MUSIC AS "Medicine." That's the theme and title of Americana rockers Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors' invigorating new album, a favorite find and a cure-all you can gulp without fear or prescription at World Cafe Live tonight.
"First time we ever played there [WCL], five years ago, was our first time venturing out of the South," said the Memphis-spawned Holcomb. "We didn't know what to expect, and got a great welcome from a full house. Wasn't even a single person there I knew!"
Not like on home turf, where Holcomb headlines his own Moon River Music Festival each August on the Memphis fairgrounds, where Elvis Presley got his start.
Even on a first date, though, Holcomb makes himself accessible, easy to know. He's one of those "if you like . . . then try . . . " artists who click perfectly into the continuum of earnest, grainy-voiced, singer-strummer poets. Think a continuum stretching from "Blonde on Blonde"-era Bob Dylan to "Greetings from Asbury Park" card-sender Bruce Springsteen to contempo confidante Ed Sheeran.
In belatedly digging through the man's 10-years-plus, seven-album catalog, it was no surprise to find Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" kicking off Holcomb and the Neighbors' "Through the Night: Live in the Studio" album of covers.
"These were the songs we'd throw out there late at night in bar gigs, or at college coffeehouse shows when nobody was really listening. Songs we'd do just for fun, to please ourselves, help get us through the night."
Also note how sharing Holcomb is on one of his older originals, "Last Night," bravely name-checking both David Gray and Neil Young in the lyrics.
"I was a senior in high school when [Gray's 1998] 'White Ladder' album came out. He was a real beacon of light for me that summer, not just connecting me to the girl who's the subject of that song, but also encouraging me to give this singer-songwriter thing a try . . . His music levitated me, completely undid me."
On "Medicine," one of the best remedies is the Gray-toned, crushed-by-love ballad "Avalanche," which rouses listeners to recapture that wondrously overwhelmed sensation.
Also worthy, but a tougher pill to swallow, is the set-capping "When It's All Said and Done," a reflection on the "internal struggle when redemption is revered but you're seeing a world with a lot of suffering and darkness."
(Yes, Holcomb was brought up in a "very religious home.")
What's the Young connection? "His 'Silver and Gold' album was the other album I shared with that particular girl that summer," Holcomb explained. "It was almost a sequel to 'Harvest.' I was really struck by the simplicity, the directness, in songs like 'Good to See You.' "
One of the liveliest doses from the "Medicine" cabinet, "The Last Thing We Do," is an urgent rocker that could pass for a Springsteen greatest hit. "I came through the back door of 'Nebraska' and 'The Ghost of Tom Joad,' then fell more in love with the E Street Band sound," Holcomb allowed.
These days he's no longer going for those "third-person, John Steinbeck-style narratives" but "still musically alluding" to the propulsive push of Bruce and the E-Streeters. And maybe doubly so with the fresh addition of a piano/organ player to his touring band, "to make up for the absence of my wife, Ellie."
"After eight years, she's quit the road to stay home with our daughter, Emmylou, work on her own music and wait for our second child to arrive."
Emmylou, as in Harris? "We went to see her on our first date."
Of course they did.