An initial listen to Holcombe Waller’s Into the Dark Unknown might stir comparisons to early Sufjan Stevens territory — back when his M.O. was quiet, forlorn folk sung over picked acoustic guitar and the occasional piano or horn swell. But the Portland singer-songwriter’s performance last night at the Swedish American Hall was something all its own, in a way that I’m still having trouble picking out. The show was billed as two 45-minute sets with a break in between, just like a theater performance, which was fitting as each “act” had its own distinct mood and special guest musicians.
The venue was set up with rows of wooden fold-out chairs like an elementary school recital, and the audience sat back as Waller and his guest musicians took us through the majority of the songs on Into the Dark Unknown, and a few other tunes that made it clear this was definitely no ordinary show. There was an ode to sexy trucks sung over a prerecorded track, more performance art than mere performance; an almost parodic song about a young Spanish lover with a penchant for almond soup; a gloomy piano rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.”
The first half of the evening had a lighter tone as Waller related upbeat and more than a little comical anecdotes about the broken relationships and various dudes who had inspired some of his songs. Then he quipped that he was now living happily with his boyfriend, and that all of his forthcoming songs would be about “doing the laundry” and “watering the plants.” All of his stage banter had this innocent and unintentionally humorous quality, but every time he sang his voice was completely arresting — it was no surprise that he named Jeff Buckley as an important influence early in the set.
Waller gave no introduction to the second set, simply sitting at the piano while people found their seats and launching into his first song. He played “Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan” off of Into the Dark Unknown, which featured percussive guitar and a really impressive tribal yell. Guest musician Sean Hayes joined him onstage for a duet of three of his own tunes, including standout “Powerful Stuff.”
After 90 minutes, Waller’s encore came as the biggest surprise of the evening, and an amazingly odd end to a perfectly odd night: combining diva-esque vocal flourishes, Thom York gyrations and an electro backbeat, he sang the danciest, most upbeat cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U” I’ve ever heard.
Here’s hoping someone will YouTube that shit.