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All words: Jeb Gavin

Supposedly cuisine in the tropics is spicy specifically to make you sweat. Sweating is the body’s coolant system, so by eating spicy food you cool yourself against the temperature. But does jumpstarting a sympathetic response work the same way for catharsis? Certainly it is the hope that spending an otherwise gorgeous Saturday night at the 9:30 Club listening to Joe Pug sing sad songs would purge the sadness from our lives.

Pug, an alt-country and folk songwriter from Greenbelt by way of Chicago, seemed relaxed, even cheerful during the entire show. He expressed gratitude at the crowd, telling stories of his childhood, going to Atomic Music back when it was in a store front, before it was in a warehouse, before it was in yet another store front. And then, as though his pleasant demeanor and stage patter might mitigate what came next, he would launch into yet another painful, painfully earnest song; the sort of stuff that makes Townes Van Zandt sound like a ray of sunshine tied in a bow around a bouquet of roses. You could see on his face as he’d hunch over his guitar, using sense memory to recall the kind of emotional turmoil that would allow someone to rend their heartstrings and weave them into tapestry presentable to an audience. It’s the sort of honesty you’d hope for from authority, but you only expect from people with nothing to lose in the telling.

For those of you in desperate need of play by play, the set contained all the expected tracks, including a few off his new album, The Great Despiser. He opened with “Nobody’s Man”, playing the first few songs with a full band, electric guitar, upright bass and drummer, manning an acoustic guitar and harmonica himself. By the time he played “Hymn #76” the drummer had slipped off stage unnoticed. The rest of the band likewise evaporated in turn, eventually leaving Joe alone on stage solo for “I Do My Father’s Drugs”. Everyone returned for “Hymn #101”, which was dedicated to Levon Helm.

(photo courtesy of Kate McDaniel)

This was followed by a story about his Texan landlord educating him on Texas country songwriters, and a cover of his favorite, Harvey Thomas Young’s “Start Again”, referred to as “Deep Dark Wells”. This feel-good ditty was penned by Young for his brother to see him through a prison stretch. He closed the show with “Hymn #35” and “Speak Plainly, Diana”, and brought openers Vandaveer (a local folk band) and rural Mexican orchestral folk collective David Wax Museum out to cover Gillian Welch’s “Wayside (Back in Time)”.

The last track, played up tempo in deference to the ebullience of the opening acts, was little balm to the entirety of the set. But walking out, no one seemed down. Perhaps a little out of sorts, but not entirely bummed out. Considering I wandered down the street and danced to old soul records, drinking and partying the rest of the night, maybe it worked. Joe Pug relieved us of our worries, and the evening was a success.

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