Edinburgh Singer/songwriter Adam Holmes could be viewed as an ideal example of everything that’s good about acoustic / traditional music in Scotland. Here we have a performer who’s learned his craft by being part of the scene from an early age, built on those skills through gigging, recording and working with different artists, and is now ready to bring that experience together, with practical support from his peers and financial support through funding from Creative Scotland’s Professional Development Fund. This is how the very best music is encouraged and developed.
In 1980s Edinburgh the live traditional music scene that blossomed in the 1960s was flourishing, and was more lively than ever. At the hub of the activity were the famous music bars: The Royal Oak and Sandy Bell’s. Any domestic or international artist of note who was in the city could be found at their legendary sessions which, as well as providing memorable performances, served as venues where musicians would pick up new material, swap notes on technique and build the foundations of lasting and significant collaborations. From when he was old enough to balance on a bar stool, Adam Holmes’ mother would take him along to the live sessions, where Adam would listen, learn and eagerly take it all in. And so began his musical education.
Adam’s mother had been a fan of traditional UK folk music from the early days of the 1960s revival and his father a devotee of singer songwriters from across the Atlantic. With these two influences to guide him, and drawn by the realism of traditional songs and the parallels that could be found in modern music genres, it’s little wonder that at the age of 14 Adam put down his fiddle, picked up a guitar and started to write songs.
As far back as 2009 Adam was gigging at clubs and music festivals, honing his performing and song writing skills. A finalist in BBC Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year 2009, even then his blend of Scotland and Nashville and his appealing bass voice were distinctive.
It should come as no surprise, then, that four years down the road and after success with Rura (MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards, Best Up & Coming Act 2011; BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2013 Horizon Award nominees) Adam is about to release a solo album that draws on those early folk and American influences and boasts the legendary John Wood as producer. Readers probably need no reminder that John Wood’s contribution to acoustic music, in his role of Producer/Engineer, has been significant. Nick Drake, John Martyn, Richard Thompson, Fairport Convention, Pentangle and many, many more have benefited from his skills. It’s no small matter, then, when John says of Adam Holmes.. “It’s seldom that an album I record is such a pleasure to work on as Adam’s Heirs and Graces”.
That doesn’t mean to say John Wood has taken over. Adam Holmes isn’t looking for another Solid Air or Bryter Later; he has his own songs to sing and although his music draws on these influences, the sound is all his own.
Adam Holmes And The Embers formed in 2011 (and provided Folk Radio UK with a memorable live session). As well as Adam and fellow Rura member Steven Blake on keyboards, there’s Calum McIntyre (drums, percussion and vibes), who joined Éamonn Coyne & Kris Drever on stage last year, and bass player Alex Hunter.
Heirs and Graces opens with a mellow, buoyant love song – Monday Morning. Initially the song comes across like a friend sharing his latest work. Instantly engaging, with a rich guitar sound and individual vocal delivery. The sound builds gradually and gently with Steven Blake’s keyboards and warm backing vocals from Hannah Beaton, to it’s toe tapping conclusion; further enhanced by guest fiddler Ciaran Ryan. There’s a more than a hint of John Martyn in Adam’s guitar and voice and Where The River Meets The Hill continues in a similar vein, with that same accomplished guitar and alluring, lilting vocal. The whole time, Adam’s skills as a lyricist shining through.
It’s clear Adam thrives on writing love songs, but a balladeer should be ready to embrace the darkness too. Oh My God is a stark contrast to the breezy opening. Facing up to mortality, the combination of compelling lyrics and a sound enriched with vocals and harmonium from Kris Drever is haunting. Later in the album, Shadows draws on similarly dark influences. This time however, Adam is perfectly at home with only his voice and a guitar in a beautifully written, but bitter, tale of resentment:
Awkward silence fills a crowded room
You would understand if you were me
And I cant even hold a conversation
With a shadow where a man’s supposed to be
Kris Drever’s vocal and guitar contribution are more instantly recognizable in I Can’t Be Right – a break up song in the very best tradition that will stay in your mind long after the album’s finished. Adam’s ability with a musical hook is something that marks him out as a skilled song writer, and this is even more apparent in Fire In The Sun. From it’s distinctive bass opening, and with memorable guitar from Stuart Goodall (Admiral Fallow), the steel guitar and soft keyboard combination join Adam’s gentle vocals in a slow waltz that Eric Clapton would be proud of, and a chorus that compels you to sing. Just as likely to stay in your head all day (and you won’t regret it if its does) is Alone We Stand. A little more paced, a bigger sound and an irresistible head shaker with instant appeal.
There are times when the subtle notes of Americana that pepper the album come to the fore. Aviemore, however couldn’t be more of a Trans-Atlantic triumph. This mix of blues guitar and vocals that would be at home in any spiritual; old timey fiddle, and warm, enriching chorus is one of the album’s most powerful periods. Particular attention should be paid to Hannah Beaton‘s vocal contribution. Hannah benefited from the best of musical educations at Sgoil Chiùil na Gàidhealtachd, Plockton and many have enjoyed her renditions of traditional Gaelic song with a bluesy edge. It’s a treat to hear her lend her voice to this album.
In closing the album Mother Oak revives that light gospel touch in a call for good times that must surely hark back to those formative visits to The Royal Oak…
I’ll be ever so glad if you do, you do
I’ll be ever so glad if you do
Lose your Qs & your Ps
do whatever you please
I’ll be ever so glad if you do…
Adam Holmes writes lyrics that appeal and engage. His voice drifts from the speakers to fill a room with apparent ease, establishing an instant connection with his audience. In Heirs And Graces these considerable talents have been pooled along with those of his friends to produce an album who’s release starts 2014 on a very promising note for music lovers. More of the same please!
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Heirs And Graces is available now on download from iTunes and all good download sites.
17 January 2014, 7:30 pm – Oran Mòr, Glasgow (Celtic Connections)