‘I feel filled up again’ An interview with Joe Pug

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October 27 and 28, 2012 on the eve of Superstorm Sandy and in the shadow of the the construction at Ground Zero in Manhattan, Joe Pug took the stage at Pace University to thank the man who created his job — Woody Guthrie.

Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora asked Pug’s friend and frequent tour mate Justin Townes Earle to curate two nights of music from the current generation who are working in her father’s spirit. Earle invited Pug, the Low Anthem and Deer Tick’s John McCauley to represent the continuation of Guthrie’s singer-songwriter legacy, punctuated with Guthrie biographer Joe Klein reading passages from his beloved “Woody Guthrie: A Life.”

While most of the audience bought tickets to see Earle, the murmurings after the shows focused on Pug’s impassioned performances. I kept hearing Pug’s name attached to variations of “I’d never heard of him before tonight, but he was incredible!”

Not that Pug didn’t have a fan base prior to the show. Justin’s troubadour papa, Steve Earle, brought Pug to his son’s attention, forging a pair of kindred songwriting spirits that includes shared tours and stories getting Woody Guthrie-themed, rib-cage tattoos in western Australia.

Playing solo for both New York shows, the Austin resident spat out fiery takes of his social commentary — “I Do My Father’s Drugs,” “Nation of Heat” and “The Great Despiser.” While most Guthrie tributes end with a sing-along of “This Land is Your Land,” the new generation did it their way, joining voices on Earle’s joyful and ominous “Harlem River Blues” with enough power to make getting covered with dirty water seem like a good idea and not a harbinger of disaster to come.

Pug took time from his tour schedule a few weeks prior to the New York City shows to discuss Guthrie’s legacy, songwriting, giving it away and what we can expect from him at Off Broadway on Monday, November 12.

Robin Wheeler: I want to talk to you about your upcoming St. Louis show, but I’m really interested in the two upcoming “In the Spirit of Woody Guthrie” shows you’re doing with Justin Townes Earle in New York at the end of October. How did you get involved in this, what will you be doing and what are your thoughts on the whole thing?

Joe Pug: I got involved in it through Justin’s invitation. He’s always been a huge advocate for my music and he’s really given me a hand up in a lot of ways. I first did a tour with him about three years ago where we did two months straight together on the road. We toured in Australia together. This is just the latest example of Justin helping me out, and helping me be a part of something that’s very special. He invited me to this, and I just talked to him about it in more detail at Hardly Strictly [Bluegrass Festival]. Basically, he’s invited other artists who … not only … to say we owe a huge debt to Woody doesn’t even describe it. He invented what our job is. It’s just a way for us to come and explore that lineage, explore that influence and pay tribute to him in his centennial year.

What has Guthrie’s influence been on you, besides creating your job?

I think Woody was the first person in American popular culture to complete a synthesis, which is very common now and we take it for granted. A synthesis of someone who is — in the most high-minded and esoteric ways possible — an artist, but also in some of the most pragmatic and basic ways, an entertainer. Again, we really take that for granted. Not only with singer-songwriters who are made to come on like your Bob Dylan or Steve Earle — the social parts. He was that, but this was also someone who was taking old songwriting tropes and putting them in an entertaining package. This was a guy who could keep a room spellbound. That’s mastery. It’s a mastery that he did for the first time in American popular culture.

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Concert review: Glen Hansard sustains all notes at the Pageant, Tuesday, September 25

Glen Hansard at the Pageant. Photo by Abby Gillardi.

Maybe you fell in love with the Glen Hansard busking on a street corner in Dublin, wearing a bedraggled broken coat, strumming on a well-worn, hole-y, broken guitar, wailing about his miserable broken heart.

Or maybe you fell in love with the broken-guitar slinging, broken-heart crooning, broken-coat donning characters Hansard has played on the big screen (“Once,” 2007; “The Commitments,” 1991). Or maybe you are one of the few who joined the Glen Hansard love affair from the now-broken Frames or Swell Season days. Regardless, those broken bits are all Glen Hansard, one and the same.

His 2012 release “Rhythm and Repose” at first listen, or even after several solid tries, sounds, well, a bit broken. Without his co-star, Markéta Irglová, or even the backup harmonizers the “Commitmentettes,” Glen Hansard sounds alone. “Alone” in all connotations — both lonely and lacking. Indeed, the lyrics of his entire repertoire seem to center on loneliness, sadness, heartbreak — “this gift is waiting to be found.” Ouch.

