The first rule for singer-songwriters is to send 'em home humming.
David Wilcox is an exception. The Ohio-bred, North Carolina-based folk-pop performer isn't exactly a tin ear, but he seldom hits upon a melody that will come back to a listener unbidden and start buzzing around the brain like some ornery housefly.
What Wilcox offers is a package of interlocking elements that work. The tunes may not be memorable, but they are attractive in the moment he sings them. The music propels lyrics that are invariably intelligent and ambitious in their psychological realism and willingness to take on the big existential questions.
Factor in a strong acoustic guitar technique that eschews simplistic strumming in favor of expressive finger-picking in a variety of tunings, and a pleasant voice that sounds like a more insistent, fuller-bodied James Taylor, and you have a solid solo-acoustic performer who will make his way even if he doesn't serve ear candy.
Only one song Wilcox sang Saturday night for a large and enraptured Coach House crowd sounded like a hit. That's because it was a hit: "Missing You," the John Waite chart-topper from 1984. Wilcox made it the last of the two dozen songs he sang (just as it ends his current album, "Big Horizon"). It was an anticlimactic add-on, just as it is on the album. "Missing You" may have one of those buzz-the-brain melodies, but it's a dumb song of the formulaic I'm-heartbroken-but-I-won't-admit-it mold.
In singing it, Wilcox mustered a convincing measure of anguish. But by the time he got around to "Missing You," it seemed like a bit of slumming: he already had explored heartbreak (and recovery therefrom) far more insightfully in his own songs.
Wilcox's best songs distill bits of recognizable experience. In "Language of the Heart," a love affair begins with a luminous moment of erotic passion, only to become clouded by misread signals. In the Springsteenian scenario of "Saturday They'll All Be Back Again," small-town youth feel the tug of some dimly understood inner calling that makes them tear at the too-thin fabric of their lives. These were just two of many strong examples of song craft that turned up in Wilcox's 100-minute show.
When Wilcox slips as a writer, it's usually because he gets carried away with metaphors and grand concepts. Suddenly the drawn-from-life characters and situations that vitalize his good songs disappear, and he slips into pop-psychological preachments on the need to keep striving and hoping in the face of life's blows. That tendency toward the big statement crops up more often on "Big Horizon" than on its two precursors,given songs like "That's What the Lonely Is For," "Farthest Shore" and "Make It Look Easy," all of them life-lessons rather than capsules of lived life.
While Wilcox is always on the lookout for reason to hope, he is no Pollyanna. Still, he doesn't probe as deeply into the shadows as such masters as Richard Thompson and John Hiatt.
Wilcox didn't play one of his most memorable songs, "Chet Baker's Unsung Swan Song," in which he imagines the jazz player's last moments before a suicide leap. That one gives despair its due--always a good idea for artists who want to take recovery as their theme. An honest assessment can emphasize hopefulness, but it must first acknowledge that some people just wind up as hopeless casualties.
Wilcox's key themes may be serious, but he had no problem infusing the evening with a good number of lighthearted diversions. Like James Taylor, Wilcox brings in songs with bluesy inflections and old-line rock 'n' roll rhythms to offset the fervent cast of the main body of his work.
He didn't go in for light, off-the-cuff gab and spontaneous interaction with fans, devices used by many an accomplished solo performer to loosen up a crowd (judging from the robust cheering that greeted Wilcox from the start, no loosening was required for the near-capacity Coach House crowd). But humor was a major part of the show.
Comical novelty songs cropped up regularly--"Blow 'Em Away," about a guy who responds murderously to murderous traffic, naturally got the biggest roars from a Southern California crowd.
The most interesting departure was an odd new song, set to a mysterious, gleaming Irish jig guitar accompaniment, that opened with the line "After your orgasm, the world is a different place." It proceeded to treat sex as both a mystical transformation and a source of tongue-in-cheek humor. In a good, unusual touch, Wilcox introduced several numbers by reciting Ogden Nash-style comic verses that obliquely touched on the theme of the song to follow.
Wilcox included a good chunk of new and unfamiliar material. A song apparently titled "Spin" was so new that he sang it with a lyric sheet balanced precariously on top of his guitar. It likened love to a circus ride that leaves you dizzy--not the most original conceit, perhaps, but the tune had more pop pith than is typical for Wilcox. Maybe he'll find that missing humability factor yet.
Let's hope he also holds onto the other admirable qualities that made this a diverse and diverting show even without the kinds of melodies that keep on playing in your head.