Damien Jurado is a musician for whom measured emotion and singer-songwriter inclinations are as intuitive as breathing. His work is intensely personal but not necessarily unwelcoming. He plays to those who revel in the experience of … well, experiencing things. There is a lived-in quality to his records, the kind of comfort and familiarity that breeds a communal music spirit. And as Chattanooga evinces this sort of collective creativity, it would seem natural that Jurado’s beatific visions would echo gleefully from the Market Street Bridge to the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. And last night at JJ’s Bohemia, that is exactly what happened.
JJ’s Bohemia has always been an intimate venue, its raucous and open-ended environment notwithstanding. But it also evokes the kind of laid-back informality that musicians seem to feed off of during any particular concert. There’s no distance to the stage; you can walk right up and look an artist in the eyes as they sing. To be able to do that is something of a minor miracle these days, and JJ’s revels in its inclusive nature. But the night wasn’t just about the noise that Jurado brought to the stage (which he subtly tore apart); this was a night for all the artists to glow and radiate from the stage.
Chattanooga rockers Okinawa took the stage and quickly jumped into a fiery and chest-thumping set of bucolic indie rock barnburners. The music was loud, occasionally sludgy and always primed to rattle the bones in your body. But despite their indie rock heritage, the band never once fell back on any generic platitudes or genre homogeny. These songs swept along at a brisk pace, leaving smoking craters wherever they came to rest. There was also a certain mischievousness laced throughout their songs that expelled itself by way of thudding bass lines, spry fretwork and a sturdy percussive skeleton.
The music was dense and muscular, though it seemed to pass by in the blink of an eye. They could have played on for another hour and it would have suited everyone in attendance. Lead singer Charles Allison revealed that the band is currently working on a new record, and if their performance was any indication, we are in for one wild ride when they finally release it. They wound down their set with a whirlwind of cacophonous melodies and raucous rhythms, and we were left anxious for more.
New York singer-songwriter Doug Keith was up next, and his acoustic narratives, aided by an impressive pedal collection, was the perfect cool down to Okinawa's rush of adrenaline. His acoustic guitar was a balm to the ache in the room, a persuasive force that allowed us to consider the twang and snap of every plucked string. His music was tied to the folk and blues of decades long since passed, but the songs possessed a modern heart that gave Keith the ability to channel a modern affection and frustration through the lens of the past.
His complex finger work and mesmerizing melodies held us all captive, motionless, afraid to miss a single moment. With some effects courtesy of his pedals, he cast a brilliant and gorgeous net of picked tones and strummed rhythms across the entire room. He played two covers, one by Elizabeth Cotton and one by Sam Cooke—and both sounded revolutionary in their simplicity. He evoked the longing and incandescence of each artist with just a few quick motions of his fingers. Keith is a storyteller who revels in the smallest details of his songs. Everything is perfectly placed to draw out the largest emotional response, and we were more than happy to provide the reaction that he was looking for.
When it came time for Damien Jurado to take the stage, he did so with little fanfare and quickly went to work constructing gorgeous and glacial fragments of heartbreaking folk beauty. His voice is unusually intuitive; it knows just how to evade our defenses and lays waste to the walls we build up around us. His songs are so intimate and personal that it seems somehow inappropriate that we are there to witness these revelations. Armed with only an acoustic guitar, he shattered any preconceptions we might have had about the possibility of uncovering a wide and feral creativity built around such simple means.
But in his case, these simple means were far more complex than that description might suggest. As each song was laid out, we were given time to reflect on the wonder and unique makeup of each offering. With his voice at times no more than a whisper, it often felt like we were witnessing something sacred and far removed from the false sentimentality of some secular music. Jurado was taking us to church and we didn't even know it.
As his set wore on and left echoing impressions in our heads, we began to hear the underlying emotional complications that fed into each track. What appeared simple on the surface soon gave way to depths of unlimited measure and weight. His voice carried a gravity that spoke to the history in his work, to the long days on tour and hours away from loved ones. Drawn from the same musical cloth as artists like Elliott Smith and Nick Drake, Jurado provided both an intensely private evening of music and a series of songs that searched for—and found—countless communal truths. The stage at JJ's Bohemia was torn down and rebuilt in his image, a rare feat for someone with just an acoustic guitar.
Throughout the night, we were given brief glimpses into the gears and arteries of musicians whose work feeds directly into the blood. We were all drunk on the joy casually poured out from a selection of amps and wires and microphones. All these artists gave us something incredibly personal and precious, and with their music swirling around in our heads as the evening faded away, we closed our eyes and heard it again in our memories. And the air was once again filled with music.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.