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The enthralling Malcolm Holcombe

by Ryan Snyder

Malcolm Holcombe delivers an unsettlingly beautiful set at the Blind Tiger. (photo by Ryan Snyder)

Few performers are worth going to blows over to enjoy, but then again, not everyone sings and plays and carries on like Malcolm Holcombe, last Friday night’s performer at the Blind Tiger. When the spirit possesses the hardscrabble Appalachian bard, he can possess you, and suddenly the blustering yokel who walks in mid-show at one of his malattended sets is just begging to be told righteously to shut the hell up — or something to that effect. To fully appreciate the animal of Malcolm Holcombe, you have to buckle in and focus; far be it for anyone to interfere with that.

Of course, Holcombe himself looks like someone not so inclined to take any guff, and he definitely doesn’t spare the F-bombs. With a wardrobe fit for a hobo and a just a few strands of scraggly hair wafting from the edges of his dome, he looks like an older, meaner version of Killer Bob from “Twin Peaks.” There’s a distinctly Dada-ist quality to Holcombe’s performances, though. His rapid convulsions and profanity-laced outbursts suggest mental illness — actors might spend their entire lives perfecting the unsettling mania that he emits. But then he drops a beautifully twisted piece of real life on you via lyric and melody and suddenly you’re convinced that there’s a perfectly sane, genuine, possible genius performing before you.

He’s currently touring on songs from his eighth album To Drink the Rain, a collection of songs that are arguably his most clear headed. He still plays the part well on “Sparrows and Sparrows,” but no longer is he the tender hearted drunk that Tom Waits projects sympathetically; on “Where I Don’t Belong,” he accepts his place in the afterlife for worse. Yet, he followed such vexing trips with lamentful, comforting pieces like “Mountain Home” and “A Far Cry From Here” from his first album. Then there are the downright tearjerkers like his story of young, unprepared parents, “For the Mission Baby,” that hit you like a punch in the gut.

He played solo, rather than with the lush accompaniment he received on To Drink the Rain, giving his songs an intensity that matches his own. For every gravelly bellow he lets loose, he’s bending and snapping strings, or beating on the body of his CF Martin guitar, displaying a style born more of the delta than Appalachia, a primitive col lection of root chords that eventually drifts to country, jazz as needed.

His playing is as unconventional as it is uncanny, but he probably has a story that backs that up, and his repertoire of anecdotes is as surreal as they get. “I came to school out here in 1976,” he said. “Can’t remember why.” He’s recovered from those years in the throes of alcohol, and songs like “Becky’s Blessed” suggest he’s learned an appreciation for the sweet and simple things. He suggested to the crowd that everyone, at some point, needs take the time to sit behind the driver of a city bus, simply because they’re the best listeners. He thanked the bartender for his pineapple juice and the soundmen for the wedges in his monitor, all by name. He’s an uncommon kind of troubadour to be certain, and if you ever walk into a bar where he’s playing, just shut the hell up and pay attention.

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