There is something painfully exquisite about two former lovers lamenting their mutual lost love for one another in the most beautiful of harmonies (of course we’re all thinking of the achingly, lovely harmonizing of Hansard and Irglova — “you call, then I’ll come running.” But when one of those lovers keeps crooning, maintaining that lament, while his partner has not just moved on, but also ceased all such lamenting over that same lost love, that is more painful than exquisite: “When your mind’s made up, there’s no point trying to change it.”

And “Rhythm and Repose” has a touch of that painfulness: no one harmonizing and no one filling the void of that broken heart that is the subject of nearly every song on the album. That guy can hold a high note, for sure, but he can also keep up a broken heart far longer than anyone I’ve met.

On Tuesday night at the Pageant, however, Glen Hansard filled that void of someone or something missing. True, he lamented and mewled over his broken heart. Yes, he created a palpable sadness that made me mourn lost lovers that ordinarily wouldn’t warrant even a second thought. But the single, lonely, aching crooner was not alone last night.

Between the crowd joining in (at times from the sheer compulsion to throw our harmonizing hats into the mutual-lament ring, and at other times from Hansard instructing us to chime in — “you melodize there, there, there” or “just remember – long enough / strong enough” — and his 10-piece backup orchestra (complete with former Levon Helm bandmates), Hansard was a solid, complete, dare I say fulfilled, entity. His melodies crescendoed in the most — yes painfully — exquisite of ways, his street-smart humor a la Grafton Street infused some needed levity, and his two hours and 20 minutes of music-making left absolutely no holes.

With this mix of elements, there was no void, there was no lack. On this night in St. Louis there was nothing broken.

Glen Hansard took the stage at 9:15 p.m. and played a 20-plus song set (it was impossible to keep track, with many songs devolving into several-part medleys), including singing original music from old and new albums plus the two most famous duets from “Once.” He covered not just Levon Helm and his self-proclaimed idol Bob Dylan, but also a bit of Otis Redding, a touch of Chuck Berry and even a moment of Willy Wonka. He bantered, he danced, he pounded the no-longer hole-y guitar, he laughed, he charmed, he fucking rocked it.

Still I wonder whether Glen Hansard — solo man/solo artist — can sustain. But I also believe that given the right accompaniment — whether that is a lover, an orchestra, a group of back-up singers, a hit Broadway spinoff, or even the Band — the Glen Hansard cohort will continue to reverberate — musically and emotionally.

And if it all works out, you might just see me or hear from me . . . We can do anything. . . Where your heart is strong.

Concert review: Ray Wylie Hubbard deals a royal blues flush at the Old Rock House, Saturday, April 28

Ray Wylie Hubbard at the Old Rock House in St. Louis, April 28, 2012

Roy Kasten

St. Louis music fans showed true dedication last night as heavy rain, hail, lightning and damaging winds couldn’t keep a solid crowd away from the Old Rock House to see legendary Texas-based singer and songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard.

On a night when a tent outside a bar in downtown St. Louis left one dead and 17 injured and tennis-ball-sized hail broke windshields across the region, Hubbard rained down a mix of country, folk and blues to warm up a mostly middle-aged audience, still wet and cold from the storm.

Unfortunately the severe weather kept me from arriving on time for the early 7 p.m. start. Why so early you ask? The venue had scheduled another event immediately following this KDHX-welcomed concert; one that incorporated a back drop of black and neon-green decorative snakes wrapped with what looked like metal dryer vents that extended from the stage to a light rig above. It was upon that backdrop that Hubbard — dressed in a long-sleeved black t-shirt over blue jeans with a stocking cap pulled down tight — took the stage in front of a large group loyal fans packing the venue to about three-quarters full.

On tour to support his new album “The Grifter’s Hymnal,” the prolific Oklahoma-born songwriter’s 11th album in the last 20 years, Hubbard performed several new songs including “Henhouse” (a tune he co-wrote with Hayes Carll), “Red Badge of Courage” (a dedication to troops in Afghanistan who listened to his music on recon missions) and “Count My Blessings” (a track inspired by fellow songwriter Slaid Cleaves’ “One Good Year”). With honest lyrics that speak to the hard-working American, Hubbard’s weathered voice gave credence to the stories and lyrical imagery he painted throughout his 40-plus years in music. Upon hearing his songs, one need not question that he’s lived through some hard times yet continued to persevere.

