Joe Pug has no illusions about his place in the world of contemporary pop music.
At his strong Sunday night show at The Bartlett, he delivered a litany of self-deprecating asides between songs. He described his recently released Windfall
album, tongue firmly in cheek, as "taking the country by storm" and as the favorite album of 2015, according to Fox News blowhard Sean Hannity. He also dubbed it the "official album of Quizno's."
"It's no Subway," Pug joked. "But it's a growing chain."
Pug's humor helped create a genuinely warm vibe at the full Bartlett, a mood that belied the pretty dark lyrical themes that fill much of his music. The set drew heavily from Windfall
, but also included tunes from his older albums The Great Despiser
as well as some older EPs. Even his reputation for morose tunes gave Pug the opportunity to get some laughs from the crowd, as in when he described writing what he thought of as a light love song for his girlfriend — "It was like my 'It's Raining Men' or something!" — only to have her find it far from ebullient.
That song, "Pair of Shadows," was delivered solo by Pug, and was one of the highlights of the show. For most of the gig, he was backed by a three-piece guitar/standup bass/drums band that gave his folk some unexpected muscle not always present on his recordings. What always remained was his gruff voice that belies his youth and makes comparisons to singer/songwriters like Bruce Springsteen and John Prine pretty fitting.
Pug opened the show with a three-song salvo that touched on three different releases, with the new "Burn and Shine," "Messenger" and "Nation of Heat" drawing the audience into Pug's world. Guitarist Greg Tuohey particularly set himself apart early on with chiming lead parts and ringing solos that inspired Pug to proclaim him "the Richard Sherman of guitar" in a nice nod to the Seahawks defensive back.
Older songs like "I Do My Father's Drugs," "Hymn #76," "A Gentle Few" and "How Good You Are" (featuring the great opening lines "I was born into a circus, but I ran off to join a home") attracted loud cheers from fans familiar with the older material, and the new songs fit alongside them with ease. There are definitely more positive vibes in new songs like "Windfallen," "If Still It Can't Be Found" and, naturally, "'Bright Beginnings."
"The Measure," another new one played late in the set, included the lines "What we've lost is nothing that can't be found." Clearly, finding the love of his life and getting engaged has had some effect on his songs and their moods — even if his fiancee doesn't think "Pair of Shadows" is exactly a traditional love song, and even if he followed up soon after with his excellent, gritty "The Great Despiser."
With any luck, perhaps Pug's sunnier on-album disposition will lead more fans to discover a great, young American songwriting talent