By Rob Dickens. (Photos: Jim Jacob)
Joe Pug and Courtney Marie Andrews
The Spotted Mallard – Melbourne Australia – July 13, 2017
I’m not sure how this tour pairing was arranged and how. Joe Pug, the Austin Texas troubadour who has graced these shores a considerable number of times before is returning on the back of his release last year Windfall. The younger Courtney Marie Andrews, hailing from Phoenix Arizona, whose debut album in 2016 Honest Life was a serious eye opener.
Tonight was the fifth stop on their eight-date tour of Australia. Both artists were largely in solo acoustic guitar mode, except for Pug on keyboards for a spell.
As a venue, The Spotted Mallard has a lot going for it: wide spaces and elevated terraces on either side provide plenty of clear viewing from the comfort of a table and chair. Sound-wise it stacks up well from multiple positions.
Andrews has settled in a rural town in Washington State after years of touring solo and with pop bands (she started touring at the tender age of sixteen), pining for simplicity and reflection. Honest Life mixes country, Americana and indie-folk which provides a wonderful platform for Andrews who sounds a lot like Joni Mitchell at times. I am not just talking about the voice either. The song writing ability is evident in spades.
Tonight, her fringe is so low that it is hard to make out facial expressions. Her demeanour is one of a young performer starting a new phase of her career, not exactly awkward but not overly effusive either. It is, however, not an effort to discern a soaring voice and a talented songwriter, demonstrating a maturity above her years.
I am assuming that many in the crowd were here for Pug and perhaps experiencing Andrews for the first time. In that sense, she acquitted herself well with a mostly attentive crowd kept engaged (there were unfortunately constant mutterings at the back).
Some of the highlights included a beautiful rendition of ‘Not The End’ which kicked off the set, ‘How Quickly Your Hear Mends’ (an ode to “Dancing Debbie”), the defiant pride of ‘An Honest Life’, ‘Put The Fire Out’, ‘A Little Bit Lonely’ and ‘Irene’ proved to be a fitting closer.
Joe Pug burst on to the stage and the mutter era was over from the get go. He seemed much more confident and comfortable than last I saw him live. Plenty of storytelling, jokes, opining on drinking (or the recanting thereof) the almost inevitable Trump references (the expression of post-election heartfelt embarrassment from the US music fraternity is rife these days).
The set was a little surprisingly focussed on Pug’s earlier release Messenger and he certainly garnered much recognition and delight from the faithful here. Many introductions were greeted with audible joy and Pug whipped the songs for all their worth. He used the stage with grace and warmth.
For these pair of ears, those older songs came flooding back and, while there’s plenty of lyrical repetition in many of them, some of his catch phrases are brilliant and unforgettable – eg “Before we met I knew we’d meet”. New songs largely centred around the keyboard and were powerful vehicles for Pug’s passionate voice, memorable melodies and harmonica work.
He shined particularly on ‘Stronger Than The World’ (sans microphone), the reflective ‘Not So Sure’, the emotionally honest ‘Hymn #101’, ‘Veteran Fighter’, the soaring ‘If Still It Can’t Be Found’ and on his cover of the great Billy Joe Shaver’s ‘I’m Just An Old Chunk Of Coal’.
To accentuate the notion that this was a night for two artists to share, Pug invited Andrews back on stage for the latter to do an excellent reading of ‘Rookie Dreaming’. What ensued was a duet of the Tom Petty/Steve Nicks’ song ‘Insider’ and proceedings closed with Pug taking us through ‘Start All Over Again’.
All in all, a spellbinding night from two highly-talented performers. Pug and Andrews’ matching turned out to be a master stroke.