Devastating Blues, Laugh-Out-Loud Funnyby Dylan Angell
MICHAEL HURLEY AT UNION POOL
Union Pool on a Saturday night often feels like the Mecca of Williamsburg weekend debauchery, but depending on the show, the back room, which serves as the music venue, can stand in sharp contrast to the wall-to-wall dance party up front. I can’t think of any artist who could sharpen that contrast more than Michael Hurley, the seventy-four-year-old folk musician.
Over some fifty years, Michael Hurley (aka Snock, aka Elwood, etc.) has created a bafflingly consistent collection of songs. His first album was released by the seminal Folkways records; in recent years he has been championed, covered by, or asked to collaborate with such artists as Vetiver, Vic Chesnutt, Cat Power, and Espers.
Within each record there is a great deal of wisdom, yet he has never lost his mischievous and youthful way. His songs can play as devastating blues or laugh-out-loud comedy—sometimes within the same song, with just a simple turn of phrase. Regardless of which side of Hurley you get, his songs tell of a loner finding solace in the small things, be it the road, a plate of spaghetti, a bottle of wine, or a pretty girl on roller skates.
As I walk in, I see Hurley sitting behind a table selling his albums, comic books, and original prints of his artwork, all of which share images of wolves, cars, UFOs, and his characters Jocko and Boone. Hurley tours pretty often, but the energy in the audience is the anxiousness that accompanies a group of strangers who have come to celebrate their collective secret.
When Hurley approaches the stage he barely announces himself. He looks long at his setlist and then searches his guitar case for a pick. Initially the audience seems overwhelmed with excitement, they hoot and holler and call out to Hurley—but he ignores it. He seems to be holding back, as if knowing that if he stays silent between songs the audience will soon follow, and it works. Three songs in he plays “Light Green Fellow” and the audience begins to transition from anticipating Hurley to actually watching the man play.
From there, he strums a single chord and begins to tell a story: “I found myself in the Chicago airport, waiting for my plane, when I heard that Merle Haggard had died.”He then plays Merle’s song “The Way I Am,”a song that fits both men quite well: “The way I am, don’t fit my shackles, the way I am, reality, I can almost see that bobber dancin’, so I just dream, keep on bein’ the way I am.”It’s a beautiful ode to a brother in song and I witness more than one face tear up.
It hits me during the hour-and-a-half-long set that Hurley’s talent lies in his being able to turn any venue into a backyard or porch. He feels like a friend casually sharing a song and he holds a smile on his face, as if he’s anticipating a line as much as the audience is. Throughout the night, voices in the audience weave in and out, singing along, but “Slurf Song,”from the Unholy Modal Rounders collaborative album Have Moicy! turns into a full-on sing-along. The song is essentially about eating dinner with a group of friends, but it’s so celebratory that it becomes something more. “Oh, I see the dishes over there and they fill me with despair.”
Towards the end of the night, Hurley shyly tells a story. He and a buddy had decided they had a perfect formula for a hit album: the songs would be all about horses and it would be tailored for an audience of teenage girls and they could finally cash in. The story is a bit long and ridiculous but everyone is hanging on every word, until a visibly drunk woman yells: “Michael, just play some songs!”
Things get tense for a minute, the audience boos the girl, and Michael says, “I’m sorry, I’m tired, I’ll just play the song.” The audience cheers him on, begging him to finish the story. There is a collective heartbreak in watching him fall in line due to a heckler. He begins to play the song, asking us all to sing along, he sings the words “old horse, horse’s ass,” and then again, this time with everyone singing along, suddenly he stands up and points towards the drunk for the latter half of the phrase and the audience bursts into applause. Once again, Michael Hurley has taken a moment of defeat and flipped it with a wink and smile.
DYLAN ANGELL is a musician and writer from North Carolina.