Though I had heard his music in passing on the radio and a friend’s iPod, I didn’t get a chance to see Micah Wolf live until a couple months ago. And, I’ll admit, it was completely unintentional.
The wife and I had shoved plugs in our toddler’s ears and headed to a Steel Pulse show at the MACC. We were hoping to rekindle the flame of our reggae festival past, when we’d seen the legendary roots collective on more than one occasion, through a variety of chemically induced hazes.
Though we wound up enjoying that blast from the past—even sans chemicals—what made the show stick in our memory was Wolf, who did a lengthy opening set.
Gently strumming his guitar and filling the gaps between songs with mumbled offers of thanks to the cheering throng that had gathered in front of the stage, Wolf came across as less the emerging young folk rocker and more some humble dude from Upcountry who was surprised he got a gig.
Wolf shouldn’t be surprised if his star continues to rise. And, if and when it does, his unassuming demeanor will surely be a major contributing factor.
Wolf, whose second album, Beyond the Shores, came out earlier this month, is clearly a Maui product. His low-key, meandering rhythms and bouncy, introspective lyrics lead to inevitable comparisons with Jack Johnson, another Hawaii-bred musician who has successfully traded on his sandy-toed, sunburned persona. There are undeniable similarities between the two artists, but Wolf isn’t some cookie cutter coattail rider; in fact, the more you listen to his music the less he sounds like Johnson, or any of the other folksy troubadours who’ve capitalizied on the music industry’s mellow dude renaissance.
“One By One,” the signature track on Shores (it’s the one Wolf highlights on his Myspace page, the modern equivalent of sending it out to all the local radio stations) is a moody ballad, with earnest lyrics (“the world is dying from our hands/the world is crying make a stand”) that take aim at the greed and wastefulness of consumer culture. That’s dangerous territory for an artist to enter, a veritable minefield of potential clichés. But Wolf, mostly through his unrelenting unpretentiousness, manages to avoid sounding either preachy or maudlin.
Wolf pulls off the political stuff, and clearly walks his talk; he’s involved in numerous local social and environmental efforts. But musically, he’s at his best when he gets small and personal. “My Love,” an ode to messy, unrequited passion, once again displays Wolf’s ability to maneuver through well-traveled real estate while still making music that’s fresh and immediate. It’s easy to forgive the indulgences of a song with familiar subject matter if it feels like it came from a pure, original source. That’s definitely the case here.
As a vocalist, Wolf stays within himself. His voice is easy and smooth, and though he sometimes labors to reach the high notes he never sounds forced or awkward. In fact, the occasional, non-abrasive cracks and stutters only add to his guy-by-the-bonfire charm.
This is the album you want to pop in on a drive out to Hana, the kind of music that will ease you into a lazy weekend with all the warmth and effortlessness of a dive into the waters of Baby Beach.
There was one moment at the MACC show that exemplified Wolf’s appeal: he was winding down his set, preparing to cede the stage to Steel Pulse. As he launched into his final song of the evening, I lay back on the grass and stared up at the swaying palms, backed by a clear, warm, moonlit Maui night. And for a few fleeting minutes, the music and the place and the feeling became one thing.
And the thing was good. MTW