Malcolm Holcombe / Valorie Miller – The Cave (Chapel Hill, NC)
It’s a tough Friday night crowd at the Cave — tanked-up, restless and loud. It’s a tougher duo onstage, though; and unlike much of their audience, they’re focused on where they are and where they’re going. They’ll succeed tonight because of that focus, and because of the inspiration they so obviously find in each other. Malcolm Holcombe & Valorie Miller have forged a partnership as musically catalytic as Buddy & Julie, Gillian & David.
Valorie opens alone with her string bass, as clear-eyed, direct and challenging in demeanor as are her compositions. “Not My Daughter” and “Your Own Well” would not be out of place on a Hazel Dickens record; Valorie’s voice glides confidently across their aching high notes.
When Malcolm walks onstage to join her, few notice. But as the rasp of his vocals for “Mister In Morgantown” mixes with the crackle of his snapping guitar strings, you realize two voices and two acoustic instruments can burn souls when the spirit moves.
For the next two hours, the duo offers rough-hewn warnings and hard-earned solace. The set list is composed primarily of Holcomb’s newer work, completed since his acclaimed 1999 debut A Hundred Lies. He continues to refine a style well-suited to his angular songs, often following less of a narrative flow than a rapid-fire, slideshow effect. Images and whiplike guitar figures merge and repeat caustically in a spray of shouts and whispers, almost in the manner of a Blue Ridge Tom Waits. Like that dark master, he’s ready to howl when the moon escapes the clouds, yet purr huskily over a tender, shared memory.
Songs ending the first set and beginning the second serve as twin pivots for the evening. “Justice In The Cradle” is the duo at their most fiery; the mysterious power of its oblique language gains added thrust from their exultant harmonies and instrumental chemistry.
Returning for the second set, they seem to sense a different mood in the room, so they shift to more lyrical material. The harmonies that seemed to almost draw blood in the first set now wrap lovingly around a set of newly composed yet timeless melodies, as with the set opening “Water On Down” and the back-porch serenity of “Gone By The Old Sunrise”. Malcolm has always had a knack for memorable melodies, but these new songs seem brighter, less careworn. They finish looking tired yet satisfied — much like the late-night crew that stayed and cheered.