Malcolm Holcombe @Green Note 10/05/16

4 stars (out of 5)

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Malcolm Holcombe scrollerFrom close up you can see that Malcolm Holcombe’s life has been an eventful journey. While he’s offstage he looks frail, tired and just about holding things together; when he picks up a guitar and sits in front of a microphone, there’s a complete transformation. It’s impossible to tell if he’s just conserving all of his energy for those two forty-five minute slots or there’s some mojo that he can only call on while he’s playing and singing, illuminating him from within and creating an almost impossible level of intensity. Even the way he attacks the opening set, running songs into each other without a pause of even a fraction of a second to allow a bit of audience appreciation has the feel of a man on a mission. It’s powerful, intense and unpredictable but, like great art, it isn’t always comfortable.

On this tour, Malcolm has been joined by slide resonator player Jared Tyler, whose pure clear harmonies contrast perfectly with Malcolm’s forty-Marlboro-a-day, rusty razor wire baritone. His slide playing creates fills and additional backing for Malcolm’s style of picking and thumb-strumming; it’s a really effective combination of two voices and two instruments. The onstage chat between songs is inconsequential, bordering on random, but the audience isn’t there to hear chat; they want to hear the songs.

The focus is on the latest album, “Another Black Hole” with more than half of the album’s songs featuring on the night. The title track, “Sweet Georgia”, “Way Behind”, and “Leavin’ Anna” all get an enthusiastic response, but the biggest cheer of the night is for the storming “Papermill Man” towards the end of the first set. There’s a fair amount of older material as well, including “Sparrows and Sparrows”, “Down the River” and “Savannah Blues” (featuring some lovely ebow guitar from Jared) and even a version of the Maura O’Connell song “A Far Cry”. It’s a great bunch of songs and the new material is as good as anything he’s ever done.

If you’ve heard any of the songs before you can guess that Malcolm’s a man who’s had battles with his demons and it’s difficult to say who won (maybe he’ll be happy to last the full fifteen rounds). At times onstage he’s struggling for breath and you’re just willing him to make it to the end of the song, never mind the evening, but there’s a fire burning inside that won’t be easily quenched. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but Malcolm Holcombe live is an experience you won’t forget in a hurry.