David Mallett is a lot like Maine, his home and muse—a force that can astonish you with a hard-edged beauty. Call it sentiment without sentimentality. As Mallett demonstrated before a half full house at the Iron Horse Music Hall on Sunday night, he knows that life deals as many hard knocks as nostrums.
At age 58 there are a lot of miles on Mallett’s voice but it’s still as warm and inviting as a wood fire on a cold night, even if it can’t always scale every peak and valley. Mallett’s guitar work was filled with dazzling cross picking and the timing between he and stand-up bass player Michael Burd was impeccable. The latter comments are all the more remarkable considering that just a month ago Mallett was still in rehab for rotator cuff surgery and couldn’t lift his arm above his waist.
Mallett sang 25 songs, mostly from his backlist, though a few less familiar songs unfurled, including one written for his daughter; “North Meets South,” his take on President Obama’s inauguration; and a spoken word reading from The Fable True, stories from Henry David Thoreau’s The Maine Woods. If you never thought a description of trout could be beautiful, listen and learn.
David Mallett has earned his reputation as one of the finest songwriters of his generation. “Fire,” which he played just before his double encore, is a veritable template on how to transform a small tragedy into an epic, and “Inches and Miles”—the evening’s closing song—tells you all you need to know about a doomed relationship in three finely crafted verses. Along the way Mallett spun a host of other bittersweet tales—“Living on the Edge” cast a harsh light on the Ship of State by spotlighting a small town’s human fodder for battles from the Civil War on; “The Road Goes on Forever” raised the ghost of the youthful lover whose memory lingers; and “My Old Man” did the same for his departed father.
In “Phil Brown,” a personal favorite, Mallett told the tale of a down-at-the-heels painter who was a boyhood inspiration. He sang, “He was never much for roses/He’d sooner paint the thorns/’Cause he found a keener beauty there/That no one else could see.” It’s tempting to think that David Mallett has become Phil Brown.—L.V.

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