At his Thursday night show at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall, Jeremy Messersmith started with the basics. Walking onto the stage, guitar in hand, he turned to the crowd and said, “Well, hello. I’m Jeremy Messersmith.”
For those who don’t know, the music hall has the look and feel of a jewel box: Every surface is adorned with baroque embellishment, and red walls give a sense of being cushioned within a velvet interior next to a stack of pearls. It’s intimate and decadent — that type of space has the potential to swallow a performer.
Messersmith, however, maintained a steady presence during his set, making for an engaging and endearing show — a veritable gem in the jewel box.
After introducing himself, Messersmith began the show with “Ghost,” a lilting, deceptively melancholic song from his 2014 release Heart Murmurs. Paired with a plucky guitar line, lyrics such as “I’ve become a ghost in your garden, fading into view” felt jaunty.
“Well, that’s all my good songs,” Messersmith told the crowd after the second tune. He then moved to songs from his most recent album, Late Stage Capitalism. “Monday, You’re Not So Bad” changed the tone of the show from lightly upbeat to effervescent, with guitar riffs reminiscent of George Harrison in “Here Comes the Sun.”
Throughout the night, Messersmith was the only source of accompaniment, performing first with a guitar and later with a ukulele. Though Late Stage Capitalism is Messersmith’s most diverse album instrumentally, the absence of percussive elements wasn’t a shortcoming. In this setting, the simpler instrumentation made the lyrics more of a centerpiece.
The evening was perfectly punctuated with banter, which felt right with the cheeky tone of some of the songs in the set. The venue was also well-suited for that back-and-forth exchange; the stage was extremely close to the front rows of the audience, so the show had the feel of an interaction at a dinner party, rather than the artist shouting out platitudes to the depths of a concert hall. The one-offs felt organic and endearing, not cloying.
Messersmith prefaced one of his songs with an anecdote about how a married couple told him it was the song they had their first dance to. The first lines, “I know I may not look like much / Guess the years have been a little rough / I’m not worried, no, I’ve got it planned / I wanna be your one-night stand,” served as the perfect punchline, resulting in grins and chuckles from the audience.
“I think you’re all ready for a six-minute ballad about professional wrestling,” Messersmith said at one point, launching into just that. The song tells the tale of the life of wrestler André the Giant, and to the delight of the audience, his path crossing with Hulk Hogan. The song doesn’t exist anywhere online or in Messersmith’s searchable discography, so it had the feel of a folkloric Easter egg — Messersmith spinning a tall tale at the side of a campfire, with his story disappearing as soon as the embers go out.
At times, the show teetered on the edge of indie kitsch, something Messersmith acknowledged himself. About halfway through the set, he pulled out his ukelele, to applause from the crowd.
“That’s the most applause a man with a ukulele has gotten. Usually it’s ‘away with ye,’ ” he said.
Messersmith played two songs off his 2017 release, the somewhat aptly titled 11 Obscenely Optimistic Songs for Ukulele: A Micro Folk Record for the 21st Century and Beyond (although there are only 10 songs in the songbook). Again, these songs could have been twee, but they remained steadfastly sincere.
The final song of the night was “Everybody Gets a Kitten,” describing Messersmith’s utopian vision of the future, the main feature of which is, of course, everybody getting a kitten. This may have been the most twee moment of the night, but it managed to not feel fake or ironic. People in the audience smiled, sang along, swayed. The sentiment of obscene optimism was real, and it made for a lovely show.