Singer-songwriter homecoming

Image 1. Peace signs: These days, David LaMotte’s work is divided between activism, authoring a children’s book and performing music, though he says they’re all connected. Photo by Scott Dameron
Image 2. Room of one’s own: Michelle Malone says that the longer she continues her singer-songwriter career, the more types of venues she plays. Photo by Carie Ofori
Image 3. Hedging his bets: David Wilcox scheduled his one-night-only End of the World Tour for the day after the world is supposed to end. Photo by Rhys Albrecht

David LaMotte, David Wilcox and Michelle Malone return to Asheville for the holidays

who: David LaMotte at The Grey Eagle (Saturday, Nov. 24. 8pm. $12 advance or $15 day of show. http://www.thegreyeagle.com)
who: Michelle Malone at Jack of the Wood (Friday, Dec. 7. 9 p.m., $10. http://jackofthewood.com)
who: David Wilcox at The Grey Eagle (Saturday, Dec. 22. 8 p.m. $20 advance or $25 day of show. http://www.thegreyeagle.com)

Here’s your crash course in Asheville’s singer-songwriter heyday: It peaked in the ‘90s, centered around venues like now-defunct McDibbs and Be Here Now, and The Grey Eagle which was originally located in Black Mountain. There was Annie Lalley, Malcolm Holcombe, Chuck Brodsky and plenty of other local and nationally touring artists gracing stages, festivals and songwriters-in-the-round events.

Take a trip down memory lane, or revel in the singer-songwriter evolution, when three ‘90s-era folk heroes return to Asheville for the holidays.

Michelle Malone: A “feel” thing

Although Michelle Malone never lived in Asheville, she says, “I definitely have some great memories of playing Be Here Now with Band de Soleil.” That outfit backed up the Atlanta-born musician who, during her rise through ‘90s-era folk-rock, split her time between solo and full-band tours.

“I still do both,” she says. “I’ve gone back and forth between the singer-songwriter mode and the band mode.” Her current tour (in support of her new album, Day 2) is a hybrid: Solo to start, but adding players by the time she reaches the South.

“I have a killer band right now,” Malone says. “Guitarist Jimmy Galloway is really inspiring me. He zigs when I think he’ll zag.” Linda Bolley plays drums, Phil Skipper plays bass and Tim Tucker is on keys and vocals. “There are a lot of three-part harmonies,” says Malone.

But it’s not just Malone’s band that’s in top form. Of Day 2 (produced by Shawn Mullins — another regular on Asheville’s ‘90s- and early 2000s-era singer-songwriter scene), Malone says, “I’m very proud of the record.” She felt that she’d been pigeonholed as a blues singer so, “I dug deep and focused on my songwriting.” The result of a yearlong process: 11 tracks that range from the rocked-out (sassy “Other Girls,” countrified “Chicken Lickin’ Boogie”) to the heartfelt (harmonica-tinged “Marlboro Man,” breathless “Shine”).

Malone says that teaming up with Mullins (the two met in Atlanta in the early ‘90s and have performed on each others’ albums) was “kind of a natural move on my part.” They worked in studio sessions around their individual touring schedules; Day 2 includes contributions from the likes of Chuck Leavell and Randall Bramblett.

But don’t expect the live show to be a carbon copy of the album. “We don’t try to capture it note for note. It’s more of a ‘feel’ thing,” says Malone. “That can change at any moment. It keeps things fresh for me.”

With more than 20 years of experience at recording and performing, knowing how to keep things fresh is key. Malone knows herself and her audience: her core fan base now has the sort of responsibilities (jobs, kids) that mean they don’t want to stay out late in bars. “I play more house concerts and parties because people would rather go to those,” says Malone. “The longer I do this, the more types of places I perform.”

David LaMotte: Building, not tearing down

“Extremely exciting and occasionally overwhelming” is how David LaMotte describes his life these days. He clerks a committee that nominates a potential Nobel Peace Prize recipient; he’s the director of grassroots nonprofit PEG Partners, which he founded with his wife, Deanna; and he just independently published the all-ages book White Flour, which recounts in poetry and illustrations how an ’07 KKK rally in Knoxville was toppled by a troupe of clowns (check out a video version of the book at http://avl.mx/n1).

