Michael Hurley's pothead folk
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., April 25, 2003) – For 40 years Michael Hurley has been something of a subterranean figure in American music, channeling an alternative folk universe in sensibility and repertoire with such like-minded eccentrics as Peter Stampfel and the Holy Modal Rounders.

Hurley brought his underground sensibility to Club Helsinki on Thursday night in a modest concert that emphasized organic virtues and the quirky twists of the off-road mindset.

To put it another way, he sang a lot of songs about drinking and sex, and the rest were about drugs.

Hurley’s songs could be the folk music soundtrack to R. Crumb’s cartoons – in fact, Hurley is a cartoonist himself. In his narratives, people walk around stoned and meet up with other stoned people or trouble, depending on how their luck is running that day. Some wind up in the doghouse, others wind up finding pleasure and relief with fellow stoners.

Much of this is related in lyrics featuring a dizzying array of double-entendres or nursery-rhyme like lyrics such as, “If you want a big fat belly/You better drink a big fat beer.” It’s the sort of pothead humor that you either find hysterically funny or that grows tedious and sophomoric after the third go-round. Most in the club seemed to enjoy it immensely, and a few were provoked to paroxysms of deep-bellied chortling.

Hurley accompanied himself brilliantly on four-string banjo and acoustic guitar. His elastic, gluey vocals matched his fluid playing. He sang smoothly but with lots of character, gliding into falsetto and yodeling with ease, singing in a wavery, Willie Nelson-like dynamic stutter in the mid-range, and in a deep growl down below.

Though rooted in old-time folk and blues, Hurley’s songs had their own formal intricacies. Most of them were in minor or modal keys, and they were rendered in a free, untethered meter that fit the spaced-out content of the lyrics.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 26, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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