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  • Glenn Siegel

Echoes of a Bygone Era: Robin Holcomb Solo at IMA

Fame comes in all shapes and sizes, and is pursued differently by each of us. The pianist, vocalist, lyricist and composer Robin Holcomb, who gave a magical performance at the Institute for the Musical Arts on December 3, has earned a good deal of fame in her life, despite her lack of hunt for it.

A self-described recluse, Holcomb has nonetheless amassed accolades and a loyal contingent of fans over her 40 year career. A few of the 40 folks who made their way to Goshen, MA on a dark and stormy night, told me they were touched by her 1990s Elektra/Nonesuch recordings and couldn’t miss the opportunity to see her live. Quietly, out of the limelight, the fame-adjacent Holcomb has made a career sharing her unique response to early American music with all who will listen.

“The late Hal Wilner, his own kind of genius, deserves so much credit for trusting Robin on his many projects in homage to different artists,” wrote Holcomb’s husband, pianist and composer Wayne Horvitz. “At Hal’s invitation, she was often the least famous person on stage, in the company of Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed and Bono and Elvis Costello and Martha Wainwright and many, many more. But as Hal said one morning, after a very long night, on the bus back to the airport in Dublin, ‘here comes Robin, the only one whose music always comes fully baked to these half-baked affairs’”.

The songs Holcomb shared with us on Sunday were small finished gems, four minute pieces of polished perfection that illustrated the human condition in all its expression. IMA’s rustic wooden barn was the perfect venue to experience the music’s plaintive, 19th century aesthetic. She took liberties with a few “covers” by Stephen Foster and Doc Pomus, but otherwise performed original work.

Her piano playing was at once simple and layered, beautiful and tart. Her timing and touch were exquisite, and the note choices and voicings were modern and complex, qualitatively different from typical singer-songwriter fare. She performed a piece without vocals, and elsewhere gave herself ample space to stretch out and highlight her considerable, if understated, piano technique. I heard her voice as fragile, but sure of itself, and her straightforward delivery was offered without adornment or embellishment. Holcomb was there to deliver a lyric. That said, the effect was poignant and potent.

“Satie goes to Appalachia, Morricone goes to the Knitting factory, and you, dear art-folk fan, die and go to heaven,” was how the Village Voice described her impact.

I often have trouble discerning lyrics in live music settings, and on Sunday I wished the vocals had been a bit higher in the mix. But thanks to her recent solo recording, One Way or Another, Vol. 1, and her book, Lyrics, both of which I took home with me, I have been able to sit with many of the pieces she performed in concert. The feelings of that evening continue to simmer.

Holcomb gave us several pieces from song cycles she wrote inspired by Rachel Carson and the utopian communities active in the Pacific Northwest in the late-1880s. In “Copper Bottom”, she sings:

Set me up there with my daughter

I lost my voice around the corner

Don’t confuse me with my laughter

I won’t return the morning after

Don’t come looking for my blessing

I’m not coming back to the colony

no, never

Her rendition of Doc Pomus and Herb Abramson’s “I’ve Got That Feeling”, was reconfigured from a stock, 1950s-era blues about lust, to a haunting folk song that featured a mildly surprising, but very welcome swell of volume on the piano.

Holcomb, who had an avid interest in Civil War songs growing up, told us she has a love/hate relationship with Stephen Foster, before playing two of his compositions, including the oft-covered “Hard Times Come Again No More”. Her interpretation had an ache that seemed relevant to us all, whether we find ourselves on the prairie or in the parlor.

Holcomb was raised in and around Santa Cruz, CA, before she and Horvitz spent 1977-1987 in New York, where they played with the likes of John Zorn, Marty Ehrlich, Syd Straw, Bill Frisell, Butch Morris, Arto Lindsay, Elliot Sharp and many others. They’ve lived in Seattle since. They were in New York for Horvitz’ four-day Stone residency, so we were happy to extend a Jazz Shares invitation for Holcomb to perform in western Massachusetts. Horvitz, who played at IMA last April with bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck, joined his wife at the end of her set, utilizing tasteful electronic drones from his laptop, as well as playing piano and harmonica.

Holcomb has achieved her fame without fanfare, in her own way, on her own terms; it’s all the more durable for that. She is living proof that you can’t fake authentic. While a general public blinded by pomp and pizzazz has had trouble recognizing this in large numbers, her peers have had an easier time of it. William Parker called her music “a map that guides us to the house of the sages.” “Have I heard this before?” her long-time collaborator Bill Frisell wrote about her new solo recording. “Not like this. Everyone. Please LISTEN. Listen closely. We need this.”

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