Last Saturday I went to go see Battle Hymns and Gardens play in a semi-converted warehouse gallery down in the industrial district near the river here in Portland. It was a good venue for their brand of avant-garde, spiritual jazz featuring two saxophones, drums, bass and stellar musicianship all around. The headlining act was a man playing clarinet through an assortment of loops and delays that I wasn't real crazy about but the thing that really stole the show was the opening act: Michael Hurley.
His folksy stylings and ramblings between songs would, on the surface, seem to have no place in an evening of experimental, improvised jazz. But something about it worked.
You see, the beauty of a Michael Hurley performance is that the lines between introductory stories, ramblings and the songs themselves can be heavily blurred.
I gathered from his introductions that he must illustrate his own album covers, but it took some deciphering. My favorite moment in the show had to be when someone requested a song about an opossum (I think?) and his response was "There's a lot going on in the world right now with... opossums..." completely free of irony. It seemed like a story would be coming to accompany this anecdote but... Nope! He just launched into the song. Later he returned to it and explained how he has an opossum character he draws in his cartoons and so does his friend. I'm providing you about as much context there as he did.
His accompaniment style is minimal and noodly, alternating between simple chord, percussively hitting the strings, playing unisons with the vocal line, playing bass part under the melody or hitting the occasional, really random jazz chord. My friend who invited me to the show at one point, noting his tastefully "messy" style, leaned over and said "Do you think he gives lessons?"
"Yes, but he only gives life lessons," I told him. He laughed a loud, inappropriate laugh in the quiet, artsy venue.
He has quite a discography, which makes sense given the longevity of his career. I'm not certain which songs are covers and which are originals, but he has a gift for delivering simple tunes. My ethnomusicology professor years ago told us that people are compelled to make music because "they hear truth there." I love that expression and it applies hear. When Michael Hurley sings his songs I hear the truth, in the words, the melodies and all the other things that come with it.
All in all it was wonderful and moving. Michael Hurley is now on my list of soulful, singer-songwriter types to watch out for, though that may be tricky as I have no idea when he last updated his website.