North Carolina-based singer-songwriter, Malcolm Holcombe took to Nashville for his latest album Down The River when he teamed-up with acclaimed producer Ray Kennedy at his Room & Board Studio. It is of no surprise Kennedy called in a few favours as friends and associates Victor Krauss (upright bass, arco), Ken Coomer (drums, percussion), Tammy Rogers-King (mandolin, fiddle, viola), Russ Pahl (dobro, electric guitar, banjo, steel guitar) and Darrell Scott (Dobro, banjo, electric guitar) plus backing vocalists Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Kim Richey and Perry Coleman aided the acoustic guitar playing, foot stomping singer.
It is some line-up for Holcombe’s first independent album in years ‘I wanted to shoot for Mars, and ‘luckily, Ray knew some Martians’ he jokes. As for the material the songs and music is gritty, his vocals rough and driven —like untreated lumber from the timber yard with the bark still on and rich in character. Malcolm’s live shows are an education. For on coming on stage and viewed for the first time members of the audience find it hard to believe a man who looks so disorganised is going to perform a never to be forgotten for them. But hey, this man thinks on his feet and, he is quick and razor sharp too. In the blink of an eye he can sort the chaff from the wheat, songwriting and playing, and yes he is a masterful guitar player. Again, if you saw him rockin’ near uncontrollably sat on his chair you could be forgiven to expect otherwise. He will soon put this to bed, the intensity of his act and many of his songs are genially tempered with the most beautiful sounding and sensitive ones imaginable! As heard in the sombre, stripped back (other than that of gentle guitar, fiddle, dobro and percussion) ‘The Crossing’ as he speaks of how hope is in the crossing and how he but a passenger for his maker who he can not see. Right up alongside it you have ‘The Door’ that to the sound of steel guitar, great percussion he reflects on life and the journey we participate in a tender, loving fashion.
Of the raucous, unrelenting style Holcombe burns it up on ‘Butcher In Town’, ‘I Call The Shots’ and ‘Gone Away At Last’. As he spits out his biting lyrics aided by fiddle, banjo and a strong rhythm, which builds as the story unfolds and impassion emotion takes over. ‘Twisted Arms’ is a feisty bare-knuckle composition Tom Waits could have written but didn’t.
‘In Your Mercy’ is your typical (of the slower, sensitive ones) Holcombe shuffle. As his weathered tones ease through a story that speaks of the plight of a woman who mainly now only has strangers (is this because the ‘home’ she is in isn’t for people well and sane) come to see she her becoming fewer by the day. It also has the added attraction of Emmylou Harris sing vocal harmonies as his sensitive side is displayed (and there are few who right this type of song better or come near him singing one!). Earle’s part on the album comes when he adds harmonica and duet vocals to ‘Trail O’ Money’, and with tempered backing, some particularly fine mandolin, dobro etc it can’t fail but be one of the top three songs if not top cut. So good do they sound together. The setting brings the best out of Earle, I only hope he or someone near him reads this and keeps this in mind the next time he records. As for the final track, the title-track no less ‘Down The River’ is a political observation which likes those at the opposite end of the record speaks of how it is them and their in making war, telling lies and filling their bank accounts at the cost of others. Malcolm may be an acquired taste but he isa living, breathing genius all the same.
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