Jake Bugg had very little to hide behind when he closed the Three Rivers Arts Festival Sunday evening. His clothing consisted of shoes, jeans, and a white T-shirt, and his band totaled three: a bassist, a drummer, and himself. Plus, the Dollar Bank Stage offers little in effects, a few white lights and a single row of colored ones for mood.
Sure, Bugg’s got his reputation. Two well-received LPs in the past two-and-a-half years, the second of them, Shangri La, produced by Rick Rubin. A few EPs sprinkled in. Successful appearance at SXSW–check that. Then there’s the British press putting him at the end of a line that starts with Johnny Cash and includes acts from Donovan to Oasis.
But that kind of hype can make the cynicism bone flair, especially when considering Bugg’s age (20) and haircut (think Revolver-era George Harrison). When Bugg takes the stage, he better be brilliant, as they say across the pond.
He was. Brilliant, that is.
“There’s a Beast and We All Feed It,” the first track from Shangri La, was also the show’s opener. Bugg and his band, drummer Jack Atherton and bassist Tom ‘Robbo’ Robertson, thrashed through it, establishing early on that many of the live cuts were going to be a little rowdier than their album versions.
“Trouble Town” followed. The folk song, a lament to “speed bump city / where the only thing that’s pretty / is the thought of getting out,” showcased Bugg’s ability to sing and sustain those whole notes. His head-turning voice—part Dylan, part English country lad, part buzzing insect—may be his greatest gift of all.
“Seen It All,” which details the speaker’s account of a stabbing, came next. Bugg teased the ominous intro with a few additional picks of his guitar. He finished it by elongating the ending, the feedback-laden sound drawing cheers from the audience.
Then, something amazing happened. The smartphones in the air—the ones that block your view and make you watch a live show on a six-inch, megapixel screen—disappeared. Before the show started, WYEP’s Joey Spehar, on behalf of the band, asked that the audience only take pictures during the first three songs. Call it a Father’s Day miracle.
A few hip fathers and mothers were at Point State Park, happy to be spending their Father’s Day at the crowded Point. More common were 20-something hipsters and the usual teenyboppers.
The crowd’s enthusiasm reached its zenith during “Two Fingers.” This kiss-off to the past had the audience singing, and the “boom chicka boom” of the drums kept them dancing. Some audience members were confused, though, as to whether the “two fingers” referred to a peace sign or to two middle fingers. (It’s a combination, actually. In the U.K., a “peace” sign, palm inward, means quite the opposite of peace.)
Mid-set, the bassist and drummer left the stage, and Bugg performed a few ballads solo. The best of these was “Broken,” which gave the audience an opportunity to hear his vocal range. Female fans screamed their appreciation.
The full band was soon back with the same intensity, although the crowd didn’t start moving again until “Taste It,” to which Bugg added an extended, shredded guitar solo. Indeed, he showcased much of his guitar prowess during the concert’s second half.
“Slumville Sunrise” saw the band at their most rockabilly, and “Hercules,” an Aaron Neville cover, proved they could funk with the best of them. With “What Doesn’t Kill You,” Bugg must have been singing 200 words per minute, yet his enunciation was spot on.
Perhaps taking a cue from Lucinda Williams, who had performed “Rockin’ in the Free World” at the festival the day before, Bugg chose Neil Young’s “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” as the evening’s penultimate song. Bugg’s tenor was perfect for covering Young, and both the audience and the lighting went mad when Bugg reached the line about “a Johnny Rotten.”
“Lightning Bolt” closed the set, with Bugg and his band forgoing the folk for the rock. Each musician got a small solo during a bridge that was added mid-song. Once finished, Bugg, who didn’t talk much during the show, made sure to thank both the crowd and Pittsburgh.
It All Adds Up
The concert ended 10 minutes earlier than scheduled, and it did not include an encore. Still, the numbers broke down like this: 20 songs played plus 70 degree temperatures plus zero clouds. It’ll be hard to find a better formula with which to close next year’s Arts Festival.
Photos by Chris Maggio