Smile Politely

The casual precision of Nate Holley

As I sit at Boomerangs Bar and Grill, counting the American flags, I watch the people around me. Some are drinking and eating; some people are talking and drinking; others are drinking and playing games. All of them seem to be having a good time. In the middle of this, Nate Holley is getting warmed up. His equipment is plugged in, his guitar is set, and he’s ready to deliver some musical gems. Nate starts with a smooth intro. He jumps right in with a vamp, a repeating beat box rhythm. He introduces himself to the crowd, layers in a bass line, and starts to strum his guitar. His first song is “Ain’t No Sunshine,” by Bill Withers. You’ve heard it a thousand times, but you’ve never heard it like this.

Nate Holley is a one-man recording studio. He layers, he builds, he weaves. He is his own backup singer, bassist, lead guitar, and percussion section. He strums and thumps his guitar to create bass lines and beat boxes to drive the rhythm. Nothing is pre-recorded. He uses a looping machine to repeat the harmonies he sings live. Nate lets the sound build and grow until, suddenly, he cuts the layers, leaving just his voice and the guitar. Then he taps the loop machine with his toe and it’s back. The full sound he’s been crafting over the last five minutes is in full force. I see two guys who have been playing pool stop their game to watch the action. “That is sick.” Yes it is, gentlemen. Yes, it is.

There are few things I admire more than a patient performance. An artist who feels the moment and knows his medium is to be respected and studied. Nathan Holley is somehow casual, effortless, and incredibly precise. He’s the ultimate showman, yet just a guy in a t-shirt, making music for no one but himself.

Another beautiful aspect of a Nate Holley jam is you don’t realize what you’re listening to until he starts singing. There is sometimes a full minute or two of building, looping, crafting, before the identity of the song is revealed. He had me forgetting that I’ve heard “Crossroads,” by Bone Thugs N Harmony, before. How did he get me to forget I’ve heard that friggin’ song a hundred goddamn times? One particular melody had me thinking of the beach and, finally, I recognized the tune. Don’t worry ’bout a thing…

This modern one-man band plays his own songs as well. His original “Crazy Boy” starts with a simple strumming of the guitar, which sounds like a million indie rock ballads. I think, “Oh, no, this can’t be it. This is…” I think he’s great at covers and maybe can’t write anything of his own that’s as engaging or complex as the rest of his set. I am wrong. I’m so wrong, it’s embarrassing. All of the craftsmanship is there, just as with his other pieces. He uses the same care and innovation with his original work as with his covers, and the result is impressive. It’s one thing to make stale produce taste fresh and delicious; it’s another to grow your own garden.

I got to talk to Nate for a little while between sets. (He plays for several hours with a couple of short breaks throughout the night.) Not only does he juggle sound on stage, he chases after his two boys on the 27 acres he and his wife, Birdie, share in Saugatuk. I asked if he has a studio on the property, and he sighs, “No, but that’s the dream.” He keeps busy, touring Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Florida. He’s been playing since he was a teenager and it’s clear that he loves it. He never smiles on stage, rarely looks at the crowd, and usually has his eyes closed. That guy is in the zone when he plays; he’s not even there.

According to his Facebook page, Nate’s “goal as a musician is to capture his listener from the first note to make sound that won’t leave the audience where it found them.” He sees music as an escape, a tool that takes the audience to places beyond the reach of “the trouble and turmoil that everyday living can bring.” Well, mission accomplished. When Nate Holley plays, I’m not thinking much about my personal problems. I’m not worried about my bills. I’m wondering how the hell he does it. I’m trying to slow down the blinding speed of his fingers so I can figure out the magic. He’s onstage and I’m in the music, a thousand miles away from everyday living.

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