Joe Pug performs at Wild Buffalo House of Music on March 31, 2023. (Photo by Mark Caicedo)
If a song is a short story, then Joe Pug’s songs are novels, epic and engrossing. With his uncanny knack for narrative and powers of description, Pug wove tales of hope, and despair, on a chilly, rainy March evening at Bellingham’s Wild Buffalo House of Music.
And I’ve come here to ignore your cries and heartaches
I’ve come to closely listen to you sing
I’ve come here to insist, that I leave here with a kiss
I’ve come to say exactly what I mean
And I mean so many things
Hymn #101 opened Pug’s first EP, Nation of Heat (2009), its arrival serving notice of a singer-songwriter whose vision mirrored the breadth and width of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (whom Pug credits as inspiration for Nation of Heat). His first full-length album, Messenger, arrived in 2010, with five more albums released through 2022.
No Americana flash in the pan, Pug’s musical journey began with a spontaneous (some might say prophetic) 2005 pilgrimage to Chicago where he initially found work as a carpenter. Evenings were spent at local open-mike nights where wielding a guitar rather than a hammer, he slowly and methodically began building an audience drawn to his impactful songwriting and expressive voice.
Musical influences like Dylan, Springsteen, and Zevon along with literary masters John Steinbeck and Raymond Carver informed Joe’s songwriting as he sought to tell stories using, as he says, “the narrative of the individual…the individual being the only thing you can be sure is real in yourself.”
As he notes on his website, Pug’s latest effort, Nation of Heat, Revisited, “is a full band re-imagining of my acoustic debut album…It is wildly different than the original; there is not a single acoustic guitar to be found on the entire album.” In Bellingham, Washington, on March 31, with just his guitar and bassist Charlie Muench (formerly of The Stray Birds), Joe, as only the finest folk singers can, led us on a musical journey through worlds where the songs’ characters came alive.
Watch the official music video for “Hymn #101” by Joe Pug on YouTube:
The show at Wild Buffalo House of Music was a winning journey indeed! Opener Anna Tivel primed the audience for Joe in lovely fashion serving up songs whose lyrics, melodies, and minor chord structures evoked pain, sadness, and (dare I say?) death. Yet somehow her music felt joyous and celebratory. Maybe it was Anna’s self-deprecating stage banter, that infectious smile, and her angelic voice that provided a happy lift to counter the heaviness of the lyrics.
Joe ambled onstage to raucous applause shortly after Anna finished. After the rousing opening tune, “Hymn #35,” bassist Muench joined him for most of the set, adding a pleasing bottom end and gorgeous high harmonies. The set stretched out to 90 minutes, the adoring crowd soaking in beloved songs like the aforementioned “Hymn #101,” “Hymn #35,” “Nation of Heat,” and “I Do My Father’s Drugs,” each tune introduced with clever, humorous asides.
The two midset covers, John Prine’s “Paradise” and Justin Townes Earle’s “Mama’s Eyes,” were poignant reminders of how the greatest songwriters reveal the contradictions that live within each of us, capturing those dichotomies through their songs, sometimes even in the same lyric.
When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin’
Just five miles away from wherever I am.
I was a young man when
I first found my pleasure in the feel of a sin
And I went down the same road as my old man
But, I was younger then
Lately I’ve been listening to Anderson Cooper’s podcast, “All There Is,” about end of life and what that means for those who remain behind. But rather than focusing on issues of death, grief, and sadness, I’ve been taken by insights such as the need to accept and embrace the ugliness of life that, inevitably, make moments of sheer beauty shine that much brighter. Grief is an armor against how we actually feel, it is an attempt to deny an emotion. But by talking about hardship, sadness, and despair we find a way out of the grief, and a return to the living.
I am the day, I am the dawn
I am the darkness comin’ on
And I am once, I am twice
I am the whole, I’m just a slice
Some call me gone, some call me here
None are wrong, none are near
I am right now, I am back then
I will return, don’t ask me when
Stream Nation of Heat, Revisited by Joe Pug on Spotify.
A bit of history: an association with Rhett Miller (of Old 97’s) led to an introduction to Steve Earle who, taken with Joe’s music, invited him to open on Earle’s 2009 Townes Van Zandt tribute tour. Watching a master at work is usually a good way to start a career:
“I was, like, I think, 23 at the time. So, luckily, I was too young and stupid at the time to know how daunting it was. (Laughs) I took so much away from it, stuff that I still use on a daily basis…I’d run backstage and pull up a chair next to his guitar tech and just watch the show from the side of the stage every night. I’d watch him as he sculpted the set, putting songs in different places. I’d watch him deal with everything from a seated, quiet Sunday night audience to a completely loud, drunk, standing audience somewhere in Scotland—I’d watch him deal with them as well. I got to see just about every scenario.”
The relationship between the two artists continues today. Earle penned the liner notes for Nation of Heat, Revisited and if the album cover looks familiar it’s because legendary Chicago artist Tony Fitzpatrick (whose work adorns several of Earle’s album covers) designed it.
Those lessons served him well at the Wild Buffalo. The crowd, though enthusiastic, was well behaved and enraptured by every song. On several occasions, Joe stepped to the lip of the stage singing sans microphone, the hushed audience hanging on every note and lyric. And I’d be remiss not to mention Joe’s generosity and sense of humor: toward the end of his set, he invited Anna back onstage to deliver another gorgeous ballad before returning to close with a singalong, the Carl Sigman and Herb Magidson 1949 classic, “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think).”
Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think
Enjoy yourself, while you’re still in the pink
The years go by, as quickly as you wink
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself
It’s later than you think
“Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)”
As with all great folk singers, Joe Pug’s tales of sadness and struggle illuminate the way to a better life, a just world, and ultimately joy. Grief and happiness live together, one unable to exist without the other, and the experiences of our lives, both positive and negative, make us who we are: the human condition.
There’s a road I have known I could always find
If I walked ahead, I could look behind
If I fell behind, I could always know
It it’s not around this corner, it’s around the next
If it’s not beyond this river, it’s beyond the rest
And if still it can’t be found, it’s probably for the best
“If Still it Can’t be Found”
Joe has a few more dates out west, returning to the east coast beginning with a show at Ram’s Head Tavern in Annapolis, MD on April 27th. Check Joe’s website for extended tour plans, new music, and videos.
Here are some more photos of Joe Pug live at the Wild Buffalo on March 31, 2023. All photos courtesy of and copyright Mark Caicedo.