It’s been a while since Michael Hurley, occasionally known as Snock, has come to the UK and with him now in his 77th year, news of this tour was somewhat unexpected. Mind you it was only last year when he toured Australia for the first time so it’s perhaps somewhat ageist of us to presume that this venerable songwriter was about to hang up his guitar. Since recording his first album back in 1965 Hurley has ploughed a singular path creating his own weird and crepuscular world peopled with werewolves and revenants, his cartoon creations, Boone and Jocko, and a whole host of idiosyncratic characters. With a style rooted deep in country blues and folk Hurley has always sounded as if he came from an earlier age, a one man version of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music as transmitted from some Twilight Zone and tonight a rapt audience was transported into Hurley’s very own version of old and weird Americana as Greil Marcus would have it.
Cradling his semi acoustic Harmony guitar Hurley opened without any fanfare, playing several songs before speaking to the audience, several of those songs unfamiliar although some of his predilections were apparent as he sang about how much sugar he likes in his tea and about a flop eared hot dog dog. As he ended that number he opened up to the audience saying, “I got a lot of dog songs, might do my whole animal review,” before singing the first song this reviewer recognised tonight, the estimable ‘In The Garden’ which sure enough opens with birds singing and mention of sweet fried chicken, and then following it with another classic song, ’10 Dollar Gig’. By now the mellifluous tones Hurley was coaxing from his guitar, rich and resonant with a fine bass undertone, along with his plaintive voice had pretty much hypnotised the audience and here we really should acknowledge the excellent sound from the stage engineered by the sound guys and the total lack of any chatter at all from the audience, even the nearby bar was completely silent.
Playing for almost two hours Hurley was as sure as his word re his animal songs with ‘Horse’s Ass’ a personal favourite (I mean, how many songs do you know about horses farting), while ‘Black and Yellow Bee’ was a fine nod to the environment and ‘Let Me Be Your Junebug’ had a whole menagerie within it with Hurley subverting the usual blues boasting of being something of a crawling king snake for some gentler allusions. He returned to the notion of drinking tea on ‘Tea Song’, recorded first back in 1965, and delivered tonight with a high lonesome wail which was beguiling and hypnotic and a reminder that Hurley sprang fully formed all those years ago and can still summon up his mojo from back then. As the show progressed there were several moments like this, the sublime ‘O My Stars’ and the haunting ‘Wildgeeses’ perfect examples.
Much more talkative as the show progressed Hurley see-sawed between his back catalogue and his newer songs. Of the latter, ‘Waiting For the Aliens’ was particularly impressive and ‘Big Fish, Good Pie’ was suffused with his odd humour. ‘Uncle Bob’s Corner’ was introduced with a fine preamble regarding advice he got from “old Bob Clarke” on how best to drive a Ford station wagon on the highway and several of the songs were prefaced with stories about his current abode in Oregon and the local microbreweries springing up in Astoria, just up the road from where he lives, while reminding us that he has a residence in the Laurelthirst bar in Portland and that we should drop in. Closing with ‘I Stole the Right to Live’, a song featured in Harry Dean Stanton’s last film, and his punning paean to Scotch whisky, ‘Knockandu’, Hurley merely said,”Thanks,” as he gathered his scripts from the floor and he seemed surprised by the cries of more from the crowd. A standing ovation demanded one more song and so he sat back down and offered us his superlative ode to the alimentary tract, ‘The Slurf Song’, a magnificent close to a wonderful evening.
We were warmed up with an impressive set from James Yorkston who filled his 30 minutes with a couple of sublime renditions of traditional songs including ‘Martinmas Time’ while his own ‘Tortoise Regrets Hare’ showed that he can drill into that self same traditional lode. He closed with ‘Fellow Man’, a song soaked in tradition but with the added spice of Robyn Hitchcock like whimsy. Yorkston of course could have played a full set tonight but by supporting Michael Hurley, of whom he is a long time fan, he was really just signalling that there was a master in the house so thanks to him for that.