If I Go 10,000 Miles Joe Pug + Bonny Light Horseman at Levon Helm Studios 2/7/20
WOODSTOCK, NY — “I didn’t realize you would be standing all around us,” Anaïs Mitchell remarked to audience members gazing down from the balcony behind the stage. “I’m missing a couple of buttons to the back of my dress!” Over the crowd’s chuckling, Josh Kaufman deadpanned, “And my shirt has no back at all –” prompting a fresh wave of laughter.
Multiply that lighthearted warmth a hundredfold and you’ll have a sense of the evening at Levon Helm Studios. Mitchell and Kaufman, along with Eric D. Johnson of Fruit Bats, form folk supergroup Bonny Light Horseman. The group’s co-bill with the superlative Joe Pug prompted my first pilgrimage to the Woodstock, New York, studio and performance space.
“Pilgrimage” may seem an excessive descriptor, but if you’ve been to The Barn, you get it. The day before the show, while scrolling through Instagram to get a sense of the venue layout and sight-lines, I paused at a photo with a two-word caption: “Church tonight.”
Any room filled with song feels shielded from the cacophony outside the doors. But something about Levon Helm Studios is particularly sacred. It’s in the DNA of the venue, of course, designed by the drummer and vocalist in the standard-bearers of Americana known simply as “The Band”. (“Inevitably, they’re going to be identified as Bob Dylan’s band, but not even Dylan calls them that,” Rolling Stone wrote in 1968.) You’ve heard of the famous Midnight Rambles, but perhaps you didn’t know that the first record cut in The Barn, in 1975, was by seminal bluesman Muddy Waters. The magic of the space is enhanced by contrast from city venues with their metal barricades and warehouse feel. There’s no L train re-route to deal with, either — just my ace photographer friend Anthony (whose work you should check out here), driving us through rain that was turning into snow, one car headlight out, the remaining solitary beam lighting up a small sign: “Plochmann Lane.”
From the main road, we take a winding path and stop at a small wooden guard shack where one volunteer checks our names off a list and hands us photo passes. Another volunteer directs us to a parking space in a small field (“careful, it’s muddy!” he cautions as I step out). When I enter the bi-level venue, I swear you can feel as much hear the warm acoustics of the hemlock and pine beams.
All of this is part of the Levon Helm Studios’ mystique, for sure. But it’s also more than that. Sometimes answers are beyond facts and data. I found mine within the reverent hush and rapt attention of the room as first Joe Pug and then Bonny Light Horseman took the floor. Folks don’t drive four-plus hours round-trip on a cold weeknight for a show unless they care deeply about the bands. It manifests belief that investing time in music is investing in the better part of our humanity.
That belief in the necessity of song is a passcode that unlocks the now, that frees us from linear time and — to crib from John Berger — offers a shelter in which “the future, present, and past can console, provoke, ironize, and inspire one another.”
I am right now
I am back then
I will return
Don’t ask me when
– Joe Pug, “Hymn #35”
Songs wrap us in the cocoon of a story and transform us for a while. We see through another pair of eyes; we travel down an unfamiliar stretch of road. And by coming tonight, we’ve implicitly agreed to journey together.
On a highway west of Davenport and Kansas
In the moonlight of a broken Red Roof Inn
No night is dark enough
To tell you where I been
– Joe Pug, “Exit”
Such communal experiences are sorely needed as ecosystems and republics crumble around us. We need storytelling that helps us remember and imagine — memory tells us we’ve made it through darkness before, and imagination allows us to envision a more just world. I’m thinking here of the words of Bryan Stevenson, the crusader for criminal justice reform portrayed by Michael B. Jordan in the film “Just Mercy” — “hopelessness in the enemy of justice. If you want to do [this] work, you have to be prepared to believe things you haven’t seen.” And I’m also thinking of these words, from a southern folk song:
Bright morning stars are rising
Bright morning stars are rising
Bright morning stars are rising
Day is breaking in my soul
– Bonny Light Horseman, “Bright Morning Stars” (traditional)
In his Working Songwriter podcast conversation with Mitchell, Pug said, “I think the ultimate goal [in] writing songs, is ironically to write a song so good that 50 to 100 years from now, nobody knows who wrote it.” The song will “just say ‘Traditional’ to the side of it.”
