Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors

Drew Holcomb (foreground) leads his band Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors at Jefferson Center on Saturday. Rich Brinsfield, in the background, plays bass.

Performers on big stages don't see much of their crowds when the house lights are down. Spotlights shining in their faces prevent that. It kind of looks like an abyss at times.

Drew Holcomb, leading his band, The Neighbors, at Jefferson Center on Saturday, saw enough of the audience to make an interesting offer. 

"I'm sure they are great people, whoever bought the front row seats but didn't come," Holcomb said four songs into his set. "But whoever's in the back row, there's three and four [open seats]. I'm giving those to y'all. Don't be shy. Don't be shy. I like a full front row."

As audience members applauded, someone shouted, "What if they show up?"

Holcomb was quick to reply. "If they show up, they can sit somewhere else. It's 9 o'clock. They lost their front row privileges."

That's an everyman kind of move. It's in keeping with an Americana performer whose lyrically earnest style touches multiple aspects of the human condition. His clear, powerful baritone got it all across neatly for a crowd of 533 at Jefferson Center's Star City Series opener.

Holcomb, who noted onstage that he had played the old Kirk Avenue Music Hall about seven years ago, and Harvester Performance Center in 2015, said he would try not to take so long till next time. Judging from the two standing ovations he and his backing four received, the audience was down for it.

The Nashville, Tennessee, act dropped its latest album, the Americana/pop/rock effort "Dragons," in August, and featured plenty of its songs in a 90-minute set. Nine of the album's 10 tracks made the 20-song set list.

Much of the record deals with family. Wife Ellie Holcomb — who used to be in the band but is splitting her time between raising their children and tending her own, Dove Award-winning music career — was the focus of his jazzy "But I'll Never Forget The Way You Make Me Feel."

Middle child Huck was the subject of "See The World." 

"I was reading Shel Silverstein while you fell asleep," he sang.

Holcomb had the band drop the volume during "Family" so he could tell the story of a rambling uncle who surprised him and his siblings one year with a car full of toys, even though he owed Holcomb's father a lot of money. Turned out, the toys were stolen — his uncle's friend had a key to Toys R Us, he said.

"You Never Leave My Heart" was about his younger brother, Jay, who died from complications of spina bifida when Holcomb was still a teenager.

"Almost 20 years since the last time we spoke / We were eating at the airport, I was laughing at your jokes," he sang.

Holcomb, his band and opening act Birdtalker gathered around a single mic for an acoustic encore closer, "Dragons." The title cut was about a dream of his grandpa, giving him simple but sage advice.

"Don't listen to the critics, stand up and bear witness / Go slay all the dragons that stand in your way," the players sang, folk style.

Plenty of crowd favorites — and a Holcomb favorite — rounded out the set. Big cheers followed his romantic "The Morning Song" and "I Like To Be With Me When I'm With You." The crowd responded to the night's only cover, Elton John's "Rocket Man," late set rocker "Ring The Bells" and the sweet-grooving "Here We Go." Regardless of feel, tempo or lyrical mood, his band was rhythmically deep and melodically substantive, but flash-free.

After "Rocket Man," Holcomb played solo, finger picking an acoustic guitar and blowing harmonica on what he told the crowd was his favorite song among the ones he has written, "What Would I Do Without You."

He asked who were the newbies in the crowd and got a fair amount of yeses.

"If you like what you hear, pick up some [merchandise]," he said. "If you don't like what you hear, I hope you have a fantastic life. We probably won't see each other again."

He got laughs with his fine-with-it, everyman-style approach to that subject.

The two key members of Nashville folk quintet Birdtalker opened the show. Zack and Dani Green, who said they have been married for seven years, sounded like they've been singing together their whole lives. 

Contact Tad Dickens at tad.dickens@roanoke.com or 777-6474. Follow him on Twitter: @cutnscratch.  

 

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