Review: Joe Pug at Lincoln Hall

21 May

Joe Pug. In a vest.

Few men can silence a room by simply playing their guitar and harmonica. But that’s just what Joe Pug pulled off repeatedly last Friday night at Lincoln Hall, extinguishing the conversations of drunk teenagers and fathers by dropping his music down to the barest possible finger-picking — reducing a rowdy weekend crowd to absolute calm as every member strained to catch Pug’s lyrics.

Much has been said about Pug, and many have fallen for the singer-songwriter harder than a Chicago Bulls starter crashes to the floor in the playoffs. This phenomenon probably has something to do with Joe Pug being one of the best new songwriters in America, and the fact that the man does everything right with his music, from the recording and distribution of his songs to his stellar live performances of them.

Joe’s second full-length album, The Great Despiser, is barely a month old, and it is already the embodiment of all that is good in music. And Pug, the man who used to cover the postage to mail burned copy of his EPs to fans who requested them, knows that the best way to publicize an album as amazing as this one is to tour the living shit out of it. Which brought Pug and his touring band to the confines of Lincoln Hall at the same time summer weather and unwashed protestors were flooding into Chicago. Coincidence? Probably, but all three made my life much more interesting.

Plenty of singer-songwriters know how to poorly fingerpick, play harmonica, and come off as “Dylanesque,” but Pug knows how to do all of these things well. These are the qualities that are laid bare in Pug’s live performances, backed up by a killer touring band transformed into a force to be reckoned with thanks to oodles of talent and the conviction that comes with touring behind music of this magnitude. Together, Pug and his band transform the boundaries of folk, country, and rock n roll all in one blistering rendition of “Speak Plainly Diana.”

They brought the Lincoln Hall crowd of hipsters, empty nesters, radio DJs, and college students covertly sipping on Keystone Light to the edge with killer versions of songs like “The Great Despiser” or “Nation of Heat,” but had the capacity to bring immediate peace to the audience with a performance of one of Pug’s numerous hymns. I swear, that man has written more hymns than most Methodists can even conceive of.

It’s next to the place where Dillinger was shot.

I’m not the only arrogant douchefeather who holds this opinion, but the only artist currently working on Joe Pug’s level is Justin Townes Earle. The two are impeccable song-writers, crafting their music that gives due deference to the canon they harken to while simultaneously pushing new boundaries, kicking ass, and taking names like their Woody Motherfucking Guthrie III. It doesn’t hurt that the two can finger-pick like Merle Travis if he had grown up listening to Bruce Springsteen and both men are about as American as PBR and Republican primaries. But far more palatable.

Lyrically, Pug remains ambiguous enough to maintain an elusive quality that heightens each song’s value, but tangible enough to feel like a line directly referencing your individual situation. To be honest, I still can’t tell if the lyrics to “Nation of Heat” are about America’s abuse of the lowest rungs of society, his mother, or Sylvia Plath.

Across from the prison and beside the great lake
Below the rooftops and above the highways
The spirits pay rental on the basements they haunt
And the pages just draw pictures of the things that they want
I cook my dinner on the blacktop street
I come from the nation of heat

Maybe all three. Who cares? It’s a great song, and I love it, and Pug and his band killed it last night. Also, the bassist looked like he was having an orgasm the whole night every time he played a long tone, and the drummer sometimes looked like a pissed-off Zach Galifianakis. These are all good things.

But the best part of the night came after the show, when Pug shook hands and chatted with every last audience member next to the merch table. It’s how Pug does business — give your fans an amazing musical performance, then spread the good word through personal connections. And sell a lot of vinyl LPs while you’re at it.

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