October 9, 2013

covering themselves: Joe Pug & Vandaveer (premiere!)


In addition to looking goddamn beautiful whilst standing in pastoral settings, my friends Joe Pug and Vandaveer also make some fine music — and when they switch songs it gets even more delightful.

For their Fall 2013 tour together that JUST STARTED, they have each picked a song of the others’ to record for a split single. I am pleased to be able to premiere these songs for you all, to entice you further into their winsome grandeur.

STREAM (since Yahoo broke my embedded player)

Waking Hour (Vandaveer) – Joe Pug

Call It What You Will (Joe Pug) – Vandaveer

The original Vandaveer song that Joe picked is from their wonderful 2011 record Dig Down Deep, one of my favorites of 2011. The Joe song turned lush by Vandaveer comes from his original debut EP, 2008′s Nation of Heat.

I’ve had the privilege of having both of these artists in my chapel sessions and house shows, and I just came across an old interview I did with Joe Pug what feels like 1,000 years ago. It remains one of my favorite interviews I’ve done, because Joe’s brain is amazing.

See: We promised too much and we gave it too soon: The Joe Pug Interview (7/10/09).

Then go out to one of these shows, and hug them all for me:


Oct 8 Albuquerque, NM–Low Spirits *
Oct 9 Phoenix, AZ–The Rhythm Room *
Oct 10 San Diego, CA–The Soda Bar *
Oct 11 Los Angeles, CA–The Satellite *
Oct 12 San Francisco, CA–Cafe DuNord *
Oct 13 Felton, CA–Don Quixote’s *
Oct 14 Sacramento, CA–Harlow’s *
Oct 16 Eugene, OR–Sam Bond’s Garage *
Oct 17 Portland, OR–The Doug Fir *
Oct 18 Vancouver, BC–Electric Owl *
Oct 19 Seattle, WA–The Crocodile *
Oct 20 Bellingham, WA–The Green Frog *
Oct 21 Moscow, ID–Mikey’s *
Oct 22 Boise, ID–Neurolux *
Oct 23 Salt Lake City, UT–The State Room *
Oct 25 Denver, CO–The Larimer Lounge *
Oct 26 Kansas City, MO–The Record Bar *
Nov 5 Milwaukee, WI–Linneman’s
Nov 6 Iowa City, IA–Gabe’s #
Nov 7 Minneapolis, MN–7th Street Entry #
Nov 8 Chicago, IL–Lincoln Hall #
Nov 9 Indianapolis, IN–Do317 Lounge #
Nov 10 Akron, OH–Musica #
Nov 11 Newport, KY–Southgate House #
Nov 12 Columbus, OH–Rumba Cafe #
Nov 13 Nashville, TN–The Stone Fox #
Nov 14 Louisville, KY–Zanzabar #
Nov 15 Champaign, IL #
Nov 16 St. Louis, MO–The Firebird #
Nov 18 Fayetteville, AR–George’s Majestic #
Nov 20 Tulsa, OK–The Vanguard #
Nov 21 Norman, OK–Opolis #
Nov 22 Houston, TX–Fitzgerald’s #
Nov 23 Austin, TX–The Parish #

* With Vandaveer
# With Sera Cahoone

[top photo taken by Todd Roeth — I believe in the orchard outside my house! Second photo I bet by Sarah Law, though I have no confirmation of this. I have damn talented friends all around.]

May 11, 2012

they may take my joe pug cd, but they’ll never take our freeeeedom

The thief that busted my car window last night and stole the stereo that my dad gave me for my birthday also took the excellent new Joe Pug CD that was stuck inside of it. I hope the thief listens to it and then feels very very bad and convicted about being an earnest man who is worth something in this world; I also hope he goes out and buys the rest of Joe Pug’s superb catalog and changes his life. And stops being a jerkface jerk.

Hymn 76 – Joe Pug

In the meantime, I will attempt to anesthetize my wounds by going to see Joe’s afternoon BBQ show tomorrow, part of the Larimer Lounge’s excellent BBQ Series. This is a good way to spend your Saturday afternoon and you should come with me.

CONTEST! I have two pairs of tickets to give away for the Joe Pug BBQ (3pm tomorrow). Email me if you would like one of the pairs! Tickets are gone! Come anyways!

Also: this interview I did with Joe is still one of my all-time favorites.

[photo above was totally taken at my house, actually, by the wonderful Todd Roeth]

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February 14, 2012

i undressed someone’s daughter / then complained about her looks

I love the wrenching, tentative beauty in Joe Pug‘s hesitation.
(With a symphony orchestra a few weeks ago)

June 23, 2011

and a river runs through it (Telluride Bluegrass 2011)

Rather than start this post about the Telluride Bluegrass Festival with a picture of an amazing headliner like Mumford & Sons, or the surprise stellar guests like Patty Griffin, I’m going to share that view up above instead: a cell phone snap taken while I sat inside my tent and looked out the zippered door. I think it captures something about this festival that you need to know, as foundation. As enticement to come next year.

I pitched my tent on slanty ground, deciding to sleep on river rocks just so that I could hear that powerfully rushing roar of water as I was falling asleep at night, and first thing when I woke up in the morning. When I rambled through the darkness at 2am each night to my waiting cocoon of nylon and synthetic down, I’d sit for a good half hour on the banks, just watching the water that came from far away and was heading who-knows-where, as the moon glinted off the fast-moving surface. I felt a deep peace, and a happiness.

