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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

By Lauren Wilcox
Sunday, February 7, 2010; W12

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!"

***

By 7 p.m., Holmes had fired up his laptop, on which he keeps his library of songs, and he, Robinson and Brawner were noodling around an instrumental version of "Papa Was a Rolling Stone." Holmes, who had donned a cream-colored dinner jacket, fiddled with some levels on his mixer. Sacarob returned to check on the placement of some urns. Behind them, visible through the floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows, the wedding party posed for the photographer on the far side of the koi pond.

"I do a lot of work here," said Sacarob, gazing at the pond.

"Well, I'd like to do a lot of work with you," Holmes said pleasantly.

At 7:15, 15 minutes before Kenney Holmes & Showbiz were due to begin their dinner set, Sam Brawner cocked his head at the front walk, where Atiba Taylor was threading his way around guests with a couple of cases slung over his shoulder. "That's how all the sax players are," Brawner mused. "I only know two sax players that come with the rest of the band." Holmes shook his head but said nothing.

Taylor had his reed softened up in time for the opening bars of "Killer Joe," a Quincy Jones tune that Holmes likes to use as background music, which the band played with spark and feeling to an empty dance floor as the guests dined in the adjacent room. The band had the well-oiled, nimble sound of musicians who are used to listening to each other, and the launching of each successive number was like the ascension of some complicated flying machine, alive with internal machinations, drifting lightly around the room. Holmes's voice is not extraordinary, but it is rich and soulful; he has a knack, useful for a wedding singer, for fully inhabiting someone else's song while giving it a little something of his own. The musicians smirked to themselves at each change and solo, as though at some private joke. When Holmes sang a line of scat, Brawner pressed his knuckles to his mouth and shook his head happily.

By the second set -- after Holmes had announced the bride and groom at dinner, and introduced the blessing over the challah without using the word "challah," and led his musicians through a rousing version of "Hava Nagila" -- the party had found a groove. He coaxed the guests into a conga line, spearheaded by the bridesmaids, with "Hot Hot Hot," and sent the bride sashaying out onto the floor in the middle of "Mustang Sally." There was a lull as dessert was served in the other room, and then the bridesmaids returned to do the Electric Slide, and the floor slowly filled back up.

At the end of the evening, the bride and groom came over to thank him. "When you got my dad on the dance floor -- you've got a friend in the D.C. Court of Appeals," the groom said. Holmes, however, was not as pleased. The dance floor had emptied for several stretches during the night, and he had struggled with his voice on some of the numbers. And he was not happy with Taylor, whose lateness had not caused any major problems but who had cut it too close for Holmes.

"This was a hard gig," Holmes said, shaking his head, as the musicians began breaking down their equipment.

"But they danced, though," Taylor said encouragingly.

Holmes reminded the musicians about their next wedding a month later, at the National Republican Club of Capitol Hill, for which they would be joined by a trumpeter and a new vocalist, a woman Holmes was eager to debut.

Taylor, as saxophonist, traveled the lightest, and he finished packing while the others were still loading their carts. He walked over to say goodnight to Holmes, and the two shook hands and slapped each other on the back.

"I hope I made up for myself," Taylor said.

"No, you didn't," Holmes said.

***

It was never Kenney Holmes's intention to become a wedding singer. The grandson of West Indian immigrants, Holmes was raised in Gordon Heights, on Long Island, in what he calls "a small black community founded by like-minded thinkers," families of immigrants and Southern blacks who, as Holmes says, "didn't come here to fool around" and who handed down to their children their own keen sense of ambition.

"We grew up in that kind of atmos-phere," he says, "of positive thinking, of getting educated, whether or not you had a degree."

Like any red-blooded American boy in the 1950s and '60s, he was fascinated with popular music: He listened to the area's one radio station, which "mostly played Sinatra"; sometimes in the evenings, with a coat hanger stuck into the top of his portable radio, he could pick up a faint signal from WWRL, a rhythm and blues station in New York City. When he was a teenager, his brother brought home a guitar. "I was 16, it was a Sunday night," he says. "I sat down and played 'I Can't Get No Satisfaction.' I was addicted."