I think I understand what he means. And that’s how I feel about the songs we heard that night, both Joe Pug’s secular hymns and Bonny Light Horseman’s re-imagining of English, Irish, and Appalachian folk standards. Some refer to specific places and people, but all contain the seeds of the universal. Departure and return. Hope shattered and renewed. You and me. We can feel the power in these words simply reading them on screen. Now imagine the stories as voiced by these musicians beneath the rafters of The Barn, the main source of illumination the strands of golden lights winding around the wooden beams, running along the staircase, reflected in the ebony polish of the baby grand.
It’s “beauty so sharp it makes your tongue burn,” M.C. Taylor (Hiss Golden Messenger) wrote in the liner notes to the Bonny Light Horseman record.
So sharp, and bone-deep. It’d been too long since I’d heard Joe’s songs live, and in the opening measures of “Hymn #35,” I was too parched to do anything but drink it in, camera held loosely by my side.
It makes your tongue burn and your breath catch. I remember having trouble changing my lens at one point during Bonny Light Horseman’s set. When I looked down, my hands were shaking. Shaking as if this was the first and not the hundred-and-first show I’ve shot.
Such beauty. In listening, you feel you may weep for the impossibility of ever fully understanding another human being or being fully understood yourself. Still, we try to bridge the distance between us with songs.
When a friend asked the next day about the show, I told him I shouldn’t be allowed near the English language. “Joe’s lyrics are a masterclass in writing. The f*ck have I been doing all this time?” I groused in admiration of Pug’s craftsmanship and also in a bit of panic, knowing I’d tasked myself with the impossible — finding words adequate to capture the evening.
Dylan may be an overused reference point, but where it comes to harnessing the rhythm and sound of words, and fitting so much meaning into just a few lines, the comparison to the Nobel laureate (or another master, John Prine) is a compliment of which Joe Pug is very worthy. I’ll share some favorite lines, though anything short of quoting the lyrics in their entirety feels like a disservice. Pug distills the messiness of the human condition into songs, and he does so with effective wordplay that steers well clear of clichés. Take “Hymn #101,” for instance, off the Nation of Heat EP (2009):
I’ve come to meet the legendary takers
I’ve only come to ask them for a lot
They say I’ve come with less than I should rightfully possess
I say the more I buy the more I’m bought
And the more I’m bought the less I cost.
These couplets contain an inherent musicality even apart from the melody of the song. My study group spent an entire term reading Volume 1 of Das Kapital, but Pug fits both description and critique of commodification right there in five lines.
My first encounter with these songs was in spring 2015, a few months after the release of Windfall. With their sure-footed hopefulness, they were exactly what I needed both in the bracing message and the reminder of the power of stories to narrow the distance between us and ease the existential terror: Every inch of anguish, laid out side by side, cannot make a full yard the measure of our lives. The thoughtful arrangements in Windfall — produced by Duane Lundy (Sturgill Simpson, Miles Nielsen, Dawn Landes) — fill out the songs beautifully. There’s mellotron from Wilco’s Pat Sansone and an assortment of guitars and pedal steel, harmonies from Pug’s folk-pop friends in Vandaveer, and JT Bates on drums.
For The Flood in Color (2019), though, Pug wanted to return to the basics. The more minimalist approach, guided by the sensibilities of The Milk Carton Kids’ Kenneth Pattengale, serves these songs well. If you’ve seen Pug at a solo show, you know well that the burnished core is something special — the poetry, the voice that conveys equal parts assurance and yearning, an acoustic guitar and harmonica. As Pattengale relates of the new album, it’s “live band and live vocals, no flashy production—as lean as can be.”
