, Holmstrom is peppered with innocent questions – “See that light?/What’s its name and how do you know?” – from a young girl and finds himself looking at the night sky with fresh eyes. Accompanied with the best guitar licks on the record, this new perspective gives us a child-like break from all of our adult-world chaos.
Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “I’m An A$$hole” – it may not be the Denis Leary song, but I still want to sing along.
See That Light was produced by Rick Holmstrom and Steve Mugalian, recorded by Kevin Jarvis, mixed by Rob Schnapf and mastered by Mark Chalecki. All songs were written by Holmstrom and arranged by Holmstrom, Mugalian and Gregory Boaz.
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