A veteran skin slapper with legends like the Brecker Brothers, Joe Zawinul, and Carlos Santana -- with whom he toured and won a Grammy for Supernatural -- Holmes has played in the Steve Kimock Band for the past four years. SKB, as the quartet is known to its rabid fans, is beloved equally by fret-obsessed Guitar Player subscribers and long hairs who know Kimock as the guitarist in San Fran psych-rockers Zero or the post-Jerry Garcia Grateful Dead offshoot, the Other Ones.
So how did Holmes, a crack studio musician with a mainstream pop and jazz pedigree, end up in a jam band?
"SKB had a manager who knew about me," he recalls, "and I had just left the Santana band and SKB were looking for a drummer. I'd never heard of Kimock before, but he invited me to do a short tour."
Almost 300 gigs later, Holmes is still on the bus. He says the chemistry was there from their first gig at NYC's legendary Wetlands, where Holmes found himself attracted to the improvisational elements joined with intricate song structures in Kimock's unique approach to largely instrumental music, a tie-dye flecked cousin to the fusion chop-fest of '70s jazzbos like Return To Forever and Steely Dan.
Besides Santana and Kimock, Holmes has played with a laundry list of today's best guitarists, including Larry Coryell, David Gilmore, and Leni Stern.
"I love the sound and capabilities of the instrument," Holmes enthuses. "I like the idea of transcending genres. Again, Bruce Lee would talk about not having style, and I'm attracted to that. Usually with other instruments they are affiliated with one thing. The guitar can be affiliated with anything, any genre. That could be some subconscious thing with me, using sounds and instruments that could be from anywhere and be about anything."
That urge for transcendence is the very heart of the jam scene, in which audiences support acts that weave rock, jazz, and country into new musical tapestries.
"People are there just to experience the music. For the most part, people don't have a lot of preconceived ideas," Holmes says. "I kinda wish this is what the jazz or pop audiences were like. It seems like what jazz audiences used to be [i.e., progressive listeners] the jam audience is now."
The danger of highbrow jam bands like SKB is endless slick-but-heartless noodling. Holmes learned to avoid this trap from fabled Miles Davis' sparring partner, saxophonist Wayne Shorter ("such a genius, such an imagination," he remarks), a natural force that never lets overt skill get in the way of pure music.
"I would always like the reaction to be 'Wow, I'd love to do that,' and then later on they realize how much work is involved," he says of his admirers. "It's like a great painting or a great athlete -- they make it seem easy and organic. That's the way Wayne plays and composes."
Though Holmes has no current plans to return to more commercial projects, he's learned the lesson of "never say never." "Things are just so temporary, and fads come and go," he says of the mainstream recording industry. "I'm just trying to do things that I'll still care about years from now."
One place is his continuing role in SKB, where he's pleased to be "a partner, not only as a musician playing, but also working on compositions, trying to shape the music and create something new." Holmes also just finished work on his first solo album, which was influenced by electronica artists like Massive Attack, Chemical Brothers, drum-and-bass pioneer Goldie, and DJ Shadow.
"I didn't have any preconceived ideas of what kind of record it would be. I was looking for sounds that wouldn't box the record in. I wanted to keep it progressive, to keep it open, to keep it forward leaning."
As the rainbow of superlatives spilled about his playing reflects, Holmes is a world-class musician, but he keeps a zen-like heart about his calling.
"It's hard to see one's self as others see you," he says, "but hopefully it's a combination of a lot of work technically and then being able to forget that and really plug into the music. I' m always quoting Bruce Lee because I love his philosophy. He talked about if a person is completely intellectual and mechanical without any feel then he's no longer a human being. He's a mechanical man. And if you just have instinct without thought and work and preparation then you're just an animal. He talked about having a successful combination of both so you'll have a kind of natural unnaturalness and an unnatural naturalness. That's how I like to see myself."