Review: Joe Pug Returns to Chicago with The Flood in Color at the Hideout

If he didn’t have family back east, Joe Pug would live with us in the Windy City.

“They’re fucking up shit in the rest of the country. Chicago’s still got it going on.”

The bluntness of this observation might feel contrary to those familiar with Pug’s brand of songwriting—there are painful musings of lost loves, intimate re-tellings of failures and defeats, and bittersweet odes to regret and redemption.

But this tension, between the serious, solemn poetry and Pug’s gracious, barroom banter, is essential to the success of his live show. And on Thursday, the first of a two-night stint at the Hideout, Pug stayed true to form in support of The Flood in Color, his first studio album since 2015’s Windfall.

The new record is a concise batch of folk tunes—the ten songs clock in at just 24 minutes (the same length as Pug’s debut EP Nation of Heat). And it’s this brevity that allows The Flood in Color to pack such an emotional punch—by removing the fat Pug has managed to craft some of the most mature and illuminating compositions of his career.

And so, dressed in a simple navy suit and white collared shirt, Pug demonstrated the same restraint onstage, backed by a piano and an upright bass, highlighting his expanding discography. I was struck by how well the older tunes, such as fan favorites “Nation of Heat” and “Hymn 101,” stood next to the new material—it’s a testament to Pug’s authenticity as an artist that every addition to his catalogue seems to contain the same kernel of unique honesty.

It was a real pleasure to hear the new songs for the first time onstage– the cautionary title track from the new record was delivered with the urgency of a sermon, his voice measured and deliberate. And “After Curfew,” with the piercing refrain “you are not fragile, you are not fragile,” was even more poignant after a false start from Pug—“Shit, every night I try to play this in E even though it’s in D… I have to change my harmonica.”

The audience was also treated to “I Don’t Work in a Bank,” a song left off The Flood in Color. Pug claims it was written after a spat with his wife, and contains the line “I don’t work in a bank/You knew that when we met/So put that dress back on the shelf/And live with your regret.” He explained through a boyish smile “I haven’t played that one for her yet…”

And the familiar tunes were given new blood, such as a piano rendition of “If Still It Can’t Be Found” with Pug center stage, sans-guitar, looking like some slick lounge singer gently gripping the mic-stand, and a heartfelt, unplugged “Call It What You Will,” which became an intimate, lullaby of a sing-along.

Joe Pug’s The Flood in Color is out now, and was produced by Kenneth Pattengale from the Milk Carton Kids. Pug’s The Working Songwriter—a monthly conversation with some of today’s most prolific musicians—is available wherever you get your podcasts; a recent episode features Pug discussing the new record in-depth with Strand of Oaks’ Timothy Showalter.

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