Michael Hurley's old weird American
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., April 17, 2003) – Michael Hurley recorded his debut album for Folkways Records in 1965, when he first arrived on the New York folk scene where he fell in with the like-minded “hippie bards” of the Holy Modal Rounders and the Fugs.

Since that time, Hurley – who performs at Club Helsinki next Thursday at 8 -- has been something of an underground legend. In 1976, he collaborated with the Unholy Modal Rounders, Jeffrey Frederick and the Clamtones on “Have Moicy!,” which was named one of the top 10 albums of the decade by Rolling Stone magazine.

Hurley went on to make several solo records for Rounder, including “Long Journey” (1976) and “Snockgrass” (1980). His latest albums – “Weatherhole” and “Sweetkorn” -- are jam-packed with quirky oddities such as “The Rue of Ruby Whores” and “Wildegeeses.”

Hurley has gotten a boost recently by a new generation of younger talents who recognize him as a patron saint and cultural influence. He was invited to tour with alt-country heroes Son Volt and Lucinda Williams, and he has shared co-bills with Smog and the Palace Brothers. His songs have been covered by indie stars Cat Power and Yo La Tengo.

A typical Hurley show features a cracked country blues about space travel on fretless banjo, an Appalachian children’s song like “Shortnin’ Bread” on fiddle, or heartbreaking, original love songs on his Gibson guitar. Besides being a self-described “musical vagrant,” Hurley is also a gifted cartoonist and painter.

Having been compared to everyone from John Prine to Samuel Beckett, Hurley is a treasure of American “outsider folk,” and one who only rarely ventures out on tour. Experimental cellist Gideon Freudmann warms up the crowd for Hurley on Thursday.

Yo La Tengo

Speaking of Yo La Tengo, the New York dream-pop trio has never sounded as dreamy as it does on its latest album, “Summer Sun” (Matador). The baker’s dozen tunes on the album drift in on a wave of ambient keyboards on “Beach Party Tonight” before breaking into a marching strut on “Little Eyes,” over which singer-guitarist Ira Kaplan whispers the lyrics seemingly as if not to wake a sleeping listener, and wife-drummer Georgia Hubley answers him in pretty much the same sleepy tone.

Kaplan acquits himself well as a dreamy soul singer on the funky but gentle “Nothing But You and Me,” and Kaplan’s pop instincts as a writer are uncanny on numbers like “Season of the Shark.” “Today Is the Day” marries a Velvet Underground-style bass riff to Hawaiian-style steel guitar, and Hubley’s vocals – or are they Kaplan’s? Sometimes it’s hard to tell, their voices having seemingly merged into one over the years – hover angelically over the mix.

The group’s 12th album finds Yo La Tengo celebrating 20 years of growing old and making beautiful music together, as they stake their claim to being the 21st century’s answer to the Beach Boys. The group brings its lightness and love to the Academy of Music in Northampton on Wednesday with Portastatic.

Steve Adams

Classic pop and roots-rock songcraft vividly colors Steve Adams’s eponymous new album, featuring 11 well-crafted, original pop songs connecting the dots between NRBQ and Elvis Costello.

Adams celebrates the release of his new CD on Wednesday at 8 at Castle Street Café with featured musicians Pete Adams and John Zarvis, and special guests Rick Tiven and Jody Lampro.

A Berkshire native, Adams is a veteran of the local music scene, having held down the drum seat with such well-known and much-loved local bands as Cobble Mountain, a country-rock/western-swing outfit which shared bills with Rick Danko, Paul Butterfield, David Bromberg, Townes van Zant and Doc Watson, among others. More recently, Adams has been performing with Adams and Zarvis in the band Reverb, which also includes Greg Mosca.

But on his debut CD, Adams manifests his heretofore hidden talent as an acoustic guitarist and songwriter on songs boasting catchy melodies, rootsy, organic arrangements, and heartfelt vocals recalling Scruffy the Cat’s Charlie Chesterman and the Lonesome Brothers’ Jim Armenti.

“Blue Flower Eyes” is propelled by a funky, r&b-derived guitar riff, while “Precarious Moment,” a politically-pointed, environmental ode, trots along on a fleet two-step beat colored by Rick Tiven’s mandolin. Pete Adams’ pedal steel adds a plaintive note to “The Differences,” while “High Country Life” could be a love song to the Berkshires.

With his debut CD, Adams instantly shoots to the top of the charts of Berkshire pop-rock singer-songwriters.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 18, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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