Review: Malcolm Holcombe and Tom Russell, Celtic Connections, Glasgow
Malcolm Holcombe wandered onto the stage like he’d just stepped off the streets, in a baggy, lived-in, brown leather jacket, a woolly hat and a scarf (he discarded only the hat before picking up his guitar), took a sip from a steaming cup of coffee and was making music before he’d even turned back towards the audience.
“I’ve been doing push-ups every morning,” he told the laughing crowd. “I sometimes do two or three in a row.”
On the surface, Holcombe is the epitome of the rough-and-ready, “real” country singer, with his gravelly voice, his untroubled performance and his down-home tales of rural North Carolina life as he rocked his chair back and forth in just the way forbidden by schoolteachers everywhere.
But look a bit closer and there’s even more going on here. Holcombe might have been playing bent double, standing up but leaning over to sing into the microphone set up for use with the chair, but every note he played was spot-on. And the lyrics of his songs are far from the simple ballads of his Appalachian heritage.
There’s also something unique and very moving about the way Holcombe talks incessantly about his wife, the unseen presence that seems to shape everything he does and everything he sings about. He calls her the light of his life in a way that would embarrass many men but touches every woman in the room.
The insouciant, rumpled aura that Malcolm Holcombe gives off may well be the way he really is, but it’s not what he is. And everyone knows that, and it’s that contrast that makes his performances spellbinding.
The double bill with Tom Russell – Celtic Connections’ frantically full programme pairs all sorts of artists who might otherwise never meet – could also have been a study in contrasts, but in the end it was far more similar than it was different.
Russell’s is a studied performance, honed over more than three decades on stage, yet kept fresh by a deep measure of ad-libbed monologues and strong audience participation, not to mention a seemingly endless stream of new, strong, thought-provoking songs from a prolific songwriter, painter and observer of life.
Russell is touring his new album, Blood and Candle Smoke, of which he is clearly immensely proud. He describes the music as “desert noir”, a tour through the underbelly of the U.S.-Mexico border, with regular side-trips to the darkest parts of Africa, Canada and the other haunts of this frighteningly well-travelled and well-read artist.
Though many mourned when Russell and his sideman of 20 years Andrew Hardin went their own ways a few years ago, the application of new guitarists has added a certain freshness to Russell’s live performance. Thad Beckman wowed the audience with his renditions of Mississippi John Hurt, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Doc Watson as Russell brought out his much-performed but always different and entertaining monologue of life in the shadow of Dave Van Ronk. Beckman’s laid-back style (was he chewing gum?) is a good fit with Russell, who will always be the dominant personality on any stage.
The format at Celtic Connections offers audiences a “two for the price of one” opportunity, and on this occasion that is very much what they got. Which only leaves the slight disappointment that both artists – especially Holcombe – could have done with more time.
Holcombe and Russell each have one more gig at Celtic Connections, Russell tonight as part of Texas Songwriters in the Round and Holcombe tomorrow night in company with Johnny Dickinson. Both are also on wider UK tours. Check the Gig Guide for details.