Micah P Hinson, Portland Arms, Cambridge, 29th September 2017

Micah P Hinson is a bundle of contradictions – on the one hand he’s a slightly agitated and nervy stage presence, but he also happily makes if not on-stage rants then at least tirades. He’s stick thin and has a youthful demeanour which belies his thirty seven years, and  – even though one knows this in advance – still quite surprisingly from this slight frame he sings in a deep baritone. And the songs: carefully constructed yet performed solo in an almost deconstructed way. This last at least is explained as a legacy of his van crash in Spain a few years ago which seemingly left him at risk of limited mobility and unable to use his arms to much of an extent. Something of a problem for a guitar playing troubadour – and although he has re-learnt guitar playing there’s a lingering disconnect in nerve endings which means that he can think “make this chord” and his hands say “hey, how about this chord instead?”. That this is a frustration to him is also abundantly clear. Yet the last thing that this Swan guitar totting musician wants though is our sympathy. He may be as battered as this once beautiful, hand built in Canada, instrument, but he’s not bowed down. In fact quite the reverse – spiky and quick to utter angry thoughts at the free down-loaders and file-sharers who make it darn near impossible to make money from selling his work, or the Ebay traders turning huge profits on his earliest vinyl releases. Although, typically, he has also found a way to tackle that somewhat by having mini-pressings in odd vinyls that are only from his merch’ stand. Capitalism in action.

Micah P Hinson’s current album – Micah P Hinson Presents The Holy Strangers – is described as a modern folk opera, with a complicated story of love, religion, birth and violent death. Complicated, although its author points out that the album should have been twice the length, but he had to settle for a culled version at his record label’s insistence. As noted, Micah P Hinson played a battered Seagull guitar – it might have been an Entourage Folk but it was a little hard to tell with paper taped over the sound-hole which bore messages of escaping to a peaceful place, and for forgiving those who don’t even apologise. As if designed to raise eyebrows there was also a Guthrie-esque “This Machine Kills Fascists”. Yet the sounds he produces on this machine are modulated through a chairful of boxes and pedals – leading to wild blasts of noise from seemingly accidental scrapings of the strings when his crucifix and gigspanner, hung from necklaces, scrape along the strings as he huddles over the neck of the guitar. At these points Hinson’s face takes on a concentrated look as if this is a new sound he’s never made before and he’s interested in seeing where it’s going to go.

Songs like The Great Void have a slow country feel to them, riddled through with dark imagery, off kilter and disturbing they may be but they’re grippingly intriguing as well. Even when the tempo speeds up, as on Lovers Lane, there’s an unsettling side “you’re just the girl of my dreams” Hinson sings, that “just” taking a particular significance, before he adds “but it seems that my dreams never come true”. Which all makes the sweet adoration of Oh, Spaceman such an unexpected side step – it’s a song that Hinson wrote for his son. The imagery and the emotional depth are equally striking “oh spaceman we’re so glad to see you / we’ve been looking for your ship since we heard you were coming / Oh spaceman you ought to know / Oh spaceman our darlin’ spaceman you will watch us grow”. Pride in fatherhood shines through.

As on the album this gig features a reading from Micah Book One – unaccompanied here. Micah P Hinson shuffles sheets that look to have been ripped from a Gideon Bible before reading – in his made for audiobook precise and deep voice – and the images are of destruction, deception, and false prophets. He explains that this is not just an indulgence of his own religious beliefs but are a commentary on our times. When he recites that “If a liar and deceiver comes to you and says ‘I will prophesy for you plenty of wine and beer’ he would be just the prophet for his people. Listen rulers of the house should you not know justice ? You who hate good and love evil?” who could he be commenting on? Surprisingly, and again surprisingly, if this is a comment on our times, our current times, then Obama-hating Hinson does not seem to be a fan of Trump either.

Having earlier made an amusing diatribe against Johnny Cash for ripping off some German musicians on Folsome Prison Blues it’s ironic that Hinson fails to mention that The Lady From Abilene borrows a melody from The Carter Family’s The Great Titanic. This is a bleak song of supernatural imagery and suicide – indeed a typically bleak offering that leads into a slow as can be rendition of Come By Here to close the night out. It’s something of a testimony to the power of Hinson as a performer – one who intrigues, baffles and mesmerises – that the packed out Portland Arms stays silently attentive for this round the campfire happy-clapper sung as if a funereal elegy to the dying embers. Whatever you might think of his politics – his performance is worthy of the ticket price.

Author: Jonathan Aird

Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan’s music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That’s not much to ask, is it?

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