Notes from a wedding: In the age of digital music and the relative bargain of a single DJ, wedding singer Kenney Holmes is determined to keep it real

In the age of digital music and the relative bargain of a single DJ, wedding singer Kenney Holmes is determined to keep it real.
By Lauren Wilcox
Sunday, February 7, 2010

On a muggy Saturday afternoon, longtime wedding performer and bandleader Kenney Holmes stood in the middle of a private dining room in a restaurant in Northern Virginia. "They want us catty-corner," muttered Holmes, mopping his forehead with a handkerchief and squinting at the space he was arranging as a stage. A cluster of lights and speakers bunched awkwardly, like wallflowers at a dance, at the far end. Suddenly he strode across the room and, seizing a large silver tureen from behind a speaker, moved it to the other end of the room. "I have a phobia about playing next to garbage cans," he said. "I think I'm afraid that I will be identified with garbage."

For some 15 years, Holmes and his band, Showbiz, have made an excellent living playing events on and around Capitol Hill, from weddings to Rep. Bennie Thompson's fish fry, bringing in as much as $500,000 a year. But these are leaner days. Where Holmes was once booked solid every weekend of the wedding season, he has played only a handful of gigs this year.

Like most career musicians, Holmes cut his teeth playing anywhere that would have him, and he prides himself on his ability to create a party under even the humblest of conditions. (He said he was once the top act, measured in liquor sales, on a regular gig playing the club car of an Amtrak bound for Montreal.) By comparison, an engagement such as this, a wedding reception in the Koi Room of the restaurant 2941, overlooking the Potomac River, might seem a particularly refined and relaxing way to spend an evening.

But for Holmes, who is 56 but whose unlined face and round spectacles give him the look of a schoolboy, playing a wedding can be a kind of Faustian bargain. On the one hand, weddings -- besides being extremely lucrative -- are an oasis of good cheer and freshly cut flowers in the often dingy and unromantic world of paying gigs. On the other hand, they rely on an elaborate sleight-of-hand: the creation of a fantasy, a bride's favorite songs brought to life with a carload of speakers and coaxial cable and a handful of part-time musicians.

This was a particularly high-dollar gig, and, for Holmes, the evening was fraught with potential disasters that, though minor, threatened the illusion. Dancing and dinner were in separate rooms, which compromised Holmes's ability to control the energy of the party, or, as he calls it, "putting them on the roller coaster." "Once we get them on the floor," he says, "we keep them on the floor." And there were others: the seasonal allergies that weakened his singing voice, the short life of the batteries in his cordless microphone, musicians who might ignore instructions to enter via the loading dock and instead steer their towering carts of equipment around guests sipping cocktails in the lobby.

"Be early," he had reminded his band in an e-mail, in bold blue font, a few days before. "Overcome obstacles before you get to the gig."

By 6:30 p.m., an hour before showtime, two of his three musicians had arrived via the loading dock: keyboardist Bruce Robinson, a slight, dapper man with a mustache; and drummer Sam Brawner, tall and broad-shouldered and wearing a gold ring in the shape of a lion's head on each hand. Still missing was saxophonist Atiba Taylor. "You look like a new shilling," Holmes said into the microphone to Robinson, who had already changed into his tuxedo.

As with most of the weddings he played, Holmes would emcee the evening's events in addition to singing and playing guitar. At 6:45 the wedding planner, Joan Sacarob, wearing a cream-and-peach tweed suit and peach heels, clicked across the parquet dance floor for a run-through of the agenda. It was Holmes's first time working with Sacarob, a petite woman with a neat bob who said she had been named a "top pick for Jewish wedding planners" by Washingtonian magazine. She flipped the schedule open to the dinner, which included a blessing over a loaf of challah. Perhaps 80 percent of the weddings Holmes plays are for Jewish clients; he considers them a specialty of his, and he learned the Hebrew words to accompany the hora years ago to help ensure his marketability.

"Chah-lah," Sacarob was saying to Holmes, leaning into the syllables.

"Chah-lah," repeated Holmes. Sacarob narrowed her eyes.

"Okay, the blessing over the bread, don't even use the word 'challah,' " she said. "Do you mind? Just say, 'Blessing by Margaret Fisher and Carol Greco.' "

"I can say 'challah!' " Holmes said to the room after Sacarob left, waving his finger in the air in mock indignation. "I can say that word!"

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