While he was not a virtuoso, he was, he discovered, good at making money at it. He learned three songs -- "Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones, "And I Love Her" by the Beatles, and "Shotgun" by Junior Walker and the All Stars -- and formed a band with a few friends. "We went out and sold it," he says. "We could play those three songs all night. We got pretty popular on the island, playing battle of the bands, fire halls, high school proms, for $10 a night."

Still, a career as a musician was not what he, or his family, had had in mind. Over the next few years, he says: "I did everything I could not to be a guitar player. I went to college not to be a guitar player." Thinking he would be a psychiatrist, he took pre-med classes at Stony Brook University and at Suffolk County Community College but didn't complete a degree. Along the way, he continued playing nightclubs and parties.

In his mid-20s, when he was visiting his brother in Washington, "I was standing on Georgia Avenue when I saw a black man driving down the street in a Rolls Royce," Holmes says. "Now, I'm a very simple thinker. I thought, 'I've never seen that in New York City.' And I sold my house and moved down here."

Washington may have looked, to Holmes, like a good place to be an ambitious, career-minded black man, but it also had a thriving music scene in nightclubs and hotel lounges, and the next 15 years played out as a sort of tussle between his creative pursuits and his more business-driven impulses. Trying to work his way up in the music scene, he played five and six nights a week in nightclubs and wrote his own music. He started a recording studio called Sound Ideas, which trawled local talent for the makings of a hit song, but he found the pickings slim.

The club scene, after a long while, began to wear on him, as well. Holmes has been married four times, which he has come to see as an occupational hazard for a club musician. "Most musicians I know went through a lot of wives or a lot of women. Suppose your husband was coming home every morning at 5 a.m. drunk, with lipstick on his collar?" he asks, more or less rhetorically. Plus, although Holmes had become a popular club act, his gigs had not made him a star, and neither had his songwriting. By this time, he had a daughter from his first marriage. Unwilling to resign himself to the life of a starving artist, when an agent approached him in the early '90s about specializing in wedding and private parties, Holmes decided to try it.

It was a revelation. "I could make in one night what I used to make in five," he says. And "it changed the culture of what I was doing. It was no longer cool to get drunk onstage."

Holmes was well-suited for the role of event bandleader. His production skills helped him control his band's sound, and his familiarity with country, big-band and classical music made him popular with audiences who wanted, as he says, "a tango or a Viennese waltz," as well as Wilson Pickett.

Because business ebbs and flows with the seasons and the economy, Holmes, who lives in Upper Marlboro, has always kept a variety of sidelines, including a job driving a limousine for nine years to put his oldest daughter through a private high school and college. These days, at gigs, he hands out a stack of million-dollar "bills" printed with his image and his current enterprises: bandleader, commercial mortgage broker, hard money lender (slogan: "Hard Money with a Soft Touch").

Holmes uses as many as eight musicians and two singers for weddings. He accepts turnover as a fact of running a band, but his current core lineup has, in the mercurial world of part-time performers, been fairly steady. Brawner, the drummer, and Taylor, the sax player, have played with him for three and four years, respectively, and Robinson, the keyboardist, has played with him for 15.

This is perhaps partly because Holmes insists on making music. During performances, he lets his musicians take the lead and uses specialized, stripped-down tracks, called digital sequences, to set the tempo and fill in musical parts when necessary, ultimately preferring the messy alchemy of live music to something more canned. The musicians say that this is in contrast to other bandleaders they've worked for, who often rely heavily on recordings and use musicians more as visual props. Holmes's respect for the music endears him to his musicians, all long-time veterans of the club scene, who return the favor with their performances. "These guys play from the heart," says Robinson. "They're not just trying to get through the gig."

