I wasn't in St. Louis in 2007 so I missed it when Jon Hardy and the Public -- then a foursome made up of Jon, Glenn LaBarre, Shaun Lee and Tony Perolio -- released their the full-length album "Working In Love." That older album is an exercise in passionate resolve, a work of art that put Hardy and the Public on the map. The years following seemed to chart a rise in national attention: NPR Song of the Day picks, consistent nominations in the RFT's music awards, and shows, so many shows. Back then the band seemed to have just enough of everything: a charismatic frontman whose earnest energy is matched by his gift for songwriting, a well-constructed sound of guitar chords with atmosphere and an R&B rhythm which established them as an instant local phenomenon with a devoted fan base.
Jon Hardy and the Public have a story to tell. This basic truth is obvious in their work, and their songs are labors to this end -- authentic, heartfelt and insightful with nothing added just for show. In 2010, the Public released "A Hard Year," an EP with four great songs and an eponymous track which seemed appropriate to the current times but in hindsight was prescient. Two very hard years later following a harrowing accident and the tragic loss of the original drummer Tony Perolio, the band's fate seemed to hang in the balance. But the history alluded to here only bolsters the claim: Jon Hardy and the Public may very well be a force of nature -- stubborn, resilient and phenomenal.
On Saturday night, the band made its fourth appearance in about two years; the rebooted Jon Hardy and the Public played for a packed crowd at Off Broadway. They featured a horn section, Mike Schurk on drums, Johnny Kidd on keys, Kevin Bachmann, Greg Shadwick and co-founder Glenn LaBarre. Jon Hardy sang his heart out and the band put everything out there. They opened with "Take That Sugar," establishing a neo-rockabilly sound that NPR described as "...brilliantly capturing a desperate feeling somewhere between lust and fear," which showed the group was "poised to transform itself from a regional favorite to a national one." And that transformation is still well underway.
The last time I'd seen them was with Fitz and the Tantrums in 2011. What Fitz does by playing to the crowd, Jon Hardy and his crew do with sheer force of their personality, singing with expression, every band member mouthing the words, and really playing up the guitar riffs and the rhythm changes. Band practice for the Public must be exhausting and a hell of a time. Halfway through the set, Jon and co-guitarist Kevin removed their suit jackets (the entire band was sharply attired), and the full band was in swing. When Hardy sings, he contorts his handsome face with paroxysms of emotion, eyes closed, mouth and jaw chewing on lyrics, moaning through choruses. His voice is the most powerful instrument on that stage.
"Worst I Ever Had" is a pop song with soul in the purest sense, a love song (like many of their songs) that's so sincere it dispels any of the usual cynicism. When Jon Hardy sings, "When it's late and you got bad feelings/I wanna change those feelings" what could seem saccharine or overblown from another man (say Chris Martin from Coldplay for example) sounds like real love from Hardy, the kind we all want and dream about, and so often don't get.
True to blues sentiments, there are songs of loss here as well, blues material with an R&B/pop appeal, as well as a touch of mid-30s ennui in the form of a young man's nostalgia. Nostalgia features prominently in these songs and comes across as far from commonplace. In "Restless Again," the lust and fear wrestle within his words, "I'm getting nervous/you're not listening again/See the lights on the other side/Don't be nervous/I never saw that coming/I never saw that coming.../I never sawwwwwww…." That song is the most likely culprit prompting comparisons of Jon Hardy's voice to the Walkmen's Hamilton Leithauser, and there's something to that, since both of them are vocal projectors who enunciate, and both men share the ability to lend a volume to their voice without sacrificing the emotional tone. You can hear it in "In the Morning," a song of whiskey, champagne and celebration and eventual loss, and in "1974," a narrative with mysterious historical importance.
They played 15 songs and were cheered for more. In response to chants of "one more song, one more song," Hardy sheepishly replied, "We'd like to, but we actually played all of the songs." He had earlier mentioned the forthcoming album, thanked his fans for a successful Indigogo campaign to help raise funding, and mentioned a "bunch of new songs coming along." The band seems once again poised for the inevitable transformation, from their private hiatus as the local favorite back into the public's arms and a rise towards a much-deserved bigger stage.