On any given evening at Mercury Lounge, a small club located on the dividing line of New York City's East Village and Lower East Side, there can be up to six musical performances - some as part of the early shows, others the late ones. The layout of the space is straightforward; there is a long narrow bar area that you walk into off the street which has a set of swinging doors in the back, each with a porthole style window, that leads to the stage area.
Over the years, performances at Mercury Lounge have served as something of a right of passage for local acts and younger bands passing through New York City for the first time. The National played numerous shows there since the early 2000's, well before they experienced any of the commercial or critical success of recent years. Interpol performed there a year before releasing their breakthrough album Turn on the Bright Lights. And the XX, who are currently on a stadium tour and headlining festivals across the U.S., made a stop at Mercury Lounge on their first U.S. tour back in 2009. Ryan Gentiles, who is considered the sixth member of The Strokes, was working at Mercury Lounge booking musical acts when he met the band, eventually quitting to manage them full time.
For the second time in less than a year, Kyle Craft was slated to perform at Mercury Lounge on a Tuesday night in May, this time playing a solo acoustic set during the early show slot. Craft, who hails from Portland, Oregon by way of Shreveport, Louisiana, released his critically acclaimed debut album, Dolls of Highland, on Sub Pop Records back in 2016, garnering an impressive 8.1 score from Pitchfork and scores of other favorable reviews. His sound has been described as a combination of southern, folk and glam rock, the likely result of his Louisiana upbringing and David Bowie influence. His vocals, style and overall delivery bare a strong resemblance to Bob Dylan, a fact that Craft is not shy to embrace. Despite the comparison, Craft maintains a certain authenticity and uniqueness that can be attributed to the storytelling that exists within his lyrics, which often times lean on southern themes and women who are more trouble than good.
I approached the doors a little before showtime and at the same time as Craft, who was dressed head-to-toe in black and much taller than I had expected. The bleach blonde mop of hair that graced his album cover was now brown but just as unkempt. The doorman asked for I.D.'s, prompting Craft to fumble through his wallet for the piece of plastic issued by Oregon, Louisiana or some other state where he may have lived in the past. Once inside, Craft casually walked past a woman sitting on a stool collecting tickets and charging admission, which earned him an immediate tongue lashing. Craft explained in an overly polite and almost apologetic manner that he was performing, to which she remarked that he still needed to get his hand stamped.
Not long after having walked through the front door, Craft, with his guitar strapped to his body and harmonica holder fixed to his neck, emerged from a waiting area on the side of the bar and briskly walked towards the stage, a laser-focused look on his face like someone about to embark on a serious task. Without saying a word, Craft kicked off his set with an acoustic rendition of Eye of a Hurricane, the first single from his album and a song that might best put his signature howling voice on display.
As the show went on, Craft seemed to loosen up, bringing attention to the unfamiliar, and maybe uncomfortable, feeling of playing without a band. He made small talk with the crowd and provided small vignettes before some of the songs. One of these came before playing a new number, explaining how he had written it in a cabin while working on a certain kind of farm in Garberville, California. He described the town as a little scary - a place where locals have been known to shoot at the police. Upon hearing the ring of a cell phone he jokingly put his hands to his sides and in an overtly disappointed tone told the person they might as well answer it.
Craft made his way through a mix of familiar songs from Dolls of Highland, a handful of new tracks and a recent cover he recorded of Leonard Cohen's Chelsea Hotel #2. As the end of the set neared, he asked the crowd what they wanted to hear, which elicited a request for Before the Wall, a politically charged song that he had written in response to Donald Trump's promise to build a wall along the U.S./Mexico border. Craft wavered a bit, explaining that he doesn't enjoy performing it for crowds of people that agree with his views, and reminisced about having played it during shows throughout the south while on tour supporting the Drive-By Truckers, and was often greeted with "fuck you's" from the audience.
After eventually settling on something else that ended up getting cut short to appease the sound guy who explained over the monitors that his time was running out, Craft thanked everyone for showing up. He came off as appreciative and genuinely grateful for the patronage, even going as far as encouraging the crowd to hang out and have some drinks with him after the show. He also subtly hinted that new music might not be too far off, which explains all the new material woven throughout the set.
It's obvious that with Craft there is no shortage of talent, whether it is the strength of his voice or his ability to use lyrics to craft the vivid imagery that is omnipresent throughout his work. With that being said, like many others who have played Mercury Lounge before him, it would be no surprise if the next time he passes through New York he'll have graduated to a bigger stage.