Last Night: Joe Pug, Doug Burr at Sons of Hermann Hall

Joe Pug, Doug Burr
Sons of Hermann Hall
July 8, 2010

Better Than: Waiting to see on TV where LeBron chose to play basketball.

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Joe Pug

KXT-91.7 FM's Barefoot at the Belmont show turned into a Hardwoods at the Hermann one on Thursday night.

Since the open air of the Belmont Hotel isn't, you know, waterproof, the rainy weather of the week had forced show organizers to find a suitable back-up venue on short notice for this show. But, as opening act and local favorite Doug Burr said to the crowd of a couple of hundred during his typically spellbinding, 45-minute set, "it's always good to have a contingency plan--especially when Sons of Hermann Hall is the contingency."

Indeed, the turnout didn't seem to suffer from the change in location. Nor did the overall spirit of the show.

After Burr and his multi-talented sideman, Glen Farris, warmed the crowd up with mostly selections from his recent O Ye Devastator record, it was time for Chicago's reigning folk-champion, Joe Pug, to showcase why he was the evening's headliner.

Unlike this past March in Denton at the NX35 conferette where Pug's set was overshadowed by the organizer's confusing "set-time issues" and sparse fan turn-out, this crowd was ready and eagerly waiting Pug on this occasion. Sure, a few folks left after Burr's set completed, but they were mere exceptions to the rule.

The acoustic guitar and harmonica-wielding Pug, along with three band members (including a stand up bass, another acoustic guitar player and legendary pedal and lap steel player Bucky Baxter), immediately popped into the pedal-powered, country sunshine of "Messenger." Not only was the opening tune enlivened by the playing of Baxter--who's played steel on Steve Earle's Guitar Town, Bob Dylan's Unplugged, R.E.M's Green and Ryan Adams' Gold, just to name a select few--but the entire, slightly over an hour-long set was brightened and galvanized by not only Baxter's pedal steel, but by his bluesy, and at times scorching, lap steel.

While it could've been easy to wonder who the star attraction truly was after Baxter's pedal solo during "Call it What You Will"--and especially during the rocking lap steel segments in "I Do My Fathers Drugs"--the spotlight was clearly hovering over Pug as the band took a break during a few points of the evening. Playing raw, solo and acoustic is the heart of Pug's vibe, after all.

When Pug--who had no qualms with laughing it up with the crowd one moment, and then quickly switching into contemplative mode with the introduction of each, somber tune--belted out songs such as "Hymn 35" and "Bury Me Far (From My Uniform)," his facial expressions were pained and his voice emanated a warbled strength that seemed to be simultaneously nasal and throaty.

Whereas Burr's earlier set featured folk-styling with rock flourishes, Pug traversed the opposite end, as most of his folk tunes turned into country weepers and stompers, and rather effectively. A spot-on cover of Gram Parson's "Sin City" and a rocking "Speak Plainly, Diana" reunited all four players on the stage, before Pug performed his signature tune, "Hymn 101," to round out the regular set.

Inclement weather may have forced everyone indoors, but that didn't keep Pug from raising the roof off of the joint.

Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias:
A big Pug fan, I called reviewing this show a soon as it was announced.

By The Way: While Pug is an engaging solo-acoustic performer, it was great to hear the amped up songs from Messenger with the extra instrumentation.

Random Note: The crowd was exactly what you would expect at a NPR-sponsored affair, and for this night, that was a very good thing. The mix of 20-something hipsters and well-dressed, 50-something couples that appreciate a good folk tune all really understood the value of sitting down and simply letting the entertainment on-stage do all the talking.


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