I sometimes worry about overselling acts that I review; afterall, I have certain tastes in music that I don't expect everyone to share. That being said, if you were to be in the same room with Vandaveer and Joe Pug as they performed -- and didn't like them -- there might be something wrong with you. That was the primary impression I came away with on Wednesday night at Skull Alley.
I had already caught Vandaveer a few weeks ago opening for Mark Olson (Jayhawks) at the Rudyard Kipling, and what I heard was impressive enough to catalyze a minor musical obsession. Vandaveer are Lexington native Mark Charles Heidinger and vocalist Rose Guerin, who does indeed sing like an angel, as Heidinger readily describes her.
While Heidinger's lead vocals and guitar playing provide the emotional grounding force driving the songs, Guerin is able to harmonize with wonderful range and flexibility, her voice filling in the gaps of where he isn't, to paraphrase the baseball analogy, of songs like "A Minor Spell" and "Fistful of Swoon." High or low, whispering soft or full-throated, her voice naturally flows into the songs' twists and refrains, creating an indelible impression on anyone lucky enough to be within ear-shot. Most easily, you could call it folk-rock, swinging into a jazzy, cabaret sort of vibe at times. They were joined by Louisville musician Cheyenne Mize on fiddle and backing vocals for a few songs, most notably, a beautiful cover of John Prine's "Muhlenberg County."
Headliner Joe Pug took the stage with Rocco Labriola on pedal steel and Matt Schuessler on stand-up bass to perform a strong set of songs from his EP Nation of Heat and first full-length CD, Messenger.
Pug's lyrics go straight for the gut in layered, complex songs that he delivers with absolute conviction. Playing guitar and harmonica, Pug's voice is distinctive, bringing to mind early Tom Waits (before he swallowed the chain-link fence), Prine, and even Dylan at times. I heard someone else mention John Hiatt, who is another good marker. (I don't intend for such comparisons to be completely accurate -- just to give those who are unfamiliar a sort of ballpark idea of where he lands on the spectrum.)
Pug's repertoire goes between alt-country and rock to brooding folk. He's a literary wordsmith as much at home singing about beer cans and breakups as Thomas Jefferson and the clash of ideas. He ended the night by calling back Vandaveer for a rousing rendition of the Tom Waits song, "Old Shoes."
It was a night of really fine music by artists who are notably more humble than many who are far less talented. You should definitely try to catch both acts when they come back around to the area.