"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.
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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.