Like Michael Hurley, Glenn Jones is a storyteller—but, instead of using voice to convey kooky sentiments, he relies on idiosyncratic instrumental syntax. Inspired by the American primitive guitar style that emerged in the late 1950’s, Jones spins tales of a ubiquitous nature. Hailing from Cambridge, MA, he brought four guitars and a banjo with him tonight (4/20/17) at La Sala Rossa to open up for Hurley. A humble on-stage attitude amplifies the impact of real fingerpicking expertise as he begins with an homage to guitarist Robbie Basho; it’s a melancholic melody that stirs images of swimming alone, away from something. Jones plays poetically, emotionally, with equal parts light and dark through a restless partner dance.
Next comes a song expressing “disgust with the human race.” A silver bird pin flashes on his hat as he informs us of the title, “The Last Passenger Pigeon.” The song begins broodily, the pigeon undecided on apathy or alarm. Hope sinks as wings fly, speed up, circle inwards—there is urgency and chaos while the last passenger pigeon holds on, and then drops. The crowd gets it… “I’m glad some of you feel the way I do,” says Jones.
Ten years the junior of Hurley, Jones tells the audience that he first heard Armchair Boogie (Michael Hurley’s 1971 LP) in an 8th Avenue bookstore in New York City in 1973 or ‘74—“I may have seen Michael Hurley more than any of you,” he chuckles. “The only act that I have seen more than Michael Hurley is Sun Ra—what they have in common is that they both never disappoint.”
At the end of his set, Jones strolls into a gone-fishin’ feeling tune, lazily hopeful and warm. He nods and blinks thank-you’s to the receptive crowd, putting on his candy apple red glasses for the encore. This one is called “The Giant Ate Himself,” and I am pleased by the harmony between the fairytale folk-worlded minds of Jones and Hurley. “Somebody translated that into French for me today and it sounded great…géant mange…” His last song is another homage, this one to John Fahey, whom he tells us was a mentor and friend. The piece is conversational, a playful dialogue punctuated with a glass finger slide. He nods his black cap to more hoots and hollers, scoops up his gear, and makes way for another folk idol.
There he is, Michael Hurley, sippin’ tea in cowboy boots and a crimson western shirt, paisley bandana tied round his neck. He picks up his red guitar and begins tapping his foot…“When I was a cowboy, I learned to tow the line.” With a fixed distant stare he peels out the next song, a slow and funny ramble that could be next-door neighbour to the first—“When I get back home, I don’t know how I’ll feel, I hear they burned down the farm.”
Another song from the same community rings down the “county line,” this one venturing into the land of broken hearts as he admits, “I wrote a song for everyone when I couldn’t even talk to you.” The bandana comes off and the mood paddles through a rough bend down stream. The enchanted haunt of Michael saying “moon” is honey in my tea and I can’t help but grin at the marriage of spooky and silly when warned “you better put your shoesies on before you die.” The song ends and Michael says something incomprehensible ending in “de la noche.” I imagine it was fuego, but hearing that wouldn’t have made the meaning any clearer to me. It’s okay though. I am content seeing him snicker to himself in his own enigmatic Snocko charm.
Then, the temper tips towards loopy-love, this time with a scientific lexicon. It’s funny because he’s smirking, ever-so-slightly, and his wit is a nutty sort of wonderful. “She got a mathematic, but she couldn’t get a fraction… she starts her little cathode, it emits an e-la-la-la-lectron… no-o-o sooner does she vanish, then I see an infrared glow.” The last note rings on and his arm follows it outwards… the sound carrying on as though it could run forever in a straight line charged by Michael Hurley’s pointing finger.
