The Borderline, London, Feb 23 2012
by DAMIEN MURPHY
Why Chicago’s Joe Pug didn’t feel the need to return Kemptown’s Brighton Ballroom is his business. If the growing success that has taken him off the back roads and into the bright lights has gone to his head, you’d never guess it from his easy, genial demeanour on Borderline’s stage. In any case, the Borderline is off a backroad, down an alley, in a basement, so it’s all relative.
Relativity is key with Joe’s songs, in that they can become different beasts in different settings. On his unadorned debut EP, Nation of Heat, he delivers songs such as “I Do My Father’s Drugs” and “Nobody’s Man” with a fierce desperation. Live, however, they become pleading and fragile, taking on the greater restraint found on follow-up EP In the Meantime. On the title song of that latter collection (available for free on his website), he strips the mournful confessional down even further. He sings the aching “Unsophisticated Heart”, from his current album Messenger, as though no one were in the room but himself and whatever sad, imagined face he seems to see on the back wall of the club.
He wears his influences openly. Cryptic couplets trip from his tongue like a freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (“I am the brush, I am the strokes / I’m sickness come to the best of folks”). His plaintive harmonica wails recall Nebraska-era Springsteen. Dylan comparisons are inevitable, yet Pug effortlessly avoids sounding derivative. The parallels are there, in the lyrics and the delivery, but he is unmistakably his own man, and his songs bear his own idiosyncrasies. He strays from his own material just once to offer us “Deep, Dark Wells” by an obscure folk singer named Harvey Thomas Young, which he reverently tells us “should be a part of the American songbook”. That this cover – while a fine song – is the set’s weakest moment says quite something about the quality Pug’s own songs.
Between songs, he shows himself to be a thoroughly affable gent, accepting offers of whiskey as if he was down the pub with mates, and inviting the crowd to come and see him after the show. “You don’t even have to buy the record,” he says. “Just come over for a chat. We don’t have any other friends in London”. He is clearly moved in complimenting his accompanying guirtarist and support acts (Christof, and Bhi Bhiman – both fine songwriters in their own right). When a woman howls out for “Hymn 52!” his response is perfectly pitched to save her blushes. “I haven’t written that one yet,” he hints gently. “But when I do, you’ll be the first to hear it”, before playing the gorgeous “Hymn #35”.
In the end, he reverts to the raging delivery of old, pounding out “Nation of Heat”, a disgusted indictment of the misplaced pride of his homeland, where “it ain’t rare to hear the streetlights call themselves stars”, and rounding out the set with a wild, stomping singalong on “Speak Plainly, Diana”, the only song from the EPs to be revisited on Messenger. It is a tremendous finish to a powerful celebration of the art of songwriting.
Before taking his leave, Joe returns to play us a new song, in which he says “If you remember one thing, then you remember this/ when the lights came up, there was nothing left that I could give.” He speaks the truth, and though you may not always know what he’s singing about, you damn sure believe it as fervently as he does.
Joe Pug’s second full length album, The Great Despiser, is released on April 24. A live album, Live at Lincoln Hall, is available for download for $5 (around £3.20), through his website.
Nobody’s Man / Lock the Door, Christina / Messenger / I Do My Father’s Drugs / Unsophisticated Heart / How Good You Are / In the Meantime / Disguised as Someone Else / Hymn #35 / Deep, Dark Wells (by Harvey Thomas Young) / Hymn #101 / Call It What You Will / Nation of Heat / Speak Plainly, Diana / [encore] New Song