By Barry Gilbert
If Joe Pug had started out in the ’70s, some mainstream record company or fired-up rock critic surely would have hung a “new Dylan” tag around his neck. Unfair as such a label might be in any era – check back with us in 50 years, or even 25, Joe – his songs are worthy of such hyperbole. And live on a stage is the place to hear them.
Pug headlined the second night of the KDHX-sponsored Twangfest 17 on Thursday, capping a four-act bill that sadly drew only half a house to Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room after a sold-out opening night Wednesday at Plush (Friday and Saturday night at the Duck Room are sold out, too).
Those who stayed away missed some moments to savor, from the stomp of St. Louis’ Scarlet Tanager to the punk-meets-art rock of the Shivering Timbers (and their 5-year-old toy-piano player) to the rockabilly power of Amy Lavere and John Paul Keith performing as Motel Mirrors.
But the late-20-something Pug was the revelation. He built his career from scratch starting several years ago, giving away his debut EP to build a fan base. But his two studio albums and that EP only hint at the power and depth of his live show (the CD “Live at Lincoln Hall” is a better bet for newbies). Playing acoustic guitar and harmonica, and accompanied by Matt Shuster on stand-up bass and Greg Tuohey on electric guitar, Pug alternated between angsty poet during songs to the guy on the next barstool between them.
Pug instigated some good-natured heckling right from the start, warning the crowd that the room would be a twang-free zone from there on out. “You’re not getting any (freaking) twang,” he said later, “and if you need a refund see me after the show.”
Hair flying atop a black T-shirt and jeans, Pug started off with “Nation of Heat,” and the imagery set the tone for the rest of his set: “Across from the prison and beside the great lake/ Below the rooftop and above the highway/ The spirits pay rent to the basements they haunt/ And the pages draw pictures of the things that they want/ I cook my dinner on the black top street/ I come from the nation of heat.”
“How Good You Are” grabbed with the topsy-turvy introduction “I was born into a circus/ but I ran away to join a home,” and Pug stalked the stage with eyes closed during “Nobody’s Man,” repeating the chorus “I’d rather be nobody’s man than somebody’s child.”
Pug’s music is topical, angry and spiritual (he performed two of his “hymns,” Nos. 76 and 101), and, yes, romantic, too. One of the two covers he performed was Joe Ely and Will Sexton’s aggressively romantic rocker “All Just to Get to You.”
For an encore, Pug said, “Here’s a little bit of twang for you” and played the waltz “Call It What You Will.” He closed the set with “Speak Plainly, Diana”: “Speak plainly, Diana/ There’s nothin’ to understand/ Yes there’s mysteries in the basement/ But there’s comic books upstairs/ And there’s a wreckin’ ball in the front yard/ But there’s blueprints on the couch/ Speak plainly to me, Diana/ We’ll build ourselves a house.”
Motel Mirrors – singer-songwriters Lavere on standup bass; Keith, a guitarist who played with the V-Roys; and drummer Shawn Zorn – was added to the bill recently after Brown Bird had to bow out due to illness. Performing without any new recording to promote, Lavere and Keith played some of each other’s solo material as well as classic country and rockabilly, and a couple of songs that will be on their debut EP, which is due in August.
The high energy set – and the trio’s first out-of-Memphis gig as Motel Mirrors – touched down on several classics, including tunes by Mickey & Sylvia (“Dearest”), Micky Newbury (“Why You Been Gone So Long”), Faron Young (“After the Fire Is Gone”) and Patsy Cline (“Got a Lot of Rhythm in My Soul”).
Lavere and Keith also sang the Kendalls’ hit “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away,” which Lavere admitted creeped her out when she realized the Kendalls were a father-daughter act.
Other highlights included Keith’s “Meet Me on the Corner,” Lavere’s “Washing Machine” and “You’re the Best Mistake I’d Ever Make Again” from the upcoming EP.
Cute-as-the-proverbial-button Suzi Benn, wearing hearing-safety headgear and overalls, captivated the Duck Room while accompanying the Shivering Timbers — her parents, Sarah and Jason Benn, and drummer “uncle” Dan Kshywonis – on a toy piano, bells and tambourine. She contributed like a budding pro, which is apt given that the band was born out her parents’ efforts to write songs for and entertain their daughter. Songs including “Sing Sing” and “Evening Prayer” are based on children’s lullabys.
Discovered by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, the Shivering Timbers features the tall and willowy Sarah on standup-bass and expressive vocals that hit the range from plaintiff to brassy. Jason Benn provides the floor with washes of guitar and harmonies. Their music is confessional (“Generations”) as well as spiritual (a cover of “Wayfaring Stranger”). Well-chosen covers included Neil Diamond’s “Holly Holy.”
Opening the night was the six-piece Scarlet Tanager of St. Louis, whose infectious blend of pop and rock features big marching-band bass drum, toy piano, trumpet and other unusual instrumental flourishes. The foot-stomping, hand-clapping band was a delight.
Twangfest 17, St. Louis’ homegrown roots music festival, continues tonight with Austin’s Asleep at the Wheel, Boston’s Eilen Jewell and St. Louis’ Half Knots. On Saturday, alt-country veteran Dolly Varden opens for the Bottle Rockets and Marshall Crenshaw.
Joe Pug set list:
Nation of Heat
I Do My Father’s Drugs
Silver Harps and Violins
How Good You Are
Deep Dark Wells (Harvey Thomas)
The Great Despiser
Not So Sure
Shadow (? new song)
All Just to Get to You (Joe Ely/Will Sexton)
Call It What You Will
Speak Plainly, Diana