Live Review: Malcolm Holcombe - Another too-slippery-to-peg critter of Americana

I'm rootin' around again today but hey, it's spring right?

Actually Mr. Bill and Ms. Kitty, proprietors of Café Carpe in Fort Atkinson, gone done it again. They have a knack for digging up genuine borderline geniuses for their small corner of the roots music universe, with the creaky stage chair.

Saturday night it was Malcolm Holcombe. Seeing as he's North Carolina-born, he might’ve evoked something of a historical namesake, one of those original “high, lonesome sound” wailers, Roscoe Holcomb.

And this Holcombe’s got more than a pipeful of hillbilly when he talks. But he’s sharp as a Bowie knife, and he plays more like a mix of Son House and Mississippi John Hurt. He says he listened to the WLS in Chicago as a youth, so he probably got a goodly exposure to the blues.

There are YouTube performances to be found, but none I've seen do him justice. In the flesh, Holcombe possesses an almost uncanny blend of brute intensity and backwoods charm.  A long shank of hair swaying across from his forehead and the mutton chops give him a hint of Luke the Drifter, a Hank Williams alter ego. But he’s a bona fide troubadour.  And when he shakes his head like a dog with something tasty in its jaws, you flash on the demons he admits to grappling with and overcome. He’ll drawl through a few sentences, set laconic pauses. Then his whole body explodes, with a kicker, or a punch line. You realize it's a punch line when he chuckles and your shock at the outburst fades as you comprehend what he just said. He slyly claims to be “just an average passive-aggressive, vanilla.”

But there's nothing vanilla about this guy, when you hear him bashing and slashing at his acoustic guitar, but with all the manual dexterity of, say, a master of exquisite hardwood chopping.   I'm talking about an eccentric, steely finger-style guitar technique that perfectly mirrors his slingshot/buckshot vocal dynamics. Part of that style includes a way of leaning on a chord change that hoists his rumbling baritone into a lyrical curve.

And the poetry of Holcomb’s lyrics tends to sneak up on you: “Silence is a loan, but nobody owes a dime. We ain't supposed to last forever, and there's a lot we ain't supposed to know. Me, I don't know nothin’, but my baby loves a slow love song.” I like how the romantic throw-away leavens the philosophizing.

Or : ”I grew up hungry… I left her for the sea… Going to a place made for giving. Your children don't belong." That last line seems peculiar, until you realize he's talking, with terse eloquence, about dying.

You want blues wit? “Those high-heeled women make a fool out of you; they follow you around, and make your socks roll up and down.”

I bet 98% of you never heard of this guy, but the now-proverbial 99% oughta hear him. Hell, the other 1% needs to. But imagining this guy sidling up to a one per-center is like a cottonmouth spiraling round an elephant's leg. He might toy with the notion, but knows he probably won't draw blood, though you do think of fangs, sometimes, in his beat-manic moments.

But if Holcomb feels like he'll lose his hat at any moment, the deep inhale of his music feels like a lifetime fully lived, hard and tender.

His last album was “To Drink the Rain.” Malcolm has a new album, "Down the River," which I haven't heard yet.

He has a very respectable website at:http://www.malcolmholcombe.com

(Note: I wrote this concert review last spring on my blog www.kevernacular.com, then saw Holcombe again in the summer at the Blue Plum Music and Arts Festival. He's no newcomer but I feel he's still too compelling and under-covered to not post about him now.)

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Comment by Al Maginnes on December 7, 2012 at 6:33am

Malcolm Holcombe is  a national treasure and one of the best songwriters alive.

Comment by John Jackson on December 7, 2012 at 9:16am

I agree whole-heartedly with Al M. First exposure to Malcolm for me was of the nearly "burning bush" variety. Each time I get to hear him live permits me to more fully appreciate his artistry. Not necessarily an "easy read", but like most things really good/important/life-changing = well worth the effort.

Comment by Kevernacular (Kevin Lynch) on December 7, 2012 at 10:42am

Al, Amen.

John, you're right about the "readibility"' factor and about your conclusion. Malcolm's an American original who exercises his right to nurture his strangeness, to our great benefit. But he invariably "brings it all back home," as one might say of Dylan, another strange mind of genius.       

 

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.