Do you remember your Bob Dylan moment? The mixtape that gave you Syd Barrett or Townes Van Zandt? These are the moments of musical epiphany, when a song grabs you by the bones, shaking everything into place with the words you didn’t know you were looking for. The only thing more riveting than that first moment is the one that occurs shortly after; when you realize that there is a teeming back catalogue for you to explore. Get ready for another one of those moments.
A staple in the Bay Area’s tightly knit syndicate of songwriters, Sean Hayes comes to Chicago in support of his latest release, “Flowering Spade.” Hayes cut his teeth in the Bay Area bar scene, and has since headlined some of San Francisco’s most prestigious venues—a background that inspires this gypsy-tinged folksinger to readily embrace the tour dynamic. “Every night’s got a different flavor to it. It drives me crazy when I see bands that only have one button—playing big rock shows and that’s it—no matter where they are.” Playing more aggressively to large crowds, Hayes taps into his roots for more intimate spaces. “People tend to listen to the lyrics when they’re sitting, so I try to bring it down for those shows.”
Recorded at San Francisco’s legendary Hyde Street Studio, “Flowering Spade” marks a departure from Hayes’ preference for home-based recording. “Each album has really been a step up in terms of sonic capabilities.” Indeed, his 2006 release, “Big Black Hole, Little Baby Star” was recorded in the garage of another celebrated Bay Area songwriter, Etienne de Rocher. “You can go into a really nice studio, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get the right vibe.” Hayes’ penchant for writing with his heart firmly embedded onto his sleeve has no doubt informed his lo-fi albums. “The way I write is about documenting life; the recordings have been a reflection of where I was, how capable I was, who I knew—like a snapshot.”
Hayes’ lyrical forte involves plucking at heart-strings with visceral precision, so it was only a matter of time before his soulful croon wrapped around the political landscape. Traveling the simple narrative of a falsely accused cowboy, his latest single, “No No Guantanamo,” is not the kind of protest song that bashes you over the head—but the message is clear. “Obviously we should try these people—not just let them sit in limbo hell.” As for hearing more protest music from the songwriter: “I feel like just the act of being a musician, choosing to do that with your life, is political enough.” (K. Tighe)
Sean Hayes plays November 4 at Schubas, 3159 North Southport, (773)525-4573, at 7pm. $14.