with Nerina Pallot
at the Late Room,
(20 June 2005)
Hem is an enigmatic band that is almost impossible to define. They are a conglomerate of folk, with new country elements fused into their own form of pop.
Meeting in Brooklyn, New York, about 15 years ago after leaving their hometowns of Virginia and Michigan, core members Dan Messe, Gary Mauer, Sally Ellyson and Steve Curtis came into fruition as Hem, and ever since then the band has consisted of anywhere from three to nine people -- depending on the venues and demand. For the Late Room this evening, Hem was a band of seven consisting of pedal steel, piano, drums, acoustic bass, vocals and two guitar/mandolin players, all performers of superb musicianship.
The band opened with "Stupid Mouth Shut," a cracking country number from Rabbit Songs, and fluctuated back and forth between their acclaimed albums Rabbit Songs and Eveningland. Another standout from the former CD was the mandolin-based "Half Acre," which had a feel reminiscent of a Scottish summer in the Highlands rather than the Park Slope section of Brooklyn!
Hem has been supporting the Beautiful South in Great Britain, and Paul Heaton came along to support them as an audience member. Although Hem doesn't share the same polemic ethos musically as the South, they seem to be winning over their audiences. Extremely eclectic, the band fused in 15 numbers, originals as well as some belting covers.
Although not usually a fan of covers, I particularly enjoyed their renditions of Johnny Cash and Nancy Sinatra's "Jackson," as well as the world premiere of Radiohead's "Black Star," equipped with Ellyson's lyric cheat sheet in hand, which was a sight to behold. The band had only learned the song that day and hats off to Sally for referring to her paper only with a glance once or twice during the number. The song had a very original feel to it, and Tom Yorke's whiny vocals were replenished with a sultry, sexy soprano, which made a refreshing change.
A few dedications occurred throughout their 80-minute set: one to Bernie for accommodating the band with lodging, "Lazy Eye" for Heaton, and the first song of the encore, "When I was Drinking," which was dedicated to the Earlies. Judging by the insinuations coming from Sally's onstage patter, this lot consumes an awful lot of alcohol as well as other dubious products, thus an extremely appropriate dedication.
Ending the set with "A-Hunting We Will Go" and "Night Like a River," the band left with an elated audience.
Once again the glorious Nerina Pallot returned to the Late Room as support with yet another outstanding set, this time with new additions "Sofia" from Fires and the much-requested "Rainbow" from Dear Frustrated Superstar. Nerina started out with a complacency and insouciance about her attire and made a joke about her lack of concern, which was abandoned as soon as she strummed her first chord. The girl ROCKS and never interprets her songs the same. "Everybody's Going to War," "Geek Love," "Mr. King," "Idaho" and "All Good People" were all performed with aplomb. It was a delightful double bill.