Joe Pug: Live at The Blind Pig – 2/20/14
Having a core group of musicians to see every time they’re in town is not unlike the way parents talk about their kids. It is exciting to see musicians grow, evolve, and develop into the potential you knew was there from the beginning. For my roommate and I, it has become a tradition to see Joe Pug each time he comes to town.
We first saw Joe four years ago at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival. Ann Arbor may be one of the biggest little college towns in America. While the University of Michigan houses some 41,000 students and “The Big House” has attracted upwards of 115,000 people for a single sporting event, the entire city is walkable in an hour, the buses stop at ten, and you can’t get food past 9:30 to save your life. So the fact that the Ann Arbor Folk Fest, since it’s inception, has drawn some of the biggest names in music to the doorstep of our northern, but still very middle America town, is always somewhat of a novelty. That year, the likes of Pete Seeger, Kris Kristofferson, and Jeff Tweedy graced the stage but, in keeping with the spirit of the festival, sufficient stage time is alotted every year to up and comers as well.
One of them was Joe Pug. A sweet, ragamuffin guy that looked like he could be any girl’s first college boyfriend. Having driven through the horrible conditions of I-94 between Chicago and Ann Arbor in late January and only allowed mere minutes to get up between performers, you never would have known from the way he played that night. His unique, back of the throat voice filled the theater and spoke to his determination to make only four songs count. At the time I had no idea who he was, but his voice, most likely meant as filler between sets, sufficiently quieted the house. While it was great to knock a few performers off of my live music bucket list that night, I left wanting to know more about Joe.
I would come to find out later that he was a recent UNC-Chapel Hill dropout. Approaching his senior year with a major in playwriting, he quit to pick up his guitar and begin touring. The songs Joe played the night of the Folk Fest formed the basis of his first EP, Nation of Heat. These days it can be incredibly easy to dismiss yet another acoustic guitar and harmonica driven debut, but what the EP lacks in musicality, Pug more than makes up for in earnestness, carrying him past any cliches. On “Hymn 101” his literary background is palpable, as well as what seems to be a justification for dedicating a life to music: I’ve come here to get high/To do more than just get by/I’ve come to test the timber of my heart/Oh, I’ve come to test the timber of my heart/And I’ve come to be untroubled in my seeking/And I’ve come to see that nothing is for naught.
In the span of twenty two minutes, the sparseness of the music on the EP only serves to illuminate Pug’s lyrics which are arresting and surprising, given Pug’s tender age of 23 at it’s release. From it’s breakup song “Call It What You Will” to it’s politically scorching title track, Pug lends the same amount of heartfelt honesty and beautiful turn of phrase, making one think that any one of the songs on the EP would be just as at home in a literary anthology, as it would on a record.
From Nation of Heat, Joe went on to release one more EP, 2009’s In The Meantime, followed by two full length albums, 2010’s Messenger and most recently in 2012, The Great Despiser. Being the most recent, the material of Messenger and The Great Despiser comprised most of Pug’s live show the other night. In keeping with the spirit of the albums, Pug now tours with a small band which brought his increasingly sophisticated sound to the stage. If his initial EP’s could be described as “Dylanesque,” Pug’s recent album’s have moved him into the realm of “Ritter-esque,” (Pug recently opened for Josh Ritter who, to me, is a musician with an impeccable sense of lyrics and the sounds that should match them). Even the most die hard folk music lover can admit that no musician can survive on a mere harmonica and three chords for long and Pug displayed his evolving sound throughout the night. The addition of a band has added a richness and roundness, compared to the stark nature of his first EP’s. Pug’s performance of “Messenger” brought to mind a young Steve Earle, strong lyrics matched with that special kind of “windows down” sound that seems engrained in every mid-Western songwriter. If Pug was worn down from his time on the road (he always seems to tour the snowiest and coldest states in the coldest and snowiest months and joked with the crowd about it, peppered with the appropriate amount of expletives) it didn’t show as he shifted easily between his early folk ballads on the foolhardiness and sentimentailty of youth (“Not So Sure”) to commanding the band on many of the rock based and more layered sounds that comprise The Great Despiser, of which both the title track and “Stronger Than The World” bring to mind Jay Farrar, Wilco, and the first stirrings of 90’s alt country.
Pug’s greatest strength, particularly when it comes to his live shows, seems to be a combination of his earnestness and uncanny poetics, without the slightest bit of world weariness. Pug’s fondness of entitling his songs “hymns” almost gives one the impression that he is a man in constant praise, lifting up the tragedy, comedy, and folly of the world around us in song, always with a sense of supreme gratitude. In fact, one of the most striking aspects of Pug’s live shows is his disposition. This is a man whom you can tell cherishes the fact that he is on a stage and seems to understand what it takes to be a working musician in our modern age. With traditional ideas of record labels and artistic ownership well on their way out years ago, Pug has no qualms earning his rent from the stage. He keeps an active blog on his website and is confident enough to offer free downloadable tracks to earn new fans. None of which has seemed to hurt him. Having been to his shows steadily over the past four years, I can confidently say that each crowd is bigger than the last. And while it’s hard to envision any artist being able to keep up his level of approachable musicianship for too long, with Joe Pug it seems more natural than necessary. For now, he doesn’t even walk backstage after a set. He goes straight to the fans at the merch table.