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Review Sat Jul 12 2014
Downtown Sound Mondays are among my favorite Chicago summer music events. Each week brings about a new crop of bands, singer-songwriters, electronic artists, and more for complimentary enjoyment in spacious Millennium Park. Chicagoans band together as they sit amongst each other, sprawled out on the lawn enjoying drinks, snacks, and various other delectables of their choosing. It's community entertainment at its finest in Chicago's most renewing season.
This week's Downtown Sound series installment featured fledgling group Hurray For The Riff Raff, and veteran folk singer Joe Pug. The combination of the two artists together was absolute perfection in such a tranquil and sunlit setting, as each act illuminated Millennium Park with pure joy as we sat in reverence of their exquisite and effortless talent.
I hadn't heard of Hurray For The Riff Raff before, however as I swayed to their first song almost immediately, I knew that they were going to be a band to watch in the future to come. First off, their name conveys affronts to conservative behavior and quiet living. Embracing the "riff raff" is to hone in on a counterculture, and the eccentric individuals that comprise it. Their sound in itself is nonconformist to a tee, as they wear their name in their identity always, seeping straight into their sound. Fans of Southern folk groups such as Shovels & Rope or Houndmouth would absolutely adore their sound, combining Western rhythms with big vocals.
They opened with their shining single, "Blue Ridge Mountain." My heart is a blue ridge mountain / And my head an overflowing fountain. The imagery that their crooning lead songstress, Alynda Lee Segarra, is able to create with her soulful and seasoned vocals is incredible. Her voice was able to morph from a low croon to delicate high vocals, and even broke out into yodeling at one point, which she made seem feminine and effortless somehow.
Another favorite was "Slow Walk" which included fiddle riffs building to a crescendo throughout the song, as their sound is grew upon layers of incandescently joyful folk music moments. Segarra's voice reminds me of Janis Joplin at times with its husky, deliberate quality, however it retains a Southern twang to it that renders their sound so interesting. The group is comprised of old souls with a mature sensibility that gives their music a one-of-a-kind caliber, and I look forward to seeing their sound grow with more exposure.
I began listening to Joe Pug around four years ago by the eager recommendation of a friend. I was immediately entranced by his honest and soulful folk lyrics, with a beautiful acoustic backing. I've watched his career grow, as he's remained a hometown favorite in this city and admired by many of his watchful fans. I last saw him two years ago at Lincoln Hall for a great show. Seeing him at Millennium Park this time, however, showed me how far he has come as an artist. Stepping onstage in front of thousands of people in this vast outdoor space showcased his deliberate stage presence and confidence in his artistry. He took more chances by reinventing songs he has been performing in this city for years, and was in perfect synchronicity with his backing band.
Opening with "Nation of Heat," Pug's sound was immediately commanding. Pug's sound is unique because he can easily divert from folk, to Americana, and twinges of country and return back again without losing his authenticity as an artist. He moved through a strong set featuring powerful tracks such as "Deep Dark Wells," and "I Do My Father's Drugs." His music set the perfect backdrop for a dipping Chicago sun on a summer evening.
Pug truly shined when he played some of his original material, such as the stunning "Hymn #101." With lyrics comprised of stellar imagery and poignant tales of his introspective thoughts, this is where Pug's vocals and identity as an artist truly shine. He is able to be a modern troubadour as he tells his meaningful stories through these acoustic ballads, and it was a special event to witness. He is extremely versatile as a performer as he easily moves from playing solo acoustic numbers, to playing songs with lush backdrops such as "Speak Plainly, Diana." As he performed, Pug showcased how far he has come as a musician, from playing smaller shows in Chicago, to gaining a large fan base and playing in Chicago's most expansive outdoor venue.
The evening showcased two eccentric performers who manifested a beautiful summer atmosphere with their music. I look forward to hearing their music in a live setting again down the road, and seeing where they have been able to take their unique sounds.