Singer-songwriters either stink or are magnificent; there's no in-between. Sprinkle a little too much sap atop your sentiment and you're screwed. Likewise, lyrics that are too sweet can go south quickly. Luckily, Joe Pug and Strand of Oaks have mastered the art of song and lyric writing. Each artist played captivating sets that won over the medium-sized crowd at the Bottleneck last evening.
Strand of Oaks, Timothy Showalter,
unassumingly took the stage. He sauntered to the mic stand, picked up
his guitar and smiled sheepishly as he took a small sip from his bottle
of Bud Light. With a sigh and a welcoming bow of his head, he
introduced himself and began his first song. While Strand of Oaks is
Showalter alone, he creates a swarming symphonic sound with his guitar
and the use of sound-bending pedals. Harmonious chords melted together,
creating melodies made for overcast days full of travel. As Showalter
performed, he bobbed and jerked, his long brown hair falling down
around his beard and almost blending into his dark attire. Between
songs, Showalter told of how he used to be a second-grade teacher and a
"I'd make the playlist every morning. We'd listen to Mogwai, Sigur Ros and Tortoise and make these Narnia-level lyrics."
Showalter's songs were full of human emotion. His set was a grab bag
of sad, happy, beautiful, and weird yarns; a wonderful mix and great
primer for Joe Pug and the 100 Mile Band's performance.
Joe Pug (guitar, vocals), Greg Tuohey
(guitar) and Chris Merrill (bass) quickly took the stage after
Showalter left. They grabbed their instruments without hesitation. Pug
leaned backward, looked at his bandmates and propelled his body
forward with force as the band tore into "Nobody's Man." As the band played into "Christina Lock the Door," Pug jumped like
he was hit by lightning; his body jerked and his face twisted as he smiled. The band paused a bit before playing their third song, and Pug addressed the crowd.
"It's been a great week for the team of America," Pug said.
He said he was happy for Obama and the country.
"I don't think I'm so happy about the people having a pep rally
outside the White House celebrating a person's death, though," Pug
"And we're bombing the fuck out of Libya," Pug said as he expanded
on his feelings about the Libyan situation and how it looked and felt
like a war.
"Anyway," Pug sighed, "this song is dedicated to Barack and Libya." The band launched into "I Do My Father's Drugs."
Pug's lyrics are exceptionally detailed and weave together like a
beloved family quilt that brings out a life's memories.
While the subject matter of many of Pug's songs is heartbreaking, his
music isn't depressing; it's thought-provoking and stirring.
Pug exuded palpable youthful energy throughout the entire set. Tuohey
played while hunched over his guitar and looked as if he physically
felt every note. He crinkled his face while playing beautifully crafted
solos and smiled peacefully after he completed them. Merrill held his
upright bass firmly and put off a subtle intensity as he picked each
Pug took the pulse of the crowd before beginning the delicate
"Disguised as Someone Else" and then began singing "Hymn #101" sans a
mic. The sound of the crowd singing along with Pug echoed hauntingly
through the bar.
Toward the end of the night's set, Pug played a few solo songs.
When the band joined him again, they finished out the evening with
"Nation of Heat" and "Speak Plainly, Diana." After the band left the stage, the crowd whooped and hollered until Pug and his crew came back.
"Lawrence, Kansas, doesn't fuck around," Pug said with a chuckle.
Overheard in the crowd:
Pug: "And coming out on a Tuesday -- that's bad-ass, guys"
Person from the crowd: "It's Wednesday!"
Pug: "It's Wednesday?! What a fucking life ..."
(This lead to pre-encore banter about what year it was, if it was spring or winter and who was president.)
Critic's bias: Everyone around me looked so happy, so the feeling kinda rubbed off. The crowd swayed me from happy to elated.
From the critic's notebook: "Pug's boots are really big. I wonder what's he's hiding in those heels?"
Dodging the Wind