Malcolm Holcombe's fan club seems to be growing as quickly as his output, and the names that show up in that fan club just get bigger and bigger. For this most recent album his house band includes Darrell Scott on dobro, banjo and electric guitar, and Viktor Krauss on upright bass - big names both. Amongst the guests adding vocal support are Kim Richey, Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris, and I would guess all of them are glad to be associated with Holcombe's plain-speaking, no-bull honesty. This man sings with a hobo's growl, roughened by life and with a tone that says he's nobody's mug. As a writer, he tackles all the social and political issues that you might expect, speaking up for the downtrodden and laying in to those who would steamroller them. It's not always easy to follow his train of thought, as his imagery jumps from one thing to another in his own idiosyncratic take on the way the world works. The main idea of the title song, for instance, is easy enough - we've all been sold "down the river", he declares, and goes on to sing wistfully of the simple things that most folks want -a home, a family, a job. However, pinning down the exact targets in Whitewash Job isn't so easy. It seems like a scornful attack on Bush and his cronies in the light of their response to Katrina, but I'm not sure of every line as he rages in scattergun style. Maybe it doesn't matter too much because he's magnificent in his rage and we always need voices like his to stir us up a bit.
In this angry mode he tears notes out of his acoustic guitar as if it's a lethal weapon, and his band are right up for following his lead, playing with uncompromising intent and slightly ahead of the beat in a manner that demands you sit up and pay attention. Perhaps the surprising element is the warm beauty, like a brotherly arm around the shoulder, that Holcombe brings to other songs here. I remember this was in evidence on the last album, too, and maybe there's a lot more of it here. If he was a one-note angry man we might be impressed, but we might also be repulsed, ultimately. However, when he sings something as warm, humane and beautiful as The Crossing, then we are seduced into sharing his vision and he wins us over with soft power. It almost goes without saying that when Emmylou joins him on the chorus of In Your Mercy, a beautiful song becomes transcendant as she somehow manages to highlight the beauty that's there in his voice.
This man's hit a groove where all the elements of his music are working magnificently. Reports have it that he's one of the most compelling performeres you're ever likely to see, so, with a short tour of the UK coming up soon, maybe now's the time to catch him.