The currently touring pair of the solo troubadour Joe Pug and the miniature orchestra that is Horse Feathers is a showcase of the contrasts in style and direction that folk music has to explore.
Both sit squarely in their own little niches, with Horse Feathers taking on more Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young territory, or, more recently (and most similarly), distinctly similar to Iron & Wine’s more produced efforts. The lead singer even sounds very much like a well-polished Sam Beam.
On the other hand, Pug’s songs meet somewhere in the middle between Bob Dylan’s early political leanings and, again more recently, the surreal storytelling of the recently hyped Scandinavian, The Tallest Man On Earth. When it comes down to it though, Pug’s songwriting speaks for itself.
Having heard Horse Feathers only once before, my opinion of them has stayed the same after listening through their set. They play mostly mid-tempo, breezy folk music that is mostly associated with the Sufjan Stevens scene in the Midwest instead of Portland, where the band is from. The songs themselves were very well orchestrated among the cello and dual violin players, with one violinist trading to also play banjo or mandolin.
The mixing of bursts of little bits of classical arrangements really stood out as the best parts of the music. The bar atmosphere didn’t really lend itself to the soft-rock the band was playing, but they forged through the noise and finished strong on the only song of the night where their simple two-piece percussion set was one of the loudest instruments on the stage. By the end of the set, an enthusiastic crowd had gathered in full within the club.
When Joe Pug took his first steps towards starting his set late Sunday night, he looked like Willy Wonka first stepping out of his Factory with a limp, partially due to the purple and blue lighting and partially due to Pug’s combed-to-the-side curly hair and larger-than-average collared shirt. Like Wonka, who just wanted to find people who get what he is doing, Pug’s banter at one point mentioned that having toured around, some places just don’t get his music. He applauded how supportive C-U has always been to him, and in fact the Void room was particularly full for a Sunday night.
At first I wondered how Pug would fare in an atmosphere that was so distracting to a set with a full band. But after Pug picked up his guitar and greeted the crowd, the moment that he started playing, the crowd noticeably quieted down, as is the usual when an audience starts to recognize a special talent on stage. Touring on the recent release of his debut EP, Nation of Heat, Pug played vigorously through six of the seven tracks off the release, and also included a couple tracks off his upcoming full length, due out sometime during fall.
The new songs included the Neil Young “Thrasher” redo “The Door Was Always Open” and a song which Pug credited inspiration to the death of his friend in Iraq, “Bury Me Far From My Uniform.” Compared to the stripped-down recordings that make up his album, Pug’s voice live was coated in reverb that charged his voice over the clinking of bottles and background noise.
He has a sharp, gruff voice for a 23-year old, fit for a taxi cab driver or hoarse newsy. Pug finished his set with a two-song encore, first covering Tom Waits’ “Ol’ 55” with Sam, the banjo player from Horse Feathers accompanying, giving a glimpse of what Pug might sound like in the future. He ended with a spirited version of the EP closer and title track. Luckily, for those who missed Pug this time around, he will be back at Pygmalion Festival in September, but until then, pick up Nation of Heat.