The Socratic Showman

By the end of his long second set at my house concert series the other weekend, David Olney had sung from the perspective of an iceberg facing the Titanic, a donkey carrying Jesus to Jerusalem, and a French prostitute chronicling the unvarnished fear of a soldier headed for death on the front. He’d thrown in a bit of Socratic history, discussed his idea of the faith of the Holy Radial, and recited Coleridge.

His old buddy, Townes Vant Zandt once said the his favorite writers were Mozart, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bob Dylan, and David Olney. Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt have recorded his songs. Steve Earle, a pretty fine songwriter, has played his tunes live, offering his own testimonial.

Olney is an inventive, masterful songwriter. The songs stand on their own as among the best you’ll hear. Go online or to your local record store and check him out.

Live, he’s a showman. Like Bruce Springsteen, James Brown, Leonard Cohen, and others, he knows the experience is even more important than the songs. He wants to make his audience laugh, cry, and think. After his version of “1917,” an utterly devastating song about war and fear, the audience seemed almost unable to break out of his trance to applaud after an emotionally draining seven minutes. Watch the video below and see if you don’t have the same reaction.

It was his performances, his ability to merge his stories, wit, and pacing with the songs he crafts so carefully that first brought him to my attention. Over breakfast after a house concert, Kevin Welch, himself no songwriting slouch, said “You know who you ought to have here: David Olney. Check him out.” Months later, Kim Richey offered another endorsement, saying Olney’s songs were great, but his live show was even better.

About that time, Olney released “The Wheel,” the first album of his I bought. “The Wheel” is a sort of concept album about the cycles of life, love, and nature.

“There are hints of a concept in these songs about the spiritual and psychological struggles to maintain balance and hope. The best ones center on the search for comfort, love and simple clarity amid the roadblocks put up by demons and fate,” wrote Robert Hilburn, the venerable Los Angeles Times critic. “Backed by strikingly aggressive sonic textures (with violins sometimes dueling guitars) on such tracks as “Big Cadillac” and “God Shaped Hole” and then by only the most tender strains elsewhere, Olney gives us an album with the most original mix of heart and fury since Tom Waits’ “Mule Variations.”

Another reviewer sums up Olney well: “He writes both some of the most gorgeous love songs·and some of the most chilling character studies·that you will ever hear. And he delivers them with a mixture of grace and good humor that places him in the company of the very best of solo performers· Unlike most modern songwriters, Olney makes no big show of how sensitive he is. He just gets on with it, giving us human beings in all their glory and foolishness·  David Olney isn’t so much a singer, or a songwriter, as a tour guide for the human condition, the good and the bad that’s inside us all.”

Olney and a few of us stayed up, talking and drinking after the show. He grew up in Rhode Island, went to school in Chapel Hill, but found his way in Nashville. His revelation came early, opening for Townes Van Zandt, who he says introduced a different, fearlessly poetic and narrative brand of songwriting. The two became friends over the years before Van Zandt’s death.

Olney is an ambitious songwriter, not afraid to reach. He’s been a rocker. He’s been a folkie. He knows Woody, he knows Townes, but he also knows Buddy Holley. (He also knows Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee and about any other novelist you’d care to mention). It’d be wrong to label him. For a recent album, “One Tough Town,”  he said: “I see One Tough Town as a retrospective of a hundred years of American music. Blues, country, rock, swing and all stops in between. No such vision can be complete. There’s just too much to cover to achieve that goal. But it has been my life’s work, and my life’s pleasure, to see how close I can come.”

I booked Olney shortly after “The Wheel” was released and he put on a stunning solo show. But his show the other week, a duo performance with the instrumental master, Sergio Webb, surpassed that first performance in breadth, artistry and intensity.

What strikes me about Olney and other songwriters whose performances are so entrancing is the thought and the bravery that goes into their shows. Olney puts himself and his characters out there and dares you to come along.

In Olney’s case, there’s no set list. He certainly hits some of the same notes on most nights — songs like “1917,” “Women Across the Water,” and the romantic “If It Wasn’t For the Wind” seem to appear every show. But the rest is what strikes him as right for the moment, whether it’s a cover of Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues” or a neat pairing of Frankie Ford’s “Sea Cruise” with Olney’s defiant and playful “The Way I Am.”

Olney just kept playing the other night, going on for nearly 90 minutes in a second set that someone later said seemed like 30. He earned repeated standing ovations. They were for the songs, for Olney and Webb, but they were also thanks for a night of substance, art as commentary and thought-provoking springboard, not just escapism.

Earlier, Olney had introduced “Sweet Poison” with a Springsteen-esque riff on Socrates’s fate, ever the engaging showman merging heart and mind and rock ‘n’ roll.


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