Hello everyone! Katie here today. I’m so proud of the lineup we’re already establishing. It’s sometimes an embarrassment of riches. I am always vibrating with a weird excitement for who I get to write about, and even better, what I’ll be able to share with you April 5th and 6th at the Bowery Electric. This is a particularly special post for me, because I was actually introduced to this band in the basement of the Electric years ago, sandwiched in a full room, holding my husband’s hand as the band led a singalong. But I’m getting ahead of myself. (It’s the excitement.)
Hollis Brown is a formidable name in the rock ‘n’ roll community already. If their name sounds familiar, it could be because you saw them play with Counting Crows, The Zombies, Deer Tick, Lucero, or Heartless Bastards. It could also be because their tribute to Lou Reed at a benefit concert wound up becoming a killer Velvet Underground cover record, Hollis Brown Gets Loaded. Or maybe you’re just incredibly musically literate and know that “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” is on Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’. They’ve recently signed with Matador and they have a new record coming out this year, but the last full length, recorded at least in part with producer Don DiLego at Velvet Elk, was 2015’s 3 Shots.
That’s not how I heard of Hollis Brown though. Anyone who got to participate at the Outlaw Roadshow or October’s first Underwater Sunshine Fest knows that it gets pretty crowded downstairs. And the louder and more engaged the band is, the more tightly packed it gets. My husband and I were manning our Free-Merch table (where we give away the merchandise we buy from our artists so concert goers are able to take home the music what they’ve fallen in love with) and we were sandwiched between a table, my husband up against the wall, both of our torsos pressed into the barrier dividing the bar area from the standing-room-only space in front of the stage. And every song was good. Mike Montali (singer and guitarist) has a soft-spoken singing voice— it’s at once plaintive, weary, and convicted. It’s hard to pull all of that off at once. But again— if you’ve been to a festival, you know that there are a ton of great bands, and at the end of the night, you know you’ll remember a few names and a few songs for sure. Hollis Brown was that moment and that band for me at that show.
I was holding my husband’s hand as they rounded into their finale, their cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Oh, Sweet Nuthin’.” Of course, this is New York, so I’m willing to estimate within a one- or two-point margin that 100% of the audience knew every word. But as Montali sang, it was like he slowly invited more and more people to sing with him. Everyone sang the chorus, but as it picked up, more and more people sang the verses, too. Which is what made it so bone chilling when they dropped down to the simplest part of the music and he started singing on his own again. I remember Andy squeezing my hand just a little tighter. Magic.
When Montali and guitarist Jonathan Bonilla formed the band, part of it was over a shared love of Loaded (the best Velvets record: fight me), and some of that shows in the plainspoken nature of their own writing. After that Roadshow, I went straight home and bought their record Ride on a Train, and eagerly anticipated 3 Shots. It was almost shocking, though, the first time I heard what they’d been working on.
(If you were at the first Underwater Sunshine Fest: if you enjoyed Matt Sucich, Those Nights, and Stephen Kellogg, you’re smart. Oh, and also…you’ll love Hollis Brown.)
The thick, layered sound they create mimics some Paul Simon-esque instrumentation but Montali’s vocals are always immediately recognizable as uniquely Hollis Brown. I was caught off guard by the naked, unguarded sincerity of the album opener, “Cathedral,” which comes across as a very literal blessing for the listener and really, everyone else too:
May the light shine down upon your shoulder
Upon your shoulder, and show you the way
And may you be blessed, by the hands of mercy
May the hands of mercy, show you the way
Lonely child, left alone
Your beautiful journey
Will lead to salvation
And bring you back home
The title track, “3 Shots,” is ja seething reminder that there is more than one side to the band. In two songs, you get to hear the beating heart and core of Hollis Brown in two different ways: one foot leaning towards a world that is beautiful, light, and optimistic, hoping for blessings and a future where we don’t have to worry about the news— and the other, more sober and observant foot planted in the world as it is, an eye seeing things as they are.
Oh this city
What's it doing to me
You hear something different everyday
There was a little one
He got caught in the sun
Surveys about guns on channel 1
That 3 shots on the boulevard
And who will be the next one that they name
Oh if nobody cares
I guess we’re all gonna hear the story
And who will be the next one that they name
“3 Shots” doesn’t presume that this is a one note issue— Montali’s soft voice parallels the lyrics that we’re all just waiting for the next death, the next school shooting, the next cop killing, the next cop killed. It’s more than that. It’s become, as he says, “a revolving door.” That the next track is the Western-tinged “John Wayne” (which again, has its foot FIRMLY planted in today) absolutely backs up “3 Shots” in a way that is eery.
I can’t recommend strongly enough listening to the whole record straight through. It is fascinating to hear a band obviously frustrated and exhausted by the darkest parts of society while still fumbling toward light.
(By the way, the music break in “John Wayne” is one of the coolest moments on the record: if you don’t do anything else, you have to experience that explosion for yourself. And make no mistake— it’s supposed to be an explosion.)
That’s not to suggest there isn’t a whole lot of fun on this record. “Sandy” is a blast, and it feels like a great Black Crowes track. Seriously, the first time I heard it, I felt like I was listening to the radio back when, you know, you didn’t have to type something into Pandora. The lyrics might not be revolutionary, but damn, do they feel good, even if the character Sandy probably doesn’t feel all that good herself. The gentle chorus that kicks the song off— “Oh Sandy, won’t you be my love”— is pretty quickly given some nuance when you hear lines like, “She goes by Sandy/ I don’t even know if that’s her name… takes the stage and works the scene/ Just watch her move/ She’s just got to be mine, all mine.” It’s akin to the delight of realizing exactly what J. Geils is saying in “Centerfold.” Of course, it wouldn’t be Hollis Brown if Sandy’s character wasn’t rounded out a little better than poor Angel, the Centerfold— “She wants to be a writer/ But the money has been too damn good/ At Lucifer's Playpen down on Spring and Main/ She’s got a son and a daughter.”
So I’ll leave you with this: if you aren’t someone who listens to records straight through, I recommend you listen to “Sweet Tooth”— because we’ll be waiting on all of you, friends, and you don’t want to miss Hollis Brown share the joint with us on April 5th and 6th. Glad to have you, guys!