After ogling the lineup of performers and arriving into the stunning natural beauty of the town (last year was my virgin year), the first thing you notice about Telluride Bluegrass Festival is that it is inherently different. People at this one are nicer. Strangers stop to both secure your unattended tent when it’s about to succumb to the ferocious winds and blow into the river (happened to me), and also when you are struggling to lug all your stuff out to where the carpool is going to meet (ditto). The staffers might not only watch your gear, but move it under a tarp when the skies open up and the rains begin. The bus driver loops back around once he’s off duty in the wee hours of the morning, because he hears on his radio that a gal needed a ride. Things like this strike me as exceedingly rare in this world of music festivals, and deeply appreciated.

I tell you all these things not to brag about what a goddamn nice weekend I just had, but to set the stage for the sorts of musical chemistry that spark effortlessly and burn glowing-orange within this fertile laboratory of music. All weekend long you’ll see musicians peppering each others’ sets, stepping off the stage to perform in the round, and just smiling a whole lot. Although my friends who bring in the acts have a keen ear for what works (old standards and new exciting acts), I think I would come no matter who was playing.

…So who did play?

These guys: Matthew & The Atlas

Matthew & The Atlas was the best new artist I saw at the festival. I’d written about their song “I Will Remain” many months ago, and listened to it probably a hundred times since then. I have these days where I just park on their MySpace, and blearily stumble out of it three hours (and the same four songs on repeat) later.

Rising out of the same Communion folk scene in London as their peers Mumford and Sons (who attended both Matthew & The Atlas shows I saw), Matt Hegarty’s smoky dark voice is wonderfully evocative, like it knows of sorrows that I haven’t met yet – and I’ve met me a few. It quavers with some echo of ancient wisdom, if that makes sense — like a wizened wizard lives inside this young man. Weird/magic. Plus there are banjo and handclaps and accordion, and prominent female harmonies and countermelodies. I promptly bought all three of the EPs they had for sale after the show. It’s been too long since I’ve let myself do that. Take me back to when the night was young, and another song was sung.

I Will Remain – Matthew & The Atlas

Worth waking up for

Two morning sets blew the early-riser Telluride crowd away, and both happen to be two of my personal favorites. The Head and The Heart were the first act I saw at Telluride this year, a fresh and crisp noontime set on Thursday, while Joe Pug played even earlier the next day, while the dew was still on the lawn. There may be nothing nicer in this world than hearing Joe Pug’s harmonica ringing out at 10am on a clean and bracing mountain morning, or watching THATH stomp and laugh and echo those three-part harmonies back off the rocky mountains all around us. Both acts did a fantastic job of converting the audience all around me with their smart songwriting and contagious passion for music. Previously unknown to most of the seasoned bluegrass crowd, I heard both names on everyone’s lips for the duration of the festival.

Hymn #101 – Joe Pug (how do you not have this song yet?! get it)

Looks like he would win a knife fight

This was my first experience seeing Steve Earle live. I deeply respect his music and songwriting, but had never before witnessed his live set. He performed with his wife Allison Moorer (“did I marry out of my league, or what?!” he asked), and I was surprised at the soft incisiveness of his performance. He looks hardened, but life seems to have worn off the painful edges and left this rich and gorgeous beauty in his music. I foresee myself entering a large Steve Earle period.

Amazing ladies unite

And YEAH, I got to see some of the most amazing women in my musical lexicon all in one weekend. I was mesmerized by Emmylou Harris (as I stood next to Marcus Mumford for it, both of us just beaming at her folksinging glory), then Patty Griffin just dropped on in unannounced for the Sunday morning gospel hour. Griffin has written some of my absolute favorite songs, including “Mary” (which KILLS me, EVERY single time) and “Top of the World.” She performed “Heavenly Day” — and it was.

Hearing the silvery-voiced Sarah McLachlan both made me feel very, very fifteen again, but also reminded me how many songs she has written that I’ve loved and not listened to in forever: “Path of Thorns (Terms),” “Good Enough,” “Hold On” — I surprised myself with the quantity of singing along I was doing. Her performance was strong and vibrant, and induced at least one of my 20-something year old male friends to go home and download her greatest hits album at 3:00am. But I won’t name names.

I would study vocab cards every night for you, Colin

Let’s just set this straight. Even though I know that frontman Colin Meloy of The Decemberists is happily married to a talented lady and has a kiddo, I could stand all day blossoming under the quenching rain of his perfect vocabulary. I’m a sucker for smarts and wit. It leads to marvelous music, and their show was a delight. Surveying the Telluride crowd, he praised us: “each man more rugged than the next, each woman more sundressed and sunkissed than the next.”

All the songs from The King Is Dead (one of the best albums of 2011 thus far for me) seemed custom-penned to be performed in a setting like Telluride. It is the rootsiest of the Decemberists albums for a while, maybe ever, and the harmonica and fiddle felt right at home. Bela Fleck joined Colin for a (fake) dueling banjos challenge (to “win Telluride”), while Benmont Tench and Jerry Douglas also came out for the final song, a cover of “When U Love Somebody” by The Fruit Bats.

So so so good.

When U Love Somebody (Fruit Bats) – The Decemberists

Final explosion of awesome

I don’t know why I thought that Mumford and Sons was not going to impress me again. So I’m figuring: I first saw them at SXSW 2009, at a small but hyper-potent daytime set at Maggie Mae’s outdoor stage. Having already been smitten by their songs, I fell instantly for their live show: “I felt more like me, only better, when their set spun off at full tilt. Jawdroppingly pure.” I named that set one of my favorite concerts of SXSW and the entire year. Last year at Telluride, they completely blew me away again – their very first show on Colorado soil, and everyone in the Sheridan Theater was singing at the top of their lungs, stomping so hard the floorboards shook. It felt like a secret exploding. I still get chills to think of it.