Throughout the 97-minute set, Hubbard switched between acoustic and electric guitar as he played a country and blues mix that had the audience moving and grooving. He would add flourishes of slide guitar and sometimes just keep the beat going with his thumb plucking the open strings. Accompanied onstage by the solid drumming of Rick Richards, Hubbard was in a relaxed, easygoing mood and seemed to have a great time interacting with the crowd. Richards — a spectacular timekeeper with a great bass drum foot and a simple set of snare, floor tom, bass drum and tambourine — provided a solid backbone while Hubbard sang, spun yarns and entertained.

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Concert review: Jeffrey Foucault impresses a seated Off Broadway, Thursday, April 26

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Part John Prine, part Dylan, part lonely cowboy swilling whiskey out on a moonlit prairie, Jeffrey Foucault has a chameleonic sound. This quality enhances the troubadour’s grace and emboldens the emotional power of the music.

Many of Foucault’s moving ballads are concerned with introspection and love lost, often couched in the loneliness of travel. “Starlight and Static,” from 2011′s “Horse Latitudes,” washed over the crowd at Off Broadway with tight hammer-ons and dulcet picking. Foucault’s voice stood alone, unlike on the studio version, lending the song new-found power and humanity.

“Pretty Girl in a Small Town” conjured Tom Petty vibes, as well as heartache elusively playing the edge of fiery expression, an effect conjured in all of the evening’s songs, performed stripped-down, solo and subdued. No drums, no bass, no keys — no back up anything — just a guitar and Foucault’s pure, north-country drawl.

“Ghost Repeater,” from the 2006 album of the same title, suggested Steve Earle crossed with Drive-By Truckers. The zydeco accordion featured on the studio version was absent here, which, again, lent the song a certain satisfying emotional resonance.

“Goners Most,” full of crystalline moments concerned with death and dreaming, brought the quiet warmth of Foucault’s voice to the forefront. The man is a poet, for he made “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” new again simply by adding a “for” before each phrase. An interlude lulled the audience with a delicate mood as light as crêpe paper. Before anyone knew it, Foucault’s fingertip released a final hammer-on and the instrumental melted into the nothingness of silence.

As Foucault neared the end of his set, he offered up the most satisfying version of “Passerines” I have ever heard — studio or otherwise. Again, the pedal steel and backup vocals of the album version were appropriately absent. “Nothing I Wouldn’t Do,” from 2010′s “Cold Satellite,” told the story of a man who would do anything for his woman, but Foucault made the well-worn idea new by layering the scene with details of the landscape, which he then masterfully conflated with his love.

“Train to Jackson” depicted the artist weary from travel and seeking advice from an elder: “I took a name, I found a range where my voice can make no sound. I met a man that told me son, ‘I can see you’re on the run, and if you tell me where you’re going, I’ll tell you where you’re bound.’” The notion of being “bound” for a location during a journey is one thing, but Foucault enriches the notion by suggesting how humans can be, in-fact, “bound” by travel.

Fan-favorite, “Everybody’s Famous,” marked the close of Foucault’s show. Electric and eclectic like a Califone tune, the song built dynamically with stuttering, palm-muted guitar and Foucault’s clement lyrics. At this point, a rudimentary understanding of Foucault’s true power set in; I realized I was connected to something larger, something real. There we all were, enraptured by Foucault’s music, growing more captivated each passing moment. In this whizzing, digital age, achieving such real connection is an invaluable gift.

‘The first batch of honey’ An interview with singer-songwriter Denison Witmer

facebook.com/denisonwitmer / Ethan Luck

Hot off his newest release “The Ones Who Wait,” Denison Witmer brings introspective, acoustic indie-folk to St. Louis’ the Firebird on Saturday, March 31 in support of William Fitzsimmons.

Humble arrangements and subdued melodies abound. Witmer’s quiet, oft-fingerpicked, confessionals delicately shuffle, sway and linger in your heart. The man is no different. With an eye for thoughtful self-study and journaling, Witmer conjures American life with a certain shaded contrast as he draws the listener into his soulful world. I recently interviewed Witmer by phone about his upbringing, songwriting philosophy, new recording studio and love for whiskey.

