Graded on a Curve: Michael Hurley,
Living Ljubljana

Musically active across six decades and as vital now as he ever was, sui generis folk icon Michael Hurley has a new LP out. Featuring a live recording from a European tour in the spring of 1995, it captures him in a sweet trio with bassist Robert Michener and percussionist Mickey Bones; it’s called ‎Living Ljubljana, and its ten songs offer a tidy serving of the guy in spectacular form. Warmly played and recorded, the contents easily transcend the “one for the fans” scenario familiar to so many live albums. In fact, if spied in the racks of a local shop, it’d make a fine introduction to Hurley’s work. It’s out now on vinyl only (that means no download or digital, folks) through Feeding Tube Records of Florence, MA.

The first Michael Hurley record I ever heard was Snockgrass, which came out in 1980 via Rounder and was still available to special order a decade later. It was as fine a doorway into the man’s expansive corner of the sound universe as I could’ve asked for back then, and if you can find a copy now (it was repressed on wax by Light in the Attic in 2011), its introductory power hasn’t diminished. But hey, it was only one worthy point of entry among quite a few.

Until someone writes a book on Hurley (he deserves it), the best rundown of his life and music that I’ve been exposed to is Byron Coley’s piece from back in 2013 for the 35th issue of Arthur Magazine. It’s still available online, but please note that it’s a long one, so get comfy before reading. Coley is also co-operator of Feeding Tube (which is a store as well as a label), so he put out ‎Living Ljubljana, and his advocacy in print for Hurley is well-established; indeed, it was his “Underground” column in Spin magazine that directly led to my purchase of Snockgrass.

As said, there were other options available in getting acquainted with Hurley’s stuff, and so it remains. You can do the chronological thing and check out First Songs, which was released to essentially no fanfare by Folkways back in ’64. Reissued a handful of times including by Locust on CD as Blueberry Wine: The 1st Songs Of Michael Hurley, the set is in no way embryonic or tentative, and if it resides a little more snugly in the zone of ’60s solo folk, it’s still a highly distinctive affair, at times startlingly so. Whenever I play it after a substantial break, I’m amazed all over again that it came out when it did.

Unsurprisingly, he didn’t get another record out for a while (the attempts at a follow-up were later collected on the sweet Parsnip Snips, which emerged on the German Veracity label shortly after the tour documented on‎ Living Ljubljana), but in the early ’70s he added a pair of classics to the canon, Armchair Boogie and Hi Fi Snock Uptown, via Raccoon, the Warner Brothers-distributed custom label of The Youngbloods. Both really nail the aura of Hurley’s “mature” work, loaded with vivid imagery and off-kilter folk beauty.

Those two records are probably the best place to begin with the guy (I like Armchair better by a nose), in part because, along with Have Moicy!, his ’76 collab with the Unholy Modal Rounders and Jeffrey Fredericks and the Clamtones (in my view one of the finest releases of the ’70s or any decade for that matter), they’re absolutely essential; if you fancy his stuff you’re going to hear ‘em anyway, so you might as well hear ‘em first.

But as mentioned up top, Living Ljubljana would work terrifically as an intro, and that’s not just because Hurley’s output has been highly consistent in quality (and unusually so for a veteran musician). They are, but there’s also been a fair amount of diversity at play over time. The songs on this set cohere remarkably well and really magnify Hurley’s essence, which is especially notable as it’s a live recording. Cut in Ljubljana, Slovenia, unlike a lot of performance documents, the set isn’t a calculated trot-out of the “hits” but a glorious snapshot of where he was at artistically in this particular moment in time.

And where a lot of “bar music” flaunts tightness that can be a drag to varying degrees, the trio here is appealingly loose (the term Coley uses in his short promo blurb is “lazy”) and yet crisp. Right off the bat in “The Portland Water,” Hurley’s in strong, warm voice as he delivers an engaging (severely infectious) guitar figure and then dishes some sweet solos. Plus, Bones’ percussion is wonderfully, crucially non-fancy as the song exudes a relaxed intimacy; as it progresses the trio can be audibly heard coming alive. It’s a treat.

In “Turay Turay” Hurley’s vocals are playful but perfectly integrated into the whole, with Bones adding distinct touches and Michener’s bass interweaving with the guitar rather than just laying down a foundation, though in a version of Hank Locklin’s “Geisha Girl” he does provide a little more bottom end (plus a vocal assist). Along the way, Bones’ percussion inches into washboard territory (what he’s actually playing is the bones, which lends an old-timey feel).

“Ma’s Dream Blues” follows, and is side one’s highlight, with killer guitar (chiming beautifully in the solos) and lyrics relating visions of Blind Willie McTell and Ma Rainey. It’s the sort of thing that seems primed to slay them on the folk club/ coffeehouse scene, but then it’s worth mentioning that Hurley’s stuff was dependably too slippery to cultivate a large folk audience. He’s maintained a devoted cult base instead. Side one’s closer “The Beggar’s Terms” picks up the intensity and inches toward folk-rock, though the sum of its parts is significantly greater than the strummy baseline of the form.

“Horse’s Ass” opens the flip, and it succeeds largely through Hurley’s musings. Noted for his lyrical surrealism, his eccentricities never come off as forced, and here he elevates what could’ve been a fun if not particularly deep situation into the sublime (of course, his interjection of “have moicy” is just bonus). “Oh My Stars” finds Hurley hitting some vocal high notes as the music drives forth in the verses, elevates in the chorus, and then just attains a casual, welcoming swing.

From there, a nifty version of Ernest Tubb’s “Drivin’ Nails in My Coffin,” complete with Bones banging out the titular action along the way, ups the old-school country vibe established by “Geisha Girl.” It’s a nice prelude to side two’s standout “I Paint a Design,” where the lyrics are again picturesque and the singing terrifically off-kilter, with the threesome loosely grooving throughout. In this setting it’s once again abundantly clear that Hurley’s sound is indebted to nobody, and while he’s been increasingly covered over the last couple decades, nobody else can effectively capture what he’s about.

“Letter in Neon” rises in intensity once again (and in that vaguely folk-rockish sensibility heard in “The Beggar’s Terms”) as it ends the album. The end of the set? Somehow, I doubt it. But if this is just a taste, it’s an extremely satisfying one. As the second of Feeding Tube’s live Hurley releases (last year’s Redbirds At Folk City was the first), I’m hoping without reservation it’s not the last.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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