Remembering Kelly Holland from his Cry of Love prime

Posted by David Menconi on February 24, 2014 

Cry of Love in 1993. From left: Robert Kearns, Jason Patterson, Kelly Holland and Audley Freed.

COURTESY OF COLUMBIA RECORDS

In a sad turn of events, former Cry of Love frontman Kelly Holland has died at age 52. There’s an obit running in the paper, which you can check here.

Back in Cry of Love’s early-’90s prime, Holland was a classic classic-rock frontman, the sort of charismatic guy you wanted to hang around even though you knew he’d probably get you into trouble.

“He was as gregarious a guy as anyone could be,” said Backsliders drummer Jeff Dennis, who used to play with Holland in The Point. “Back in the day, I did a lot of the driving, so I’d just want to go back to the motel after the gig and go to sleep. But Kelly would be holding court with whatever females were around. He’d be like a comedienne telling joke routines, all this charm and charisma -- especially with females. He had this way of hooking them and bringing them into his universe. I saw that over and over, and it continued until the day he died.”

Holland also figured into one of the more memorable stories I’ve gotten to do in my time at the News & Observer. Back in 1994, Cry of Love seemed on the brink of stardom. So I went out for a few days and lurked around with my notebook while they were touring as Aerosmith’s opening act. The story is below. The image of Holland pacing around humming into that towel before the show remains vivid, 20 years later.

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A Far Cry: If the road to success has a fast lane, it’s not in sight on the extended rock tour

By David Menconi, News & Observer

March 20, 1994

TOLEDO, Ohio -- They call him Bobzilla.

Bob Davis, who is to Raleigh band Cry of Love what James Carville was to Bill Clinton, is alternately roaring, pleading, joking and cajoling into the phone from Room 106 of the Toledo Econolodge. It’s six hours until the band gets its 40 minutes on stage tonight as opening act for Aerosmith, and tour manager Davis is taking care of business.

“Everybody’s fine, “ he tells a promoter for an upcoming show. “Well, Robert has been the walkin’ flu boy the last few days ... Shots? Are you kidding? Who has time for shots?!”

Davis has dubbed this place “Hotel of the Beast.” If you’ve ever wondered where all the tacky furniture made between 1970 and 1975 wound up, the Cry of Love entourage can tell you. They’ve seen almost every stick of it in cheap motels like this from coast to coast.

Today, they’re bivouacked just off Interstate 75. Now in its 10th month, Cry of Love’s endless concert tour has entered its walking wounded phase: Bassist Robert Kearns has the flu, singer Kelly Holland is trying to stamp out a persistent sinus infection with antibiotics, and drummer Jason Patterson is battling a bad back.

All hands are suffering from exhaustion and burnout, which is apparent watching them shuffle in and out of Davis’ room. Their bloodshot eyes clash with the rust-colored shag carpet. Since May, the band’s longest break has been six days at Christmas.

If there is a road to stardom, this is it.

“Soundcheck?!” Davis screams in mock amazement. “Honey, this is Aerosmith, and we’re the opening act. We don’t get no stinkin’ soundcheck.”

Opening bands never do.

Band members come in to exchange news and gossip with Davis. Topic A today is this summer’s ZZ Top tour -- it’s down to them or George Thorogood for the coveted opening act slot.

Davis sticks with the here and now.

“Hey, are we still on for the roadie-for-a-day contest? I’m gonna wear that [guy] out -- get him to clean the cymbals, wipe down the drum kit. Think you can fix it so a girl can win? ... A cute girl? ... Oh, c’mon!”

####

Cry of Love was one of 1993’s most successful new acts on rock radio. The band’s label, Columbia/Sony, is putting lots of money and effort into breaking the group. The company has paid to release three singles and videos from “Brother,” the band’s debut album.

Still, none of that has translated into major sales. So far, “Brother” has moved about 200,000 copies -- respectable, but not a big hit. Since Cry of Love’s ’70s-influenced blues-rock rarely resonates with critics, the band can’t count on much press support.

But having played for years in storied regional bands like Nantucket, The Point and Sidewinder, Kearns, Holland, Patterson and guitarist Audley Freed are all consummate pros and highly skilled musicians. So now they’re endlessly working the live circuit the way a politician does, building grass-roots support.

Touring is far more glamorous in theory than practice. Mostly, it’s a lot of drudgery and work -- a numbing blur of days and nights in which tomorrow’s motel room looks just like yesterday’s. And today’s.

