01/22/2015 Columbia Daily Tribune, Article , 'Movin’ on up: MU grad leads soulful, versatile East Side Rhythm Band'

Al Holliday’s musical story is a tale of two cities – or, more accurate, two corners of a great Midwestern music scene.

Holliday is the leader of the sprawling, seven-piece East Side Rhythm Band, a St. Louis mainstay with a reputation for reaching down deep and delivering a strong dose of blue-collar, blue-eyed soul. The band’s distinct style — and ability to buttress that style with substance — owes a debt to the days when artists such as Ike and Tina Turner, a major influence on Holliday, played in and around East St. Louis and on the Illinois side of the border. The “sheer intensity” of those acts’ live game gave Holliday’s band its name and something to aspire to, he said.

Yet, Holliday’s capacity for making his musical vision a living, breathing, boogie-down reality was greatly enlarged by a four-year stint in Columbia. He studied at the University of Missouri’s School of Natural Resources, graduating in 2010. While not earning a formal music degree, Holliday received a sound education while on campus. The rhythms and dynamics of jazz worked their way into his fingers playing piano for MU ensembles; his ability to see and hear the bigger picture came in the classroom as he learned to create charts for big bands.

Literally charting a course for his fellow musicians was perhaps the single most important musical skill Holliday gained in Columbia. Live, his band draws from a repertoire of more than 100 songs he has plotted on paper; the group’s 2013 record “Made It Through the Mill, Again” expanded its typical tenor sax-baritone sax-trumpet triple threat into a six-piece horn section. Holliday said neither side of the coin would have been possible without lessons learned at MU.

Soul and R&B exerted a gravitational pull on Holliday from a young age. Drawn to its passion and honesty, he eschewed flavors of the day in favor of sounds he felt would truly stand the test of time.

“All that old music will always be good — and I just want to make music like that,” Holliday said.

Moving back to the St. Louis region after graduation, Holliday reacquainted himself with the music scene and was inspired to start a band that could exist in and better that community. The band lives and works in the present while existing as a throwback to better musical days for the region’s eastern edge.

“Made It Through the Mill, Again” is a deliriously soulful document; the album features the kind of R&B sounds that can sway you toward some bad decisions yet be the musical hair of the dog that eases your troubles. It sings and speaks of the glories of loving a good woman, then commiserates and consoles when that woman hits the road.

Holliday’s voice is a deep, colorful one with just a hint of a growl. The most frequent comparison he garners is to the late Joe Cocker — last year, the East Side Rhythm Band did a set of Cocker covers at An Under Cover Weekend, a St. Louis tradition that has local acts tackle music’s heavy hitters. Holliday also confessed respect for the likes of Dr. John, Leon Russell, Van Morrison and Sly and the Family Stone. Listening to those acts, he hears artists who weren’t trying to do a certain thing or fit a certain image — they were just trying to be themselves. That individuality and sense of self is greatly inspiring, Holliday said.

That sort of individual presence happens best in community, as the band proves on “Made It Through the Mill, Again.” Holliday’s voice is surrounded by burbling organs, bluesy piano, the peal and punch of horns and lithe guitar playing, all of it working together to create generous, good-God-almighty grooves. The majority of the record was cut live in a single day, Holliday said, and the vitality of that approach rings through.

Taking that live-wire feel into an actual live setting, Holliday constantly takes the temperature of the moment. Working from the 100 or so songs his band knows, he will write a set list based on what he expects from the evening. Once the band is in the room, before a crowd, he will consider how much heat the band needs to give off in a given instant, reshaping the set accordingly.

“One thing we try to do is just wear people out,” he said good-naturedly. Hearing Holliday and Co. spend their energy on a record, and knowing that’s just a fraction of the experience, it’s easy to forecast how both band and listener could leave a show feeling exhausted in the best sort of way.