Joe Pug and band fill The Firebird with folk; entertain crowd with new songs


The Firebird’s April 7 concert featuring Joe Pug proved to be just as tremendous as it was folk-filled. The Firebird, located on Olive Street, is cleverly disguised as a boring, brick building, but it is actually an open-roomed venue with a decently sized stage, a full bar — complete with “21 and up” seating for those of you old enough to be too cool to dance — and an incredibly friendly staff.

Opening up the show were the St. Louis-based River Kittens, a trio of young women with a guitar, banjo, mandolin and three soulful voices between them. They sang a collection of original songs and covers, most notably their own “Don’t Ask Me What I’ve Seen” and Wayne Raney’s “Haul Off and Love Me,” bringing spine-tingling harmonies and an endearing toughness to both their own lyrics and the lyrics of the sampled artists.

After a 30-minute set, the River Kittens were followed by Chris Porterfield, creator and member of Field Report, a folk group fresh off of the release of its second record, “Marigolden.” Personally invited to tour with Pug, Porterfield has been performing as a solo act while his bandmates work on other projects back home in Wisconsin. His set was about 45 minutes long and was the definition of good folk music: pleasant chords and heart-jarring lyrics, sung soulfully. Periodically taking requests from those familiar with Field Report’s work, Porterfield quickly won the crowd over with his quirky charm, skillful lyricism and an expressive voice punctuated by an eruptive vibrato. Porterfield’s singing was so staggeringly articulate that every word fell freely into the audience’s lap, begging to be ruminated over. Some of my favorites of his set include “Decision Day,” “Cups and Cups” and “Home (Leave the Lights On),” each distinctly poignant and thought-provoking. I highly recommend giving yourself over to Porterfield’s work some evening when you want to finally figure out the meaning of life; his lyrics might help you get there.

Now for the headliner, Mr. Joe Pug, a Maryland born folk singer-songwriter, guitarist and harmonica player, who dropped everything just before his senior year of college and drove to Chicago with music on his mind. Beginning his career as a musician, Pug handed out samples of his work and asked people to pass it on. They did so wholeheartedly, and Pug’s following has done nothing but grow since he first appeared on the music scene in the late 2000s.

The crowd quickly exploded in a frenzy of excitement when Pug and his three-man band — made up of a talented bass guitarist, a drummer and backup singer and an upright bassist — appeared on stage. Just as one might expect with a folk artist, Pug threw himself into his songs with what seemed like his entire being — eyes squeezed shut, jaw set, and hands humming purposefully over his guitar. In between his emotional music, Pug would converse with the audience like an old friend, beaming as if there was no place he would rather be — a feeling that was infectious.

Throughout the hour-long set, Pug and company alternated between band-heavy songs and those that featured just Pug, his voice, harmonica and guitar. Among the many performed Tuesday night, here are some of Pug’s most famous songs along with some of my personal favorites: “Hymn 101,” “Do My Father’s Drugs,” “Speak Plainly, Diana,” “The Great Despiser” and, my personal favorite, “The Gentle Few.” Pug also performed “Pair of Shadows,” from his newest album, “Windfall,” which he wrote for his fiancée — a song that he described as a “ditty” and that she, apparently, described as the saddest song she has ever heard. Regardless, the song is one of the most unusual, poignant love songs I have ever had the pleasure of hearing.

The River Kittens, Chris Porterfield of Field Report, and Joe Pug made for an exceptional evening full of moving lyrics and emotional performing. Folk music is certainly not a new genre — it did not “arrive” last decade, or even the decade before that — but, if these artists are any indication, folk is certainly here to stay.

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