Maverick Storyteller Keeps Things Literate

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

David Wilcox is one of the last of a dying breed. Eschewing the dark, mysterious vibes conspicuously emitted by most post-Dylan singer/songwriters, Wilcox wants you to know exactlywho he is and what he believes. His face is big and friendly, his manner warm and polite. His songs read like open books into his soul. He resembles Potsie from the old "Happy Days" show and punctuates sentences with words like "gee." He's as friendly as a big ol' golden retriever. You could take him home to meet your ma and pa, no problem.

It would be unfair and inaccurate to misinterpret his anachronistic charm--his warmth, his refreshing lack of personal and artistic pretension--as vacuity. His intimate, confessional songwriting is smart and literate, his guitar playing exceptional. At their best, his lyrics recall the romantic poetry of e.e. cummings Wilcox, who performs tonight at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, recently was dropped by A & M Records, his label for five years and three albums. In a way, it's amazing that so decidedly non-commercial an artist ever was associated with a major label, but his albums sold in respectable numbers as he garnered good reviews from music journals and newspapers around the country. Still, as pop music grows ever darker and harder-edged, artists of Wilcox's ilk are looked upon increasingly as outcasts by the corporate powers that be.

Characteristically, the 36-year-old seemed mildly disappointed rather than bitter during a recent phone interview from Big Sky, Mont., where he was taking time off the road to get in a couple of weeks of snowboarding.

"It would have been great if everyone had been happy and we didn't have to look for other possibilities. But there's a good adventure in here somewhere that I look forward to. I feel like I've learned a bunch. I feel like I've gone to college, music businesswise."

Wilcox didn't even pick up a guitar until he was 18, and even then, he wasn't looking seriously at performing as a career. He spent much of his post-high-school time leading biking and hiking expeditions around the world, unconcerned with what was going on in music and pop culture.

"I was pretty much shellshocked by the high school experience," he said. "I think the lesson I learned in high school was never to try anything unless you're already good at it. And I was in radio exile from the eighth grade on. I started listening just to stuff I heard from my friends."

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Early on, he was enamored of Joni Mitchell and learned to play from listening to her records--accounting for his unusual guitar style, which employs numerous odd open tunings and tricky acoustic fretwork.

"She was my first love, musically. I didn't even learn regular tuning until about a year into it. Then I got into these little cross-breed tunings, halfway between one and the other." Although he cites Mitchell, Tom Waits and Donald Fagen as prime influences, he often has been compared to James Taylor, both for his deceptively tricky musicianship and for the unaffected tone of his vocals.

"That's interesting," he said. "The guitar stuff is different, but it's acoustic guitar. It's the same kind of warm voice as his, as opposed to an edgy voice. I guess that's a good place to start, but if you know a lot of acoustic players, you could say I play like John Martyn and sing like Michael Johnson. That's probably a lot more accurate, but if you're not familiar with them, you go, 'Gee . . . it's James Taylor!' "

He seems totally comfortable with the unmasked emotionalism, the heart-on-sleeve nature of his work, and he makes no apologies for his old-fashioned philosophies about life, love and the beauty of the world around him.

"The stuff I do really is storytelling. It's what I feel most strongly about life, what I believe in. It seems to me just person-to-person communication. It finds its own crowd, and it's refreshing no matter what the current fad is."

For the last year, Wilcox has been recording some of his live shows and assembling some of his favorite performances. He'd like to put out a live album at some point, and if he can't find another label, he may release the album and his future work on a label of his own.

"I've been talking to friends that have the distributors figured out," he said. "That would be very interesting, I could have some fun with that. I realize that careerwise it might be kind of silly, but it would feel really good to do. It all depends on how this adventure turns out."

* David Wilcox performs tonight at 8 at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine. $16 to $20. (714) 854-4646.

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Hear David Wilcox

* To hear a sample of the album "Big Horizon," call TimesLine at 808-8463 and press *5560.

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