“Spellbinding” is over-used. It’s a word that’s been cheapened by movie trailers and slapped on the back cover of dime novels. But it perfectly describes Malcolm Holcombe‘s performance at the White Water Tavern last night. The audience sat in rapt attention, their jaws hanging slightly open, their brows furrowed, concentrating on what was going on in front of them and trying to figure out how they felt about it. Holcombe’s style is challenging, his guitar-picking manic, his lyrics beautiful. He wore a patched-up leather jacket, worn out jeans and boots. He rocks as he plays, shifting violently (yet rhythmically) and balancing his chair alternately on its back and front legs. He shakes his head back and forth as if the sounds coming from his old beater guitar and his own weathered growl are causing some sort of seizure. Writing in this space in December of 2009, Robert Bell described a Holcombe’s stage presence perfectly.

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Throughout the performance, he plucked the strings so hard they rang out like a tire iron dropped on the concrete shop floor. It’s amazing that he doesn’t constantly break strings, but perhaps this owes to his considerable chops. It is rare to see such an incredible singer/songwriter who is also a stone badass guitar player. Most just strum their simple chords. Holcombe practically shreds.

Holcombe’s lyrics, his rugged howl and his intricate guitar work command attention from the audience. On many occasions throughout the night he managed to make even the most dedicated bar-talkers shut the hell up and listen. The man comes alive on stage, telling stories that initially seem anything but germane, until you hear the next song and realize that every word is calculated. In the middle of the show, a friend of mine turned to me and asked, “Who do you think he sounds like?” I just shrugged my shoulders and didn’t say anything. I couldn’t come up with any one. “Exactly,” my friend said. Holcombe is like no other.