Jake Bugg at First Avenue, 1/17/14
Photo by Erik Hess
With Albert Hammond Jr. and the Skins
First Avenue, Minneapolis
Friday, January 17, 2014
Jake Bugg fittingly covered Neil Young's "My My, Hey Hey" during his encore at a sold-out First Avenue on Friday night. At that moment, it became quite clear that if the 19-year-old singer/songwriter keeps going at this rate, he will no doubt play a part in the future of rock 'n' roll. That's not to say that Bugg is leading some sort of rock revival that sweeps through the music world every few years -- far from it.
Bugg's decidedly retro style and sound is a throwback to the days when Bob Dylan made the brazen transition from folk to electric, with plenty of skiffle and Brit Pop influences thrown in for good measure. And that potent combination was more than enough to transfix the packed club during Bugg's stellar 70-minute set.
Bugg was backed by a drummer and bassist, who both were set up on the back corners of the stage to accentuate the fact that this was Jake's music as well as his moment. And while both unintroduced musicians were serviceable and innocuous, some of the best moments of the set were when Bugg played solo, begging the question if he might be better served ditching the band entirely. His songs and his talent are enough to carry a show on their own.
Photos by Erik Hess
Bugg and the band took to the stage to the weathered strains of Robert Johnson's "Cross Road Blues," perhaps a subtle revelation that Jake might already be in the midst of a creative conflict, while also paying a tasteful homage to his inspirations. The set took a while to fully find a spark, however, as the quick little ditty, "There's a Beast and We All Feed It" and "Trouble Town" breezed by without much of an impact. A rousing "Seen It All" got things going, though you have to question just how much Bugg has indeed witnessed in his scant 19 years.
Bugg does need to work on his showmanship a bit, as he muttered sincere but barely audible words of thanks between songs and little else, content to let his music carry the show. It left the audience to connect with his songs and not his personality or charm. Bugg is resolutely focused on his music, and is on quite a prolific creative run at this point, having released two well-received records in quick succession, and the set drew equally from both albums. "Storm Passes Away" had a classic '50s pulse to it, with echoes of the Everly Brothers layered in the melody and tones of the track, while the anthemic "Two Fingers" epitomized a brash, youthful confidence, and caused much of the audience to mistakenly hold up peace signs during the rousing chorus instead of the impudent British gesture.
Bugg switched to electric guitar for a couple of spirited numbers, "Messed Up Kids" and "Ballad of Mr. Jones," which featured expansive lyrics atop a bluesy beat, augmented by moody red lighting and a brief but scorching guitar solo from Bugg -- while also serving as a salute to Dylan himself and his indelible takedown of the Joneses of the world in "Ballad of a Thin Man." The band then ceded the stage entirely to Bugg for a couple of solo acoustic numbers that proved to be the highlights of the set. Tender renditions of "Pine Trees" and "Broken" had First Avenue as quiet as it can get, with Bugg especially losing himself in the disconsolate chorus of "Broken," as his aching vocals rang true throughout the club.
From there the set truly ignited, as the band returned to the stage for the simmering, Oasis-like churn of "Simple Pleasures," and the skiffle-like stomp of "Green Man," which again featured a rollicking guitar solo from Bugg, who rips into those incisive riffs as casually as if he's tying his shoes. It all appears to just come so easy and natural to Bugg when he is performing, reminiscent of world-class athletes who make even the most difficult moves look simple enough to deceive novices into believing that they can pull them off. Bugg's songs are rather uncluttered and straightforward, but they are catchy enough to keep a crowd's attention while being deep enough to belie the age of their author.
Photo by Erik Hess
The main set ended with a flurry of fun, spirited songs, with a storming take on "Kingpin" followed quickly by the Buddy Holly-esque charm of "Taste It." Bugg then sped up the verses to "Slumville Sunrise," delivering his lyrics in double time to give the song an added urgency, before bringing the main set to a close with a lively take on his current hit, "What Doesn't Kill You," with the crowd seeing the band off with a rousing, well-earned ovation.
During Bugg's memorable Fine Line show back in August, he debuted a brand new number, "A Song About Love," that would eventually be featured on his recent record, Shangri La. The showstopping version that night was a solo acoustic take that proved to not only be the highlight of that performance, but one of the best musical moments I witnessed that entire year. Sadly, the encore began with a full-band arrangement of "A Song About Love," which robbed the track of its raw, unvarnished beauty. But the song is still gorgeous, and Bugg's plaintive vocals filled the room.
Photo by Erik Hess
"My My, Hey Hey" quickly followed, with Bugg again tipping his cap to an artist he loves, while also serving clear notice that he intends on carrying Neil's creative torch forward, wherever that might lead him. "You've been a wonderful audience," Bugg said affectionately as the house lights briefly raised to let him see the packed room of fans before him. "It's been a real pleasure playing for you." And with that, the show came to an electrifying end with "Lightning Bolt," with Jake soloing away on the front of the stage as a final way of thanking the crowd and further connecting with his audience. Jake Bugg's star is clearly on the rise, and here's hoping that he doesn't burn out or fade away anytime soon.
Personal Bias: While the Fine Line show proved to be a more impressive, intimate introduction to Bugg and his distinctive songs, his talents deserved to be shared with a wider audience, and First Avenue was justifiably packed with fans who were under his spell straight from the start.
The Crowd: A curious mix of Current listeners, Friday-night fun lovers, and older folks who wanted to see and hear what this next "New Dylan" was all about.
Overheard in the Crowd: "He's like a young Dylan." "No, he's like a young Dylan/Oasis."
Random Notebook Dump: Opener Albert Hammond Jr. proved to be a bit of an odd pairing with Bugg and his audience. The Strokes guitarist and his four-piece backing band delivered a ramshackle, uneven set that was full of riffs that echoed his main band but lacked their punch and potency. A well-chosen Guided By Voices cover ("Postal Blowfish") and his best single, "In Transit," gave the shaky set some much-needed direction, but for the most part the set was lethargic and dull, culminating in an abysmal cover of the Misfits' "Last Caress" that was far too tame to be effective or all that interesting.
Photo by Erik Hess
There's a Beast and We All Feed It
Seen It All
Simple As This
Storm Passes Away
Messed Up Kids
Ballad of Mr. Jones
Pine Trees (solo)
What Doesn't Kill You
A Song About Love
My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)(Neil Young)
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