Chauvinistic as this is to say, Hem always seem to play their best shows in New York. As frontwoman Sally Ellyson was quick to acknowledge Saturday night at Bowery Ballroom, it didn’t hurt that they had a full eight-piece contingent onstage including drummer Mark Brotter, pedal steel wizard Bob Hoffnar and violinist Heather Zimmerman along with keyboardist Dan Messe, guitarist/mandolinists Steve Curtis and Gary Maurer, bassist George Rush and guest Dawn Landes on backing vocals, glockenspiel and percussion. Midway through their current tour, they seemed happy (well, as happy as this band gets) to be back on their home turf and rewarded a hushed, adoring crowd with an almost thirty-song set that went on well past the two-hour mark.
Enchanting as Ellyson’s voice is on the band’s new album Departure & Farewell, she reminded that she’s even better live, transcending some hiccups in the Bowery’s usually reliable PA system during the first three songs. She sent a shout out to her Brooklyn homwtown with a poignant version of Tourniquet, Hoffnar lighting up Hotel Fire with a simmering steel solo as he would do on most of the other more country-flavored material. Reservoir built vividly to a soaring, harmony-drenched chorus out of Curtis’ nimble fingerpicking. Ellyson led the band into a plaintive, longing turnaround, reinventing Johnny Cash’s Jackson as early 60s noir.
Zimmerman’s edgy lines were a welcome presence, especially on bittersweet takes of The Seed and Strays, while Curtis fired off one of the night’s best solos on acoustic guitar on the “self-deprecatory love song” Stupid Mouth Shut. Ellyson and Messe teamed up for rapt, gorgeous duo versions of Traveler’s Song and Almost Home, while the whole band ramped up an epic art-rock intensity on the new album’s lush title track as well as the last of the encores, So Long. The night’s most intense moments came midway through, “the death segment,” as Ellyson called it: a brooding take of My Father’s Waltz, anonchalantly chilling version of Walking Past the Graveyard and then the murder ballad Carry Me Home, rooted in Messe’s gospel-infused piano. The high point of the night, appropriately enough, was Not California, its narrator ill at ease with the wave of clueless second-wave gentrifiers hot on her tail, foreshadowing total annihilation. The band also debuted We’ll Meet Along the Way, a new number – “our death metal song,” as Ellyson termed it – with the night’s most brooding, overtly menacing melody. Hem return to the road on June 1 at the Sinclair in Cambridge, Massachusetts before heading further south. Keep up with Hem’s archive.org channel to see if any enterprising soul had the presence of mind to record the show: if so, it’s a keeper.