Drew and Ellie Holcomb’s recent show at The Birchmere began with a pleasant surprise. The show had been billed as “An Evening with Drew and Ellie Holcomb,” leading me to expect a duo performance. When they took the stage, they were accompanied by Drew’s band, The Neighbors.
The band included Ellie up until six years ago, when she took a break from eight years of touring with the birth of the couple’s first child. During the show on Feb. 20, Drew teased that Ellie was supposed to have been writing for the neighbors, but instead formed her own band and wrote “all those songs about Jesus.”
A Christian faith emphasizing love and acceptance is very important to Drew and Ellie. Before embarking on a musical career, Drew studied for his master’s in divinity in England, writing a dissertation about spirituality in Bruce Springsteen. Ellie talked about how her faith got her through a tough time, but she also admitted “that may not be what you believe.” She wrote “Red Sea Road” as an expression of that faith.
The band first achieved success when their song “Live Forever” was used in an NBA ad around 2009, which led to them being written up in Sports Illustrated. As Drew related, the song has nothing to do with basketball, or with sports in general, but landing the commercial really helped the band survive in their early years.
Drew and Ellie opened their set with the song they’ve named this tour after: “You and Me.” Ellie told the crowd, “It feels like home here.” Drew invited the crowd to come alive, saying, “it’s a listening room, but it’s also a participation room.” He introduced the band, who had the audience clapping along to “Family.”
On “Hung the Moon,” Drew whistled along with melody, and Ellie joined him after a few measures. Drew said, “It’s my favorite Ellie Holcomb song, because it’s about me.” Introducing “I’ll Never Forget the Way You Make Me Feel,” he told the audience that his first date with Ellie was a Patty Griffin concert, then joked that he “overserved her a bunch of wine, and we woke up married.”
The next tune was a cover of Sting’s early ’90s hit “Fields of Gold.” About three year or four years, the Holcombs saw Sting at Carnegie Hall, and they decided to record it. When they played it for their babysitter, Kate, she said, “That is the most beautiful song you’ve ever written.” Drew mentioned that Kate was with them tonight, but she now works for the Holcombs as a photographer.
The Holcombs now have three children. “See the World,” Drew told the audience, was written for the second, Huck. Immediately after he mentioned his son’s name, he continued, “And I don’t care if you don’t like it.”
Ellie related a funny story from when one of the kids was four-and-a-half. Fully taking advantage of his little kid voice, he would sing to her, “I’ll never forget the way you make me feel.” This made Ellie cry, which her son thought was hilarious; he would sing the song in a transparent but effective attempt to elicit tears.
Stream Dragons by Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors on Spotify:
The Neighbors left the stage, and Drew explained why he doesn’t like to sing “Harmony”: He doesn’t know how. After the duet, the band returned, and the set continued with “Find You Here.” Ellie talked about writing a children’s book, Don’t Forget to Remember, inspired by one of their kids. Once, her daughter asked her who sang the first song. Not having an answer, Ellie turned the question back on her, asking, “Who do you think wrote the first song?” “Dolly Parton?” “We’re doing something right!”
This led to Ellie’s sister, Carly Bannister, joining the Holcombs on stage for “Sing.” The band left, and it was Carly’s turn to be featured. When she was in her junior high years, Carly said, she used to fantasize that she’d be on a run in her neighborhood and a boy who attended another school would appear and declare his love for her. The world, of course, shattered that illusion, and she learned that love is “Easier Said” than done.
“Fire and Dynamite” closed the first set, and the second set opened with “Morning Song.” Between number, Drew told the story of his trip to the Austin City Limits Festival when he was a senior in college. Watching Al Green perform, he was surrounded by “middle-aged women.” The good reverend was throwing roses into the audience, and Drew caught one. He described how the women in the audience stared at him, clearly wanting him to give up the rose. “No way,” he recalled. “It’s my rose.”
“End of the World,” Drew said, is his mother’s least favorite song. He performed solo on “Love Anyway,” which was inspired by the work his friend Jeremy does in Iraq with NGO Preemptive Love. The title came from an op-ed that Jeremey wrote titled “The World Is Scary As Hell, Love Anyway.”
Midway through the second set, Drew invited the audience to make requests. He worked the room like a pro, making sure to get requests from across the hall. Fulfilling audience requests, the Holcombs performed “Tennessee,” “Magnolia,” “I Like Me When I’m with You,” “Wild World” (no relation to the Cat Stevens song of the same title), and “Another Man’s Shoes.” They concluded the set with “Here We Go” and performed “Dragons” for their encore.