Gig review: Malcolm Holcombe at Gateshead Central
“Let me do a tune about birdshit…”
Never tempted to oversell himself or his songs, Malcolm Holcombe ambles onstage wearing what appears to be a tramp’s jacket, reading glasses dangling from his shirt, unkempt long and balding hair askew. The discerning viewer might notice the C F Martin logo on his guitar and conclude that, contrary to initial appearances, the man in front of us might just be making a decent living from this music lark – but then again so do some buskers…
It’s a rare busker who could compete with Holcombe’s deep, growling voice, however, nor would they be playing on a street corner for long with songs of this quality. From the tear-jerking tale of young parenthood To The Mission Baby, to the slow, soulful ballad of urban desolation From The City Comes The Blues, emotional strings are duly pulled. The mood brightens with the light-hearted One Leg At A Time, which reveals itself as a cautionary life lesson rather than the sartorial exhortation that it might at first appear.
A highly physical performer, Holcombe stalks the stage, wriggling and jerking as the music takes him, moans and groans emanating. Vigorous head shakes are matched in intensity by his violent guitar technique; thuds and twangs generate a percussive drive which fervently pushes the songs along.
Hailing from the coolly urban Asheville, North Carolina, Holcombe’s musicianship could just as easily have ended up reflecting the town’s Southern Deco ambience and taken a left turn around early period R.E.M. It’s a tribute to his love of the earlier sounds which developed in the rural tributaries of his home state that he resisted; this affection shines through in his performance.
Holcombe has a particularly surreal collection of anecdotes, from being given a lift by a drug-addled driver who lent him twenty dollars and promptly left him in the middle of nowhere (“What happened to that twenty bucks? I spent the shit out of it.”), to unsettling claims of a brief training in proctology. A propos of nothing, apparently his mom’s dried, fried apple pies are delicious; unfortunately there wasn’t time for a detailed discussion of the recipe.
This is a deceptively clever performance, variously invoking Waits, Dylan, and, if he were to spend the next ten years drinking Tennessee whiskey for breakfast on his front porch, Springsteen. The playing, whilst initially appearing to consist of various combinations of root chords, effortlessly drifts between country, blues and jazz as the songs demand. By the end, we’ve been educated in the ways of love, sex, religion and dogs, via some fine songs of Appalachian wisdom. And are a little warier of proctologists.