[OFFBEAT TRIBUTE] To the accompaniment of a lone banjo player—whose shadow on the backdrop starts sprouting serpents—a clown dressed as what indie-folkie Holcombe Waller calls "this rattlesnake-charmer voodoo business guy" steps out. As viola and cello join in, said guy (who goes by Mihael Sagalovesky) then begins to sing a sly request laden with Southern gothic gloom: "Won't you lend your lungs to me/ Mine are collapsing." The song is doomed Texas bard Townes Van Zandt's classic, "Lungs," but clearly, this is not your ordinary Americana songwriter tribute. Even the concert's full title telegraphs that: "Holcombe Waller presents Mihael Sagalovesky and the Tragic Torments of Patty 'Heart' Townes."
That this gifted vocalist has undertaken a theatrical, multimedia presentation of other songwriters' work—even two as renowned as Patty Griffin and Van Zandt—is surprising at such an early point in his career, especially given the intricate lyrics and indelible melodies of his own songs. Waller moved here from San Francisco in 2004 with longtime musical comrade Ben Landsverk (the banjoist above) and recorded a brilliant, insular album, 2005's Troubled Times. And the material he's composed since promises another compelling collection in the works.
But while Waller was preparing Times' follow-up, his creative path led him instead to the theatrical stage: First, he took a prominent supporting role in Wade McCollum's acclaimed One, which was followed by a brief flirtation with agit-drag troupe Sissyboy and an appearance in meta-movement theater piece Tao Soup, directed by performance guru Scott Kellman. Those experiences have given Waller newfound magnetism onstage. Add a recent fascination with string arrangement, a painful breakup steeped in Griffin's desperate songs and the inspiration to call upon skills acquired during past artistic pursuits in video installation, and you have this weekend's daring performance.
Following the first act's half-dozen Van Zandt songs, Waller's clown Sagalovesky returns as a drunken, winged angel to perform six Griffin heartbreakers against more haunting projections, including a backdrop of sunlight filtering through an underwater scene and the closing image of a full moon. The latter image envelops Waller's body as his tender bell's-peal voice sings Griffin's "Top of the World," its melody repeatedly ascending while never quite transcending earthbound sadness. Such transcendence should occur, instead, in the hearts and minds of Waller's sure-to-be-enraptured audience.
Holcombe Waller's Mihael Sagalovesky and the Tragic Torments of Patty "Heart" Townes takes place at 9 pm Friday and 3 pm Saturday, Jan. 26-27, at Holocene. $10. 21+.