Monday, December 12, 2011

The Wit, Whimsy, and Wonder of David Wilcox

A few nights ago, at the packed little artistic alcove of songwriting known as The Bluebird Café here in Nashville, I experienced David Wilcox in concert for the fifteenth time. And I was transported back to the first encounter twenty years prior at that very same locale. Very few musicians are endowed with the ability to elicit such a vast array of response and interaction. At times you can hear a pin drop, at others raucous laughter; at one turn there are sniffles as tears are fought off, and another there will be a sing-along that would make Phil Ochs proud.

In 1990, on a Compassion Artist Trip to Ecuador, my good friend Bob Bennett introduced me to David Wilcox via a cassette of his astounding major label debut on A&M Records, How Did You Find Me Here? I nearly wore the ferromagnetic oxide off that tape with repeated listens to songs about lost loves, youthful rebellion, grief, reviving dreams, relaxing in the wisdom of accepted tenderness, and longing for adventure amidst the mundane. It was like hearing James Taylor in the early 70s, but even better. Nothing was overplayed or buried in splashy arrangements; no wasted words…just the perfect verbiage and meter for each well-crafted line. It was the antithesis of everything that was going on in the music biz at that time, what with all the harpy hair metal, chest-thumping rap, and the overwrought balderdash of Michael Bolton, Taylor Dayne, or George Michael. Wilcox was such a breath of much needed fresh air.

When I heard he was coming to the tiny Bluebird, where he had been discovered, I bought several tickets, including one for Mr. Bennett, who was going to be in town for some shows in the area. Bob had heard that Wilcox was a fan of his music (David would sometimes play his “Carpenter Gone Bad”), and was excited to be able to see him for the first time, and perhaps even meet him. Right as we were arriving, I noticed David was chatting with some folks in the line outside the front door. Never one to be timid, I sauntered up and introduced myself, mentioning that Bob Bennett was with me. David’s eyes lit up. “Really?! Oh man, I dig his music so much!” I signaled for Bob to come over, and it quickly became a mutual admiration society.

As they visited, David asked about a particular chord progression on “Carpenter Gone Bad” that he had never been able to figure out. “Oh…that’s because we double tracked two guitar lines in the studio just at that point,” Bob explained.

“Well, that resolves it then!” David exclaimed, followed by his rambunctious, joy-filled laugh that has become so well known to his fans. “You don’t know how many hours I slaved trying to configure the fingering for that in the past decade! Let’s talk some more afterwards, OK?”

Bob, our mutual friend from Compassion Canada, Paul Sharrow, and I where then transported for several hours by Wilcox’s song craft, storytelling, and exquisite playing. Besides sharing all of the tunes from How Did You Find Me Here, he also played numerous other unreleased gems, and even recited folksy poems that held deep truths. Here’s one that sticks with me to this day…

"Wake up!" she said,

"You dreaming fool, 

Don’t throw your life away. 

Because life's too short and you're too smart 

To want to hurt yourself that way. 

And what's this talk about the fellow man? 

Look, its catch as catch can, understand? 

You muscle and struggle and get what you can 

Or you'll never get anywhere at all, young man. 

And what's this talk about loving everybody 

And trying to be a neighbor and helping out your brother? 

Oh, fine and dandy, but you're getting a little carried away," 
is what she'd say. 

She said, "I'm not saying that love ain't fine, 

But every little thing's got its place and time. 

Now there's people out there who want what's mine,

And they're going to try to take it away. 

So save your love for those who care, 

And buy some clothes and wash your hair. 

Just relax and don't you dare 

Start dreaming about saving the world." 

And Jesus said, "Yes, mom."

When the concert came to a close, he was given a two minute standing ovation…something not often seen in a cynical entertainment capital like Nashville, especially in a room full of songwriters.

Bob and I decided to stick around to hopefully visit some more with David. Once most of the crowd had filed out, there were just a handful of us left—mostly songsmiths. David then announced, “Let’s grab some chairs and circle up here on the stage. I wanna hear what each of you are creating.”

