Holcombe Waller's warm, lyric tenor is a disorienting force: Gliding across three (some say four) octaves, Waller's voice glows with a curiously organic absence of blemishes. But vocal virtuosity in itself is as unimpressive as it is attention seeking: If American Idol has demonstrated anything, it's that the pursuit of a classically ideal timbre often leads to a soulless approximation of art, where beauty is replaced with manufactured technique. Waller's impossibly pure voice, however, is familiar and inviting, even though he sounds like no other singer today.
Last January, Waller performed his ambitious operetta, Mihael Sagalovesky and the Tragic Torments of Patty Townes, a theatrical interpretation of Patty Griffin and Townes Van Zandt songs, refracted through the Chekhovian prism of Waller's fictional, drunken minstrel, Mihael Sagalovesky. Props and minimal video projections lent narrative cues to Sagalovesky's story, but Waller's alternately sotto and soaring voice eclipsed all the dramatic trappings, and recast the folksy ballads into ethereal, Gershwin-like shimmers.
Months later, at the Time-Based Art Festival, Waller debuted the entirely transfixing Into the Dark Unknown: The Hope Chest. He had toned down the non-musical elements of his show, but retained just enough to nudge it beyond a normal concert experience. Accompanied by French horn, cello, viola, xylophone, banjo, and acoustic guitar, Waller's voice hushed the (literally) festive crowd, and unrolled a devastating set of original songs, including "Little Wrecking Ball" and "Eyes Like Knives." Both songs proposed complex and sympathetic psychological portraits of polarizing figures: the infant Jesus and an abusive soldier, respectively.
Waller's evocative, almost androgynous voice will always foreground his creative output, but he has the vision of an artist, rather than a vocalist. As such, he uses that beauty as a tool to establish an emotional foothold with the audience, so that he can then unpack his finely crafted and haunting sensibility.