“Every time we come off the road,” says Davis, “some fresh knucklehead asks, ‘What do you do on the road? You’ve got all that free time.’ Nope. You’re in the van, in the hotel room or at the gig. On the phone a lot, too. There’s a Zen to it. It’s better not to have much of a personal life, no doubt about that.”

Cry of Love has been typically playing shows in five to six cities each week. They won’t stop until October at the earliest.

Ten months of touring have given the band the distinctively pasty pallor of those who work at night. Some sport “tour baby” bellies, since it’s hard to eat well and impossible to exercise.

Most of the shows have been club dates for audiences of 1,000 or less. The band has also played arenas, opening for bigger acts like Robert Plant and Aerosmith, mostly in secondary-verging-toward-tertiary markets like Toledo. But after tonight and Lexington, Ky., tomorrow, it’s back to the clubs.

####

Opening-act stints are not unlike a minor-league ballplayer getting a two-week call-up for “The Show.” You know you’ll be back in Pawtucket soon, but you hope you’ll be up to stay with the big club before too long. In the meantime, you enjoy the bigger crowds and the better food, and you dream.

Across the hall from Davis, Cry of Love’s laconic guitarist Audley Freed is picking on his acoustic guitar in Room 103. He’s editing proofs for a songbook of the tunes from “Brother, “ and the sheet music is riddled with errors.

“These are all wrong, “ he says with a frown. “Just little mistakes here and there. So I’ve gotta go through them all with a red pen. It’s a pain, but a good pain. If some kid’s gonna spend his money on this, it should be right.”

While the other three members of Cry of Love are hardly hired hands, Freed is clearly the group’s center of gravity. Whether editing a songbook, writing a piece for Musician magazine or going over contracts with Davis, he rarely stops working or thinking about the Big Picture.

“A lot of bands go out and are big for three months with a huge song, then are never heard from again, “ he says. “We’re building a base. Rock radio doesn’t play many new bands. It’s real tight, a lot of ‘Hotel California.’ So it’s hard to crack.”

While Freed plays, his roommate, vocalist Holland, is looking for a sewing kit to mend the denim vest he wears onstage.

“I hope there’s a washing machine at the gig. It will be two weeks Sunday since these got washed, “ Freed says, patting his weathered jeans.

“Well, they can’t smell us onstage, “ Holland says. “Good thing.”

####

Awful weather seems to follow Cry of Love like an albatross. In January, they drove from Hershey, Pa., to New Haven, Conn., in an ice storm. Ten minutes from the hotel, they heard on the radio that the gig had been canceled.

The pattern is holding in Toledo, where it’s just short of a white-out. Six inches of snow are expected by nightfall, more overnight.

Freed and Holland have left the Econolodge early (the others will be along in the van later). Playing chauffeur is Dave Watson, Columbia Records’ Cleveland-based radio promoter. Watson is trying to make a call on his cellular phone while driving, until his car fishtails on the icy highway entrance ramp. He puts down the phone.

“I’d hate to be responsible for killing Sony’s next platinum act, “ he says.

Freed watches the sky fall.

“Everywhere we go, it’s like this, “ he says. “As soon as they saw us, the Aerosmith people were going, ‘Oh no, you guys again. Snow must be on the way.’ They’re calling us Cry of Snow.”

Watson’s car crosses a drawbridge over the frozen Ottawa River and winds through downtown rush-hour traffic. Holland observes that it looks like an Alka-Seltzer Plus commercial outside.

Snow is hurtling down harder than ever as the Toledo Sports Arena looms into view. Two hours before show time, several hundred people are lined up outside.

“Man, “ Freed mutters to himself, “I hope they play the song all you guys are here for.”

####

Aerosmith travels with a crew of dozens, many of them as legendary as the band itself. Backstage, the Cry of Love guys point them out in hushed tones: singer Steven Tyler’s assistant, Arlie Manuel, widow of The Band keyboard player Richard Manuel; the sound engineer who survived Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 1977 plane crash; and the head of security, an enormous man known only as “Big Mike.”

Tonight’s dinner spread isn’t bad -- pasta, chicken or red beans and rice. For dessert there’s a big chocolate cake that reads, “Toledo Welcomes Aerosmith!” Aerosmith’s crew digs in, but the band members themselves won’t eat any of it. They travel with their own chefs.

Over dinner, Cry of Love goes through the latest batch of mail retrieved from their Raleigh post office box. A fan in Japan has sent Holland a compact disc of Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs & Englishmen.” Kearns has a fan letter from a teacher at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

“’I’d be interested in having you come talk to my students, ‘” he reads aloud. “Yeah, like I know enough to go teach.”

