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Review Sun Nov 04 2012
One of the wonderful things about this city of Chicago that so many of us call home is our diverse music scene; opportunities to see musicians representing a spectrum featuring all genres, in venues that are comprised of different personalities and vibes. Dive bars housing packed shows mingle with refined theater venues. Cavernous, arena-like spaces that allow electronic and dance music to thrive are juxtaposed against more intimate spaces attuned to folk music's husky yet delicate sound. Lincoln Hall is one such space that features folk music effortlessly; cozy and comfortable, it allows for the superb acoustics of the space to move to the forefront of the reasons for this particular venue's charm. Saturday night's show featured two artists, Amy Cook and Joe Pug, who utilized this venue's acoustic setup to their advantage as they impressed listeners with their strong folk sounds.
Amy Cook appeared first, gracious for the audience's welcome and casually dressed. She could have stepped off stage and blended in perfectly with the crowd standing in front of her, all hinging upon the first guitar chords she strummed. A California native, Amy now resides in Austin, Texas, showcased by her mellow, peaceful vibe. However, her voice was in no sense casual or ordinary; her booming voice reverberated from the walls of Lincoln Hall with crystal clear intonation, captivating the audience instantly. Summer Skin, released this past year, features her strong vocals with guest spots by some of the greats including Patty Griffin and Robert Plant. Her voice is a mix of the smoky Stevie Nicks vocal quality, Ellie Goulding's range, and Brandi Carlile's emotional intensity, which packs one heck of a punch.
She sang material from her three full-length albums, with many songs chosen off of her most recent release. Songs included one she co-wrote with Ben Kweller, haunting folk tunes and heady ballads such as "Hotel Lights." Though many of her songs originally include backing and accompaniment, she appeared only with an acoustic guitar. This introduced Lincoln Hall attendees to the venue's signature characteristic; at this space, there isn't an emphasis on showmanship per se. There aren't elaborate stage sets, costume changes, or backup dancers. The venue focuses on the purity of the voice, the simplicity of the sound, and this is more than enough.
Her set produced jokes about selling merchandise, not by showing an apathy for selling her material, but rather showcasing her desire to allow her fans to connect with the music rather than a product, which further reinforced her humble, down to earth attitude. She also shared anecdotes with the crowd, including introducing song "Sun Setting Backwards" by telling the story of how a 9-year-old music student asked to learn how to play this song at his guitar lesson back in her town of Austin, and how honored she was to learn this. She delighted the audience with a cover of Blondie's "Dreaming," which emerged as more languid and lilting than the original. Her songs presented listeners with universal messages that could resonate with us all, and allowed the concert to have an exquisite start.
Unlike Amy Cook, Joe Pug is a native Chicagoan. This is the place where his career began, where his fledgling fan base grew to the large following it has become today. Excited fans packed the house for his set, as if they were welcoming an old friend home after time apart. There's good reason for fans to engage with his music; not only is his folk sound compelling, but his song-writing skill presents listeners with depictions of struggle, heartache, insecurities and despair. This rich storytelling illuminated within his music is what keeps his fans coming back for more with each EP and full-length album release, and the qualities that are so respected and cherished about his music are only amplified in a live setting.
"Are y'all ready to hear some brooding folk music?" Pug stated as he opened the show. Playing notable favorite "Speak Plainly Diana" off The Messenger album, the crowd was hooked. It began softly, and then built in intensity as he furrowed his brow, splitting his time between the harmonica and guitar with ease. Throughout the show, attendees noted their excitement to see him back on the stage in their city. Shouts of "We missed you Joe Pug!" were ample, coupled with my personal favorite crowd shout out of "Pug Nation!" Joe was equally happy to see his fans, as he stood before us humbled and beaming.
The venue was so hushed throughout the duration of his set that I could hear any side chatter or chuckle with ease, though it was infrequent. Gentle acoustic numbers such as "The Sharpest Crown" had the audience hinging upon every note, while "Nation of Heat" transformed the venue into a space featuring a rollicking, amped up crowd. An acoustic version of "The Great Despiser" off of his album released this past year under the same title was a welcome addition to the set, along with crowd favorites "Hymn #35" and "Hymn #101." Playing a song next that he announced he didn't write (which brought out a Gangnam Style shout out, unfortunately), Joe Pug played a cover of Joe Ely's "All Just To Get To You." Ending the show with Harvey Thomas Young's "Deep Dark Wells," which can be found on his latest release, the sweet ballad left the crowd completely satisfied with an outpouring of his strong, irreplaceable folk sound.
The evening proved to place emphasis on the purest qualities of folk music: the vocal qualities and simple acoustics. Lone spotlights shone down on the two artists throughout the show. No showy presentations were needed, and no intense light shows or production techniques bore down on the artists. The set was perfect as it was, honing in on the individual artist's sound and allowing the purity of their voices to reign supreme.