The New Ballad of Hollis Brown

A few years back I lived in an apartment complex next to a couple of friends. We all went to a weekly bar trivia night once a week and took turns being designated driver. I never minded driving because if there’s one thing in this world that I love it’s forcing people to listen to the music I love. This particular night I had my Hollis Brown mix on. They were definitely not in my passengers musical wheelhouse. One of them described them as ‘That John Mellencamp stuff.’ I replied that it was closer to the Allman Brothers, which got a couple of blank looks, which made me sad. I did not convert anyone to the Hollis Brown cause that night. It was dark on the way home after trivia, but I could somehow sense the eye rolls when I described the guitar in the song ‘John Wayne’ as incendiary.

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Good Old Duke

Here’s the thing though, the guitar in ‘John Wayne’ is absolutely incendiary. It starts out slow and sinister with lead singer and guitarist Mike Montali strumming his pretty cherry red D’Angelico Hollowbody Bigsby B-30 guitar (it took me forty minutes of googling to figure out what he was playing in pictures, so you got the whole name there). He strums and sings about John Wayne and Pakistan, intermingled with a few ‘oooh oooh oooh’s’ and a bit of whistling. At 2:39 there is a drum roll and then some good old fashioned rock and roll happens. Jonathan Bonilla brings his guitar to bear along with the drums and bass and things get fiery. Montali’s hymn like vocals explode into a barely controlled yell. The pace picks up and they let loose. It slows back down at the 5:05 mark sounding like an outro, but nope, they turn things back up to eleven at 5:48, and then just roll with it, not slowing down until the last gasp at around 7:13. If the Band played it at the Winterland Ballroom during their Last Waltz or the Allman Brothers played it at the Fillmore East, it would fit right in. In fact, if I had to compare it to any other song off the top of my head it would be ‘Chest Fever’. That same slow burn followed by the kind of guitar work that makes the hair on your arms stand up and your body shiver as the ghosts of rock gods pass through you.

It’s good stuff is what I’m saying.

I have been lucky enough to hear them play it live just once as a full band. I had tickets to see Jesse Malin play his second Christmas show in as many years at Johnny Brenda’s in the Fishtown part of Philadelphia. It’s a weird kind of venue with a downstairs restaurant and upstairs concert hall. You walk up a thin staircase, walk through a small anteroom with a bar into the stage area. It’s a small stage that’s in the corner of an L-shaped room. There’s a balcony, and a pretty great sound system. There’s also only street parking, so it’ll never be on my list of favorite venues, but so it goes.

Malin was playing with two other acts associated with the Velvet Elk label, Diane and the Gentle Men, and Hollis Brown. I was excited to see Diane and the Gentle Men. I had picked up their single ‘Motorcycle’ and really liked it. I didn’t know Hollis Brown at the time so I looked them up on Youtube a few weeks before the show. If you’ve read my previous posts I’ve talked about ‘The Begats’, basically how certain bands or artists lead you to new bands. In this case Jesse Malin begat Hollis Brown for me.

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Waiting for the Train

The first song I listened to from them was ‘Ride on the Train’ from their 2013 album of the same name. It’s a wonderful song, and probably still my favorite of all of their music. It’s a road song at heart. The kind of song you put on in your car just as you’re getting on the highway and hitting the gas. I picked that up, but probably because it was early December and I was broke from buying gifts, I stopped there.

I headed up to the show that day excited to see all three bands. I really enjoyed Diane Gentile playing first, and then Hollis Brown came out.  I have since read that their albums don’t really do their live performances justice, and that is the absolute god’s honest truth. I wasn’t remotely prepared for their set. They opened with ‘Ride on the Train’ so I was thrilled right from go. I have to admit I don’t remember the next two or three songs they played. I only had the one album at the time and frankly I was mesmerized.

Hollis Brown have the kind of stage presence and gravity that completely sucks you into their orbit once they get going. They are electrifying. They only played a couple of songs since they were opening, but they put everything into them. It was the kind of rock and roll where you have to remind yourself to breathe when you’re listening to it, it’s so absorbing.