Some interviewers were supposed to be here an hour ago, but they’re nowhere to be found. Davis declines to go look for them outside in the snow.

“That ain’t my job, “ he says. “If they show up, they show up. If they don’t, that’s normal.”

Tonight’s “dressing room” is a corner cordoned off with a couple of thin blue curtains. Cry of Love has put up some wall hangings to make it a bit less impersonal, and incense smokes in a corner.

Still, nothing can keep the chill out of this drafty old building. Freed tries to warm up his fingers by picking away on his guitar to an Aretha Franklin compact disc on the boom box. Nearby, Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry can be heard warming up with the riff from the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.”

“They played that in the middle of ‘Draw the Line’ the other night, “ says Freed. “He must be boning up on it in case they try it again tonight.”

####

Aerosmith’s members seem to genuinely like Cry of Love and have treated them well. That doesn’t always happen. Freed sounds almost amazed when recounting a compliment from Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford.

“He told me, ‘You really play great!’

“I’m not the star-gazer type, but that was really something, especially when I remember the way I looked up to him when I was a kid.”

Finally, the radio interviewers arrive -- three young women from Bowling Green State University’s college radio station. One pulls up a chair with Freed and Holland, while her friends perch together on a nearby chair.

Freed and Holland do at least several of these every day, and the questions are invariably the same: Where are they from, who are their influences, how did they get together.

“So, “ the interviewer begins, clicking on her tape recorder, “how’d you guys get together?”

Freed points to Holland (”your turn”) and continues playing his guitar.

####

A half-hour before show time, the musicians go into their warm-up routines. They change out of the long johns and extra socks they travel in, donning boots, vests, jackets.

Drummer Patterson pulls on a pair of jeans with holes in the knees (prompting an Aerosmith roadie to crack, “Sid Vicious died for your sins”), Freed goes back to playing, and Kearns goes out front to “check out the gig.” Aerosmith’s wraithlike Tyler glides by, trailing scarves, and compliments Kearns on his imitation fur coat.

Like most extroverted front men, singer Holland goes through a series of major mood swings before each show. On the upswing, he roams the backstage area with his video camera and babbles away with hilarious vocal imitations of everyone from Elvis Presley to Bobby Goldsboro (plus a mean Bullwinkle). On the downswing, he sits with a blank stare of concentration on his face.

Finally, Holland paces the dressing room, holding a rolled-up towel to his mouth with both hands and humming loudly. Nobody else gives him a second glance.

####

The Toledo Sports Arena is a classic Midwestern hockey arena (no one has even bothered to take down the plexiglass shields). Cry of Love files past the Zamboni and onto the stage, Neil Young’s “Tonight’s the Night” playing over the public address system, the lights down low. Then Davis steps to the microphone.

“Are you ready?! Will you please welcome, from Raleigh, N.C., Cry of Love!”

The crowd of 7,500 roars. It takes about four bars for Cry of Love to slip into the sort of reflexive groove that can come only from touring 10 months straight.

Kearns and Patterson are rock-solid, Freed’s solos are terse and to the point, Holland’s vocal shouts and mike stand-twirls perfectly timed. They get about as good a reception as you’ll see for an opening act.

“Oh, look,” says Davis from behind the keyboard riser, where he keeps Freed’s extra guitar tuned. “Cigarette lighters -- a first for us!”

It helps Cry of Love’s cause that they’ve had several big airplay hits. The new single, “Too Cold in the Winter, “ gets a big cheer (it’s particularly resonant tonight). So do “Bad Thing” and the closing “Peace Pipe.”

Almost before their set has started, it’s over.

####

Right before Aerosmith starts its encore, Cry of Love beats the traffic and retreats to the bar of the Marriott, where Aerosmith is staying. The guys shoot a few games of pool, sip beers and talk about the gig.

“That was good,” says Freed. “Not inspired by any means. I blew ‘Highway Jones’ because I was playing through the wrong pickup. But it was cool. Good crowd response.”

Aerosmith’s set has ended by now and several Ohio State University students come into the bar, looking for Cry of Love. They drove all the way from Columbus to see the band, more than three hours in the storm, and they’ve brought along a football they want autographed. The band is happy to oblige.

Ten minutes later, the room’s vibe has turned strangely hostile. A couple of drunken loudmouths demand to be let in on the pool table. One of them fixes a glazed eye on Robert Kearns and asks, “Hey, man, do you play in that band Blind Melon?”

Then a dozen or so women with very large hair, miniskirts and spiked heels arrive.

“Strippers, “ he mutters. “You can always tell the professionals.”

It’s time to leave.

