When: Mon., March 20, 8 p.m. and Tue., March 21, 8 p.m. 2017
With the surreal iconography with which he has consistently adorned his art, the preternatural vibe of his persona and songs, and his own near-mythical status in the underground folk realm, Michael Hurley often seems more like a fictional phenomenon than an actual flesh-and-blood singer-songwriter. But the man who invented alt-folk before most of its contemporary practitioners were born will provide proof of his corporeality (and his idiosyncratic gifts) with a two-night stand at Nightlight this week, with a different set and a different opening act each night.
The Bucks County, Pennsylvania-born troubadour was part of the first wave of folk-based singer-songwriters, releasing his debut album in 1964 via the Folkways label. From the start, there was something strange and brilliant about Hurley's work. His raw, old-school approach to songwriting made him sound like he had just leaped off the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, which documented the "old weird America" of the pre-World War II era and provided the sixties folk revival with so much of its inspiration. But something even weirder was sitting close to the surface of Hurley's songs.
Hurley's off-kilter lyrical visions were essential to his music from the beginning, but their importance became more apparent as time went on. A long gap separated his first and second albums, but by the time he relaunched his recording career in the early seventies, Hurley had gotten his style locked down. He populated his tunes with characters that seemed simultaneously naturalistic and otherworldly, achieving a kind of organic, homegrown version of natural realism. The cartoon covers he drew for his album artwork accurately echoed the universe he conjured, as he sang about werewolves and the "Hog of the Forsaken" with melodies that sounded like they could have been at least a century old.
Hurley's career earned a lot of traction when he teamed up with fellow folk weirdos Peter Stampfel and Jeffrey Frederick on 1976's Have Moicy, but with his lo-fi approach to music making conferring upon him a certain "outsider" status, he's remained strictly a cult phenomenon. Yet the casual genius of the records he released over the ensuing decades never stopped earning him admirers. In the twenty-first century, the rise of indie folk has rendered Hurley a celebrated hero, covered by Cat Power, subsidized by Devendra Banhart, and celebrated by a whole new generation. His odd, timeless vision seems unlikely to ever lose its entrancing power. —Jim Allen