Published Nov 10, 2013At a glance, Michael Hurley looked like a raggedy train conductor in a dusty blue denim work shirt and matching hat, with a bandana tied around his neck. His music suited that image of a hardworking, long travelling spirit. Borrowing the white Fender guitar of Cass McCombs, Hurley lived the role of an Alan Lomax back porch discovery, pouring his 71-year-old heart out through his salty vocals and laidback strumming on his clean-sounding guitar.
Hurley did not have the most commanding stage presence, sitting on a stool like he was mystically transported to the club from a San Francisco book shop, but his folk songs, pulled from a catalog dating back to 1964, were delivered with a political and humorous sensibility that would do the Guthrie family proud. He tackled subjects like Frankenfood pusher Monsanto, the rain in Oregon, and going to hell on a shit-boat with a world-weary voice, pushed into falsetto for punctuation and a spot of yodeling. He even sang a Jack Micheline poem a cappella. You can tell this man has come a long way to get here, and has a long way left to go.
Unfortunately, California singer-songwriter Cass McCombs seemed off this evening. Instrumentally, he and his three piece band were tight, but from the first words of "Love Thine Enemy" from 2011's Humor Risk, his voice sounded strained. He listed towards flatness and showing instability during any sustained note, hitting a cringe inducing peak during the higher notes of "What Isn't Nature" from his 2003 album A. He may have had a cold, because he also kept his banter to a minimum, where he showed his far more affably freewheeling side during his last Vancouver appearance.
Overall, McCombs's set this time didn't have quite the same narrative arc either, electing to kick things off with a groove, maintaining the moderately upbeat tempo and full-band instrumentation throughout the majority. The greatest change happened at the half-hour mark, when the lights dimmed, the rhythm guitarist moved to pedal steel, and McCombs picked up his acoustic guitar. While the tempo remained in the middle for "Angel Blood" from his recent album Big Wheel and Others, the sound had a little more space, setting the stage for a punchy, fleshed-out take on "Aeon of Aquarius Blues" that could have been mistaken for the Band. This moment of space made the return of McCombs to the electric for "Joe Murder" all the more impactful, his careful soloing light on flanger and the whammy bar, kicking their collective simmer to a full boil for "Bury Mary" from 2005's PREfection.
McCombs capped his main set off with a jammy rendition of "Country Line," arguably his biggest hit. On paper, he gave the crowd pretty much everything they could want, picking tracks from across his catalog, but the consistent arrangements and underpowered delivery left much to be desired. Everything slumped into the middle this evening, which was a disservice to the immense skill available.