It’s been almost three years since I saw Joe Pug open for Justin Townes Earle. I’ve only seen him once since then and not even for a full set but I never forgot about him and I’ve been looking forward to seeing him in NYC again. Finally I got that chance this past Sunday at one of the best sounding clubs in NYC, the Mercury Lounge.
Doors were supposed to be at 7:30pm and first act at 8pm but it never happens that smoothly so I wasn’t too concerned when I got there a little after eight. Much to my surprise the room was already packed (it was a sold-out show) and Anthony D’Amato was on stage. The crowd was crazy quiet. You’d think it would always be this way for singer/songwriters on stage with just an acoustic guitar but you’d be wrong. Whenever someone whispered it felt double intrusive because the crowd was being so respectful. Accompanying D’Amato on some songs was Jason Darling on electric guitar. When D’Amato said he was going to play a song he’d written with Jocie Adams of The Low Anthem I expected whoops and yells but there was nothing and my hands stopped mid-clap because I didn’t want to be the only one. How could there be a sold-out crowd for Joe Pug, a crowd so enamored of an opening act like D’Amato, and a crowd who didn’t know who The Low Anthem was? I really enjoyed D’Amato and would like to see him again. “Ludlow” (written with Adams), “On the Banks of the River Where I Died” (written for Woody Guthrie), and “Hank Williams Tune” were the stand-outs.
Bhi Bhiman is probably the only Sri Lankan-American folk singer I will ever see but rtb still had to remind me that we’d just seen him a year before. By this time I’d found my way over to the benches and I sat for most of the set. Closing my eyes and just listening, I had a much greater appreciation for what Bhiman does with his acoustic guitar – the picking and changes – and the sound of his vocals. Someone joined him for a few songs on a box drum – it may have been Gabe Turow but I’m not sure. Bhiman can be funny and deadly serious. “Kimchee Line” tells the story of a North Korean factory owner (“I’m on the kimchee line and it’s cabbage time”). There was also a Hillbilly Triology. “Guttersnipe” and “Eye on You” is Bhiman at his best – both personal and political. He ended his set with Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life” and had the audience whistle along, which worked okay once he announced where the pauses should be.
Another surprise – the sold-out crowd knew the lyrics to all of Joe Pug’s songs. Music keeps going ‘round and ‘round and everything I love keeps coming back. Physically, vocally, lyrically, and musically Pug would fit right in with all the artists I saw at Folk City in the 70s. In fact all three of the performers could go back in time and would not be out of place. The only thing missing was the smoke rising to the ceiling that made the performers look like they were behind a hazy curtain. Matt Schuster played upright bass and Greg Tilley (??) played electric and pedal steel guitar on most of the songs. There was a lot of back and forth between Pug and the audience – people cheering for Chicago and then he had everyone yell out city names. There was also an appletini joke – apparently if you want to embarrass a musician all you need to say is that he drinks appletinis. “Not So Sure” was the first song he wrote (after a year of writing very bad songs) in which he knew he was going to be a writer. Favorites like “Nation of Heat” “Hymn # 101” “Hymn #35” “Deep Dark Wells” and “Speak Plainly, Diana” were audience favorites. His cover was Joe Ely’s “All Just to Get to You.” When I saw Pug the first time I knew I had added another must-see to my list. The other night he did not disappoint and he remains on the list.
By Carene Lydia Lopez