I was blind to my jadedness that assumed since they are huge on the radio now, since everyone seems to know their songs, that somehow their live show would have changed, becoming more diluted and sterilized. I could NOT have been more wrong, or more arrogant perhaps, to think so. They were completely incredible, playing in the pouring rain on Sunday night. It was the last show I saw (sorry, Robert, we had to get home ahead of the snow), and one of the most memorable. As the Punch Brothers played their set before the Mumfords (and covered Josh Ritter!), a frigid, steadily-increasing rain fell without ceasing, running in rivulets between my shoulder blades and dripping off the ends of my sweater sleeves. All the smart people pulled out their ponchos (me: not smart) and the audience turned into a sea of plastic primary colors. We shivered and were absolutely miserable.

But when Mumford & Sons took the stage, the crowd galvanized into one teeth-chattering supernova, singing with our heads back (“and Iiiiiiiii will hold on hope, and Iiiiiiii won’t let you choke / …and Iiiiiiiiii’ll find strength in pain and Iiiiii……”), dancing our frozen asses off. Not only was their set terrific (including Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Abigail Washburn coming out to play along), but they still retain all the passion that made me love them in the first place.

For someone who has played as many shows as these guys have, it was truly something exceptional. I saw our rain-soaked joy reflecting back off their faces, and it was a wonderful way to end Telluride 2011.

Come to this festival next year.

Oh — and finally, should I introduce her to Isaac from Sasquatch?


May 18, 2011

The Fuel/Friends Chapel Sessions with Joe Pug

Like his quick, punchy name, the music of Joe Pug can be deceptively simple. At first pass, one could be forgiven for thinking he is just another earnest singer-songwriter with a heart full of thoughtful lyrics and an impassioned strum on the guitar. But if you listen more closely to his deep repertoire (especially to these three songs that he chose for this session), dark and complicated themes begin to emerge out from the calico of words.

Last Saturday afternoon (with some sort of tribal pulsating student dance festival taking place right outside the heavy church doors), a handful of us gathered in Shove Chapel to record some of Joe’s songs in that vast silent space. The musicians asked if I had any song preferences, and I told them that whatever they would pick would be better than what I could pick. And perhaps it’s the storyteller in me, but in listening carefully to these recordings for the last week, I’ve seen a wonderfully strong narrative emerge from the tunes selected. A leitmotif, if you will.

This is music for wanderers who nonetheless miss a home; songs of an “optimistic sadness”; words for those of us who stop to think sometimes if we might be denting the undefined future with the necessary choices we’re making this week.

Joe spoke beautifully about believing in things when I interviewed him, and nowhere is that more apparent than watching him sing words like these. He believes things, and passes that on to the listener. They’re rending, these stories. And completely beautiful they way Joe tells ‘em.


Dodging The Wind
The few of us there fell into initial silence of expectation, as Joe leaned into his harmonica and blew these first penetrating notes. The resultant ache feels like a scalpel. Maybe like a lonesome train whistle pulling me off somewhere else — no instrument evokes wanderlust more for me.

This song starts the session with the dusty-tracks theme of an itinerant drifter that would wend throughout the session. The staying and the leaving. It’s the song of someone just passing through, over and over again: “call that boy by his name, smile as he turns and he waves / don’t you shed a tear as he walks way from here, he’ll come but he ain’t known to stay.

My favorite part comes towards the end of the third minute, when Joe’s voice starts to careen a bit, like steering too fast into a curve and starting to be overwhelmed.

In The Meantime
This particular song has been wrecking me all week, as it gently prods at the decisions that we make for now at the potential expense of later. This is the song where I hear “optimistic sadness” — a waiting for someone, a confidence in finding what you’ll need, and a crippling black-hole in your gut for now. You should know that Joe used to work as a carpenter before he became a musician, building houses and such. I hear this song drawing taut lines between the constructive, durable life of a craftsman and the itinerant, often-lonely life of a musician — “I’m dreaming for a living, I got no time for work.

In particular, the fourth verse snags me, singing of prying up sheets of plywood from the floor to burn. “The house is out of lumber, at least for now I’m warm,” Joe sings, and “in the meantime, I should find another room.” A trail of ashes, the destruction we can wreak in the meantime, while we wait.

Hard Life (Bonnie Prince Billy cover)
Joe is touring with the uber-talented, impressively-bearded, former second grade teacher Tim Showalter who plays music under the name of Strand of Oaks (aka Chapel Session #4). The two of them asked me, “Can we do a cover song?” and I replied incredulously, “Um, have you met me?! Yes!” Then they told me it was a song by Bonnie “Prince” Billy they were considering, and I just about keeled over.

Joe and Tim harmonized so flawlessly on this ode to the struggles of marriage, toeing that line between submitting to our demons, our desire for faithful abiding love, and the desire to flee. Sounds pretty accurate to me. Aside from the aural perfection in the blending of their voices, I also enjoyed the contrast in the perspectives in the song – the married man and the unmarried one, both singing about how hard this life can be, whichever your lot. It’s a perfect bookend to the themes of Joe’s set when Tim sings “So let me go, lay it down / on my own, let me drown. Let me go, go where you don’t know.”

Also, the final bluesy guitar solo on this song hung with such a ripe melancholy, and left me breathless. Again.


That night, we had a house show at my place. As you can imagine, these musicians created everything a house show should be; all of us packed warmly and tightly into an effusive shoulder-to-shoulder bunch, with more varieties of Colorado microbrews in-hand than you could count. There were folks of all ages from 7 to 70, with smiles stretched wide everywhere you looked, and the furrowed brows of concentration you get when you hear music that really says something. Joe and Tim both cast a spell over all of us there.

