Bluesman Rick Holmstrom redefined his sound by dropping from a four-piece to a trio

Bluesman Rick Holmstrom redefined his sound by dropping from a four-piece to a trio

Home from backing Mavis Staples on tour, guitarist Rick Holmstrom returns to Liquid Kitty Sunday night with his trio

By Bliss Bowen
When eclectic blues guitarist Rick Holmstrom first started playing local gigs with just a trio, he was none too pleased. That may surprise fans accustomed to seeing him rock the house with his trio at area clubs like the Liquid Kitty, where he returns Sunday night with drummer Steve Mugalian and bassist/saxophonist/slide guitarist Jeff Turmes.

“Years ago, I hated trios,” Holmstrom admits. “But I had to do them because [gigs didn’t pay enough money for a four-piece].”

His attitude started to change after a show in Long Beach — specifically, after a compliment from buddy Junior Watson planted the seed for a style- and sound-defining change.

“He said, ‘Man, I love it when you do the trio! It’s so relaxed and there’s so much space and you don’t fill it all up like so many other guitar players,’” Holmstrom recalls. “But really, I couldn’t play like the other guys who filled up all the space. I sort of imagined there was a fourth piece and that piece was playing and I’m gonna wait for a second. I didn’t realize it was having some sort of impact … I ended up getting into [trios] because of the space — the way you can sustain a note and just let it hang on, and as it’s dying out you can hear the bass and you can hear the drums, or if Jeff is playing his saxophone, you can hear his saxophone and it’s not cluttered up with all this other stuff.”

Now the Alaska native is not only acclaimed for his playing style and dark, resonant Telecaster tone, but his trio also earn deep respect from fellow musicians, fans and critics for grooving, intuitive dynamics informed by 20 years of playing together in various band situations. Working with Turmes and either Mugalian or Stephen Hodges, Holmstrom’s sound evolved over the course of several albums, culminating in 2012’s soul- and rock-flavored “Cruel Sunrise,” which features guest vocalist Mavis Staples. Holmstrom, Turmes and Hodges have been touring with the gospel/soul legend for the past seven-and-a-half years.

With Staples, Holmstrom works within a particular framework; he’s “always thinking about how to make her look good,” he says, and some Staple Singers songs are too iconic to mess with. “We play it different every night in our way, but you can’t really make ‘I’ll Take You There’ into a rumba,” he explains, laughing. “If you’re gonna play it, you might as well play it.”

With his own music, “anything goes. I know I can do anything I want and the guys are gonna be able to follow me. That’s one of the beauties of having a trio, especially with people you’ve been playing with so long. The reaction time between three people is so much quicker and each person has to stand on their own legs with a lot of strength. And be reactive: ‘Oh, he’s doing that, I’m gonna go over here and play big.’ Not loud, but big, with rhythmic conviction.”

Lately he’s been listening to a lot of Ahmad Jamal and Mose Allison (“They almost always play in trios”), along with bedrock favorites Lightnin’ Hopkins and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. Each of his blues-rooted albums has explored different musical corners, from West Coast jump blues to loop-layered acid jazz, and he’s feeling his way toward his next recording as he cycles through song ideas. He’d originally dreamed of doing “a whole new show” when he returns to the Kitty after a few months away, until hectic touring reality intruded. Still, there may be a surprise or two between his back-catalog originals and inventive Duke Ellington and Hank Williams covers.

“I remember thinking, ‘I’m gonna write 10 new songs, I’m gonna have a new record, I’m gonna have all these cover songs that I’m gonna do,’” he says with a laugh. “Then it got so busy that rather than browbeat myself I said, ‘Give up on that, write this one new song. Don’t make yourself miserable.’”

The Rick Holmstrom Band returns to Liquid Kitty, 11780 W. Pico Blvd., West LA, at 9 p.m. Sunday. No cover. (310) 473-3707;