What a rare treat: not only to get to see Malcolm Holcombe play, but to see him at a newish, intimate venue with a great sound system. Such was my luck when I and a small handful of enthusiastic, mostly middle-aged fans caught Holcombe play at the intimate Jamey’s House of Music in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania, just west of Philadelphia.
Despite having been a big fan for many years I had not seen Holcombe play live before, so I did not know quite what to expect. It some ways he’s very much like the wild-looking, frenetic player you’ve seen in YouTube videos and on the DVD for the RCA sessions, though he’s sweeter and much more approachable than those videos let on. He’s also funny as hell, in a charmingly down-home, pointed way.
Sure, that craggy, careworn face of his — with one long wispy lock of hair from his greying ponytail hanging down in front of it — was instantly recognizable, as was his customarily ragged, near-homeless person’s outfit. So was the dark, downward glare, along with the sharply percussive fingerpicking, the hard palm-banging on the guitar top, and the spittle flying everywhere as he spat out his tunes with growls and howls punctuated by husky whispers.
He declared at the show’s start “Let’s make some racket here!” and proceeded to do just that. He was in perpetual herky-jerky motion at Jamey’s: leaning, swaying, his leg bouncing up and down, his face enacting surprise, fear, anger, melancholic sadness and wistfulness by turns. His song introductions and occasional post-song explanations were sometimes short and cryptic, other times long and expansive; sometimes deeply personal, other times wittily observant of social mores and cultural assumptions; sometimes hilarious, and other times my-favorite-dog-just-died serious.
He played every song — even ones he’d written over 25 years ago — flawlessly, without a cheat sheet or prompter, and with an intensity that was constant and unyielding. The breathtaking, laser-focused intensity of his performance of “A Hundred Lies” — the title song off his first album, recorded in 1996 but not released until 1999 — was worth the price of admission alone.
It was definitely THAT man/myth/legend I saw.
As expected, he also brought his strong political opinions and incisive social commentary, via songs like “Down the River” (“I tried to write this country song when Mitt Romney was running for president”), “New Damnation Alley” (about a visit to Plymouth, England, where the Mayflower “stopped to get liquor on their way here,” according to Holcombe), “Legal Tender” (about rural meth labs’ and pharmaceutical companies’ complicity in ruining American lives), “Yours No More” (about our collective disavowal of the promise Ellis Island once held out to immigrants), and his moving closer for the evening, “A Far Cry.” Before launching into that last number Holcombe reminisced poignantly about having once held a piece of the Berlin Wall, adding huskily, “I don’t think we need walls… we need bridges.”
“I’m a hard lefty,” he admitted at the start of his second set. “I like what Steve Earle said,” he added: “‘I’m just a little bit left of Mao Tse Tung.’”
Holcombe’s sneakily surreal, at times slapdash sense of humor was in full evidence at Jamey’s, too. A few of the one-liners I managed to catch (they came fast and furious at times) included:
• “The moral of the story is, if your dog tells you what to do and his lips don’t move, don’t do it.”
• “I was talking to my wife about my extensive knowledge of world history. It didn’t take long.”
• “When you’re married a long time like we are — 17 years — you got a lot to say… to other people.”
• “I left my wallet in my other pants… for about 20 years.”
• “She had on a two-piece, bright orange bikini — and I think she had most of her teeth.”
• [Imitating someone losing his memory]: “I’m like, ‘Margaret, where’s my Ambien? Did the dog get my Ambien again??”
At one point he told a story about being in Madrid with his collaborator and sometime-producer Jared Taylor. They were playing as a duo in a hotel, but someone assumed they were just part of the full band and wanted to know where their drummer was. “Oh, he died in a titty bar,” they faked off-handedly. This tale prompted a later cry from an audience member at Jamey’s (after Holcombe played a particularly percussive number): “You don’t need no drum, Malcolm!”
Announcing the intermission at the end of his first set, Holcombe quipped, “We’ll take a break so we can chain smoke and touch each other — that’s about all I think ‘bout any more.”
And for the coup de grace — though I’m sure no one will believe this — I SWEAR I heard Holcombe howl a line from the Steppenwolf rocker “Born to Be Wild” toward the end of his performance of “Who Carried You.” His wit was that quirky, delightful and infectious.
There was also something surprisingly gentle and warm about his presence that I did not expect, however. Such qualities evinced themselves most notably during songs like “Savannah Blues,” “Down in the Woods” (which he humbly thanked Jonathan Edwards for covering), “Don’t Know Better,” “My Brother’s Keeper,” “Pitiful Blues,” and finally, “Merry Christmas” and “I Don’t Wanna Disappear” off his album, Come Hell or High Water.
As one audience member noted shortly after Holcombe closed the show with his incredibly tender solo rendition of “A Far Cry” (which he performed as a duet with Maura O’Connell on The RCA Sessions): “It’s amazing that a voice that rough could sound so beautiful.”
Amazing, indeed. Those genuinely warm, tender qualities also evinced themselves during Holcombe’s meet-and-greet banter with attendees, a couple of whom ventured to broach the subjects of addiction and rehabilitation. Holcombe listened to their stories of relatives’ frayed lives with deep, sympathetic attention, and in one case offered to put a fan in touch with a counselor/addiction expert he knows in the Philly area. It was such a touching and unexpected show of simple human kindness that I had a hard time keeping my eyes dry as I walked away. That gesture added many inches to the diminutive Holcombe’s stature, in my eyes. He’s worth admiring for more than just his prodigious songwriting and performing skills it would seem.
More info on Malcolm Holcombe, including tour dates, reviews, and links to his recordings, can be found at: https://www.malcolmholcombe.com
My review of Holcombe’s latest album, Come Hell or High Water, can be found here: REVIEW: Malcolm Holcombe Alternates Bittersweet Reminiscences and Poignant Provocations on “Come Hell or High Water”