You can see my photo album from the show on the Fuel/Friends Facebook page, and also some pictures from local supernova Lindsay McWilliams here. Tiffiny from The Ruckus came down from Denver and posted a review of the evening here, also with gorgeous pictures.

All of us agree, it was a very good night.

(oh! and there are still a few of these terrific house show posters left for sale, if’n you might want one for your wall – screenprinted and sparkly, two different designs)

House pic by Lindsay, poster pic by Tiffiny. Church interior photo above by Conor from the amazing Blank Tape Records, who is responsible with his brother Ian for all the excellent audio we all enjoy in these Chapel Sessions. You guys rock.

May 3, 2011

Joe Pug is coming to my house this weekend

…and he is going to play us some music on Saturday night, and I really think you should come. If you have been reading Fuel/Friends for a while, y’all know that I think Joe Pug is one of the most piercingly insightful songwriters making music right now, and this will be an amazing night that hopefully leaves your jaw somewhere on my floor.

Now, you can’t tell from this picture (taken as “a Fuel/Friends exclusive” the other night — to which I texted back “it looks like a still from a ’70s porn”), but together with his touring mate Strand of Oaks, Joe is prepared to knock our collective socks off this Saturday, May 7th. Do RSVP here. I recommend bringing mint juleps.

So great is the obvious mutual musical affinity between these artists that they have each chosen one song of the other’s to cover. “Hymn #101” would rank up there as one of my most un-coverable songs ever, but I really admire the way Tim/Strand of Oaks is able to harness it and make it his tentative, haunting own.

End In Flames (Strand of Oaks cover) – Joe Pug

Hymn #101 (Joe Pug cover) – Strand of Oaks

The poster here is specially designed by Jupiter Visual for us, and we are super pleased to be working with them again. They’ll be on sale at the house show in very limited quantities, on I think a nice dark blue paper with silvery ink.

Joe’s also given me one of my favorite quotes, ever, in an interview we did one warm night back in 2009. He said:

“I think what a lot of people don’t necessarily realize… I mean, there’s no question that as you get older you get wiser. I’m not wiser than anybody else. But I think with youth there’s a certain greater willingness to say these things I say in my songs, whereas when you get older, you’ve experienced so much and you’ve seen so many contradictions in your life that you rightfully are hesitant to say anything out loud because you’ve seen everything proved wrong, at least once, you know what I mean?

In youth, you can make broader declarations, but also at the same time – there was one artist who said, ‘The entire job of the artist is to not get beat down by the meanness of the world.’

And I’m not talking about hope, or hopefulness. Art can be about that, but doesn’t necessarily have to be about that. It does have to do with believing things, though, whatever those things are. Whether they are the bleakest thoughts on the face of the earth or the most hopeful, you have to believe in them. And even if it’s temporary – even if you just believe them for those five minutes when you wrote the song, or if you’ve believed it since you were three years old until you pass on. So maybe it’s easier to believe in things when you’re younger.”

Anyone who says stuff like that in his off-time, just sitting in a park, is going to make some damn good music. Come check it out.

Finally, this never gets old:

If you can’t come to my house show, please check him out at one of these other stops; you are in for a treat.


May 3 St. Louis, MO–Off Broadway
May 4 Lawrence, KS–The Bottleneck
May 6 Denver, CO–Hi Dive
May 7 Colorado Springs, CO–Fuel/Friends House Show
May 8 Salt Lake City, UT–Kilby Court
May 10 Pullman, WA–BellTower
May 11 Bellingham, WA–The Green Frog
May 12 Vancouver, CAN–The Media Club
May 13 Seattle, WA–Tractor Tavern
May 14 Portland, OR–The Doug Fir
May 15 Willamina, OR–Wildwood Hotel
May 17 San Francisco, CA–Bottom of the Hill
May 18 Santa Cruz, CA–The Crepe Place
May 19 San Diego, CA–The Casbah
May 20 Los Angeles, CA–The Satellite (formerly Spaceland)
May 21 Tempe, AZ–The Sail Inn
May 22 Albuquerque, NM–Low Spirits
May 24 Oklahoma City, NM–The Blue Door

August 17, 2010

If this doesn’t make your heart feel joy, you might be dead inside

Joe Pug onstage with the Levon Helm Band and Elvis Costello, swapping jubilant verses on “The Weight” last week in Vancouver.

Joe’s face emanates the same pure, unfettered joy I see here. Go kid, go.

March 2, 2010

Justin Townes Earle and Joe Pug knocked my boots off last weekend

Pug-Earle 120

Today as I drove from Ohio to Indiana and pondered what a Hoosier actually was, I listened to two artists who seemed to embody those snowy midwestern hills and endless highway: Justin Townes Earle and Joe Pug. I paired their CDs together as homage to the fantastic concerts I saw last weekend in Denver: one at the Bluebird with the both of them, and then a house concert on Sunday night with just Joe Pug in a breathtakingly intimate living room setting in Boulder.

Relentlessly polite and wholeheartedly earnest, Justin Townes Earle seemed to have landed from another era completely, but his music rang true and struck directly. If I were casting a movie set in 1940s Atlanta, and I was looking for a counterweight to the golden guy that the girl is going to marry, a man who shows up perhaps selling hairbrushes or snake oil with a half smile and the promise of adventure – I’d cast JTE in a heartbeat. His lanky, super-slim frame draped with a classy suit just a fraction too short as he threw himself wholeheartedly into the performance of his songs. The cover art of his 2009 record Midnight At The Movies shows Justin sitting next to a gorgeous starlet in a movie theater, drenched in green light and a flickering glow, and in so many ways that is how his music feels.

