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It was Cracker frontman David Lowery who penned the choice line about the questionable value of yet another geek with an acoustic guitar: "What the world needs now is another folk singer, like I need a hole in my head."
Superficially, singer Edwin McCain fits Lowery's cynical character study, though the singer/songwriter likes to think he offers a different perspective on the stereotype. The South Carolina native went to college in 1989 with designs on being a teacher, then quit against his father's wishes when he saw a chance to perform full-time. He did the neo-hippie lounge-boy thing and learned just how earning a large amount of money propped on a bar stool in Vail, Colorado, can have its merits. At one point, McCain was knocking out as many as 11 shows a week at $100 a pop. With that kind of take-home pay, McCain felt he was living the high life. He bought a home studio, a new van and a motorcycle, all while playing covers to drunks in a setting the 26-year-old now recalls metaphorically as "a boatload of sexy lobster bisque and some nasty old bowl of French onion, all sloshing around together."
But though the work, and the money, was steady, McCain was creatively frustrated. Perhaps more important, he was getting bored. Faced with hassles from a booking agent over his decision to add original material to his sets, and realizing that his vision of the good life was wearing thin, McCain sold his toys and used the money to hire a backup band. A few months down the road, he was more or less destitute, working 300 nights a year and trying desperately to nab a record deal. But at least he was happy. And when you're happy, it's said, everything else is supposed to fall into place.
True to the clichŽ, McCain got his chance with a major label, and his multiple influences -- R&B, jazz and folk -- and crowd-pleasing tendencies are there for all to see on the Lava/Atlantic debut Honor Among Thieves. Though rooted in acoustic music, the CD's best moments come when McCain turns his band loose in funky white-boy mode, with the gravel-throated singer accompanying them in a voice that recalls, favorably, Joe Cocker. It can only help that McCain's pals with Hootie and the Blowfish vocalist Darius Rucker, and that Rucker appears in McCain's video for the single "Solitude." While many critics have written Hootie and the Blowfish off as a derivative roots-rock trifle, multiple platinum sales tell a different story, and McCain bristles both at the criticism that's been levied against the band and at the idea that somebody might dismiss him because of his association with it.
"Oh sure, now everybody is betting against them, and that's why they're calling their next album Fairweather Johnson," says McCain. "Everybody who was falling all over the band before is too cool for Hootie now. But in Hootie's case, well, I'm sorry, but there's more to it than spin-doctoring. Apparently, they write pop songs that people like."
McCain knows something about pop songs that people like. He's had music running through his head since he was a baby, progressing from church choirs to (with a bit of coercing) community theater musicals by the age of 11. As a teenager, McCain played in the standard high school rock band while also developing an affinity for Earth, Wind and Fire and the lyrics of modern-day folkie David Wilcox.
"I learned a trick from [Wilcox]. You have these upbeat melodies and darker lyrics," McCain says. "It creates a good contrast and weeds out the people who aren't listening. Part of being soulful is exploring the downside."
On Honor Among Thieves, McCain wallows with the best of them. For "Russian Roulette," his band cooks up a smile-inducing Tower of Power groove while McCain lets go with a harrowing narrative of spousal abuse, and on "Alive," he tells the story of a record store owner who loses both his father and wife in a one-week spell, and who finds his only solace in music. When asked if he ever hears from people affected by his lyrics, McCain mentions a 25-year-old fan who had been taking mood-altering drugs for manic depression. The fan told McCain that there was something about "Alive" that "clicked a little switch" in his head.
"Here was this guy who was overwhelmed by this problem, and the doctors are shocked because some song works better than drugs," says McCain. "I've met this guy and his girlfriend, and we've become friends. I really don't like telling you about stuff like that for fear of the narcissistic side of it. It can be kind of heavy. I hope people identify that they just hear music, and I just happened to be the one [playing] it."
In other words, just another well-meaning geek with a guitar.
Edwin McCain performs at 9 p.m. Thursday, March 21, at Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $10 (standing-room available only). The Badlees open. For info, call 869-8424.
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