Joe Pug’s ‘Messenger’

The first time I saw Chicago singer-songwriter Joe Pug, I thought: Boy, this guy is really doing the traditional Bob Dylan folk singer-songwriter thing. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. As a style of music, it isn’t anything new or original, but it’s a format (singing + acoustic guitar + interesting lyrics) with pretty much infinite possibilities, and Pug was doing a good job with it.

I saw him again, last summer at a Lollapalooza “after” concert at the Hideout, and boy, he had a following of fervent fans this time. And a full band playing with him. It was clear by now that the guy has a lot of charisma and a solid collection of songs. That night, I thought Pug might very well become a star — or at least, someone with a national following.

Pug gave away some of his previous recordings, posting free mp3s on his Web site. Now, he has a full album, Messenger, out this week on the Thirty Tigers label. The Dylan influence is still there, but Pug often sings in a throaty tone with just a touch of vibrato, giving the music more of a country flair. He’s playing with a band on most of these tracks, but the backing is subtle and the focus is on his acoustic guitar.

There are songs about romance and that eternal theme, searching for one’s self. “Disguised as Someone Else” is a particularly smart and emotional song about a romantic relationship. But it’s the most Dylanesque song that really gets me, the anti-war protest tune “Bury Me Far (From My Uniform).” It sounds almost exactly like something a folk-rocker would have sung during the Vietnam War, but it also resonates today because the ongoing wars in the Middle East. Pug’s song is told from the point of view of a soldier killed in battle, and it stings to hear his words from the grave.

Pug plays Feb. 27 at Lincoln Hall opening for Justin Townes Earle (a good fit). And I’ll be talking about Pug’s record and playing “Bury Me Far (From My Uniform)” around 2:40 p.m. today (Feb. 18) on the public radio station Vocalo.

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