Published on October 18th, 2012 | by Jared Booth0
Joe Pug and James McMurtry: Subtle and Not-So-Subtle Songs of Protest
Joe Pug and James McMurtry at the Pour House, Oct. 16
Singer/guitarist Joe Pug stepped to the microphone at the Pour House Tuesday night (Oct. 16) promptly at 9:00 p.m. when the crowd was essentially nonexistent. “Happy Tuesday night,” he said in a near-whisper that still sounded quite chipper. “My name is Joe Pug. I live in Austin, and it’s really my honor to be opening for James tonight, so let’s do it.”
As the reserved, almost shy Pug finger-picked and sang, the room began to fill up. “This song goes out to my dad wherever he is,” he said. “It’s called ‘I Do My Father’s Drugs.’” After the gorgeous ballad, he turned to the slightly bigger crowd, setting the protest-like tone of the night (which is rare in these parts) by proclaiming, “I’m glad I’m playing tonight so I don’t have to watch the debates and torture myself. This one goes out to Barack Obama.”
By the time the chorus of “How Good You Are” came about, it was clear what he meant, as he sang, “Oh I know/How good you are/How hard it is/How good you are.” It struck me that he was used to his audiences cheering this sentiment on; he either didn’t notice or didn’t care that even middle-aged hippy audiences at the Pour House weren’t exactly Obama Kool-aid drinkers. And while no one was openly antagonistic, there were a few eye-rolls around the room at such blatant taking-of-sides.
Pug has a strange stage demeanor. His body is low-key and generally still while his face contorts and his eyes squint as he leans into and away the microphone, pronouncing his syllables in a very deliberate and unique way. It sounds beautiful, as his melodies combine nicely with the lyrics of a true wordsmith, as he’s one of the best current songwriters in America, churning out lines that really make you think deeply, usually tinged with a sadness that can knock your throat out.
After almost squirming his way through the title track off his recent album, The Great Despiser, it was clear that the tinge of sadness sat on his shoulders like the roof of a house. He’s an extraordinarily intense man, seeming more at peace than perhaps he used to be, but maybe aware that he may never find what he is looking for.
His short set also included the forcefully sad combination of “Not So Sure” and “Silver Harps and Violins,” both of which screamed with muted intensity. On the latter, also on The Great Despiser, he sang one of the loneliest verses I’ve ever heard (since I am a sucker for gut-punch songs, I happened to love it): “You had an apartment and a woman once/You paid the electric and the gas and water every month/She said that she loved you and she wore your clothes/Now she’s in Dallas with a stand-up guy and a four-year old.”
By the time Pug ended his short set with two of his earliest recordings, “Hymn #101” and “Hymn #35,” the crowd had filled in, and he bid a gracious goodbye, saying, “It’s really a shame that this is the first time I’ve been in Charleston. I want to thank all of you for welcoming me in what I hope is the first time of many.”
As Texas Americana legend James McMurtry hit the stage with his loud guitar and his longtime backing band — Ronnie Johnson, Tim Holt, and Darren Hess — it was clear that the sadness of Pug’s solo show would give way to a more raucous, overt side of the protest-song ethos. After “Red Dress,” on which McMurtry sings in his low rumble, “Remember when we’d get together/Burn the candle don’t you know/Smoke and drink and live forever/No one there to tell us no,” he held up a beer and said, “I’ve been to Charleston a few times. Mostly when you’re here, you drink. And by the way I highly recommend this Lagunitas IPA they got for us backstage.”
After a few more electrified songs, McMurtry switched to an acoustic for his best early-era song, “Hurricane Party,” singing more clearly while there was less noise to drown him out. He was at his best when the richness of his voice was aloud to slow down and tell a story clearly and with intent.
He kept with the acoustic for “You’d A’ Thought,” but by the end of the long, slow track, it was clear the audience didn’t want too much storytelling. They wanted to really let loose, which they did next, on his most famous track, “Choctaw Bingo,” the long, rolling boogie about moonshine, crystal meth, and about 29 other illegal and/or immoral things. He rocked some cool effects on solos, but the driving rhythm of the song makes it what it is. By the end of the 10-minute track, despite the audience’s appreciation, the older band seemed to be showing their age.
Even though they seemed tired, the meat of the show really got started when the band got into another classic, “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore.” The old-school protest song, which chronicles the industries that have been lost to outsourcing, had some righteous fans singing along with power and anger with its fiercest indictments, some of which could have been rallying cries for last year’s “Occupy” movement: “Now I’m stocking shirts in the Wal-Mart store/Just like the ones we made before/Except this one came from Singapore/I guess we can’t make it here anymore/Should I hate a people for the shade of their skin/Or the shape of their eyes or the shape I’m in/Should I hate ‘em for having our jobs today/No, I hate the men sent the jobs away.”
The thing about the salty old McMurtry is that he just doesn’t give a fuck, even as he sang these protest songs to blue-collar people in a state where most of the blue-collar people wouldn’t agree with him, especially not when he sings, “Will work for food/Will die for oil/Will kill for power and to us the spoils/The billionaires get to pay less tax/The working poor get to fall through the cracks/Let ‘em eat jellybeans, let ‘em eat cake/Let ‘em eat shit, whatever it takes.” But most in the crowd were eating it up; it seemed like a needed release for many to vent their frustrations long with him.
Before breaking into the title track from 2005’s Childish Things, probably his most musically adept song, he went to another level, making no bones about how he felt in a way that may have made some in attendance uncomfortable, saying, “You know it’s finally okay to be a Mormon in the state of Florida. It just took two weeks and about 10 and a half million dollars. I just wish someone would spend that kind of money for me to be an atheist anywhere. Still, quoting King James in a song sounds pretty cool. And I say King James ‘cause Jesus didn’t write that shit.”
While Joe Pug preferred writing subtle, neatly-crafted ballads to remark on the goings-on in the world, McMurtry had been around for awhile and preferred the subtlety of blunt-force trauma. It certainly made for a unique, disparate concert experience. To each their own.
Photos by Jared Booth.
Powered by Facebook Comments