That leanness allows the powerful songwriting to take center stage with their everyman honesty and heartland imagery. The solitude of the road, a neon motel sign cutting through the dark. Waking up to a flooded basement. Stringing up Christmas lights in a nondescript room. The accumulation of years and miles making strangers out of lovers.
I quoted Hymn #101 above, and I’ll share a different line here — you’ve come to known me stubborn as a butcher. It calls to mind a parable that, for me, gets at Pug’s remarkable ability to study the contours of our lives and cut through to the essentials.
The story I’m thinking of is the “The Dexterous Butcher” from a famous 4th-century Chinese text, Zhuangzi. It describes a cook carving up an ox — the heave of his shoulder, the movement of his feet — he slithers the knife along in perfect rhythm, as if keeping time to ancient music. The nobleman praises his cook for this skillfulness, and the cook explains: A mediocre butcher changes his knife once a month, because he hacks. A good butcher changes his knife once a year, because he cuts. But he himself has not sharpened the knife for nineteen years because he doesn’t see the ox — he sees the spaces between the joints, where his knife can move with no resistance.
And so it is with these songs. We cast aside excess words, excuses, rationalizations, and carve straight to the heart of the matter. Flood in Color invites us in with a paradoxical “Exit” — over the unassuming guitar and harmonica, Pug delivers a clear-eyed narrative: I will find you in the arms of yet another, I will find you in her medicated eyes — No god is cruel enough, no god is cruel enough … to pay me back in kind. Despite the heaviness of the subject matter, the songs contain a glowing ember of steady determination. Take “After Curfew,” for instance — we could interpret it as a veiled political statement (the imagery makes me think of Joseph McCarthy leading the Hunger Games), but the refrain is gently insistent: You are not fragile, you are not fragile. The underlying currents of the organ buoy us up. Throughout The Flood in Color, touches of violin, piano, and pedal steel add texture and warmth.
On this tour, Pug is joined by Matthew P. Wright and Geoffrey Muller on keys and upright bass, respectively — familiar faces for fans of David Ramirez and Robert Ellis. Wright recently released Kitchen Songs (a beautifully hushed set of songs that he really did record in his kitchen), and has been opening Pug’s shows. I was lucky to catch Pug & co. twice on this run — first at Levon Helm Studios, and a week later at Brooklyn’s Rough Trade, where the crowd sang along to so many songs.
I’d be remiss not to mention the banter, which is as darkly hilarious as the songs are beautiful. “Matthew Wright, ladies and gentleman,” Pug said at Rough Trade, graciously pausing while we applaud for the talented fellow doing double-duty as opener and bandmate. “He just put out a new album, which he has here tonight. If you can buy only one album — ” here, Pug pause again. “If you can buy only one, make it mine. But if you can buy two, you should get his as well.”
Pug breaks mid-set with “I Don’t Work in a Bank,” and I love watching the audience’s faces when they encounter the song for the first time. There’s trepidation — am I allowed to laugh … is this is a parody? The confusion invariably disappears a third of the way through, when Pug intones: I don’t work in a bank, you knew that when we met — so put that dress back on the rack and live with your regret. The crowd lets out a collective “ha!” and even Pug can’t conceal the impish grin. (“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t post that one,” he says at the end. “My wife hasn’t heard it yet.”)
I could go on for pages about how much I love this guy’s music and live shows, but each sentence I write in an attempt to fix the inadequacy of the previous one just takes me farther from the mark. To sum up: I commend Joe Pug’s songs to you. This Spotify primer is a good place to start.
I quoted earlier from Pug’s Working Songwriter podcast episode with Anaïs Mitchell, in which he praises “Why We Build the Wall” as one of those songs that, decades from now, will be so firmly rooted in the musical lexicon that the exact origins are lost and we know of it only as a “traditional” song passed down through generations and across oceans. (The song appears in Hadestown, Mitchell’s folk opera that’s now a Broadway musical with eight Tonys and a Grammy.)