Justin fully seems to somehow straddle the world of WWII America and the bluegrass hills and Appalachians, as well as the modern alt-country rock scene – even some intangible nod to the punk aesthetic. I wouldn’t mess with him, but I’d believe him and let him buy me a drink so he could tell me a story.

Pug-Earle 134

Pug-Earle 110

His music surely feels old-timey, all waltzing rhythms and “yes’m” tips of the lyrical hat, but seeing him live cemented for me that his earnestness makes all the difference in making this still feel like a vital, youthful genre. There is no shtick that I could detect. This is the style of music he makes, and he means it no less than Nirvana or Thao Nguyen or any other number of young folks in passionate bands.

Justin dedicated a bittersweet end-of-the-night rendition of “Midnight At The Movies” to Chris Feinstein (aka Space Wolf), bassist for Ryan Adam’s Cardinals who died unexpectedly at the age of 42 in December. They were apparently NYC neighbors. The slow-wheeling song was one of the sweetest things I’ve heard out in the night air in many months – it was a 3am slow dance, the bartender wiping the tables, the snow falling somewhere very far away from these warm walls. But then lest you forget his range of influences, he also covered both Buck Owens, the Carter Family, and The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait” (with stand-up bass and fiddle), alongside his own well-crafted tunes.

There’s a part in movie Crazy Heart that I’m probably going to misquote, but when Jeff Bridges is picking at his guitar, writing a song, and he asks Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character if she knows the song, and she’s sure she already does. “The best songs are always the ones you think you’ve heard before,” he tells her – and that’s precisely how I felt the first time I heard this song:

Midnight At The Movies – Justin Townes Earle

Justin also recently recorded a Dolly Parton cover with Brooklyn artist Dawn Landes:

Do I Ever Cross Your Mind – Justin Townes Earle & Dawn Landes

Pug-Earle 036

While on-stage, Justin also referred to opener “Joe Fucking Pug” as having put out one of the best albums of the year (an assessment I can get behind), and even though I only caught half his set due to a persistent snowfall, Joe completely blew me away. Again. As always.

Pug is a songwriter of uncommon weight and heft, and rare purity and conviction. If you’ve gotten jaded as to the effect that a simple well-written song can have when howled and emoted from the main stage, under the dust particles swirling in the stage lights, just go see Joe Pug (or Josh Ritter, for that matter) and have those convictions washed off and set aright. His set was an unrelenting cavalcade of identification with so many of the sentiments he elucidates, using only the right number of words and devastating acumen.


Then, two nights later I got to see Joe Pug again, packed shoulder to shoulder with 45 other people, on the couch and in the kitchen and kneeling on the floor in the living room of a home modestly-sized for half that many friends at best. I feverishly noted the setlist, since I had the overwhelming feeling that I was witnessing the best show I might see this year. Maybe ever. Hard to say.

Nation Of Heat
I Do My Father’s Drugs
Unsophisticated Heart
Hymn #35
Nobody’s Man
The Door Is Always Open
Speak Plainly Diana
Called By Many Names
(unreleased song)
These Days
Sharpest Crown
Hymn #101

I’ve never been to a house concert before Backforty Presents made this one possible. I was startled by the intimacy, as I think many of us were. I am used to (and prefer) my shows small and earnest, but often with the artificial barrier between performer and audience hedged cleanly by the drop-off of the stage to the sticky floors below. As eager as I was, it felt almost too intimate at times, especially given the songs he performs – sharper at excising things from my heart than any scalpel. It would be akin to kissing a stranger at a loud, smoky nightclub or kissing them on a quiet Sunday morning at the sun-drenched kitchen table. In such close quarters, there is nowhere to hide.

Joe is amiable and has grown, even in the last year, to become a more confident performer (no doubt a byproduct of the sheer insane number of shows he’s played). But again, the intimacy of this show and the immense wall of camaraderie reverberating back to him seemed to also take him a bit by surprise. As the final note from opening song “A Nation Of Heat” died out into the suburban condo living room, the thunderous applause that rained down like a tidal wave might have even made his eyes shine with a bit of extra glossiness as he broke into a wide smile, if my perceptions were correct. And I felt the same way.

“Not So Sure” is a gem of a song from the new album, chronicling a gnawing disillusion, with ennui mushrooming in its lyrics. When Joe stood four feet from me, stared somewhere intensely at the back wall, into space, while he plucked the opening notes and launched into lines like: “I bummed expensive cigarettes, I wrote John Steinbeck’s books / I undressed someone’s daughter, and complained about her looks” – I was done for. Then it happened again and again with his songs piercing us all, peaking at the final “Hymn #101” in front of my nose. That is such an incredible song, I couldn’t believe I was seeing it in an environment like that.

Not So Sure – Joe Pug (from his new album Messenger)

Hymn #101 – Joe Pug (from his Nation of Heat EP)

After seeing Joe Pug (twice) and Justin Townes Earle in the same weekend, I woke up Monday morning feeling a radiant, warm glow tingling around me like an aura. Did that really happen? Do shows like that still occur, despite the jadedness of life?

It did, and they do.

[See all of my photos from the show on the Fuel/Friends Facebook fan page; house concert photo credit Todd Roeth]

January 4, 2010

there was nowhere I could keep it … it got hard

joe pug - messenger

Well, Joe Pug just did it to me again. I’ve been feeling a little dessicated these last few days, and not much like writing about music (happens to the best of us). And then I heard this new song “Unsophisticated Heart,” and it is just everything I am feeling tonight. I love Joe for this simple honesty; for the incisive accuracy he has with the words he pens, and the ache in his voice as he sings them.

