Joe Pug emerged through the fine Welsh drizzle at The Green Man Festival in August as one of the highlights of the entire weekend. A completely genuine personality, replete with a sackful of incredible songs to boot, the troubadour from Maryland enthralled everyone at The Walled Garden stage that afternoon and I was absolute thrilled to discover that he was to return to the UK with a full band in the autumn.
The lucky venue hosting the show tonight is Gulliver’s Bar in Manchester’s Northern Quarter and it is incredibly blessed to not only welcome Joe Pug to their compact upstairs venue. Frankie Lee‘s debut record American Dreamer hit the shelves just a couple of weeks ago and it has already become a contender for album of the year due to the lugubriously authentic personality of many of its songs. Dylanesque perhaps on first listen, the material possesses deep, seductive qualities that are released with repeated listens and it becomes apparent that Frankie Lee has ultimately presented an authentic and personal form of outspoken Americana that gently throbs with anger and regret. Tonight, Frankie performs a solo slot which perhaps limits his setlist to a degree (the fuller band sound of Where Do We Belong means this great track is sadly missing) but the slow-burning East Side Blues is a worthy introduction to Lee’s modus operandi and Frankie’s brief introductions to tracks such as Queen of Carolina and High and Dry provide interesting contexts to a singer-songwriter who appears to be able to reinforce his politically aware tales with a musical upbringing that stretches from ocean to ocean across a deeply evocative American landscape. His set is a joy from start to finish and proves to be the perfect apéritif before the main course.
Joe Pug’s welcome is a gracious one as he ascends the stage. The room has filled nicely and the atmosphere is accentuated by the soft tones of opening track Burn and Shine, benefitting from the gorgeously warm inflections which the double bass adds to the composition and ultimately, the entire evening. The track comes from Joe’s latest record Windfall but the evening dips into most of his records to one degree or other and no record appears to be favoured over another. The earnest I Do My Father’s Drugs possesses a vocal melody reminiscent of early Dylan but it is Joe’s delightful cover of Harvey Thomas Young’s Deep Dark Wells that thrills the most during the early moments of the set. Complimented by the tender tones provided by Greg Tuohey on the electric guitar, the song allows Joe’s voice to turn to pure gold and the compact acoustics of the venue enhance the haunting emotions inherent within the song. Up close and personal, the song is spectacular.
Veteran Fighter is a highlight from the latest album and so it proves tonight, providing deeply redolent and melancholy tones that are perfectly countered by Joe’s incredibly warm stage presence. Amusing tales of his recent extensive tour in Sweden provide hilarious insights into a life on the road and this may explain his difficulty in penning an appropriately positive love song following his recent marriage in the track Pair of Shadows. The song is visually beautiful but it is Joe Pug’s intrinsically downbeat delivery which possibly led his wife claiming that the song was darker and more depressing than Townes Van Zandt’s Waitin’ Around to Die. Yet here is where the fundamental pleasure of Joe Pug actually lies. The Americana genre is very rarely full of positive themes and imagery, but in Joe’s hands any sombre material is always delivered in such a self-deprecatory, self-aware manner that it never comes across as self-indulgent.
By the end of the night, Joe and his band have descended the steps of the stage, immersing themselves amongst the warm and appreciative audience to deliver an intimate and unplugged encore which augments the perception that Joe Pug loves to perform no matter how despondent his songs may actually seem.
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Review and Photos by Iain Fox | @IainFoxPhoto