Will Kyle: Where did you grow up?

Denison Witmer: I grew up about 90 miles west of Philadelphia, in an area called Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It’s famous for being Amish country, but I grew up Mennonite.

Do you still practice?

Yes and no. I always tell people being Mennonite is kind of like being an ethnicity. You’re Mennonite forever. I think Mennonites and Jews share a lot of the same feelings when it comes to cultural ties. My friends who are Jewish here in Philly say, “Yeah, I’m Jewish, but non-practicing.”

Do you find that your Mennonite heritage creeps into your music?

Of course, it’s responsible for shaping my worldview. I really love the Mennonite church for the missions they seek out. They don’t try to Americanize people. Instead, they give power to the powerless. That’s their whole mission, to enable and empower people. That really resonates with me on a political level and on a spiritual level.

Music seems to have that empowerment aspect too, it helps people make sense of their world.

Right. Music has helped me through many phases of my life. It is kind of magical, because you’re creating something out of nothing. You create a melody you hear in your head and it can cast a spell on people. Since I have taken so much from music in my life, I feel it is my responsibility to give back in some way. Fortunately, I’m in a place where I get to do that and that’s something I don’t take for granted.

When you sit down to write a song, do you have a preconceived idea in mind or do you just start tinkering and follow the muse?

I’d say 80 percent of the time, I play the acoustic guitar and something will start to take shape, so I’ll work a melody on top of that. From there, I like to ad-lib lyrics. I always believed in seeing what comes out of me.

Usually, my favorite songs are ones that come about in an extemporaneous way. It’s kind of like things rise to the surface. That’s when I can focus in and try to work the rest of the song out. Music is also a journaling process for me, writing down my own personal epiphanies in some way, expressing my own worldview.

Past that, I don’t pretend to have it figured out or pretend to be the type of person who thinks my epiphanies are more special than everyone else’s. I pride myself on being a book between books on a shelf. We all have a story to tell, but in a sense, it’s nice to be just part of the library, I mean, it’s nice to simply be one among many stories.

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Concert review: Guy Clark masters the Old Rock House, Wednesday, February 29

guyclark.com / Senor McGuire

The appellation “legend” tends to be more of a marketing term than a description of an artist’s importance. Often, it serves only to mark someone who’s been lucky enough to get old without succumbing to too many vices and pitfalls along the way, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the scope of their contribution to their art form.

No one, however, deserves the title of “legend” more than Guy Clark, a progenitor of multiple splinter factions of Americana music and a songwriter without peer, and last night at the Old Rock House, he proved this in spades to the sold-out crowd.

Accompanied by longtime collaborator Verlon Thompson, Clark hobbled onto the stage while John Lennon’s “Imagine” played over the PA. He leaned heavily on a cane — the result of being recently, as he put it, “laid up with bad legs” — sank slowly into his seat and gingerly took his guitar from its stand.

“We’ve come here to sing you some songs,” Clark said. “Some of which we know.”

The duo had no set list. Instead, the selection of songs were decided upon on the spot with a little bit of discussion and the help of a few audience requests.

The evening started with “Cape,” possibly the finest ode to the importance of keeping your inner-child alive into adulthood ever penned, then moved on to fan favorites “L.A. Freeway” and “Homegrown Tomatoes.” But the set wasn’t just a rote run through of greatest hits. Clark announced early on that he’d be trying out some new material, and these new gems, like “My Favorite Picture of You” — another musical tribute to one of Clark’s frequent inspirations, his wife Susanna — and “I’ll Show Me” were proof positive that while Clark may physically be a bit worse for wear, his skill at laying the heart of the matter bare and distilling the truth from it hasn’t been blunted a bit.

What transpired at Hickory and 7th last night wasn’t so much a “show” as a version of one of Clark’s famous kitchen-table guitar pulls. There were flubbed lyrics, missed cues and more than a few sour notes.

“Y’all should get your money back,” Clark said, chuckling, after one misstep.

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Guy Clark’s greatest 15 songs — a very challenging list by Ed Becker

facebook.com/guyclarkmusic / Jim McGuire

Picking favorite tunes by Guy Clark is more an exercise in what to leave out, rather than what to include. The songwriting legend is entering his seventh decade, still at the top of his game.

