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All right. I’ll just put this out there: Joe’s a friend of mine. You may think this makes me biased when it comes to reviewing something that he’s created, but it really doesn’t, for two reasons: 1). I’m always honest when it comes to art, and 2). I’m not nice.
When I first saw Joe perform solo, I remember thinking “okay, okay, good lyrics, good songs, but…” and that ‘but’ wasn’t even defined until later, while listening to some sad-sack acoustic whatever at home and deciding that most men and their guitars need more friends—friends with basses and drum kits. Unless you’re Jeff Buckley, Elliott Smith, Dylan, or Jesus it’s unlikely that you’re capable of sitting alone on stage and convincing the audience that your pain is their pain (and lest we forget that all three of those artists plugged it in/turned it up at some point during their careers (Jesus too. Would it be tasteless to call him the original “rock revivalist?”). Most musicians require something…meaty—a guttural oomph, a pathetically somber guitar twang, even a steady, explicit beat. I’m sorry that I have to say this; in a dream world a man and his guitar could (and would) be enough—enough to convey the emotion behind a simple prose verse. But before words there was sound, and I feel comfortable emphasizing the importance of having a full, distinct sound. Basically, I’m just tired of the “singer-songwriter,” which is a horrible descriptor, because all singers should also be songwriters (and yes, I realize the naïveté of that statement. Let’s move on).
Joe’s sound is one that requires a bit of concentration; he mumbles sometimes, and occasionally pulls back from the microphone. It’s as engaging as it is frustrating (as someone who writes about music), since there were a few moments where I felt tempted to yell something socially inept, like “Can you please repeat that line, I forgot to take notes!” While he doesn’t have the voice to satisfy Belle and Sebastian fans, I’m so tearfully grateful that his style fails to suggest a twee wet dream about to flood (there’s a time and place for sedate little ponderings about cute girls at the coffee shop, like at the coffee shop). He’s not obscure at all, and I might even describe what he’s doing as obvious, but with the trickiness of semantics, I don’t want our readers to think I’m calling his music trite or played out. The contrary, actually, I use ‘obvious’ in the same way that someone might say “I understand what you’re doing because I feel the same.”
It’s also obvious that Joe is interested in the technical side of music-making; listen to his covers—“Bennie and the Jets” is no longer a showy, middle-age foot stomper (bless Elton John), instead he performs it understated, stripped of flamboyance; there’s even a slight bucolic quality (its sparse rhythm lends itself to late-night country driving). Isaac Hayes’s “Shaft” theme (you heard me) is similarly made-under as a cool, semi-serious/still-funny, semi-foxy/still-funny tribute to the greatest, self-proclaimed sex machine (intermixed with Dionne Warwick’s “Walk On By”; admittedly, I didn’t recognize this at first, or it didn’t register; a testament to Joe’s musical reupholstering?). Besides the covers, Joe reserved ample time for original songs, most of which, I’d assume, are candidates for his upcoming record. “Oh Lilly” is catchy enough, an anti-weepy reflection on heartache and heartbreak that ends with the question no girl ever wants to hear (“You know I want you / but do I need you?”). “Keep it Together,” one of my faves from earlier shows, resonated better with the addition of the band; other songs were played solo and sounded fine, if not slightly incomplete. Perhaps this feeling was amplified by how awkwardly everyone repositioned themselves/left the stage; I thought maybe they were practicing for the encore “fake-out.” Awkwardness notwithstanding (and let’s be real here, who doesn’t appreciate a few minutes of uncomfortable silence to buy more beer?), I thoroughly enjoyed the music and thoroughly recommend it, and yes, my biases are showing. I don’t care, go support the rock.
Joe and his guitar are playing every Thursday this month at the 400 Bar in Minneapolis. He’s joined on stage by John Taillon (bass) and Dave Mehling (drums). For more information: Myspace and 400 Bar.