Lonnie Holley
UNC Center for the Study of the American South, Chapel Hill
Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014

Lonnie Holley, an outsider artist who makes music and “scrap” sculptures, is in Chapel Hill for a week-long residency that has him exercising his many artistic muscles. Earlier in the week, he built a sculpture using discarded materials from the Southern Folklife Collection, and last night, he performed at UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South as part of its Music on the Porch programming. It’s difficult to wrap your head around the entirety of Holley’s work—its minimalism accomplishes a lot—but during the hour-long set, Holley blended spoken word pieces with his signature soothing, spacey compositions.

Holley reassured potentially perplexed audience members by announcing that he was performing all new material (though it wasn’t entirely clear if it was improvised outright). If you hadn’t heard something before, that’s because no recording of it existed. Holley’s tunes ambled along gently as he sang of love, social problems, the bells of Chapel Hill, babies, bombs and more. Embedded in them were thoughtful messages. In one song, Holley sang about how although some of us have lots of shoes, we ultimately wear only one pair in the grave, thus spurring us to think about what we have versus what we need.

After taking a short break, Holley began a semi-spoken word segment that involved a wooden boxy contraption that he beat on for rhythm. As he gradually transitioned back to making music, he sang through the box, which added an odd organic reverberation to his voice.

The busy late afternoon traffic on Franklin Street was an unfortunate distraction—on more than one occasion, the buzz of a passing motor scooter overruled the gentle tones of Holley’s keyboard. But hearing Holley’s calming tunes while stretched on the grass in the low sun ranks high on ways to spend an afternoon.