Review and photographs by Ross Marvin
The 72-year-old Hurley, whose First Songs was released on the legendary Folkways label 50 years ago, turned the dive bar full of 20-somethings into a hushed coffee house. “All of you shush up just awhile,” said Hurley before he launched into “The Revenent,” where he pronounced his truest lyrics of the night, “I am invincible, and I will survive.” Beyond all else, Michael Hurley is a fiercely independent counterculture survivalist. He is the Bear Grylls of freak-folk.
Like his better-known contemporary Mr. Zimmerman, Hurley’s legendary past doesn’t quite mean his live performance is life-altering. If you saw him busking on the street, you’d know he’d been at it a long time and you’d throw him a couple bucks, but you probably wouldn’t sign him to your record label before checking his pedigree (which includes a close association with the Holy Modal Rounders, and the Youngbloods) and taking a second listen to his seemingly simple lyrics.
Where Dylan’s live singing voice has deteriorated to a croak, Hurley’s is still recognizably endearing, though tonality was never his bag either. Hurley is at his best when he gets into the high register and lets his voice slip into an almost-tuneful falsetto as it did in the aptly-titled opener “Open Up.” Playing his hollow-body guitar through a borrowed amp, Hurley’s singular front-porch picking is epitomized by the single-note bass runs and licks that he turned out all night long.
Highlights of the set included new environmental songs, “Black and Yellow Bee” and “Monsanto.” While other artists destroy such protest songs by overwriting, Hurley’s genius has always been in his directness: “Monsanto, ruler of the earth, the air and water, too. Have you ever figured what you’re gonna do? When you find out you’ve poisoned even you?…I can’t even find a junk food you have not destroyed.” His openness to humor and his many songs about things people actually do (like eat food) make him the antithesis of overbearing faux-intellectual folkies.
Hurley also broke out several chestnuts from his ’70s catalogue, including “Watchin’ the Show,” “Portland Water” and the beautiful “O My Stars.” Walking the line between hippy nonsense and the philosophical musings of The Dude, Hurley’s lyrics about eternal lips, flowing rivers, day dreaming, paradise and design painting inhabit their own corner of the outsider art world.
Adding depth to the mix was Pittsfield native Wes Buckley on atmospheric second guitar. Perhaps 50 years Hurley’s junior, Buckley’s slide playing often brought the dimension that the great Hurley albums with the Rounders had. But, it was clear that Buckley and Hurley weren’t seasoned partners, as Buckley struggled to keep up at times. This never fazed Hurley, who with a nod of his head or raised hand cued Buckley up and down the neck of his Fender.
Hurley is smart to play clubs for $10 when he could get at least twice that. Like Jonathan Richman, another great and sincere artist, Hurley’s followers continue to run the generational gamut due to his inclusive ticket prices. Dylan he’s not, but Hurley also won’t cost you $40 a ticket. I didn’t have to rub elbows with a single yuppie — a concert-going victory for me. And Snock still seems to love returning to the Northeast where he lived in the ’60s and ’70s, even though he has been long settled in Brownsmeade, Oregon.
Fellow Oregonian and indie rock journeywoman Tara Jane O’Neil received second billing on the night. Her hushed, low-mixed vocals recalled Cat Powers. Her guitar interludes full of drone, loops and effects, suggested the influence of American Primitive guitarists like John Fahey and sonic technicians like Thurston Moore.
Hudson stonemason Chris Newman played the first set of the night on a well-battered Martin guitar. His sunny, blue-collar folk eschewed stereotypical Americana in favor of plain-spoken everyday problems like losing one’s cell phone.
Bokonon’s review at Nippertown
MICHAEL HURLEY SET LIST
The Rue of Ruby Whores
New River Blues
Watchin’ the Show
Hallelujah I’m a Bum
I Can’t Help Myself
Rock Song (a Jack Micheline poem)
Black and Yellow Bee
O My Stars
I Paint a Design