Saturday night found Jacob and I sandwiched in the back of The Cactus Cafe on the University of Texas’s campus. We’d arrived just in time to snag the last two seats and it quickly became apparent just how lucky we were to have found them. Crown jewel of the Austin folk music scene, The Cactus Cafe is everything it should be. Thick rafters bolster a low-slung ceiling with images of knotted rope, cacti, and cowboy boots running its length. Frosted orb lights hang suspended in the air like so many will-o’-the-wisps. A small but amply stocked bar coils in one rear corner, facing off with a low stage on the opposite end of the snug room. Old red velvet curtain drape heavily behind this platform, no doubt pregnant with dust and forgotten notes. Ten minutes after we’d taken our seats, the room was packed shoulder to shoulder with people of all ages.
We had come to see a young gentleman by the name of Joe Pug who we’d discovered just the week before. It’s easy to see why many reviews draw comparisons with Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Steve Earle and, gasp, even Johnny Cash. While I feel that such comparisons are unnecessary (I’m sorry, but no one is Bobby D or the Man in Black but their illustrious selves), it is easy to see the appeal. Joe hard plucks and finger picks with the best of them, hums away on a harmonica round his neck, has lyrics that are at once deeply personal and populist, and has an endearing tendency to hike his shoulders up round his ears, knit his brows and squinch his eyes.
Joe’s voice can take a bit of getting used to for some, but it took me all of two songs. There’s something about the way he belts out every phrase as if it might be his last that wraps its fingers around my heart and won’t let go. I put together a short sampler of a few favorites for your auditory pleasure:
The concert itself was perfection. You can listen to a remarkably good recording of Saturday’s show here. This recording also bears testament to Joe’s stage presence and ability to connect with his audience. During one song, the electric guitarist’s amp cut out just as she was launching into her solo. Chuckling good humoredly, Joe launched into the solo with his voice, waaawaaaing away with gusto. After the song was finished (with a successful solo in the end), he joked: “Not many of you may know this about me, but I can totally fucking shred on mouth.” Win.
Seriously chicklets, watch out for this guy. I fully expect him to blow up in short order. And in case you may harbor any concerns about remembering his name, here’s a useful tool:
Featured image by Jim Bennett off Joe Pug’s Myspace.