In the same resigned way that Jeff Tweedy’s voice has when it cracks on the line as he covers Radiohead, “If I could be who you wanted….,” Joe’s voice here is so unvarnished so you can see right through to the parts of him that are fragile. I imagine some would say that having an unsophisticated heart is a detriment, and downfall, a liability — and it certainly can feel like it sometimes. But by the time Joe reaches the end of this song, I don’t mind mine at all.

Unsophisticated Heart – Joe Pug

Take a walk on Sunday, it ain’t that hard
take a walk on Sunday, it ain’t that hard

If my thoughts are hard to gather
if I don’t know where to start
it ain’t my mind that matters
for I have an unsophisticated heart

Tried to trust a stranger, it got hard
you know I tried to trust a stranger
it got hard

Now I see things like a soldier
and I’m jealous of the dark
but if my eyes have only gotten colder
I still have an unsophisticated heart

Oh my eyes will hardened, my voice will be guarded
my mind so bewildered and buried in the garden
you may still know me by just one part

I tried to keep your secret, it got hard
There was nowhere I could keep it
it got hard

And there’s one thing that’s for certain
when they come with their dogs and their guards
I can hide behind the thinnest curtains
for I have an unsophisticated heart
for I have
for I….

Joe Pug’s first proper full-length album (after slaying me with two previous EPs) is finally out on February 16th and will be called Messenger.

In the weeks surrounding the album release, Joe is on tour with Justin Townes Earle (for reals) and they come to Denver on my half-birthday February 19th. Yes, we celebrate things like that ’round here, and that show will be a fine way to commemorate another half-year gone.

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December 21, 2009

Fuel/Friends favorite things of 2009


Speaking of snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes, I worked my last December day of the year on Friday, and now am settling into two luscious weeks of time off over the holidays (one of the hidden benefits of working in academia!). Before the college closed, I went to the radio studio on one of the snowiest and coldest days of the year and recorded my third year-end appearance on NPR’s World Cafe with David Dye. We chatted about some of my favorite albums from this year, and you can listen on Friday January 1st, at 2pm/ET on the radio or 3pm/ET on the XPN website — or stream the archived show through the NPR site shortly after it airs. Whee!

Now in the waning countdown before Christmas, as we open our advent calendars and go on walks to look at the lights, I revel in concentrated time to do things I enjoy — like talk to you all about some of my favorites things in 2009, this last year of the decade.



Hands down, this is my favorite album of the year. They’re barely twenty, but The xx have created a stunningly complete, addictively good album. I cannot get enough of this London band, formed around the female/male pair of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim — best friends from school since they were age three. Their self-titled debut album fuses sparse, effortlessly cool beats and a new-wave sensibility, with thoroughly delicious male/female vocals that play off of each other like the best doo-wop or soul duets. Their playful back-and-forth chemistry (oddly) reminds me of an analgesic, blissed-out Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, in the perfection of the duet. Romy’s voice is very malleable, an immensely flirtatious alto, and in every place, Oliver’s is the perfect counterweight back.

Recorded largely in a garage at the XL studios, over the course of many nights and in the wee small hours of the morning, the album is meticulous and quiet, but it also laden with space and echoes that get under my skin. It is an unabashedly sexy album, full of insinuating bass-lines that propel the songs forward, and clever bits of minimalistic drum machine or coy xylophone melodies. Everyone that I play this for, even if it’s on in the background, instantly wants to know who it is. I think it would be near impossible to not be drawn into this album. It’s like a sticky spiderweb.

Basic Space – The xx

MUMFORD & SONS, Sigh No More

I first heard this indie-bluegrass folk band from London while prepping for SXSW early in 2009. The friend who sent me the link knows of (and is largely responsible for) my love for The Avett Brothers, and here in the music of Mumford & Sons I found the wrenching honesty of Frightened Rabbit blended with the banjo-plucking soul and brotherly harmonies of the Avetts. I was completely sold from the very first listen, and I have listened to this album more than almost anything else this year. Sigh No More is out in the UK now, coming to the US on Glassnote Records in early 2010.

This young band makes honest, compelling music that veers towards triumphant even as they chronicle the litany of life’s difficulties. It’s epic and substantial music, loaded to overflowing with truth that crawls under my skin with its vulnerability. And perhaps it’s the multiple voices rising together of all the band members, but there is a distinct feeling of kinship here, almost like a gospel choir or a Greek chorus, a community vibe that lends some sort of strength through such raw lyrical content. As one who often mulls over issues larger than I can get my head around, I appreciated this year how folks like David Bazan, Mountain Goats, J Tillman, and Mumford and Sons all truthfully explored matters of God and grace and falling and seeking in their music. Mumford and Sons are intensely wise in their lyrics, seeming to bely a personal understanding of God’s grace to a broken world, but also an intense, brutal struggle. As I wrote to a friend, “I love how they sing both about grace and the Maker’s plan, but also bald-facedly sing, ‘I really fucked it up this time.’”

The Cave – Mumford & Sons

FANFARLO, Reservoir

Fanfarlo exploded this year from Sweden and the UK, with a shimmering, hard-driving, gorgeously colored album. There’s so much brilliant light in their songs that they’re almost like the anti-xx to my ears this year. I first fell in love with their song (and video) for “Harold T. Wilkins” right before SXSW this year, and then was sucked into their debut album deeply and irrevocably. It is rich, primal, earnest, and effervescent. Although I was first enticed by the thumping drums and the cathartic yell-along lines, they use a hugely expressive palette of instruments — heavy on the shiny trumpets, the dazzling saws, mandolins and accordion.

