HC McEntire at Jammin Java on Feb. 2, 2019. (Photo by Matt Ruppert)
I remember when I first saw HC McEntire play on a stage with Mount Moriah, knees shivering with the music, her voice echoing off the tin ceiling and walls of Boot and Saddle in Philly. Cavernous, passionate, and ultimately transformative, in many ways. I read my journal from around that show and it has a quote I think is worth sharing – “Shimmying, we are alive,” which is a reference to the song, “Hail, Lightning” from their eponymous album.
Her recent show at Jammin’ Java was equally transformative.
Another quote, if you’ll indulge me. I have a small group of friends who ask me to give them recommendations, usually during a year-end list. Last year, HC McEntire released her first solo album, LIONHEART, to impressive critical acclaim last January, and it ended the year being one of my favorites.
“HC McEntire has a voice that could raise the dead and save your souls. Sometimes, I think it already did.”
This statement continued to carry truth with it. These long winter months weigh heavily with darkness and a kind of unease for many of us, and Heather managed to confront and soothe with LIONHEART. With this record, she deftly continued the sonic journey from punk (Bellafea) to Americana (Mount Moriah) and country (collaborations with Michael Rank and now this solo album); in truth, all of her music has a same or similar core to it — passion, place, history, motion.
Stream LIONHEART by HC McEntire on Spotify:
LIONHEART is heavy, replete with the reconciliation of faith and sexuality, the pain of exclusion, the persistence of the heart. Not everyone has taken the exact same path as the artist, but Heather wrote songs in and through which a listener can find her or himself in the songs.
Pitchfork calls LIONHEART “a baptism” and characterized the songs as psalms, an appropriate metaphor of sorts, and doubly appropriate when you take in her recent cover of the Led Zeppelin song, “Houses of the Holy” (read her lyric essay on that here). It abandoned the raucous sexual solicitation of the original and became a different kind of supplication altogether. And we, the audience at Jammin’ Java on Feb. 2, became the first to hear it live, although she laughingly shared they’d made a mistake after the song ended and asked if any LedHeads in the audience caught it (one man raised his hand).
Stream “Houses of the Holy,” by Led Zeppelin, covered by HC McEntire on Spotify:
Heather wrote wild poetry convincingly and sang with the zeal of a prophet, the South the persistent setting, with its gravel roads, tobacco, valleys, and pine groves. She filled her songs with a physical and spiritual space, singing of places you can see and smell, emotions and moments you can recognize. Heather confronted the shortcomings of religion, of her region, all while maintaining a stance of acceptance and awareness, with the hardest line coming in the song, “When You Come For Me” — “Mama, I dreamed that I had no hand to hold / and the land I cut my teeth on wouldn’t let me call it home.”
Her voice wavered just a little, settling into a tremor, but she didn’t fold under it. She let it break over her and kept being, becoming. There was an intimacy amidst the wilderness, with the songs recorded mostly in her living room with a group of like-minded friends. (Kathleen Hanna, Tift Merritt, Angel Olsen, Mary Lattimore, Amy Ray, and Phil Cook are among the collaborators.) She brought that intimacy to Jammin’ Java on Saturday night. After Luray (a Richmond-based band) opened the show, Heather and her band took the stage quickly, inviting the crowd to move closer to the stage, to commune with them, with her.
The show began with “One Great Thunder,” a cut from her newest album, followed by “Yellow Roses” and one of my favorite songs of the last year, “A Lamb, A Dove,” with its gentle refrains, her righteous proclamations, her keen observations — “It’s a wild world / that will make you believe / in a kingdom full of mercy and faith / it’s a fine line / and I will walk it with grace.”
Heather then led the band through “Davis Square” from Mount Moriah’s How to Dance and then the aforementioned “Houses of the Holy.” In the telling of the little mistake she made, some kind of levee broke, and the band started to smile even more.
Heather danced around the stage, a barely-contained valley squall, legs shivering, hands waving, face as naked as a lamb in the wind. Her voice resonated off the brick walls and around the club, a force of nature. She led the band next through “Baby’s Got the Blues” and its impassioned question, “Do you see it?,” a not-quite-gentle confession of shared blues. Next, the band breezed into the hypnotic backbeat of “Wild Dogs,” her duet with Angel Olsen and most recently released single.
Watch the official music video for “Wild Dogs” by HC McEntire on YouTube:
The band untangled the song “Precita” and then sauntered into “I Built a Town” off the album Miracle Temple before closing the set with the wild and heavy promenade of “Dress in the Dark.” They waved goodnight, the traditional brief step away from the mic, before returning to set a conflagration with “Miracle Temple Holiness.” When I close my eyes, I can hear her singing, “Let it rise, let it rise, let it riiiiiiiise, let it rise.”
After the show, Heather stood by the merch table, waving goodnight or talking with anyone who wanted to talk. She was as gracious, kind, and sincere as her music suggested. I encourage anyone reading this to listen to her songs and attend her shows.
Check out some photos from HC McEntire’s show at Jammin’ Java in Vienna, Virginia, on Feb. 2, 2019. All images are courtesy and copyright of Matt Ruppert.