photo by Lucy Callicott
“We make the way by walking
Our steps are the votes we cast
The crazy few that are seeing this view
Might not be the last
The way that a pilgrim travels
Is to set off for parts unknown
If history’s kind we’re the ones who might find
The way we all come home“
– David Wilcox, “We Make the Way by Walking”
David Wilcox’s voice is clear and true. His singing voice, of course, but also his writing voice. The same thread is woven throughout his 27-year-wide discography: the power of connection, both positive and negative. Connection to people, connection to place and memory, connection to the planet. On a personal level, he is an artist who thrives on community and actively brings people together to share in healing, inspiration, and sometimes pure goofery. So David seemed very much in his element among our two audiences who had gathered in a cozy Memphis den in the middle of January to sing and hear and feel together.
But we’ll get to that in a minute. One of my favorite parts of our shows with Justin Farren has been getting to see people hear him for the first time. With the exception of those who joined us in November 2015, most Memphians aren’t familiar with this Sacramento-born songwriter, and I’m sure many guests are so eager to hear David that an opening act just feels like an obstruction. David actually provides the perfect introduction in these situations by playing one of Justin’s own songs. I’m sure some people had a moment of disappointment when David sat down after two songs, but then Justin started to speak, and everyone was immediately charmed by his humor and humility. And then he started to perform, and there was a palpable sense that no one wanted the opening act to end. It’s happened the same way three times now, and it’s just a delight to experience that many people discovering something wonderful all at the same time. (Plus there’s the extra fun of seeing David, clearly a hero of Justin’s, just enjoy the hell out of him.)
Going into this week’s shows, I thought I’d be able to write a summary recap that would provide insight into both nights, but when I promoted these as one-of-a-kind events, I was even righter than I knew. Sure, there was some overlap in the set list (which isn’t a list at all – David prints out a sheet of about 50 songs that may be on the docket that night and then picks them as he goes along), but even the way he embodies the truth of those songs varies from night to night. Other than the two hosts, every audience member was different from one night to the next, and the whole feeling of the room fluctuated with that changing energy. Tuesday’s was the best show. And Wednesday’s was the best show. Each one was just entirely its own.
On Tuesday, the effort was deeply collaborative. We had multiple sing-alongs, and audience assistance was sometimes on-hand as David explored the deeper recesses of his discography (and memory). Along with picks from his entire catalog, David treated us to his own personal scrapbook of influences – Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, naturally, but also Richard Thompson, Cliff Eberhardt, and Lou & Peter Berryman (on Wednesday he added Bill Morrissey). Taken together, they illuminate a different layer of David’s life and work, as well as his eternally generous spirit toward his artistic peers at all levels.
And speaking of levels of artistic peers, a Wednesday tour of Crosstown Concourse inspired David to play “Down Here,” a contemplation of the struggles and unexpected perks of being a weirdo, which he interwove with observations about the new development that will house, among others, six stories of designers, makers, inventors, and other various creative freaks (you know, my people). His genuine enthusiasm for the project was deeply felt and appreciated by the crowd – almost as much as his closing comment that, “Whatever happens, it will be better than the Bass Pro Shop.”
One consistent element of both nights was the unavoidable but characteristically deft acknowledgement of our country’s seemingly growing rift. David’s more political songs have always spoken for the underdog – tobacco-sick consumers, our oil-victimized planet – and always with a mind toward unification and the greater good. He did not speak overtly about our current political climate except to observe that the anger that many are feeling and expressing right now are distractions from the much messier and overwhelming feelings of grief under the surface. At both shows, he played a contemporary rewrite of his 1999 song “Underneath” that addressed this communal coping with empathy and encouragement, perfectly building a newly relevant structure on top of his strong foundation. On Wednesday he also played “Everything I Think I Know I Think,” a particularly relevant new tune in an era of comment first, compassion later (maybe).
(Of course, compassion is great, but occasionally you just need to murder something.)
When a guest made an earnest plea for “a real heart-smasher” to help her through a recent break-up, David more than delivered, but rather than playing a song that could have easily reflected her pain and disappointment, he chose “If It Wasn’t for the Night,” a dose of musical medicine that reminds us that the darkness is what makes us aware of light.
I have to admit, I’ve had a hard time seeing much light these last couple months, but after two nights listening to David and Justin, I’m beginning to see the enormous opportunity in front of us. We each have our own potential set list made up of talents and strengths as well as fears and flaws. At any given moment, we make a choice from our own personal catalog that seems to fit the mood. I have certainly spent plenty of time lately troubling the waters to avoid feeling the depths below, but David’s songs were a timely reminder that when we choose to see each other as connected souls, it’s much easier to stay afloat.