Mavis Staples’ Longtime Guitarist Rick Holmstrom Shines On The Tasty And Illuminating ‘See The Light’ 

Rick Holmstrom
See That Light
(LuEllie Records)
3 1/2 out of 5 stars

It takes a special musician to earn the nickname of “Pops Jr.”, especially when the person who gave it to him is Pops Staples’ legendary daughter Mavis. She should know too, because veteran Rick Holmstrom has been her guitarist for 13 years. It won’t take long to hear why.

Holmstrom is one of the tastiest and classiest blues and soul guitarists in the business, dating back to his early days backing famed blues harpists William Clarke and Rod Piazza. His five previous solo albums attracted the attention of some blues fans, but generally didn’t achieve the acclaim they deserved. Joining Mavis’ band was the key to getting Holmstrom closer to the spotlight through being featured nightly. With that came much overdue praise for his refined, generally laid-back playing, supporting Staples on her aggressive road work.

Of course that all came to a crashing halt in March of 2020, leaving Holmstrom to fend for himself and continue a solo career he had put on the back burner since his last album, 2012’s unfairly overlooked Cruel Sunrise. In that way, we’re fortunate since it’s unlikely Holmstrom would have had either the time or inclination to record again with his packed schedule of one-nighters backing Staples. He invited his Mavis bandmates, bassist Gregory Boaz and drummer Steve Mugalian, to hit the studio, don face coverings (a picture of the masked up threesome adorns the inner sleeve) and lay down a dozen tracks in what sounds like a casual, live to tape method for the relaxed yet invigorated See That Light.

From the easy grooving of “Got to Go” to the self-deprecating rocker “I’m an Asshole” and the Jimmy Reed-styled shuffle “I’d Rather Be a Loser,” this sounds like a spontaneous session where Holmstrom and his duo run through established blues tempos with the sophistication and professionalism you’d expect from three guys that play together nightly supporting Staples. Holmstrom’s distinctive tone is particularly evident on the soulful “Come Along” where the protagonist is trying to entice a potential lover on a trip. The tune starts as a ballad then unexpectedly ramps up to a hip-swaying shuffle before returning to where it began.

Holmstrom’s light touch ignites the swampy “Keep It Hid” where he sings what might be a self-reflective lyric of I’m getting old and I’m not rich as the band digs into a dusky groove behind him. The closing “Joyful Eye” describes an evening with his young daughter whose words looking at the night sky provide the album with its title. Holmstrom hits a wonderful touching vibe, cranking the reverb on a track that defines his sound at its most restrained yet, insistent.

Rick Holmstrom didn’t plan a 2021 release, but now that it’s here, we can enjoy one of the few benefits of the current pandemic. It has allowed him the freedom to record the lovely See That Light, another delightful recording in a solo catalog far too slim for his substantial talents.  

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