136 songs, 9.8 hours. That’s how long Joe Purdy played for on Monday night at the Varsity Theater.
Just kidding, although if the crowd had it their way he would’ve. It’s actually the amount of music a “Joe Purdy” search in my iTunes library produces. I guess you could call this guy prolific. Purdy only (?) played for two hours (or 14 songs, according to the set list I snagged from the stage) and had his faithful following clinging to every note.
At 8 p.m. a red-bearded man in a long black coat appeared center stage, seemingly out of nowhere, to introduce the opening act the Milk Carton Kids (Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan). My friend asked who that was. “Joe Purdy,” I said. A fair question, since no one in the audience freaked out—not like they would upon seeing the bride an hour before the ceremony. The Milk Carton Kids filled their hour quickly, Joey Ryan as the dry-humored raconteur and Kenneth Pattengale as the down-to-business guitar prodigy. Noteworthy digression: the duo’s album Retrospect is free for download on their website. No catches, seriously.
Pattengale and Ryan accompanied Purdy for most of his set, providing back-up vocals, instrumental depth on the bass, mandolin, and pedal steel, and witty commentary. At one point, Ryan interjected that the upcoming song was about Purdy’s resistance to airplanes as he opted to drive 3,000 miles than fly (aptly named “Highways”). Driving cross-country seems to be the modern version of horseback riding, so this fits Purdy’s repertoire nicely. In fact, the band is independently touring in two rental cars. Together the three fedora-wearing men create a rich bluegrass tone reminiscent of early American life, “Pioneer” and “Oregon Trail” being the two opening songs from Purdy’s This American album.
Purdy commented on multiple occasions that we were a “listening audience,” something he deeply appreciated. When somebody sneezed, he offered a “bless you.” When dishes clinked, he quipped mid-song, “just put that anywhere.” He was comfortable enough to take several minutes to tune his guitar, which he lovingly referred to as “Luelle.” In return for our attentiveness, Purdy called for “an audible,” in which he played a song deemed only appropriate in perfect acoustic settings. I had an inkling of what to expect from a Joe Purdy concert and was prepared to sit back in my (much-coveted) seat and simply listen. There were times during upbeat songs when someone tried to start a rhythmic clap, but it didn’t catch on. Neither did the square dancing. If anyone sang along, I didn’t hear them. It wasn’t because we were uninterested. On the contrary, we were entirely enraptured and anything more on our part would take away from the experience.
For the final encore, the folk trio performed a song Purdy wrote about his drive from the Ozarks to California to rehearse for the tour. The verse goes, “I hope I don’t let you down.” My response: no way, José.
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