Malcolm Holcomb & Valorie Miller – The Cave (Chapel Hill, NC)
Musicians who play the Cave on a July night earn every penny they make. The humidity off the street slides in the front door and through the cracks in the wall of this basement-level bar, while crashes and shouts drift in from the pool tables in the rear. You seize the stage or you’re wallpaper.
Opener Ed Pettersen managed quite well, in spite of a stream of late-arrivers in search of good music, cold beer and some overworked portable fans, not necessarily in that order. His infectious good spirits and engaging set of solo acoustic rock ‘n’ roll brought smiles to even the most tired and testy weekend warriors.
Valorie Miller began the night’s featured performance solo too; given past experiences in this room, she’s understandably somewhat uneasy. She later admitted to being pleasantly surprised by the crowd’s attentiveness; but in truth, it’s her own clear, fresh vocals and guitar playing that drew in the crowd.
As Malcolm Holcomb prepared to join her, someone muttered, “Aw, he’s going to play setting down.” Well, yeah, I suppose — in the same sense that Jerry Lee Lewis may have started shows that way. Holcomb’s onstage intensity can make most singer-songwriters seem like Burl Ives. On songs such as “Baby Doll” and “Mister In Morgantown”, he’ll bend and snap the notes on his acoustic guitar so much that you wonder what all the fuss was about electrifying the instrument. In these songs, his vocals match the instrumental fury, and to seal the deal, he’ll cock one eye in a penetrating glare that locks the audience in place, even as it leaves some a tad nervous.
Yet he can follow such a harrowing trip with songs of regret and comfort, including “A Far Cry From Here”, “Where Is My Garden”, and “Gone By The Old Sunrise”, in which the sense of serenity is made all the more powerful by the sense of it being so hard-won. All that emotion could easily become incoherent were it not for Holcomb’s superb songcraft, plus the perfect framing support of Miller’s high lonesome vocals gliding above and her solid standup bass playing. The perfect showcase for their alchemy is “Justice In The Cradle”, which, in live performances, now takes on the aspect of a sanctified stomp: images, harmonies and rhythm combining with primal power.
It’s still rather difficult to obtain their recorded work. Miller has a new collection, As The Crow Flies, due out soon, while Holcomb’s trunkload of wonderful new material is still awaiting release.