Joe Pug puts his Poetic Harmonies on Display at San Francisco’s “Bottom of the Hill”

"I am right now, I am back then. I will return, don't ask me when."

By Connor Buestad

For emerging singer-songwriter Joe Pug, it’s really quite simple. As he puts it, “Just write the songs that have to be written and play them for anybody who will listen.” Last Tuesday night at SF’s quaint “Bottom of the Hill” music venue, I was able to see Joe’s creed put into action, as he wooed a capacity crowd with a talent undeniable and lyrics unforgettable.

Trained as a Playwright at the University of North Carolina, Pug made the bold decision to leave school just one year shy of graduation. Perturbed by the amount of time and involvement required by writing plays, Pug reasoned that his abilities as a wordsmith would best be served with a guitar in his hands and a harmonica around his neck. Chicago was where he would start his music career, but “the road” is what he would end up calling his home.

Fast forward three years and Pug is currently knee-deep in a budding music career. He released his first EP in 2008 titled Nation of Heat. Then came In the Meantime in 2009 and finally his first LP called Messenger in 2010. In between stints inside the recording studio, Pug has made it a priority to tour as much as humanly possible. At one point he reeled off 46 shows in just seven weeks, leaving in his wake a pool of satisfied fans mesmerized by the signature sound and meaning of Joe Pug.

Still only 26 years old, Pug has showed a certain wisdom and confidence not only in the music he plays, but also in his marketing and promotion abilities. He was able to sell-out his first show in Chicago and has since done everything in his power to connect with his growing fan base. E-mail Joe and tell him you’re a listener and he’ll personally send you a two-song sampler of his music, free of charge, shipping and handling included. On his recent “$10 Tour”, Pug traversed the nation in his 1995 Plymouth Voyager (devoid of a stereo or A/C), stopping in just about any city that wanted to hear him play.

Surely, when you speak of musical genres that garner the biggest crowds and rake in the most money, singer-songwriters are rarely at the top of said list.  Head to a major music festival like Coachella and you’re much more likely to find yourself watching a synth-pop band like Cut Copy rather than an indie-folk set by Joe Pug. Nevertheless, despite often slipping under the radar at times, singer-songwriters shall always hold an important place in the music scene. This is especially true when you talk about a guy like Joe Pug, who’s talent is confirmed with each poetic verse of one of his many classic songs.

Striding atop the “Bottom of the Hill” stage in a worn-in pair of cowboy boots, Joe Pug showed no signs of fatigue from all those days and nights on the road. Instead, Pug’s face seemed to be constantly beaming with a youthful energy usually reserved for a musician’s first show. Most songs began with a welcome burst on his harmonica, followed by soulful guitar and poignant lyrics. In between songs, Pug thanked his fans in a way that was undoubtedly genuine. After all, we the fans were the ones putting gas in his Voyager all this time.

You wouldn’t be too far off base if you compared Joe Pug to Bob Dylan. Same goes for Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, Curt Cobain, Johnny Cash or Josh Ritter. Even with these flattering comparisons ever-present, Pug manages to produce a sound all his own, spurred by pieces of lyrical genius that can be found in virtually every song he chooses to write.

Perhaps my favorite song Pug played last week in San Francisco was titled “Hymn 35”. The fourth song on the Nation of Heat EP. The song begins with a passionate harmonica riff that gives way to the lyrics, “I am the day, I am the dawn, I am the darkness coming on.” Dylan’s influence is present throughout, in both sound and style. Pug later laments in this song, “I have done wrong, I will do wrong, there’s nothing wrong with doing wrong.” However, there’s not much Pug does wrong in “Hymn 35”, as it leaves the listener sad to hear the song end.

Title track “Nation of Heat” is Pug’s most aggressive ballad. Shades of Bruce Springsteen are on display as Pug cries out about the country he was raised and resides in. “We got the loudest explosions you ever heard. We got two dollar soldiers and ten dollar wars,” shouts Pug. “We got billboards for love and Japanese cars,” continues Pug. “It ain’t rare to hear the street lights call themselves stars. The more that I learn the more that I cheat. I come from the nation of heat.”

“How Good You Are” showcases Pug’s ability to mix a catchy acoustic melody with fantastic harmonica work. Great lyrics aren’t lost on this song either. Sings Pug, “Everything that you were meant for, everything that you were born to do, does not need you to do it, someone else was born to do it too.”  Wise words, although it’s hard to imagine Pug wasn’t meant to write and play songs.

In “Hymn 101” Pug again acts as a storyteller with a guitar in his hand. The lyrics flow effortlessly, leaving the audience heartbroken and inspired all in one breath. “I’ve come here to get high, to do more than just get by,” sings Pug. “Oh they say I come with less, than I should rightfully possess. I say the more I buy the more I’m bought and the more I’m bought the less I cost.”

Other notable songs performed by Pug included “Unsophisticated Heart”, “Speak Plainly Diana”, and “In the Meantime”. “I’m dreaming for a living, I got no time for work,” sings Pug. “In the meantime, I’ll just be passing through.”

Last Tuesday wasn’t the first time Joe Pug has passed through San Francisco, and it surely won’t be his last. As is customary with Joe Pug, he sat down to greet his loyal following after yet another show. He explained he was headed south to Santa Cruz to play the following night. He would return home at some point, he just didn’t know when. As he makes clear in “Speak Plainly Diana”, Joe Pug doesn’t mind simply riding around…


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