WASHINGTON, Feb. 12, 2016 – When Greg Holden is up on stage—as he was here recently at the Black Cat—all eyes are focused on him and him alone, even though he’s in the midst of the band that’s backing him up. True, he brings attention to the rest of the band. But they are behind him, both figuratively and literally. So as much as he may want to bring them to the forefront, his presence itself makes this virtually impossible.
But such is the life of a singer/songwriter. Each one’s name headlines the local playbill, and good or bad, it’s his or her show. The audience is there to see and hear this artist’s music, those songs they’ve presumably heard and enjoyed before. The repertoire of songs means a lot to an artist’s fans, and hearing them live is an important aspect of a show. But there generally has to be more. And Holden has it.
When you’re taking in a performance of a singer/songwriter, the biggest “tell” as to how his set is going is when the music’s stopped and he’s killing time prepping for the next song. This can be different for a full band or a recognized group that lives off either audience hype or an endless supply of ambient energy and/or noise.
Like every singer/songwriter, all Greg Holden has during his set are his songs. Yet it’s between numbers that you can see how his sixth sense for the audience works.
Holden isn’t just a musician. He’s a performer. He doesn’t just sing and play his songs. He brings the audience right in on the process. His show at the Black Cat wasn’t necessarily interactive. But Holden clearly senses that making his audience feel a part of his show is paramount. It’s an important key to understand that this is not only a part of his act, but a part of Greg Holden himself.
Greg Holden’s appealing ability to empathize with the audience during his sets is one of his bigger strengths as a performer. He doesn’t do this just because it’s a smart and canny practice for an entertainer. It’s because it’s truly something that’s meaningful for him. When he starts interacting with his audience, it’s hard to ignore the inherent sincerity in everything he does.
A perfect example of this is one of Greg Holden’s best-known songs, “Boys in the Street.” The storyline follows a boy and his contentious relationship with his father as the boy comes to term with his sexuality, including their mutual alienation and their reconciliation many years later, when the boy’s father is on his deathbed.
It’s a powerful song, although it’s in substantial contrast with the rest of Holden’s set. Holden was actually asked to write the song by the LGBTQ organization “Everyone is Gay,” and it’s often a tricky scenario when a straight-identifying performer decides to portray any member of a marginalized community. But Holden wisely takes the song and its lyrics in a universal direction by specifically relating them to the generational concern and friction between sons and fathers, wherever they may be in heart and soul.
Even though this number clearly stands out from much of the rest of his set, its emotional details become more heartfelt and memorable when Holden performs it live. Perhaps that’s not intentional on his part. But the emotional shift in this song is notably distinct from the rest of his set. He’s featuring something that’s outside of his normal parameters, almost as if he’s covering an alternate version of himself.
It’s a sensation that comes off strongly since nothing Holden does is performed merely for effect. Consistent with the rest of the music in his set, Holden remains completely earnest while he’s on stage.
The fact that the show is all about him almost feels irrelevant by the time Holden finishes his set. During his set at the Black Cat, he performed a number of songs from different perspectives, very much attempting to shift the focus with each song. While the light will always remain on Holden while he’s on stage, his music and lyrics will always possess an extra punch because he’s living them, not merely performing them. His set is not a reality show. It’s real.