Jun 252024

Sometimes it is the lower key and lesser heard that most catches the ear, and Adam Holmes a prime example. If you follow the contemporary Scottish folk (and beyond) scene, you may well know Holmes already, for having one of the more soulful instruments in the country, a warm burr with a distant flavor of John Martyn. Starting off as a member of neo-trad outfit Rura, Holmes’ singing and songs were a tidy contrast to their instrumental elemental fare of fiddle, flute and pipes. With time, the mix became perhaps too schizophrenic, he needing a platform to stay on stage the whole set. This he found, forming a band, the Embers, lasting for a well-received year or three.

Since then he has been on his own, give or take a duo, with Heidi Talbot, and a brief membership of Anglo-Scots folk-rock supergroup, The Magpie Arc. A veritable one man industry, he releases his own albums and sorts out his own gigs and shows, no middlemen to sour the pitch. As such, the gap between he and his audience is thin; if you fancy him writing a song for you, or for him to play in your own home, he will; contact him, via his website.

Songs for My Father, the second of two recent releases, each dedicated to cover versions, is in his father’s memory, the songs of his childhood and his father’s record collection. (The earlier one, last year’s The Voice of Scotland, covered more the traditional songs he grew up with, together with a couple that have near earnt that same soubriquet: we included “You Are My Sunshine” from that set recently.) Holmes’ father, dying of throat cancer, made a last request his son record his favorite songs; it was a task that took Holmes ten years to work up the initiative to address.

The selection is by no means arcane or inaccessible, with the songs most even a little overexposed. They’re the sort of songs any well-respecting child of the ’50s might espouse with pride. However, seldom does Holmes let that prevent him adding something a little different, his delivery unrestrainedly his own, in the unfettered accent of central Scotland; he comes from Edinburgh’s “seaside” suburb of Portobello.

It is with Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” that Holmes opens, from the eponymous album that’s always a reassuring sign in anyone’s collection. A plaintive and plangent version, it showcases Holmes’ voice as a reassuring balm on the breeze. There are harmonies from Michael McGovern, acoustic guitar near all the backing, and some restrained bass and electric guitar lurking in the eaves.

It takes a lot to cover Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” decently, so many thinking the guitar lick is all you need. Important, yes, but Holmes sees beyond that, with the vocal pitched just a tad below expectation. Mandolin tinkles in the background, as a string bass and sparse percussion keep it all ticking over. Holmes is the provider of all the guitars, with Ciaran Ryan on the mandolin and Duncan Lyall on ever-dependable bass, he quite the go-to man for any such needs, Scotland-wide.

John Prine’s signature song “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” is one here that doesn’t quite do it for me. Some five-string banjo (Holmes again) offers some slant, but not quite enough, the song arguably too ubiquitous. It’s good, for sure, but there are few versions that aren’t. I do like Sarah Louise Boyle’s barely perceptible additional vocal, mind. However, by offering a country blues twang to “Get Up Stand Up,” complete with railroad moaning slide, Holmes redeems his account. The bass and drums are sufficiently blue in beat to remind of the origins for the song, but it works, engagingly, in this iteration. (And did I mention that Holmes also plays all the drums?)

“Sound of Silence” sadly clunks, which is a pity, as the intrusive harmony (again McGovern) drags it down. Thankfully, the arguably most well-known song here, Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” is a winner. A low-key rendition, with Boyle’s additional whisper and further subtle mandolin flourishes. But the real stars are Holmes’ diction and delivery, both utterly gorgeous.

Townes Van Zandt covers are never unwelcome; two of them, doubly so. “If I Needed You” gets a fairly straight performance, if lifted by unworldly clangs of echo and effects, that add to the yearn of the vocal, shared again with Boyle. “Pancho and Lefty” is more robust and, somehow, also frailer. The robustness is via the arrangement, while the frailty is the threadbare wistfulness of the vocal, making an already sad song sadder than ever. Possibly the highlight here. McGovern harmonizes, and this time he has just the right pipes for it.

“Blues Runs the Game” is a song I have always valued; I’ve yet to hear a version I don’t like, the sign of a strong song. Holmes gets it and does it justice, a simple and matter of fact iteration, in which he sounds entirely believable, as he sends out for the various requisite beverages. It is another standout. I’d have been tempted to end there, as the jugband cover of “End of the Line” suffers from the same thing as most Traveling Wilbury covers, namely the strength, or not, of the song. Maybe a lively number was sought to seal the package, but more melancholy would have suited this listener more.

That notwithstanding, and despite the other couple of songs being slightly off beam, I think Songs for My Father is a very well constructed set of songs. Released on Father’s Day, it smacks of the most loving tribute a son could give.

Songs for My Father tracklisting
  1. Wildflowers (Tom Petty cover)
  2. Wicked Game (Chris Isaak cover)
  3. Speed of the Sound of Loneliness (John Prine cover)
  4. Get Up Stand Up (Bob Marley cover)
  5. Sound of Silence (Simon and Garfunkel cover)
  6. Just Like a Woman (Bob Dylan cover)
  7. If I Needed You (Townes Van Zandt cover)
  8. Pancho and Lefty (Townes Van Zandt cover)
  9. Blues Run the Game (Jackson C. Frank cover)
  10. End of the Line (Traveling Wilburys cover)

Songs for My Father is available on Bandcamp.

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