Back in April of 2017, Al Holliday and his ten-piece band tackled a project that both had its roots in soul-music traditions and sought to bring those traditions into the present. The group served as the backing band for the first All St. Louis Revue, supporting artists like Jesse Gannon, the Sleepy Rubies and Kenny DeShields with the weight of its deep-pocketed rhythm section, its crack horns and harmony vocalists. At the time, Holliday noted that he hoped it would be "the first of many."
"The idea was for our band to back up several of our favorite artists in St. Louis, some of our favorite singer-songwriters," Holliday says over sandwiches at Southwest Market, not far from the home where he gives piano and guitar lessons as well as rehearses with his band. "It was meant to be a celebration of St. Louis music and our local culture, and kind of putting it in a unique package that wouldn't have been made otherwise."
Holliday and his band treated each artist on a case-by-case basis; while having a common backing band aided the overall cohesiveness of the project, it was meant to be a showcase for the singers and their songs.
"For some artists, it was us serving as a backing band for them and allowing them to showcase their work. Like Jesse Gannon, we backed him up but we were doing our best to keep up with him, because his stuff is heavy," Holliday says. "For other artists, it was more of a reinterpretation of their songs across genres. We did a take on 'South City' by the Sleepy Rubies — it was like, 'Play it with a horn section and put sixteenth-note hi-hats on it.'"
Two years later, that initial show at the Delmar Hall has spawned a full-length record, All St. Louis Revue Vol. 1, and a second iteration of the live Revue, to take place this Friday and Saturday at Off Broadway. Neil C. Luke, Big Mike Aguirre and Tommy Halloran will perform on Friday, with Eugene Johnson, Emily Wallace and Aguirre playing on Saturday. All artists will perform alongside Holliday and his East Side Rhythm Band.
The two-year lag between that first show and this new album is explained by Holliday's own busy schedule; in 2018, he recorded, released and toured internationally behind his third full-length, 4963, and he's created a cottage industry as a teacher, arranger, producer and session musician. Plus, he notes that the idea behind the Revue was never a one-and-done experience.
"The idea at first was to have a project that I would like to cultivate throughout my career," he says. "The whole time we were putting together music for the  concert, we were thinking, 'Man, this could be a record and it would be really great.' That was the dream the entire time."
In choosing artists to work with, Holliday was drawn to songwriters whose songs have a timeless quality, both in composition and message.
"I like to work with artists that are writing almost in the style of a standard — they're writing these songs that are somewhat timeless," Holliday says. "They're almost traditional, but they just make a lot of sense — they could be in the style of a Randy Newman or Tom Waits song.
"Again, this is something I would like to do for a long time — I'm not out here saying that these are the best artists; I don't want to be like that," Holliday continues. "But whenever you think of St. Louis artists that are performing at a high level, you gotta think about Brian Owens. If you're thinking about soul music in St. Louis, you have to think about Roland Johnson in that conversation."
The emotional centerpiece on Vol. 1 comes with a one-two punch of songs written by Nathan Jatcko and Kenny DeShields. "Imagine," DeShields' offering, echoes much of the togetherness-through-strife tone that was the driving force for "Wake Up America," the song he and Holliday wrote and performed at the first Revue show. It's another soulful, compelling call to consciousness from one of the area's purest voices.
Jatcko's composition, "Bittersweet Home Chicago," resonates for a different reason. The pianist, sideman and songwriter took his life early last year, leaving behind scores of friends, family and fellow musicians who marveled at his ability to perform in almost any idiom. His lone solo record, Catch, contains the slow, celestial blues track that Holliday interprets in his only lead vocal performance on the record.
"I love his record — he gave me a copy of it one night at BB's — and I never got to tell him how much I liked it," Holliday says of Jatcko. "That tune in particular that we did, that song is gonna be good for over a hundred years. It's a beautifully written standard. I just love the damn tune."