We all huddled on that tiny stage and took turns sharing songs. Some were pretty new to the genre, and Bob was certainly the most accomplished. That “guitar pull” (as it is known in the Music City) went on for another two hours. The camaraderie and mutual encouragement fostered by David was one of the most beautiful creative spaces I had ever been privileged to witness. On several occasions I looked at Bob and he back at me with tears welling in his eyes. It was nearly 1 AM when the club owner was the only staffer remaining…and we decided the fellowship needed to come to an end.

As I drove Bob back to his hotel, he was smiling, but quiet. After a few minutes, he declared, “You know, outside of my wedding day and seeing my children born, this has to be the most satisfying moment of my life.”

So, here I was two decades later in nearly the same seat as that first night in ’91. My hair is shorter and overtaken by more gray than the dark brown of yesteryear. David’s is noticeably thinning, and his smile lines are more pronounced. But the many journeys around the sun have deepened the timbre of his warm tenor, and his always-fluid guitar playing is so accomplished now that it is nearly perfection. In fact, even watching him change the strings in complex tunings after every song (sometimes utilizing two capos) in a matter of seconds is awe-inspiring in its own right. I have never seen anyone do it so often, so quickly, and with such precision all while nonchalantly speaking with his audience.

Normally Wilcox can pack out the five-times-larger Belcourt Theater when he comes to town now. I’m not sure why he chose to return for a one-off at this tiny eighty-person capacity club, other than for old time’s sake. In the course of two and a half hours he performed thirty-three songs, including five new ones, and one he had written in 1979. He told new stories and poems, and even did a hilarious seasonal street rap about Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. Keeping with the holiday theme, he did a glowing cover of Mel Torme’s “Christmas Song” followed with bemused wonderment over the brilliance of the chord structures within.

Later in the set, as he was setting up yet another song with his trademark vignettes, he got frustrated with himself, saying “I feel like I’m interpreting for the metaphorically impaired. Someday I’ll learn to gift-wrap presents instead of describing them while giving.” With that thought in mind, here are some random notes I scribbled throughout the night, some taken from what he shared, others from my reactions…

I play guitars as shiny as a hearse.

There is evil cast around us, but it is Love that wrote this play.

The ocean grinds the stone.

It’s all rag water and blue ruin.

When it comes to debt, red is the new black.

Spin is the new no-need for proof.

Under these cobalt skies.

Rage is lazy, and “the edge” sounds dull; love like crazy…its wonderful.

Both the high view and the muddy miles.

No need to rush this drift along the river.

When the silence of sorrow won’t leave you alone.

From 2:45 to 4:15 AM, the Waffle House serves as some sort of intergalactic portal.

The waves of change are daunting; better learn to ride the waves. Surf’s up, dude.

Start with the coarse and take it down to fine.

I like putting pieces of a picture together instead of singing the same old bad news.

We keep playing poker in the panic.

I don’t get mad at poser surfers anymore, ‘cause the ocean is so big, it’ll work on ya.

We all need some musical medicine.

Songs are supposed to be about emotion, and not ideas…but here’s an idea song.

It’s impossible to get a snapshot of meaning.

You can’t capture wind in a box..

If a swan can have a song, then I think I know that tune.

Staring at a math problem that is trying to calculate the incalculable.

One hundred miles of vista represented by an inch.

The old guitars have their stories, but by now, so do I.

There is so much wit, whimsy, and wonder in a David Wilcox concert, that any of this seems like a first grader trying to diagram the inner workings of Hoover Dam. I’ll just leave it with some of David’s own words:

There's just too much view to capture

When we stand on sacred ground

Though my mind cannot explain it,

My heart's filled up to the sky

I know words could not contain it,

But I'm fool enough to try

(“No Telling Where” by David Wilcox from Airstream, 2008)

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