That timeless quality suffuses the Bonny Light Horseman record. These are, as Eric D. Johnson described, “[s]ongs that are gonna make you feel something no matter what century you’re in.” The three — each a formidable musician — came together as an alchemical experiment to create modern folk gold. I’ve heard Mitchell’s voice described as flute-like but I’ve yet to formulate my own description for the sweetly haunting quality of it, like a songbird alighting on a branch for just a moment before flitting off again into the piercing sunlight. Combined with the warm vintage earnestness of Johnson’s voice (several of my favorite musicians refer to him as their favorite), and the brilliance of multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman, the trio works so well that we easily forget they joined forces only recently. Their friends are a who’s who of indie rock, too. Aaron Dessner (The National, Big Red Machine) and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon (who co-created 37d03d, a musicians’ collective and the label that put out Bonny Light Horseman) contribute to the recordings. So does Lisa Hannigan. Fans of The National will recognize her from “The Pull Of You,” her voice in perfect equipoise between crushing vulnerability and highbrow indignation — and it’s so very effective on this album, too (listen to the chorus of “Blackwaterside”).
The idea of folk standards may sound stuffy, but the result is far from that. The Irish-English ballad that lends its name to the supergroup is a lament to life lost to Napoleon’s battlefields, but it could well refer to the casualty of any modern war. In “The Roving,” we notice a lover’s straying gaze, a telltale sign regardless of the epoch — but there’s an update that pulls the quaint phrasing into the 21st century, as it is Mitchell who delivers the line: I knew her love was changing by the roving of her eye. “Jane Jane” (listen to Johnny Cash’s take on this old gospel song) is a children’s counting song that, in BLH’s hands, is enticingly lively despite (or because of?) being a bit unsettling. There’s a preternatural push and pull between Mitchell and Johnson here, the call-and-response alternating in a major and minor key, nestled within acoustic and electric guitars like layers of fresh-fallen snow, soft and bright.
On tour, Mitchell, Johnson, and Kaufman are joined by the aforementioned JT Bates on drums and Annie Nero on bass. They’re excellence personified, but more than that, they’re having such excellent fun on stage that the whole room glows with joy. Mitchell relayed a story about her six-year-old daughter who, during soundcheck, noticed that Joe Pug did not have a drummer. Ramona sat down behind the kit, ready for action, then scampered downstairs to the dressing room because — as she explained with great seriousness to her mom — it was time to change into her show clothes. I picture a little kid running past the wall on which bands have scribbled messages to Levon’s spirit, a portion dedicated to strips of console marking tape — notes from nights behind mixing boards. Talismans, maybe, to inspire the sessions and shows to come.
What precious moments and memories.
Bonny Light Horseman closed out the night in true communal fashion, inviting friends up to the stage. If memory serves, Amy Helm joined for “Bright Morning Stars,” and Erin Rae and Nate Vanderpool for “Wild Mountain Thyme.” The final song was Bobby Charles‘ “I Must Be in a Good Place Now,” with Pug taking some of the bucolic verses.
Dream of my yesterdays and tomorrow. I want to live within the warmth of Johnson’s gaze at his bandmates and in Mitchell’s answering smile. I want to dive deep into the moments when Kaufman closes his eyes and works his magic on guitar, when Bates is watching, listening, grinning, just playing his heart out.
I want to find the answers amidst the unburied treasure of Pug’s songs. I want to never miss the enactment of the ritual in which we find the way forward together, singing along to these words:
If it’s not beyond this river, it’s beyond the rest
And if still it can’t be found, it’s probably for the best
If still it can’t be found, it’s probably for the best —
Pair that with the closing song on the Bonny Light Horseman record:
But I’ll be back, if I go 10,000 miles, if I go 10,000 miles.
Maybe the distance between us isn’t so insurmountable after all.
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