Still, as manager, Holmes is quick to draw a line between him and his employees, who, he says, don't always cleave to the more rigid codes of commercial work. He fines for transgressions such as tardiness and sloppy dress, and while he tips good behavior, he keeps wages competitive but not lavish. Raising wages, he thinks, only creates divas. "I learned the hard way, because I ruined some good people."

***

A month after the wedding at 2941, Holmes stood at the second-floor railing of the National Republican Club in the early evening, watching as guests milled around the lobby below. The bride and groom were from Tennessee and Texas, and the crowd skewed tall, tanned and blond; the bride had been attended by 10 bridesmaids in floor-length black gowns. "As a wedding planner I know once said, this is not a Southern Maryland fire hall wedding," said Holmes. He flipped through a copy of the evening's itinerary. "A lot of moving parts," he murmured.

Holmes's new female vocalist, Teri Swinton, had arrived earlier in a low-cut black dress and silver lamé jacket and was sitting at a table in the room where the band would play, under a portrait of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Swinton was a club performer whom Holmes had hired for her voice as well as her stage presence. "I try to encourage my female singers to be feminine, to be a songbird," he had said earlier. "I think that's why people want a female singer, to bring some softness to the band." (Holmes, who says that female singers can be the hardest to manage, also calls them "a necessary evil.")

"We're probably going to start with 'Saving All My Love,' Teri," Holmes said. Swinton grimaced.

"I don't like that song," she said. "Kenney makes me sing all these songs that are, like, aarggh." She made a gargling noise in her throat.

"Sometimes you got to sacrifice something for a higher power," Taylor told her.

"Sacrifice," said Holmes, indignantly. "I like that song!"

In addition to the singer, Holmes's core band -- Taylor, Robinson and Brawner -- was joined by Curtis Pope, a trumpeter who had once been Wilson Pickett's bandleader, a big teddy bear of a man wearing a skintight black shirt with little silver spangles on it under his jacket, and playing a horn partly clad in burl wood. The dinner, on the floor below, was running long. The musicians sat around one of the party tables waiting.

"I wish my father could hear me play," Taylor was saying. "My father was a gospel singer -- well, he was a bricklayer, but in the evenings and on the weekends, he sang gospel. I can't wait to get to heaven, so we can have a band." In the foyer outside the dining room, the elevator doors opened with the first of the guests.

"Okay, boys," Holmes said, "let's go to work."

***

Live music at weddings is an age-old tradition, but the wedding band as we know it today is a more recent phenomenon that grew out of a couple of converging trends. In the late 1980s, the once-vital live-music scene in nightclubs and lounges began to wane, says Jan Davis, a former singer and bandleader who now runs her own event consulting agency in the Washington area, Jan Davis Entertainment and Events. "When I started," Davis says, "you could drive around the Beltway and hit every hotel and find live music. ... Everybody had a pianist in their lobby playing beautiful music. Now you have a couple of D.C. hotels doing that, and the rest of them have those pianos that play themselves." Bands used to working five nights a week soon began looking elsewhere.

At the same time, the small business of weddings was rapidly becoming a full-fledged industry, with a lengthening list of specialized components. Brides who previously might have been content with an evening of pop ballads now wanted a specific music for each portion of the evening. Bands began to expand their playlists, and thus was born "this animal called the wedding band," Davis says, "... that could play everything from big-band swing to Beyoncé." Like a catchier version of Muzak, the wedding band was the great equalizer, turning six decades of pop into danceable numbers for a crowd of all ages.

But recent times have not been kind to these bands. There is the poor economy; live music is often one of the first things trimmed from a tighter budget, and Holmes and Davis say they have never seen business this bad. "I used to have one to two inches of contracts in my book, and now I have just one or two in there," Holmes says.