Lead singer Simon Balthazar has a distinctive voice that’s absolutely evocative of a young David Byrne; all swoops and vibrato, but powerful and clear. The songs often feature time-signature shifts and a loosely-corralled sense of musical primal anarchy that reminds me of Arcade Fire at times, but with a greater effervescence (like a sheer wash of fluorescent color dripping down). It is a stupendous album, first song to last.

Harold T Wilkins, Or How To Wait For A Very Long Time – Fanfarlo


Several albums I loved this year fused fascinating, seemingly disparate sounds together to make new amalgamations of awesomeness. Handsome Furs come from Canada via Seattle’s famed Sub Pop label, and have a very simple formula behind this fantastic album: raggedly anthemic electric guitar and howlingly visceral vocals (from Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner) with sexy-as-hell electronic drum machine beats (from the whipsmart bombshell Alexei Perry).

Face Control is unrelenting, often veering from effortless cool to earnest anthems in the same song – laced through with a seething mutual lust between these married two that melts the paint off the walls. The album radiates an icy Eastern-European aesthetic that the duo talked fascinatingly about when we chatted in July. I was hooked from the first time I popped the promo CD into my car stereo player on a roadtrip earlier this year, the yellow lines on the highway flying past to their immense beats. And to watch these two create their music live together at the Larimer Lounge (see: Favorite Shows This Year) was scorching, and somehow even more fantastic than this supernova of an album. It all sounds good to these ears.

Talking Hotel Arbat Blues – Handsome Furs

ROMAN CANDLE, Oh Tall Tree In The Ear

I like the way the world looks through a Roman Candle album. You stop to listen to the birds and frogs and cicadas, and see the beauty in every streetlight and every moth, and notice the millions of stars. Oh Tall Tree In The Ear is a fine bluesy Americana album full of richly literate lyrics that keep giving to me, even as I’ve listened to this album dozens of times. It’s hard to think back now in this cold winter weather, but not too long ago this was my soundtrack for the entire sticky warm months of July and August, driving around with my windows down and this sweetly unaffected album playing on my car stereo. It ranges from upbeat, windows-down tunes like this one (which I think channels some Mick Jagger) to slow, easygoing slow-dancing-on-the-back-porch tunes.

Although living in Nashville now, Roman Candle has roots that go back more than a decade in the Chapel Hills, North Carolina area, and those roots intertwine with folks I love like Ryan Adams and Caitlin Cary, which is what made me initially take a listen. I was summarily knocked off my hammock this summer by this thoughtfully-crafted little album, and its real attention to detail. You can listen to the lyrics like they’re poems. The title of the album is taken from a Rilke sonnet, and many songs are woven much more densely with subtle wisdom than you might pick up on first listen through. There’s a mature wisdom in the lyrics about love, attempting to balance growing up and growing old with someone, and that desire to go off and see Rome and watch the river go by, or hearing a song on a radio that makes you want to hop a train. As easygoing as it feels on initial listens, it keeps yielding up new rich appreciations every time I listen to it.

Eden Was A Garden – Roman Candle


Langhorne Slim takes his first name from the rolling farmland town in Pennsylvania, and he makes a delightfully anachronistic blend of music that seems half a step outside of our time. Yet he’s got a youthful passion that I very much relate to, the same stuff I hear in any of the young rock bands I love. Langhorne’s not even thirty yet, but a lot of his songs seem to capture this weight of another generation. There’s a ramshackle, loosely-hinged folk glory on Be Set Free, with threads of everything from soul-stirring gospel to old brokedown blues in his music. It’s all held together with his vulnerable, emotive tenor that’s reminiscent sometimes of Cat Stevens, but with the ragged folksy storytelling chops of the sixties folk troubadour generation. There’s also a larger cinematic quality on this release, where Slim tries broad additions to the recorded sound, whether it’s a horn section or a rootsy group of folks stomping along to his songs (and even a vocal duet cameo from Erika Wennerstrom of Heartless Bastards).

Langhorne is a very charming, earnest man, and this past September as we shared his bottle of wine in the old-fashioned Boulderado Hotel, one thing he said that stuck with me was how all the songs he writes are love songs. On this, his third album, those loves can take so many forms — from bidding farewell on heartbreaking songs like “I Love You But Goodbye,” to the convincing swagger of “Say Yes,” to one of my favorite lines of the whole year here on this song: “You can have my television, long as I got lips for kissin’ you, nobody but you…” over that huge shiny Wurlitzer explosion and the gospel handclaps. I’m a total goner.

Boots Boy – Langhorne Slim


I first fell in love with Lisa Hannigan‘s haunting voice when she contributed mournful duets throughout fellow Irishman Damien Rice’s debut album “O” in 2003 – I think she infused an immensely gorgeous, heartbreaking weight to songs like “The Blower’s Daughter.” So after the two parted ways a few years back, I’ve been waiting for this album of her solo material and it was completely worth the wait.

There’s an unvarnished air of clean-scrubbed honesty and clever inquiry on Sea Sew. I got to see Lisa play an acoustic set the day after Halloween, at a Denver bookstore in the middle of the afternoon, where she captivated everyone effortlessly. In addition to playing really every instrument I could think possible in the live setting (most of which I don’t know names for) she manages to blend whimsy and beauty without being silly, which is very difficult to do. There’s a charming imagination in her songs, a pristine and heartbreaking depth to her voice, and an incisive emotional honesty to this album that kills me.

