It's a grand understatement when Wendell Holmes says of himself and his sibling Sherman, "We have a great rapport and a great bond that a lot of brothers don't have." The two brothers have been performing as a team for 45 years, which is pretty amazing when you consider that Sherman is a mere 61 and Wendell a spry 57.

The secret to their longevity might be a recipe for making any familial relationship work, but it's especially important when you're spending so much time together. "We give each other space and we love each other," Wendell said.

While the Holmes brothers have been making music since their teens, The Holmes Brothers - the band, featuring the two siblings and drummer Willie "Popsy" Dixon - has been together since 1967, playing an intoxicating mix of Southern music, a blend of blues and gospel with country-and-western touches.

Birth order might have had something to do with their roles on record, as little brother Wendell tears it up on guitar and vocals while Sherman keeps things calm with creamy vocals and a steady bass. But on the phone, Wendell is as gentle as can be.

He speaks of his partnership with Sherman as if it were the most natural thing in the world, brothers sticking together and playing music. Dixon's role in the band was also a foregone conclusion, Wendell said. He's a drummer who can sing, and "he was automatically a part of it," Wendell said. "He's a brother, too."

Now in its fourth decade, the band is finally getting the attention it has deserved for a long time.

The Holmes Brothers' new album, Speaking in Tongues, has done as well as its diverse pedigree might portend. Produced by the bluesy alt-rocker Joan Osborne (who also sings backup) and featuring originals as well as covers of songs by Ben Harper and Bob Dylan, the album has charted both on blues and college radio. [See the Reader review online at (] Chicago Tribune rock critic Greg Kot declared it the first great album of 2001, and already it's outsold any previous Holmes Brothers release.

The record is all-out gospel, and although Wendell calls the spiritually themed record "a stretch" for the band, it's never forced or insincere. The younger brother said that he's often asked whether the songs on Speaking in Tongues are genuine expressions of faith or just good songs that happen to be about God. "I'm a believer," he said. "I consider myself a spiritual person, and I want to get that message out."

Osborne helped the band push its limits in other ways. The background vocals - which add even more authenticity to the revival fervor - were a new touch for The Holmes Brothers, as were drum looping and other fresh accoutrements. "It's a different sound," Wendell said. "We've been wanting to do an album like this."

The popularity of Speaking in Tongues certainly surprised The Holmes Brothers, but Wendell attributes it to aggressive promotion of the band's new label, Alligator. That certainly has something to do with it, but The Holmes Brothers can take a lot of the credit themselves. They've made a terrific album, and they'll put on a great show on Sunday.

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