Technology has also changed the profession. Davis says business is booming for DJs, whom many brides are finding an adequate, and far cheaper, substitute for the wedding band. (Brides can expect to pay about $3,500 to $10,000 for a live band, depending on the number of musicians, says Davis, and from $600 to $1,500 for a DJ.) While a good DJ ostensibly does the same thing as a good band -- playing the songs that keep people on the dance floor -- Holmes maintains that the connection between live musicians and a crowd is finely tuned and impossible to create with recorded music.

"[The DJ] can't tell the bass player, 'Kick it,' " he says. "He can't tell the drummer, 'You've got a solo now. Let's work 'em.' " And Davis, whose business represents both DJs and bands, is unwilling to call the era of the wedding band over. The interaction between a band and a crowd, she says, is "a rapport that you can't get any other way." If playing at a wedding is creating a fantasy, she believes the fantasy still has traction: "Walking into a beautifully set room, and you've got this good-looking band on stage, with the tuxes and the gowns, and they're singing this wonderful music -- there's nothing like it."

***

At the National Republican Club, Holmes, Swinton and the musicians were positioned a hair's breadth from the dance floor, and the number that they used to kick off the dancing, a nondescript instrumental, was like touching a match to a tank of gas. By the time the band was halfway through it, the square of parquet floor in front of them was all but obscured by the scrum of bodies. "We want everyone to have a good time tonight," Holmes called to the crowd unnecessarily. The father-daughter dance, propelled by the momentum of the music and the ecstatic response of the crowd to the appearance of the bride, began without the father; the mother-son dance began without the son, until the groom was extracted from the crowd and delivered to the middle of the floor.

Swinton debuted on "Oh, What a Night"; her voice was so piercing and golden that she might have been mistaken for a studio recording. But partway through, in the middle of a verse, she trailed off, lost. Holmes glanced at her, and she mopped her brow, smiled into the middle distance, and picked it up at the chorus.

The party that the band proceeded to create, for the guests of the Wheaton-Greaves wedding, was sort of a Platonic ideal of wedding receptions. Holmes led his troops through an escalating series of feel-good oldies and disco tunes, "Brown-Eyed Girl" to "Give It to Me, Baby" to "Brick House" to "Ain't Too Proud to Beg." Their sound was big, turbulent, and, number after number, the crowd matched them with a spiraling frenzy of dancing: foot-stomping and formally perfect. Old-timers two-stepped. Rogueish-looking Southern boys with heads full of pomade spun their dainty girlfriends, Astaire-Rogers style, and dipped them until their hairdos touched the floor.

Holmes, with sweat pouring down his face and his glasses slipping to the end of his nose, reined in the party enough to emcee the cutting of the cake, and the tossing of the garter and the bridal bouquet. At the end of the evening, when it was time for the send-off, with sparklers, of the happy couple on their Jamaican honeymoon, the crowd lingered, unwilling to leave. "Ladies and gentlemen, as part of the send-off, go downstairs. That means leave the room," Holmes admonished them, in the same patiently bossy voice he used to reprimand his musicians. "That means go downstairs."

When the room was mostly empty, Holmes began breaking down his equipment. Although Swinton had fumbled for the words on other songs, and occasionally sung too quietly, looking down at lyric sheets, Holmes was content to chalk it up to inexperience. He was, he said, very pleased with how her first performance had gone.

It was after midnight. Holmes had two cartloads of equipment to pack into his gold Ford Explorer, but he hoped to get home by 1 or 1:30. The last few guests were chatting on the dance floor. The groom and one of his friends stood in the middle, swaying slightly.

"Can we get one more last dance?" the friend asked Holmes.

"Can we get one of those DJ songs?" the groom added.

Holmes cued up a CD that the bride and groom had given him to play during breaks, and Barry White's familiar voice came growling out of the speakers. "Can't get enough of your love, babe," White crooned. At the back of the room, Holmes zipped his guitar into his case. Softly, under his breath, he sang along.

Lauren Wilcox, a regular contributor to the Magazine, is a freelance writer living in Jersey City, N.J. She can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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