He’s got new knees, plays homemade guitars and has that road-weary voice that blends perfectly with his wonderful observations on life. Guy, accompanied by sideman extraordinaire, Verlon Thompson will grace us with his presence three times in the near future: February 29 at the Old Rock House in St. Louis, March 4 at Richardet Floor Covering in Perryville, Mo. and September 12 at Wildwood Springs Lodge in Steelville, Mo.

Five — it could have been 10 — of my favorite songs come from Guy’s masterpiece “Old No. 1″ — in my opinion the best debut album ever. Guy was already 34 when he released this gem, and a lot of his friends were already doing his songs. The album would have been amazing with just Guy and his guitar, but add Emmylou and Sammi Smith’s vocals, future stars Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle, guitar wizards Chip and Reggie Young, piano player David Briggs, Mickey Raphael on harmonica and master fiddle player Johnny Gimble, and you have an instant classic.

1. “Desperados Waiting for a Train” Of all the songs Guy has had covered he says his favorite is character actor Slim Pickins’ version of this song.

2. “Texas 1947″ Vivid recollections of Guy’s childhood.

3. “Like a Coat From the Cold” There might be better love songs, but I’ve never heard them, especially when sung with Emmylou.

4. “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” How can you not include this one when Guy often mentions that it’s his favorite song, about “10 seconds in a woman’s life.”

5. “Let It Roll” As a music fan you know how you have those magical moments. One of mine would be with Guy from years ago at the Sheldon Concert Hall. He stepped forward and off-mic recited this classic. I’ve never heard anything more emotional or a room that quiet.

Usually when a debut album is so fine the followup is disappointing. Not so with Guy Clark. “Texas Cooking” again included a stellar cast and was almost as good. I could have included more songs from it on my list, but I just picked one.

6. “The Last Gunfighter Ballad” Guy was really proud and honored when this modern-day western ballad became the title song to a Johnny Cash album.

7. “Randall Knife” Guy’s emotional tribute to his father first appeared on 1983′s “Better Days.” A lot of people sing better than he does, but nobody recites a song like Guy.

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Album review: Ingrid Michaelson sweeps through heartbreak on ‘Human Again’

Ingrid Michaelson
“Human Again”
Mom+Pop

With her lilting voice and nerdy, girl-next-door looks, Ingrid Michaelson has charmed an audience and built a career around her good-girl appeal.

But that’s not to say there’s no substance behind her style. Michaelson’s career is both an indie success story and a commentary on the current nature of the music business. In an environment where it is easier than ever to make music, where everyone has a website and a YouTube channel, it can be, rather ironically, harder and harder for musicians to get their songs heard. Commercial radio is simply not as much of a factor in introducing new artists, and musicians must pursue other avenues to reach an audience.
 
Michaelson first got attention for song placement in television shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” and later by licensing her songs for TV commercials. Once upon a time, an artist that sold a song for commercial use was considered a sellout. (Remember when Neil Young declared that he wasn’t singing for Pepsi or Coke?) Today it’s the opposite. An artist can have a song on TV before a single on the radio. For Michaelson, “selling out” was the stepping stone to the audience she has now. When Old Navy picked up “The Way I Am” (from her 2006 record “Girls and Boys”) it helped pave the way for her career.
 
With her clever, literate lyrics and sometimes quirky, well-crafted pop songs, perhaps Michaelson’s success was inevitable. I never watched “Grey’s Anatomy” or saw those commercials. I came to appreciate her the old-fashioned way: by falling in love with her voice (and, to be honest, her looks). It may have been her persona that first got my attention, but I stayed for her songs.
 
On her new record, “Human Again,” Michaelson delivers more of the deeply textured arrangements and soaring vocals that are her trademark. And while she has always sung about both love and loss, this time around the emphasis centers more squarely upon the loss. “Human Again” is clearly Michaelson’s take on the classic break-up album.

As if there were any question, the record opens with “Fire” as she sings, “Open heart surgery/That is what you do to me.” She then moves right into “This Is War,” another heartbreaker featuring the lines “It’s a wonder at all that I survived the war/Between your heart and mine.” Thankfully, the third track delivers a bit of a respite with the upbeat tune, “Do It Now,” a catchy number and an admonition to seize the day.
 
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