It takes a strong man to stand onstage with Mavis Staples. You gotta be able to carry the weight of her reputation and back catalog as well as stand up to the pressure of being showered with her distinctive, magnificent voice, supporting but not being overwhelmed by it. Guitarist Rick Holmstrom has had that pleasure and responsibility for over a decade as Staples’ guitarist and bandleader.
Holmstrom started with Alligator soulman William Clarke back in the late ’80s, later joining up with Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers. In 2005, Holmstrom got the call to do a short set with Staples for the BMAs, then was hired to open for her at the summer festival on Santa Monica Pier, ending up backing her when her band showed up late. Ry Cooder was producing a record with Staples at the time and liked what he heard, suggesting that Holmstrom back her full-time.
See That Light is a product of Holmstrom’s frustration at being forced off the road due to the pandemic. Trying to work out his bottled-up resentment and depression, reflected in songs like “Don’t Wake Me,” “I’m an Asshole,” and “Losing My Shit,” Holmstrom eventually got a hand up out of his predicament when his 4-year-old daughter looked up at the starry night sky and asked her dad, “What’s that light, and how do you know?”
“Joyful Eye” is the result of that conversation, a ray of hope in these dark times.
Holmstrom gets a lift from “Take My Hand,” sounding like Pops Staples backing Slim Harpo in a swampy backwater church. “Everybody’s staring at a screen / but we can’t see what’s right in front of us,” he says of the current cell phone face-plant culture.
Playing with Mavis required Holmstrom to recreate Pops’ shimmery guitar work on the classic Staples material. Holmstrom theorizes that the reason that Pops used a tremolo for what he called “the shakes” was because it made the guitar sound more like an organ than a guitar, which the church thought was the devil’s instrument. “He would always say ‘Gimme a Fender with the shakes’ for the amplifier,” Holmstrom told me.
He uses that Staples shimmy on a lot of the material here, including the so-not-churchy “Losing My Shit,” stumbling around in a gloomy haze trying to regain some semblance of sanity and redemption.
But he drops out of the church entirely for the rockin’ honky-tonker “Got to Go,” featuring chewy, chooglin’ guitar alongside the rest of the trio he backs Mavis with: Steve Mugalian on drums and bassist Gregory Boaz, shown on the album’s inside cover masked up and cranking it out old-school style together in one room in the studio.
Holmstrom’s not looking for a confessional to unburden himself on “I’m An Asshole,” he’s proud of it.
Staples might not approve of the material, but she’ll surely be moved by the spirit it’s offered in, able to help Holmstrom see that light and focus it on those who need it the most.