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A new musical vista: The music of David Wilcox

By Rob Williams | Special to the Vermont Guardian

Posted May 17, 2007

I first heard of David Wilcox in 1990, when my girlfriend Kate, who was a radio deejay in Colorado, mailed me a mixed tape (remember those?) of her live Whole Wheat Show featuring a song called “Eye of the Hurricane” by this unknown songwriter from Carolina.

I was floored.

Performed in a shuffling style in open C tuning, the song tells the story of a jaded young woman who hops on her Hurricane motorcycle to go find herself, with tragic consequences. But the tune’s hook is the double entendre of the title, which serves as both a literal reference to the motorcycle, and a metaphorical reference to this young woman’s quest for meaning.

And that’s the genius of David Wilcox.

Sure, he’s got a voice that can melt frozen butter, reminiscent of James Taylor with a bit more emotional edge.

And yes, he can purposefully tune and re-tune his guitar on stage, moving from one open tuning to another with ease, all the while riffing on a story he’s just making up to keep the audience engaged, or as I saw him do once in Washington, change a broken string and stalling while he goes through the process.

And of course, he’s got some tasty musical chops. I picked up the guitar myself after I heard the playing of Mark Knopfler and Taylor, but I spent months on end actually studying Wilcox’s guitar work, because he gets so much mileage out of one simple six string. Everything I learned about open tunings, I credit to him.

But it’s Wilcox’s writing that is so compelling, a contemporary mélange of songs that explore love (both lost and found), redemption, the tensions involved in living a spiritual life (his music is shot through with biblical themes, though he also is at his most scathing when writing about organized religion and holier-than-thou Bible thumpers), as well as songs that are about plain old fun. And, though he occasionally lapses into clichéd lyrical phrasings, when he is on there are few better writers.

After gobbling up his first four CDs (Nightshift Watchman, How Did You Find Me Here, Home Again, and Big Horizon), I lost track of his music for a while during the 1990s, in the midst of raising babies, teaching, and plowing through graduate school.

Leave it to my Mad River Valley neighbor Bruce Jones to reacquaint me with Wilcox’s music. His new CD, entitled Vista, is Wilcox at his best, just as I remembered him. Spinning his new project has been like rediscovering an old friend.

It’s all here. Love waiting to be seized by one in danger of over-analyzing things, as in the first track, called “Get On:”

And my heart says “C’mon let’s go”/ And my mind’s saying “I don’t know”/ And the train is at the station/but I’m lost in contemplation / And this ticket’s only good for just so long / I can think about it ‘til that train is gone — or just get on …

Or the bluesy “Same Shaker,” which chronicles a “near miss” and the collision of both good and bad luck — “salt and pepper in the same shaker” — a vintage Wilcox theme.

Or “Good Man,” which damns the self-righteousness of the Christian fundamentalist, and then, in a twist, invokes the tragedy of 9/11 in the last verse. I’ll spare you the lyrics and let you be surprised.

The bottom line — you don’t want to miss Wilcox’s performance this weekend. He is best heard live, because you never quite know what may happen, and you sure to hear many more riffs and stories right out of his head that may never make it onto any recording.

Hope to see you there.

For more information

Who: David Wilcox
When: Sunday, 7:30 p.m.
Where: The Valley Player’s Theater, Waitsfield.
Information: Call 496-8910 for ticketsBistro Sauce