Malcolm Holcombe, live somewhere else.
If you’ve ever longed to see an extraordinary, under-heralded singer/songwriter perform in an intimate setting at the peak of his craft — say Townes Van Zandt in 1973 or so — then hopefully you were among the 50-odd people who came to the White Water Tavern last night to see Malcolm Holcombe.
The North Carolinian held the crowd in his sway, his powerful songs all firmly rooted in the traditions of folk and blues. He played unaccompanied, often wielding his guitar like one would a chainsaw — with deliberate movements, aware of its potential danger. Other times, he cradled the instrument like it was some wounded creature he’d found in the woods and was trying to nurse back to health.
Throughout the performance, he plucked the strings so hard they rang out like a tire iron dropped on the concrete shop floor. It’s amazing that he doesn’t constantly break strings, but perhaps this owes to his considerable chops. It is rare to see such an incredible singer/songwriter who is also a stone badass guitar player. Most just strum their simple chords. Holcombe practically shreds.
His singing voice sounded rough and gentle, often at the same time. He told rambling tales that seemed to have no destination, but usually found their way back into the next song. He offered advice for when there’s nobody around to confide in because everyone you know is either working or dead: just get on the city bus, sit up front and talk to the driver. “By the way,” he said, “don’t cut his throat, ‘cause somebody already did that.” He chuckled into the mic, and then launched into “Back to Hell in a Greyhound.”
Most of Holcombe’s songs celebrate the basics of life: love, family, friends, work, conflict, hardship, gratitude, good food and sitting around in the cool green grass of the shade. He uses these sturdy components to build timeless songs.
These days, there are hordes of performers who truck in “Americana” or “roots” or “folk” music. But Holcombe’s art is no phony drawl, pearl-snap affectation. Nor is it sterile, by-the-numbers old-timey music, suffocated by joyless authenticity. It is the real thing. If that sounds like your cup of tea, you’d best not miss him the next time he comes to town.