The two words that guaranteed my attendance at Joe Pernice's gig at Cafe du Nord? Early show. It's shameful, I realize, but I've been exhausted for the better part of the last month and a half transitioning to a new place--apartment downsizing sucks. I'm just happy I made it out for a night.
Joe Pernice, Cafe du Nord, August 30, 2009: According to my records, I last saw Joe Pernice in concert before I started this blog, and I know for certain that I was out of town the last time he visited. Once more, I blame my skewed priorities rather than my lack of interest.
Of course, this time Joe's tour had a hook: These dates would encompass a reading of his book It Feels So Good When I Stop, along with a concert. I'm not particularly married to the idea that rock music has to be a certain way, but I admit to being skeptical of such a pairing--and it appeared that Joe did too. Though he came across as justifiably proud and invested in his novel, he was probably at his most assured when he was allowed to simply play his music.
Then again, if any musician can embark on a literary career without sending a collective cringe through both the listening and reading public, it's Joe Pernice. Even if you didn't know about his MFA, his way with words and characters has always come through in his lyrics. In an attempt to be frugal, I didn't buy his book, but the parts that Joe read were funny, lively, and both familiar and novel, in that way that some of the best books are. The Lou Barlow excerpt (even if the two have never met in person) alone was worth the price of admission.
Thankfully, music dominated the night--which is not a slight on the book. I just mean that Joe is such a gifted singer/songwriter that it'd be a shame to not hear his songs or, in this case, other people's compositions--because, of course, the book has a companion CD, wherein Joe offers his own takes on the tunes that color the characters' lives.
I'm wary of cover albums these days, but as with the reading itself, Joe shook up some of these prejudices. Though he chose some radio hits, such as Del Shannon's "I Go to Pieces" and, in his words, the "creepy" '70s ditty "Chevy Van," I can't say that either are obvious pieces. This wasn't a matter of redoing some song that's already been on a dozen TV commercials. In the case of both aforementioned titles, he simply sounded lovely. The former reminded me of the wonders he can work with classic pop; the latter comically contrasted with his darker, sadder songs.
On "Chevy Van," Joe enlisted James Walbourne from the Pretenders, who had played the Saratoga Mountain Winery the day before, and from Joe's own records. Though Joe both claimed the song was a hit before James' parents even knew each other and had to inform James of the chord changes even as they played it, neither technicality stopped James from adding some truly gorgeous touches to the tune.
Joe also treated us to a handful of his own tracks, including "Bum Leg" and "How Can I Compare," and brought out a couple more players: his brother Bob (thus comprising the Pernice Brothers) and Peyton Pinkerton, his longtime compatriot. These rarer tracks, combined with the equally atypical acoustic treatment, added up to an exceptional delight.
One of the other unforeseen effects of this setup was hearing Joe banter with the audience. Whereas his traditional shows tend to be straight-ahead affairs, he took advantage of the opportunity to explain the songs, both his own and the covers. Unsurprisingly, he was funny, profane, and easy-going. It'd be great to see more of that next time he comes to town.
Straight from England's Lake District, John Cunningham opened the show, and the Pernice Brothers accompanied him on a handful of tracks. Specifically, Joe took the lead vocals while Bob and John played and contributed harmonies. Joe explained how he had received John's CD more than a decade ago after a gig at London's Garage and how that recording turned out to be his favorite of the decade. John's songs were simple and melodic, echoing John Lennon at times. They did, indeed, sound better with Joe at the mic, but the tuneful fundamentals were already intact.
p.s. Hello to everyone coming to my blog from Twitter!