Joe Pug is no stranger to the Canopy Club—he has been a regular act in Urbana every year since 2008. And he’s definitely built a following, because the line to get in wrapped from the door of Canopy, down the street and around the corner. Needless to say, it was a good decision to move the show from the smaller stage, where Joe had played in the past, to the main stage.
The show, set to start at 10:30, didn’t really get rolling until 10:50. The crowd was antsy and ready for Joe, but the tension was slightly subsidized by Jeremy Davis Miller, the first and only opener. Miller, who looked like he should join the Fleet Foxes (HUGE beard) played solo for most of his set. His songs were pretty goofy. One was called ‘Cigarettes’ (“Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, he proclaimed, pointlessly, seeing as Canopy Club is non-smoking), and then—no joke—two consecutive songs called Radio; one about a radio and one about his dog, Radio. His friend Rebecca came on for his last two songs. She looked extremely mortified and we could hardly hear her, but it was a nice idea.
Jeremy, his girl, and his beard left the stage. The crowd was sufficiently warmed up for Joe Pug. Hot for him, even. Fits of chanting broke out, “JOE PUG, JOE PUG,” we yelled, and around 11:45, Joe and his band came to the stage. There were just three of them—Joe, who did the singing, harmonica and rhythmic guitar playing, a guy on stand-up bass and a guy on lead guitar (who is from Urbana). The show started with ‘Nobody’s Man,’ a track off of his 2008 EP Nation of Heat and the crowd was immediately put under Joe’s spell.
He continued on with a mix of old and new songs, all of which were well-received by the crowd: ‘How Good You Are,’ ‘Hymn 101’ and ‘I Do My Father’s Drugs,’ to name a few. He sprinkled occasional conversations with the audience. He told us about getting upgraded to a suite at the Lincoln Lodge in Urbana, “which is like a normal hotel room, but a little bigger,” he said, grinning. Three-fourths of the way through the set, the band left the stage and Joe asked for the lights to be brought down; it was just him and us.
It is kind of hard to describe the essence of Joe Pug when he performs live without using the phrase, “sings his heart out.” There’s something in it that can’t really be captured in studio recording, which goes for all music fundamentally, but this music of genre particularly. It was every furrow of his brow and blow of his harmonica, each smooth note sang and sideways smile given, the resonance of the sounds and the pureness of the energy and his real gratitude towards the audience.
The band came on for the last couple of songs and ended the show with a rousing ‘Speak Plainly Diana,’ which got us all dancing and singing and clapping—the energy was tangible. They left the stage and came back almost immediately for an encore, which consisted of a new song, ‘Hymn 76,’ and the title track off of his 2010 album Messenger. I think it’s safe to say that everyone left the show that night with a smile matching Joe’s on their face—it was a great show and I can’t wait for him to come back (hopefully) next year…after all, he did agree with the loud, drunk guy next to me in the audience. “Yes, Champaign does roll deep,” Joe confirmed.