Rick Holmstrom Cruel Sunrise (M.C. Records)
Even when he was the hot new guitar slinger on the scene in the nineties and known by the hip moniker “L.A. Holmes,” Rick Holmstrom had a way different mojo going on. The blues were obviously the bedrock of his musical foundation as displayed in the bands of William Clarke, Johnny Dyer and Rod Piazza. However, hiding beneath his cool exterior and snarky, swinging guitar was an outlier sensibility. Starting in 1996 with his first solo release, the all instrumental Lookout! (Black Top) and then with the appropriately titled Gonna’ Get Wild (Tone Cool, 2000), Holmstrom began giving tantalizing hints of his devilishly devious musical personality, fully sprung on an unsuspecting public in 2002 with the wildly innovative, genre-bending Hydraulic Groove (Tone Cool). A move to M.C. Records in 2007 produced Late in the Night, showcasing his playing, songwriting and singing in a bare bones trio context with Jeff Turmes (bass, slide guitar, saxophone, backing vocals) and Stephen Hodges (drums, percussion).
On Cruel Sunrise, Holmstrom takes the promise of the previous release and reaches deeper into his secret inner recesses with still vital postwar R&B, nascent rock ‘n’ roll, sixties soul and folk rock lurking beneath an existential veil. With Turmes and Hodges again providing the fat, pumping bottom on the 12 original tracks, he makes the most profound and personal musical statement of his career. “Need to Dream” uses a twangy but ominous folk rock underpinning and dynamic, dramatic stop-time to perhaps comment on the world situation with universal dreams of hope. The equally menacing title track describes a hallucinatory drive through the dark night of the mind, the funky unison guitar with the vocal hook, “I don’t wanna see the cruel sunrise, the cruel sunrise” repeating like a foreboding mantra as the taut groove is propelled by Turmes’ insistently rumbling bass line and featuring the pure, big bore vintage tone and expressive, slinky soloing for which Holmstrom is justly admired. “Owe You Everything,” with its tremoloed and reverbed guitar, comes straight out of the bayous where R&B and rock ‘n’ roll gestated. Legendary soul and gospel singer Mavis Staples, with whom Holmstrom has been recording and touring, sings lead with her customary power and gravitas on the profane, rhythmically sensuous track, bringing out the best qualities in the guitarist.
The melancholy, early sixties style West Coast folk ballad “You Drive ‘em Crazy” shimmers and sparkles as Holmstrom lays bare his vulnerability. Containing one of his most heartfelt vocals, it provides hard evidence of the way they are evolving to match his superior instrumental chops. “It’s Time I Lose” weaves a hypnotic spell with another reference to dreams and a memorable chorus built on a tension-inducing ascending line under the pleading, alliterative lyric, “It’s time I lose this lonely living” while two barbed guitar solos crackle and cry out for release. Heavy southern funk driven forward by Hodges’ churning analog drums allow Holmstrom to stretch his vocal chops and guitar strings in a swirl of syncopation on “Creepin’ In.” As he declares, “I’ve been down now, that won’t last too long…now I won’t worry… I feel somethin creepin’ in,” his voice rises precipitously in ambiguous anticipation, followed by guitar solos that give a nod to fellow Californian John Fogerty runnin’ through the backwoods bay.
“I’ll Hold You Close” sounds like a surf ballad from Neptune that Quentin Tarantino would like to use in Pulp Fiction II. Picked “mysterioso” minor key chords outline the harmony while Holmstrom paints a frightening picture with, “There’s monsters and villains for people not grown, but I’ll be your cover, when you need it most.” Mavis Staples returns for an encore on the raw gospel-meets-country blues vamp of “Lord Please.” With Holmstrom accompanying and filling via industrial strength wattage, the two musical partners plead to the higher power with, “Lord, won’t you please show me the way.”
“Break It Down”” continues the theme of addressing fears with Holmstrom plaintively asking, “Can we break it down tonight?,” his angular vocal melody pulling against the off-kilter harmony and sparse bass and drums backing as he picks quiet shards of blues notes worthy of Buddy Guy. Latin percussion brings in “I’m Not Afraid” and then exits as Holmstrom offers an unaccompanied haunting minor key guitar cadenza worthy of film noir. What follows is an outlaw’s tale with chilling lines like, “Well, it just goes to show you never know, who’s in the right, and who’s laying low, thirty-some years of doin’ what’s right, a 30-06 and a drunken fight” as the guitars howl and moan in agony.
After fearlessly facing down his demons for virtually the entire record, Holmstrom looks for help from above on “By My Side” with, “Can’t you hear me anymore, are you by my side, I don’t feel you walkin’ near me anymore, are you by my side. I got nothin’ to my name, are you by my side, things I’ve got add up to nothin’…” as a musical prayer. Ending the harrowing journey through the heart of darkness is the modal instrumental “Luellie” shared by Turmes on sweetly wistful tenor sax and Holmstrom picking evocative, tremolo-colored notes like droplets of water on a still pond, offering rest and peace in the warm light of day.
Great art often demands something from the listener in order to receive the full effect from the music. Rick Holmstrom challenges his audience to meet him half way in his quest for a transcendent experience and the reward is well worth the effort. Cruel Sunrise will leave a lasting impression in the ear, the heart and the mind, to be returned to over and over again.
2005 KBA winner in Journalism