“Oh a little wishbone…” and the crowd cheers and giggles for this is the first song they are collectively familiar with. “Slurf Song,” is from the 1976 album Have Moicy!, a collaboration between Hurley, The Holy Modal Rounders and Jefferey Fredericks and the Clamtones. The fiddle’s missing perhaps in this song more than others, but it’s a lovable classic in any rendition. The song is a tribute to the relationship between bodies and food—“cookin’ up tortilla, so much fun when you gotta bowl of beans” and “we fill up our guts then we turn it into shit and we get rid of it.” Since the song’s release, new lyrics have been added to elaborate on the scene—there is a six-pack (“would you bring it over here?”) and a big sack of oysters (whose “mo-le-cules will soon be working for me”). Michael Hurley is funny and free. He could say anything and it would become crystallized in a simple syrup of fool’s wisdom. Take this, “We don’t know what to do ‘til we got an idea, I got this one here.” And this, “Stuffin’ our faces, on a regular basis.” Thank you, Michael. You speak the truth! He is a dead-pan clown, shining mundane human rituals back in our faces (and straight through our bellies). “Let’s eat again real soon,” he half-smiles.
Michael Hurley’s “Slurf Song”
There’s a moment now where Michael looks around. He can’t find something. His pick? “It must be around here somewhere,” he pats his breast pocket, looks side-to-side. In this breath of silence, there’s a drunk growl from the front row: “Play Sweedeedee— Woooooo!” The disrespectful comment jars me. I feel such a personal kinship with this music and it surprises me that another fan could hold such obnoxious energy around it. I get it—bad manners can shove their way into any audience, but the incongruity is still shocking. I think I had forgotten that Michael wasn’t playing for just me and a couple of friends on a wrap-around porch in the countryside. Gracefully, the intoxicated demand is ignored and Michael finds the capo he was looking for.
“Dee, dee, dee,” in a new key the room choo-choo’s through some whistle blowing train song blues. Then, Michael talks for the first time (although his speaking voice isn’t so different from his singing voice). “I roam… around on the road… you know… and a lot of people… ask me where I live, well. It’s between two towns, Astoria, Oregon and Clatskanie, Oregon. Head out that way… if you wanna have a good time. Clatskanie is actually a lot better… than Astoria… for a good time.” The song is honest and pure, revealing the appeal of rural life: “Cook fish. Bake Pie. Bingo every Wednesday, down the road Clatskanie.”
Another darling ballad follows, this one about sugar, sugar, sugar. Honey, jelly, and jam are all preferable, but sugar, well, it’s better than nothing after all. And next comes the most political song I have heard in Hurley’s repertoire—a cry against Monsanto (“Ruler of the Earth, the air & water, too”). In a few words he conveys the dark weight of this devil, but Michael wouldn’t drag us to a depth and just leave us there. The spirit zooms back upward with a humble ditty to a bee, “Is it hard or easy, spendin’ all your daylight hours buzzin’ round the flowers?”
Michael will treat us to ten more songs this evening. Out wheels “Knockando” from the 2007 album Ancestral Swamp, then onto a tune about whiskey preying on the mind and a glass of beer that looks so good, followed by a cover of Bukka White and Memphis Minnie’s old blues song, “I am in the Heavenly Way.” Next up, in angelic euphony, another well-known one, “O My Stars” from Hi-fi Snock Uptown (1980). All of these warbles are strung together with intermittent Hurley howls, caws, meows, and woohoos. Aliens enter the scene, hearts jump straight like hot burning flames and kingfishers fish in the shade. More comic relief cracks through space with the menacing tales of Jocko in “Jocko’s Lament” (Armchair Boogie, 1971). These days Jocko is bringing bombs on planes and stealing avocadoes from the grocery store.
“Sweedeedee,” Michael Hurley teases. But it isn’t that Sweedeedee. It’s another one, and, like “Honeydew,” it’s just another word for love in Michael Hurley jargon. That was the last song. “Thank ya folks… See ya next time… It’s good to be here…” He saunters off stage, of course not to be let go quite so easily. People stand and whistle, yelling suggestions for the encore: “I’m Worried!” “The Twilight Zone!” “Sweedeedee!” So back he comes, “It’s the sticky wheel that gets the grease,” he says, but still disregards all pleas for popular songs. He plays instead “I Paint a Design” (Watertower, 1988) and “Let Me Be Your Junebug.” It’s a happy ending, until the drunk growler blurts, “If you play penguins, I’ll kill someone for you!” Ever the Zen- coolest, Michael Hurley slowly, calmly declares, as though it were just a line in another song, “Well… we wouldn’t want… anything like that… going on.”