Friday, May 20, 2011

Review: Joe Pug - Canopy Club, Urbana


By Jon Stone | @jwstone

I’m going to take a bit of a different angle for my review of Joe Pug’s fabulous show last night at Canopy Club in Urbana. First, however, I should say that Pug is a CU favorite. He has a large crowd of fiercely loyal fans here who crammed into a sold out, bar-side, "Void Room" concert nook. They sang along, lifted their glasses, and put the tour-weary Pug and Co. at ease. So much so, Joe Pug knew he couldn’t put one over on them and told about how he'd been telling every other city that Andrew Harrison (pedal-steel/guitar/vocals/beard) was "born and raised" in their town. He was especially proud that when he said it in Denver, the Huffington Post printed it as gospel truth. You can't help but believe everything the guy says, though. Maybe it was just the near-hometown crowd, but it felt like Joe was in a room with 200 of his closest friends. I like that feeling.

Anyway, rather than a rehash of the entire show which blossomed from solo, to duo, to full-band and back to solo over the hour Joe was on stage, I'd like to focus in on a single song and a single performance. The song is "Not So Sure" -- the third track on Pug's recently released and first full-length LP Messenger. "Not So Sure" was the subject of one of our local (and great, I should add before I get critical) blogs, Smile Politely. In the article, the author John Steinbacher praises Pug as a musician and makes sure to elevate the new record for its musical advances -- full band, great instrumentation, lovely arrangements. But then he lays into the lyrics saying that "this isn't music where the words [should be] an afterthought." "Mostly," he says "they're kind of the point. And mostly [on Messenger] they miss." He then moves through several of the songs on the record, calling the lyrics "cringeworthy," lacking "full narratives," and then, misquoting the chorus of "Not So Sure" (I bought expensive cigarettes, I read John Steinbeck's books), he calls the lyrics "completely unnecessary."

Now, I mean no quarrel with Steinbacher; surely we have likely stood shoulder to shoulder at previous CU shows. I only mean to completely disagree with him. As my only evidence against each of his claims, here are the lyrics to "Not So Sure":

There was a time when I heard you calling out my name
But these days I'm not so sure
When the room went dark and your voice was gone, I heard you all the same
But these days I'm not so sure
I knew I could remember your bedroom and your touch
But these days I'm not so sure
Definitely was the word I used far too much
Cause these days I'm not so sure

I bummed expensive cigarettes
I wrote John Steinbeck's books
I undressed someone's daughter and then complained about her looks
Stealing was so easy then I wish that it still were
Now as I pick my own pocket I know these days I'm not so sure

The church was my kitchen, the world was my church
But these days I'm not so sure
The choirs I would listen, the briers I would search
But these days I'm not so sure
I sacrificed my sister, I prayed my own soul to keep
I told my dying father that a man should never weep
Breathing was so easy then I wish that it still were
Now as the breeze just makes me colder, I know these days I'm not so sure

So if you see me tripping, I've forgotten how to walk
and I spend my days wishing after her
My steps are without rhythm and her name is drawn in chalk
as these days I'm not so sure
I drank my wine for breakfast every morning I was born
in the black electric winter my back was always warm
Sleeping was so easy then I wish that it still were
Now in my sleepless bedroom, I know these days I'm not so sure.

"Not So Sure" was the highlight of the show. It came about halfway in and was the first song Pug played with Andrew Harrison. Something about the simplicity of that Guild acoustic guitar and pedal-steel just bowls me over. Add to that sweet vocals and vocal harmonies singing the lyrics printed above and you have my favorite performance of the year so far.

There were other highlights. I promise. The backing band is a great new element to both the record and the live show. I couldn't get enough of Andrew Harrison's playing -- he makes country picking look easy when he's not playing the pedal steel. I will mention that near the end of the show, Joe played Hymn #101 -- most of the crowd knew and sang every word. And considering the densely beautiful, repetitive, Dylan-esque nature of that song, it was quite a feat. And wow, I love hearing a whole room singing "I have come to test the timbre of my heart." Apropos.

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