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Full band at Johnny Brendas

They closed with ‘John Wayne’. It was the first time I had ever heard the song and it was like getting worked over by a rock and roll boxer. I was legitimately surprised my clothes didn’t catch fire during the performance. There’s a line in the song, “I’ve been waiting all my life to see you again” and that was how I felt at that moment. One of the worst parts of being a music nerd in 2018 is knowing I’ll never get to experience acts like Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers, The Band, or the Velvet Underground. When Hollis Brown played ‘John Wayne’ that night, it felt like for about seven minutes I knew what it was like to see those bands at the peak of their powers. I know that’s a lot of hyperbole, but what is rock and roll after all but hyperbole set to guitars and drums?

I saw a portion of the band again last year. I went to Joe Strummer tribute show at the Stone Pony in New Jersey last year. Jesse Malin put it together and functioned as the house band bringing up different singers to do Clash and Joe Strummer covers. Mike Montali and Jonathan Bonilla joined Jesse and band on stage to tear up Brand New Cadillac. That whole show was amazing, possibly my favorite all time concert, and Hollis Brown was one of the highlights.

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StrummerJam 2017

Despite their live performances blowing away their album work, their albums are still dynamite. After ‘Ride on the Train’ they released a re-imagined version of The Velvet Underground’s album ‘Loaded’ called ‘Hollis Brown Gets Loaded’. According to their Wikipedia page, they played the album in its entirety at a tribute concert and decided to make an album of it. It’s probably sacrilege but overall I like it more than the original, if only because their version of ‘Oh Sweet Nothing’, with their Americana-meets-New York City sound somehow sounds more right for the song. There’s a kind of sweaty southern night vibe to their version that makes the song sexy instead of mournful like the original. It just works so well that I have a hard time listening to the Velvet’s version now. I understand that that’s heretical, but call me Martin Luther I guess.

Their next album was ‘3 Shots’. It’s a blast of rock and roll that is filled with gems from top to bottom. It’s the album that contains ‘John Wayne’ but also ‘Rain Dance’ and ‘Wait for Me Virginia’ which are my other favorites from them.

Their whole catalogue is worth the investment. I mentioned that ‘Ride on the Train’ was a quintessential road song, but really almost all their songs are. I love nothing more than getting in the car, turning the music up loud and just going. Their albums all work for that. I do a lot of driving and ever since I first discovered them, they have traveled with me. Their songs fill mixes on my ipod alongside bands like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Zeppelin, The Band, Blitzen Trapper, Son Volt, and dozens more that are meant to be played on the open road.

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The Wide Open Road

Those are my favorite kinds of songs.

In late 2016 via Velvet Elk they released a vinyl single for ‘Run Right To You’. It’s a great song, but the B-Side was truly special for me. It’s a live cover of Jesse Malin’s song ‘She Don’t Love Me Now’ from a performance in Italy I’m guessing. The original version is an upbeat dance song. Montali and Company turn it into almost a companion piece for the Allman Brothers trio of great road songs, ‘Ramblin Man’, ‘Blue Sky’, and ‘Jessica’. The clean guitar sound, the melancholy vocals, and most of all the pure beauty of clear skies and no traffic in front of you, with no destination in mind.

The lesson with Hollis Brown the past is always present in rock and roll, and the future is only a couple of chords away.

I wanted to write a quick coda on Velvet Elk records. They’re a small label started by Don DiLego in the Village in New York City. They’re the kind of small label you used to see all the time and don’t anymore. I wrote previously about Xtra Mile Recordings who have about half the bands I listen to right now. Well Velvet Elk has or had a lot of the other ones. In addition to Hollis Brown, they work with Jesse Malin, The Heavy Howl, The Dead Heavens, Bree Sharp and others. They do cool stuff that’s worth checking out. Don DiLego himself is pretty great, puts out a lot of music, and if you’re into covers, follow him on social media. He’s been doing a huge covers project that has been a lot of fun and often times brilliant. My favorite might be his Three Marlenas Cover.  Anyway, it’s good stuff.

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