Review and photos – Joe Pug at the Media Club, Vancouver, May 12 2011
– review by Jacqueline Ronson/photos by Ashley Tanasiychuk
Folk singers have a special challenge in performance settings. In order to succeed, they must make a personal connection such that each audience member feels like the performer is singing for them alone.
It requires an offering up of a piece of one’s self, a vulnerability that is deeper than it is for artists in other genres. This is what I was expecting from Joe Pug at last night’s show at the Media Club. For this reviewer, the Chicago folk singer fell short.
Pug is certainly a talented musician and performer. I would like to believe that it was the crowd that put me off and not the music.
The audience was populated by bland business-casual professionals who chuckled self-approvingly at appropriate intervals. If you looked closely you could see that many of them were really connecting with the music. They kept their eyes locked on the stage and mouthed the words to every song. But you wouldn’t know it from their guarded demeanor and polite applause.
The most interesting-looking person wandering the crowd before the show turned out to be the opening act, Tim Showalter aka Strand of Oaks. He looked, in his own words, like a sketchball, with his beer belly, shaggy beard and chest-length hair.
He got the crowd’s attention with his mournful reverb-laden ballads. And while this Philadelphia musician draws on his sorrowful history for many of his songs, he refuses to dwell in self-pity. The whimsy exhibited on Pope Killdragon, his sophomore release, shows that he is able to look forward in his life and music.
Joe Pug’s performance was technically good. He played and sang well, and his back up musicians on standup bass and electric guitar were very competent. It was a clean performance. Maybe too clean.
Pug gets a lot of props in the blog world for his poetic lyrics. But despite the furrow in his brow that seemed to make a claim to the sincerity of his words, I wasn’t convinced. He takes on global injustice with the line, “Every good idea kills at least a thousand men.”
I’m not going to go all feminist-up-in-arms on his lack of gender inclusivity, I understand poetic license. But his tendency to focus on male and American concerns gave me the impression that he sang about a world to which I do not belong.
To be fair, the crowd went wild when Pug played “Hymn #101”, a clear fan-favourite. He has won a solid following through his hard work and likable personality, and for that he has my undying respect. I would go see him again. But only at a folk festival, surrounded by bare-footed flower-children doing interpretive dance in breeze-y cotton skirts.