On the way out, Holland pauses by the bar’s big-screen television. Roger Daltrey is on “The Late Show With David Letterman, “ backed by the Spin Doctors and singing The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

“He’s still pulling it off, man, and he’s 50, “ says Holland. “Looks good, too.”

####

“See how much better you eat when you get a record deal?” sighs Jason Patterson the next morning, hoisting a bag from Burger King into the Cry of Love van. Inside, he adjusts the neck brace he travels in. Someday, if the Cry of Love tour ever ends, he may get enough rest for his back and neck to stop aching.

Mercifully, the snow ended overnight and the morning has dawned sunny and 21 degrees. Today’s drive is 295 miles, an easy trip. Cry of Love’s worst one-day trip was Seattle to Monterrey, Calif., last year, an 850-mile drive that took 16 hours.

Cry of Love’s 1993 Ford Econoline van already has 98,000 miles. For good luck, a Beavis & Butt-head key chain hangs from the mirror. Davis drives while Freed takes shotgun, scanning the radio. The others stretch out in back to nap.

Outside Dayton, Freed hits a radio station just in time to hear the last notes of Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time.” It yields to Boston’s “Don’t Look Back.”

“Ugh, “ Freed says in disgust. “Radio sucks. God, I heard the most damaged song on country radio the other day, ‘Bubba Shot the Jukebox.’ How could anybody do a country parody after that?”

Freed scans some more and finds a station playing Cry of Love’s “Too Cold in the Winter.”

“All right, “ he says, matter-of-factly. Hearing themselves on the radio may not be as much of a thrill anymore, but it is why they’re out here.

####

“Are we there yet?”

“It’s 138 miles to Cincinnati, and then 89 more to Lexington.”

Davis pushes the cruise control up to 73 mph.

####

Checking into the Lexington Days Inn, Cry of Love is a disheveled-looking bunch. What could they be except a rock band? In a scene right out of “This Is Spinal Tap, “ however, no one seems to recognize them as the opening act for tonight’s Aerosmith show -- even though almost everyone in the lobby appears to be in town for the concert.

“What’s going on tonight?” an older man asks the clerk.

“A concert, “ she answers.

“Yeah,” Davis interjects, “a country artist named Harold Smith.”

They either didn’t hear or didn’t get the joke. In any case, the clerk says she’s going to the show. She’ll probably be surprised when Cry of Love comes onstage.

If Raleigh’s Civic Center held 20,000 people, it would be the University of Kentucky’s Rupp Arena. Ugly as it is, it will do just fine. Judging from the whoops and hollers outside, every redneck in Kentucky is headed this way.

“I like playing for redneck crowds,” Holland cracks. “You can suck and they still like you. But we don’t suck.”

####

Tonight, Aerosmith is doing a backstage “meet and greet, “ signing autographs and posing for photographs with contest-winners and local radio hacks. Since this is Cry of Love’s last show on the tour, the two bands pose together for some pictures.

As both bands head for their dressing rooms afterward, everybody is snickering about one contest-winner, whom they’ve dubbed Vic (short for victim). The guy was wearing a battery-powered flashing headband and was so drunk he almost had to be carried away.

“Is there a lot of inbreeding going on around here or what?” asks Aerosmith’s Joe Perry.

####

Just outside Cry of Love’s dressing room, Cry of Love’s Freed and Aerosmith’s Whitford stop for more shop talk. When Freed demonstrates a riff that gives him trouble, Whitford admits he has trouble with it, too.

“I don’t know how anyone does that, to be honest, “ Freed says, idly strumming his Fender Stratocaster. “If I wanted to do it, I’d have to relearn and rethink how to play, and I just don’t have the time.”

They talk a few more minutes, guitar-head stuff about string gauges and so on, as people stream through the hallway. Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler goes ambling by with “Big Mike, “ carrying a woman’s bra, for no apparent reason.

####

A handful of Columbia Records employees are backstage, including Josh Sarubin, who signed Cry of Love. Sarubin tells Holland that he heard Tyler say “Brother” was the first thing he played in his new house.

“Wow, that’s cool,” says Holland. “But I’m becoming so cynical that I’m doubting it right now, you know?”

Then he looks around the dressing room, which is a slight improvement over Toledo. It’s big, but cold and oppressively bright.

“We rarely get a dressing room this big, “ Holland says.

“Yeah, but things are changing fast, “ Sarubin says optimistically.

“Yeah, real fast -- especially tomorrow, “ Holland shoots back, the slightest hint of glumness in his voice.

Tomorrow, they’re back to the club circuit, in Cincinnati.

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