@ Swedish American Hall
Thursday, March 3, 2011
Better than: Waller's inevitable 2015 VH1 Storytellers episode
Portland-via-Frisco troubadour Holcombe Waller's voice is his strongest asset -- it's a lithe, soaring, faraway thing that breathes equally convincing life into somber lament and quivering R&B rapture -- but his banter gives his singing a run for its money. Throughout his two-set show at the Swedish American Hall last night, to a volubly appreciative crowd, he yarned explanations of the origins and characters of his songs and also offered commentary on how his own show was going, ever self-aware, ever charming. "All of these songs are about dating guys," he said sheepishly at one point, after introducing the fifth song or so as inspired by "being in the throes of this thing with this guy." This, he explained, is why his next album is going to be a dance record: now that he's in a good and stable relationship, he has "nothing to kvetch about."
Still, he kvetches eloquently. ("You told me you were gonna do some mellow sad songs," said theatre impresario Joe Goode during his cameo on stage, "and I said, 'that's what you do.'") He had rode into town yesterday on a wave of excitement after NPR picked his excellent single, "Risk of Change," as Tuesday's song of the day; live, as on his new record, Into the Dark Unknown, released last week, it conveys a disarming mix of gentle intensity and well-spoken heartbreak, something like how Elliott Smith or Tracy Chapman might have sounded as a refined gay gentleman. (Waller also happened to be wearing an undershirt with a refrain from that song scrawled on it: "Maybe I should call you when I get back from New York.")
The singularity of the evening lay in the commentary, though: in learning, say, that "Risk of Change" is about Jeff Buckley but also about the same ex-lover (and now close friend) who inspired the exasperated "About Time" -- the one who had this thing with platonic cuddling, etc. It was at the risk of oversharing that Waller treated the audience to a guided tour through the narrative world that his music inhabits. This wasn't always ideal; after all, some poetical musings lose some lustre when you know exactly what they're referring to before you've even heard them. (I was at a wedding, I was feeling depressed, I had a conversation with my mom and this is partly based on that.) But Waller validated his autobiographizing not only with relentless wit but also with lyrics that do reward an understanding of their author. Consider how much better "But Atlas just shrugged / He's going back on the drugs," from the opening track to Into the Dark Unknown, works when you know Waller wrote the song upon returning to antidepressants after a few years off of them.
Not that he forgot the importance of spectacle in the midst of all this revelation: for a total of five songs he was joined on stage by friends and collaborators: an airy, spooky song about trucks with dancer Damara Ganley; a showtuney lament with Goode, who wore a huge cowboy hat and explained that his upcoming performance, The Rambler, is "about the peripatetic impulse"; and three bluesy ditties with and by Sean Hayes, an extremely talented singer with a voice just like Antony's, the personal appearance of a leather-clad stick insect, and a song in a Subaru ad. On his own, Waller treated the crowd to an a cappella preview of the dance version of "Literally the End of the World," from his 2004 album Troubled Times, which earns points for its use of the word "putterings." And the encore? "A little Prince, a little Sinead, a little Durutti Column": the most urbane version of "Nothing Compares 2 U" you've ever heard, which somehow only made it more heartbreaking. All part of the master plan.
Critic's notebook: Returning late from intermission, I missed the introductory story behind the song "The Unicorn," which I very much would have liked to hear.----