John Dee Holeman – Heaven can Waif
Tim Duffy is backstage at one of John Dee Holeman’s concerts, showing him a copy of his new album. And he’s trying to jog the septuagenarian bluesman’s memory about the musicians who accompanied him on the record.
“Remember them?” Duffy asks, pointing at the cover. “They had kinda English-sounding accents? Band from Australia with two girls?”
“I, uh…don’t remember so well,” the taciturn Holeman says with a bemused shrug. “It was just another gig.”
But the album — John Dee Holeman & The Waifs Band, released June 26 by Duffy’s label, Music Maker — should strike most listeners as something more than just another blues record. Recorded in a single day in November 2004, the album finds an unlikely middle ground between Holeman’s lived-in deep blues and the Waifs’ Down Under folk-rock, with lots of casual virtuosity on display.
Holeman can also be forgiven for having trouble keeping track of all his collaborative projects. The Waifs album follows this year’s release of blues-rock guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s 10 Days Out: Blues From The Backroads, to which Holeman contributed “Chapel Hill Boogie”, a spry and steady rolling ode to a long-gone regional speakeasy. And still in the pipeline is an album recorded with Taj Mahal, plus an electric blues record produced by Tift Merritt drummer Zeke Hutchins.
The Holeman/Waifs project originated in the friendship between Duffy and Mat Thorn, husband of Waifs co-leader Vikki Thorn. Duffy and Thorn had previously worked together on projects for Music Maker Relief Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides assistance to elderly blues musicians struggling to make ends meet. Whether it’s paying for prescriptions or booking gigs, Duffy is there to help.
Holeman, one of Music Maker’s longtime clients, fixes lawn mowers for a living but has been playing music around the Durham area for most of his 78 years, picking and singing the Piedmont blues when and where he can. Frequently that’s at Music Maker headquarters, a pleasant log-cabin complex where the Duffy family lives and works. It’s a bucolic, tree-filled setting; much of the footage for the DVD accompanying Shepherd’s 10 Days Out album was shot there.
In the fall of 2004, the Waifs were in America with a week to kill between tours. They had visited Music Maker the year before while passing through the area on a tour with Bob Dylan. The idea of rehearsing at Music Maker and eating Denise Duffy’s cooking was a lot more appealing than another week of road food.
“They just wanted a break at a house with a toaster — a place they could hang out that wasn’t a hotel,” Duffy explains. “I had John Dee come out to visit one day, so we sat outside on the porch playing acoustic guitars for about four hours before we got the bright idea that we should go inside and record.”
“Had the moonshine,” Holeman adds — some spirits were consumed prior to the recording part of the program.
“Yeah, we didn’t even get the really good stuff on tape,” Duffy says. “Always happens.”
Nevertheless, the album is solid country-blues, with a loose and relaxed feel that puts the listener right in the room. During one of the guitar solos on Otis Spann’s “Country Gal”, a small child can be heard crying in the background (in time, no less, as the Waifs’ Vikki Thorn and Donna Simpson note on the tape).
The repertoire ranges from the old spiritual “I Am A Pilgrim” to Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie”, with straight-up blues including “Dust My Broom”, “Baby Please Don’t Go” and the old Piedmont blues standard “John Henry”. The Waifs make a surprisingly supple backup band, falling right in behind Holeman’s bluesy guitar and voice. It’s a leap, but not as much of one as you might think.
“When we first started playing music as a trio back in 1992, we had some Sonny Terry tapes and used to cover those tunes,” Thorn says by e-mail from Australia. “Which was unusual because back then everyone else was using drum machines and playing top-40 hits. And we were girls, of course. But John Dee Holeman is the source of that music. We’d never been that close to it before.”
Still, people in America who might have seen the Waifs open for Dylan won’t expect this. “It is an odd pairing,” Thorn acknowledges. “But that’s the beauty of the Music Maker Foundation. It doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are, they are all about making music.”
The Waifs won’t be playing any of these songs live, as Thorn says she doesn’t think they could do them justice. But the experience left a mark that is still lasting. “We certainly have returned to some blues feel in our new material,” Thorn notes. “Getting back to our roots — or trying to find some!”
That would be fine by Holeman, who has been passing the blues down to younger musicians for years. “If you can catch it, cool,” Holeman says. “Somebody’s got to carry it on, now that I’m getting close to having one foot in the grave.”