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Music Review: David Wilcox – Live Songs and Stories

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Few artists have mastered the seamless combination of quality musicality and live audience entertainments. David Wilcox, a singer-songwriter whose genre could best be described as contemporary folk, is one of those few.

Wilcox is a native of Ohio, but moved to Nashville before appearing as a significant figure on the music scene. His first album, titled Nightshift Watchman, came out in 1987, and he has since recorded 15 more. He is sometimes wrongly categorized as a contemporary Christian singer. Though he is a spiritual man, he is neither explicitly Christian nor is his music explicitly religious.

Though Wilcox tours the United States regularly, and his tickets are always affordable, those who are unable to see him in concert still have the chance to experience his dynamic stage personality through his album: Live Songs and Stories.

Wilcox’s songs are structured around his unique guitar style. He is a modern day fingerpicker who can strum a bar chord with the best of them. However, what makes him stand out among a crowd of standard I-IV-V-IV chord progression songwriters is his open tuning. Nearly all of his songs are in open tunings — different open tunings — and this gives a rich, melodic background to his vocals.

His talents as a songwriter are even greater than his skills as a guitarist. His lyrics are full of meaningful, developed images wrapped in rhyme schemes that sneak up on you, like, “when I feel hollow/that’s just my proof that there’s more for me to follow/that’s what the lonely is for.” His songs range from the profound to the absurd, but always contain deep truth in them. He puts into simple words the most complex longings of our hearts.

When given the chance to perform his songs live, Wilcox elaborates on those lyrical images even more with, as the title of his album suggests, stories. Nearly every other track on Live Songs and Stories is simply him talking with the guitar in the background. Those, for lack of a better term, sketches lead into his next song with other anecdotes. Unlike most musicians, Wilcox is actually amusing in his temporary, assumed role as a stand-up comedian. His songwriting experience shines through as he jokes about playing in bars, where “the festering booze assault[s the drunks’] entrails like time-released suicide,” and he uses his voice’s tone just as well speaking as singing.

In addition to humor, though, his anecdotes often penetrate the surface of the coming song’s theme, preparing the listener for the music that is coming. In this Wilcox takes on a third, successful role as a speaker — and not the boring, middle-school assembly kind. He chooses his words carefully and lays foundations for his metaphors that, accompanied by the background music, flow seamlessly from spoken word to melody.

The album itself includes such upbeat songs as “Eye of the Hurricane” and “Rusty Old American Dream” in addition to the more reflective “Hold it up to the Light” and “Kindness.” My personal favorite “story” from the album is titled “The Terminal Tavern,” and leads into the track “Show the Way.” Other gems such as the humorous “Wafflehouse” are also featured.

Those familiar with David’s music will notice only a few differences in the live versions of the songs. For the live album, David’s guitar is still the musical focal point, but the only other orchestration is a fiddle player. The simplicity of the arrangements as such adds to the homey and inviting tone of the album as a whole though, and makes the spoken parts more believable. Other songs are split by continued spoken sections, but by listening to the album as a whole rather than selected songs you will find that these merely add to the music. And you will never listen to the songs the same way again.

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About Jen Herrmann