- Press photo courtesy of the band
- Al Holliday & the East Side Rhythm Band
The recent passing of Allen Toussaint at age 77 brought into focus not only the man's many gifts — his combined talents as a songwriter, pianist, arranger, producer and vocalist are without peer — but also his ability to bring the essentially regional music of New Orleans R&B to a worldwide audience without losing its boogie and stride. His songs became the clearest conduit for the in-the-pocket pulse of that city, and their proliferation made the world a better, funkier place.
In a few weeks local pianist and singer Al Holliday will take part in a multi-band tribute to the life and work of Toussaint (on December 11 at the Old Rock House), and there are few artists in St. Louis who show such clear traces of the songwriter's style. On his second LP, Natural Remedies, Holliday, along with the East Side Rhythm Band, doesn't offer a simulacrum of New Orleans music — the "East Side" in the name harkens to Holliday's Collinsville, Illinois, roots, and the group proudly reps St. Louis in its repertoire. But Holliday's easy shuffle on the piano completes the circuit that begins in the Crescent City and takes root here in St. Louis.
"The inspiration of that song is that a KDHX DJ, usually without fail, will play Oliver Sain's version of 'Soul Serenade' at 3 a.m. late Friday night/early Saturday morning," says Holliday. "Over the past few years, when I'd play gigs on Friday nights in St. Louis, I'd really look forward to hearing that on the radio. I mean, it is one serious piece of music." In Holliday's tribute the band channels much of that energy, both from Sain's legacy and the beer- and sweat-soaked nights on South Broadway.
Holliday and Co. have proven that they can make rollicking, party-starting music; his debut album, 2013's Made It Through the Mill, Again, was a startling debut from a 25-year old white guy singing like a sanctified soul shouter. He's a few years older now and well-traveled on local funk and soul stages; the resulting songs on Natural Remedies show both a tightening of the band's chops and a certain expansiveness to Holliday's approach to Delta-bred R&B music. His voice is still big and brusque, and at times his approach can threaten to overwhelm these songs, but he always approaches his performances from a soulful place. He and the band are more patient this time out, less inclined to barrel through a song and more comfortable in letting the mood marinate through your speakers.
Holliday credits the band's live-to-analog-tape recording technique for helping capture the natural verve of the band. "This approach is like conjuring some kind of spirit and then taking a picture of it," says Holliday. "For instance, virtually every word that I sing on this record was sung with the band live. The whole crew was putting down some serious energy. I knew thirty seconds into cutting 'There Ain't But the One Way' that it was the cut."
His band has grown a bit since his last outing, and here he's bolstered by two apt backing vocalists in Molly Simms and Emily Wallace, both strong singers who perform on their own. On the album, the back-up singers give range to songs like the soulful, stewing "Ain't But the One Way" — at least until the tempo shifts to double-time and turns into a proving ground for the horn players' soloing skills. Those horns come alive on "Turnin' Around," with Derick Tramel's baritone saxophone propping up the low end with resonant honks and smoother licks.
Natural Remedies is equally compelling when the band moves into slow blues and ballads; Holliday in particular shows deft, emotive feel on "The Times," both on the acoustic piano's dynamic range and through the Hammond organ's far-away gospel cries. He digs deeper on the tender "Right Thru Me," as the dirty tremble of his Fender Rhodes electric piano casts a tinge of emotional angst to the mellow mood.
Holliday's music undeniably shows traces of the South's deep heritage, and his album can be seen as our river city's ability to absorb influences and mold them to our own devices. In conversation, Holliday — the Illinois native who now resides on the Hill and used to work for the city — doubles down on his attachment to the area and how it reveals itself in his work.
"One thing I know is that when I am playing music down on South Broadway, when I was driving a tractor for the city of St. Louis — in every part of the city — when I was playing music at New Shining Light Church in Venice, Illinois, or I am getting a sandwich in my neighborhood, I meet the people face to face," he says. "And we have a great community here."
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