I Don’t Know – Lisa Hannigan

KAREN O AND THE KIDS, Where The Wild Things Are Soundtrack

It’s a daunting task to take a beloved children’s book, especially one with only a few dozen pages, and make it into a full-length movie that both kiddos and adults can enjoy. It’s even harder to make a soundtrack that fuses all those primal, wonderful sentiments that course hot through Spike Jonze’s vision in the film, and capture the innocence of youth without sounding child-like. I dislike most kid’s music (no Raffi, no); it’s why my little guy likes things like Wilco and the Avett Brothers. Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and her band The Kids, have made an album we both loved wholeheartedly from the first enchanting singsong melody, which both of us have been humming around the house for months.

This is also a completely palatable album for those who never get near the small people, but who still connect with some of the urgency and imagination of youth. The earliest previews of this film featured a more wild, acoustic version of the Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up,” with the lyrics about “our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up.” Perhaps their early involvement in my initial impression are why mentally I get a very similar and marvelous sense from this album, in a year where I also finally truly got into Arcade Fire (!!). This soundtrack takes us to another place, “through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost a year to where the wild things are.”

Building All Is Love – Karen O And The Kids

MAYER HAWTHORNE – A Strange Arrangement

One of my students interned for a semester at the stellar Numero Group in Chicago this past Spring, they of the Eccentric Soul series and countless badass reissues from the lost vaults of cool. For a fresh-faced twenty year-old, Ben has formidable musical tastes, so when he told me to listen to Detroit whippersnapper Mayer Hawthorne, I took his advice immediately.

Mayer Hawthorne is only in his late twenties, and comes from a background of hip-hop/DJing, and despite a lifelong affinity for the sounds coming out of his dad’s old car stereo, he only started making this throwback doo-wop soul stuff just as a joke. Even the label heads couldn’t believe this was new material (not decades old) when Mayer first played his demos for them — even more amazing since he plays all the instruments, and recorded his swell songs on A Strange Arrangement at home in his bedroom. His music feels fresh and deliciously enjoyable – makes you wanna put on your good Sunday slacks and a healthy daub of Brylcreem and come buy me a mint julep.

Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’ – Mayer Hawthorne

DARK WAS THE NIGHT – compilation album

It’s hard to cohesively talk about this double-disc compilation album, curated by The National’s Dessner brothers to raise funds and awareness for HIV/AIDS. The range of Dark Was The Night is so vast and all so beautiful, so achingly perfect in the variation. The overall mood in the 31 tracks (from a stunning variety of most of my favorite musicians) is mostly melancholy – although there are a few bright shiny spots from folks like Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings.

But from Antony covering Bob Dylan (and breaking my heart), to the duet with Conor Oberst and Gillian Welch that still sounds the closest to perfection that you can imagine –not to mention contributions from Bon Iver, Cat Power, The National, Grizzly Bear, Feist and Jose Gonzalez– this album is oozing with more flashes of talent than many albums this decade. So many things to love here, no wonder Dark Was The Night has already raised over $700,000 for HIV/AIDS. Beautiful.

So Far Around The Bend – The National

2008I didn’t really hear these until 2009, but they sure as heck would have been in the running for my tops list.
- BLIND PILOT, Three Rounds And A Sound (sublime warmth)
- THAO, We Brave Bee Stings And All (sharp and smart and catchy)
- TALLEST MAN ON EARTH, Shallow Grave (newish discovery; I’m addicted)
- ANTHONY DA COSTA & ABBY GARDNER, Bad Nights / Better Days (oh man)

vrg45Song Away – Hockey (hot dang)
When You Walk In The Room – Fyfe Dangerfield (I want you endlessly)
My Body’s a Zombie For You – Dead Man’s Bones (whoa-ohhh)
July 4, 2004 – Jason Anderson (I am, I am, and I love this part)
Quiet Dog Bite Hard – Mos Def (there it go like simple and plainness)

Los Angeles’ Local Natives covering Simon & Garfunkel’s “Cecilia” in a backyard, banging on trees with sticks. This is pure joy, and helped turn me on to their marvelous sound. They’ve released Gorilla Manor on Rough Trade in the UK, but it won’t be out in the U.S. until 2010 (on Frenchkiss Records). I have high hopes for this album next year, once I get some time to sit with it.

Cecilia (Simon & Garfunkel cover) – Local Natives

Mumford & Sons at SXSW.

I wrote this of their set in the open-air Spring humidity of Texas: Theirs was one of my most anticipated shows and Mumford & Sons didn’t disappoint. They opened with that new song “Sigh No More” that I posted last week and it absolutely slayed me. The chorus sings of “love that will not betray you, dismay or enslave you, it will set you free — be more like the man you were made to be.” I felt more like me, only better, when their set spun off at full tilt. Jawdroppingly pure.

- Okkervil River at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco (specifically the last song, “Unless It’s Kicks”)
- Handsome Furs at the Larimer Lounge in Denver
- Bat For Lashes at Outside Lands in San Francisco (with Josh Groban standing nearby, oddly enough)
- Denver collective Everything Absent or Distorted singing their final song together as a band, “A Form to accommodate the mess,” and hugging when it is over, representing everything that is right and good in the Denver music scene – and in the world of music in general.
- Finally seeing Lucero play “I Can Get Us Out Of Here Tonight” live, and being baptized into that cult.
- The Big Pink melting all of our faces off at the Larimer, a sonic wall of wonderful sound.

Luckenbach, Texas (ain’t nobody feelin’ no pain)

The Dust Jacket Project

joe pug
Joe Pug and I sitting on a Boulder park bench on a quiet summer evening, talking about the burden of the artist, the art of songcraft, and the places where youth and hopefulness intersect. Joe’s had a great year, and I still feel like he could maybe become a key songwriter of our generation. Talking to him felt eerily prescient, like being in the fledgling presence of someone who knows where he is going.

Hymn #101 – Joe Pug

- This.

That about wraps it up for me this year. Bring it, 2010.

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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