If that sounds like a lot of everything but singing and songwriting, LaMotte (who, with the help of a Rotary fellowship, left WNC just about four years ago to pursue a master’s degree in peace studies) says, “I’ve always had these two pulls in my life. One to music and one to world changing.” To him, the two are not exclusive of each other: Music has the capacity to remind us of our connectedness, he says.

“I don’t consider myself an activist-songwriter, though I am an activist. And a songwriter,” says LaMotte. “These things inform my art, but art’s art, and what I want it to be is authentic and broad.”

LaMotte, who got his start in the area in the early ‘90s, and has released 10 albums, has certainly not packed away his guitar. Earlier this fall, he did a mini-tour with fellow songwriters Chris Rosser (who, with percussionist River Guerguerian, will join LaMotte at his upcoming performance) and Beth Wood; last year he played with folk legend Pete Seeger on the anniversary of Sept. 11. Perhaps surprisingly (what with the activism and the songwriting) LaMotte says that while he can’t say enough good about Seeger, “my calling is not his calling.”

For example, LaMotte doesn’t want to limit his audience just to people who agree with him. “I’m trying to encourage people to live out their own values,” he says. “The action I want to encourage is building, not tearing down.”

Since his ’08 farewell show, LaMotte has lived in Australia and India (and is now based in Chapel Hill). But he’s also still tied to WNC, hence his annual Grey Eagle show. “One of the reasons I moved to WNC in 1990, and stayed, was because David Wilcox was here,” he reveals. “And the scene. The scene was so appealing to me, and I wanted to be close to it. Grey Eagle has been important to my career.”

David Wilcox: Discovering brand new things

If there’s a singer-songwriter whose name (and music) is most closely linked with ‘90s singer-songwriter Asheville, it could definitely be David Wilcox. He gave us “Eye of the Hurricane”; his ’89 album How Did You Find Me Here sold more than 100,000 copies by word of mouth. At the same time, Wilcox might be the least nostalgic for the era out of which his career rose. “Music still stretches out before me like the headlights of a car into the night,” he says in his bio. “I used to think that my goal was to catch up, but now I’m grateful that the music is always going to be way out in front to inspire me.”

More candidly he tells Xpress, “The fortunate part is not only that I have changed, but that Asheville has so beautifully changed.” Wilcox remembers a downtown that was largely boarded up and says the pioneers and visionaries who opened venues back then were brave. But when he comes downtown these days, “I don’t just look at memories.”

In fact, Wilcox is so forward-looking that he optimistically scheduled his Concert for the End of the World on Saturday, Dec. 22, the day after the Mayan Calendar predicts the end of the world. T-shirts for the show (designed by his son, Nate) say “End of the World Tour, one date only, no refunds.” The joke being that Wilcox will collect the cash from the tickets and then, poof! No more world, no show.

Wilcox has even written a song to commemorate the occasion: “It’s the End of the World Again.” “It’s poking fun at people who found a convenient excuse to stop investing in the future,” the songwriter explains. “They’re just sort of riding out their selfish dream and using the end of the world as an excuse.”

This year’s End of the World concert replaces his regular Thanksgiving-time performance at the Grey Eagle. “I’m sure it’ll be the same vibe,” says Wilcox, who describes his annual show as “Thanksgiving for this musical community, which is so inspiring to me.” It’s a time for him to invite both musicians he’s known for a long time and those he’s met recently to collaborate on stage. Among those this year will be Wilcox’s wife, Nance Petit, with whom he recorded the duets album Out Beyond Ideas.

But as much as the singer-songwriter’s annual Grey Eagle gig is about catching up, playing favorite tunes and laughing about the Mayans and their crazy calendar, the show is not a revue. Wilcox is still moving forward in his music. Of working on a new song, he says, “The process is still so wonderful and mysterious. After all this time it still seems like I’m discovering brand-new things.”

Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

 

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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