Written by Samuel Barker & James Killen
Jun 25, 2012 at 12:00 AM
One of our favorite musicians around these parts is Malcolm Holcombe. The man is intense, crafts great songs and brings it every night. What more could you want from a performer?

Well, we decided to make Holcombe our latest person to get a “Texas Two-Step,” where we send two people to cover two different shows here in Texas. Let’s see where we caught up to Holcombe and what went down at these shows!

Night One: The Bugle Boy in La Grange, TX
Reviewer: Samuel Barker

ImageAbout four summers ago, Kenny Pipes from Almost Austin House Concerts told me about Malcolm Holcombe. He talked up his show and had me thinking he was overselling the guy. There was no way a guy with a guitar could be so captivating and downright awesome.

I sat in his house a couple weeks later and was blown away. Holcombe had the house completely captivated and when he’d be telling a story and suddenly yell something out, everyone would jump in their seats. Then, he’d be playing, shaking his head like he was exorcising a demon and throwing out these really intricate, heart-touching songs. In the end, Pipes undersold the guy.

When I saw he’d be playing at Pipes’ place the same night I’d be playing elsewhere, I was bummed out to say the least. However, I got the invite from Pipes himself to ride shotgun to La Grange to check out Holcombe at the Bugle Boy. It was an invite I simply couldn’t refuse.

The drive out to La Grange was filled with conversation of music and a lot of thoughts on Holcombe as a performer and songwriter. It was another point where I was like “Perhaps we’re getting too excited about this?”

We arrived at The Bugle Boy to see Holcombe hanging in his car, eating dinner before it was time for sound check. Luckily, we were led in by Holcombe and we got to see him sound check for the night, which was fun to be a part of. I didn’t bring a camera to the show, so I snapped the grainy cellphone picture you see above.

After an hour of conversations with the owners and patrons of The Bugle Boy, cups of coffee and a couple smokes, Holcombe hit the stage. He squinted at the audience, tossed his hat on the stage and kicked the show off with Becky’s Blessed.

For the first set, Holcombe leaned heavily on his newer material, which was a nice treat, since I haven’t had a chance to see a lot of it performed and besides, it means a second set loaded with old favorites. Songs like Baby Likes a Love Song, For the Mission Baby and Mountains of Home filled the air with good vibes, big smiles and Holcombe’s tireless picking of the strings.

The most amazing thing about Holcombe is how he changes keys and never uses a capo or anything. He’s almost like a jazz musician throwing in chord changes to accompany the melody rather than relying solely on the vocals to lay it out. There are rarely moments he simply strums a chord, but when he does, it is to emphasize a point in a way finger-picking couldn’t.

The picking style is just one of 3 major components to one of Holcombe’s songs. He’s a great story-teller. At times, the stories seem like they don’t end and just exist to fill space, but when the lyrics come in, it finishes many of the tales. All of the songs are made up of the setup, the words and the attack of his guitar that lays out a beautiful tale. It’s something missing from a lot of musicians these days who are content just to beat it out and let the story stand on its own. Both have merits, but both styles are much more appreciated when the other exists.

The second set was highlighted with a blistering version of To Drink the Rain. It was a moment where the intensity was impressive. I’ve seen hardcore bands filled with youngsters who believed every single word they sang with every fiber of their being. They were intense. Holcombe can be just as intense with just his voice and guitar. He believes in his songs, he lives the life and loses himself each night in what happens on that stage. He tells you what it is like to see the world as Malcolm Holcombe.

The songs flowed wonderfully. For the younger couple in the audience that was about to get married, Holcombe did Dressed in White, which is always a beautiful tune. He touched on a good bit of A Hundred Lies in the set with Who Carried You and A Far Cry from Here.

As he hit the last notes and stood up, the audience applauded with as much heart-felt praise as Holcombe showed them. With that, he picked up his guitar, thanked everyone for being so kind on behalf of himself and his family, then he played Sparrows and Sparrows as a “Good night” to everyone.

The drive home flew by much better than the drive up there. Seeing something like a Malcolm Holcombe show fills you with life and makes everything a bit easier to enjoy.

Night Two: Almost Austin House Concerts
Reviewer:  James Killen

I’ve seen a lot of great musicians that play songs well. I’ve seen some that can choreograph a show like it was made for Broadway. It is rare, indeed, that I get the chance to see a performing artist that actually “becomes the song” and nobody “becomes the song” like Malcolm Holcombe. When MH plays, it’s as if every fiber of his being is pushing out the notes and lyrics. It seems that the music is going on around him like a merry-go-round all of the time and when Holcomb takes the stage, he’s hopping on for a ride.

Sometimes the sound is gentle and sweet and sometimes it’s the merry-go-round from Hell rocking him almost out of his chair, shaking his head and driving the sure fingered notes out of his guitar rapid fire. On this night, as the sold out crowd was settling into their seats, I noticed Malcolm settling in on stage and cinching up his belt one more notch as if strapping in for the ride.

The show started out with the sentimental, “Mountains of Home”, followed in quick succession by “Where I Don’t Belong” and “Not Forgotten”. The first three songs were followed by an abrupt holler of ‘SLOW DOWN!’ After a couple of Malcolm Holcombe shows, the listener will come to expect sudden loud outbursts between and even during songs, just to make sure that you’re paying attention. Something else that you come to expect is the story telling. The stories are part of Malcolm Holcombe’s quirky sense of humor and cover a wide range of subjects from sing-a-longs where you can’t remember the words to how to handle “the creeps”.

The show continued with “Mama Told Me So” and “Mighty City” which featured the intense finger picking and strumming style that is like no other guitarist that I’ve seen. Holcomb hits every note like he means it. He often quotes Lonesome George Gobel, saying, “You play the parts you know loud”. The first set continued with “Hannah’s Trading Post” , “Down in the Woods”, a foot stomping, head shaking “A Hundred Lies”, the almost scat singing of “One Leg at a Time”. Finishing up the set was a sad, gentle “For the Mission Baby” and “Gone by the Old Sunrise”.

After a chain-smoking intermission, Malcolm mounted the stage and faced the audience with a cold steady stare before breaking into “Who Carried You?”, “Comes the Blues”, and “Drink the Rain” with scarcely a breath between the three songs. Eddie Ferranti quoted Malcolm saying “Yeah, that was like drivin’ a tractor trailer through a can of sardines!” After a heartfelt “Straight and Tall” Malcolm introduced “Sparrows and Sparrows” as a song about “pigeon shit” after which he rolled into the rollicking “Back to Hell in a Greyhound”. Malcolm stopped long enough to explain how to handle “the creeps” as a way of introducing the song inspired by his wife, “Baby Likes a Love Song”, followed by a particularly gravelly voiced “Reckon to the Wind”. The tempo picked up again for “The Station” intensified by the outbursts of HEYAH from Malcolm and slowed again for “Whenever I Pray”.

Malcolm stopped again for a quick story, but this time instead of playing mind tricks on the audience, he made what I believe to be a rare social comment by saying, “We need to get our guys out of Afghanistan. I don’t think we need this war shit!”. That comment shed a whole new light on the last song of the set, “A Far Cry From Here”, as a longing for the return of our service members on duty overseas.

Malcolm didn’t get far before the room applauded him back to the stage for the lightning fast finger picking of “Marvelene’s Kitchen” and a melancholy “Never Heard You Knockin’ “. Holcomb seemed drained from the evening’s activities, but no one was left dissatisfied after being taken along for the ride. Some people love him and some people are just a little intimidated by him, but nobody says that Malcolm Holcombe doesn’t give his all to the performance. He’s a bit of Americana everyone should see at least once.