"So here's how it works," says Chris Holt, sitting with a guitar across his lap and sipping the first of several drinks. "You request the songs, and I play 'em." Within minutes, the crowd is lining up to hand him titles scribbled on cocktail napkins or simply shouting out the names: The Shins, Elliott Smith, Cheap Trick, Brian Eno, Bowie. But Holt's always game for an obscure dare, too, and while his voice occasionally may falter on a high note or his memory may blank on a chorus, it's astonishing how often he can pluck these songs from memory. As the evening unfolds, he moves to his keyboard so that he can offer up, say, a note-perfect rendition of Ben Folds Five's "Jackson Cannery" on the heels of a killer acoustic cover of Rush's "Spirit of the Radio."
Holt's shows are modeled loosely on über-producer Jon Brion's open-request L.A. gigs, in which the audience challenges the performer not to be novel but to be musically omniscient--and that, in itself, becomes its own kind of novelty. The gigs are casual and intimate, a far cry from Holt's previous incarnation as the monster guitarist for local jam band Olospo (or, as the group is more obnoxiously known, 'Spo). Lest you think him a mere cover act, however, Holt slips in original tunes that stand alongside the favorites, like "Good Luck" (from his upcoming Wilco-inspired solo CD Summer Reverb), a simple, hummable love song that's been stuck in my head all week.
Because he's so talented at playing other people's songs, it's sometimes hard to pin down what Holt offers as an original artist. He has a pleasant but undistinctive voice, an average-guy demeanor, and though he's a tremendously gifted musician--possibly one of the best in town (see his nominations as Musician of the Year, Best Songwriter and Best Guitarist in this year's Dallas Observer Music Awards, page 63)--he has yet to hit his stride in the scene. In the meantime, however, I must admit to being a terrific sucker for these request-heavy gigs. And if I have one complaint, it would simply be that he play "Eye of the Tiger." Finally.
Chris Holt performs Wednesday nights at the Barley House.
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