Josh T Pearson tears up Birmingham Glee Club in Unique Fasion
“If it looks like we’ve been up drinking all night, it’s because we have” confesses John T Pearson in his Texan drawl. And he does. Big time. He looks clammy and drawn. I’d been expecting a pristine white suit and a Stetson. Instead, he slouches on stage in 501s, an Urban Cowboy t-shirt and a red Straight Hits baseball cap which he removes to reveal a bleached mullet. He looks more redneck than cowboy. He’s also clean shaven. This unexpected image change was for a video he explains (indeed the ‘Straight At Me’ video will have hit your screens by the time you read this). But the sartorial u-turn isn’t the only change. For Josh’s new album The Straight Hits, he wrote a set of rules: the songs must all have a verse, a chorus and a bridge, the lyrics should be 16 lines or less, the titles should be four words or less and they must all have the word ‘straight’ in them. He also decided these would be lighter than his previous work; he’s done with being a sad bastard and he’s done with performance art.
By the time Pearson takes to the stage, we’ve already met his touring band (including the drummer from Pearson’s previous band Lift to Experience, Andy Young) since they’d joined the stunning support act Erika Wennerstrom for a couple of her numbers. Erika’s swirling and swooping voice reminds me of Kristen Hersh. And her astounding guitarist (Lauren Gurgiolo formerly of Okkervil River) transfixes and beguiles as she plays her guitar whilst simultaneously manipulating a Boss delay (in warp mode she explains to curious enquirers after the set) and an expression pedal like it’s some new form of tai chi.
Pearson’s set opens with the first three songs of the album: the rocking ‘Straight to the Top’, the aforementioned redneck video soundtrack ‘Straight at Me’ and the almost Goofing on Elvis ‘Give It To Me Straight’. But the aching really starts as he plays two songs, ‘Sweetheart I Ain’t Your Christ’ and ‘Women When I’ve Raised Hell’, from his first solo album the heartbreakingly confessional Last Of The Country Gentlemen. His guitar picking is exquisite, his vocals fragile. But when he really lets loose with his voice, oh how it soars. So beautiful and vulnerable. In places it reminds me of Jeff Mangum but way way cooler.
Though he’s clearly buoyed by playing with a band for this tour despite occasional fuck-ups (the bass player has played only three gigs with them, being a member or Erika’s usual band rather than Josh’s), the songs in the solo section of the set, ‘Whisky Straight Love’ and ‘Damn Straight’, somehow make more sense this way than they would with his ensemble and are more potent than they are on the album. When he introduces ‘Whisky Straight Love’, he can’t believe that none of the country boys had ever come up with that line before (drinking whiskey straight to love) “They’re not the sharpest tools in the box” he laughs. Welcoming his band back on stage after the acoustic numbers, he declares they’re going to make some real noise and they launch into a cacophonous and heady rendering of ‘Loved Straight To Hell’.
But the previously hirsute Pearson (clean-shaven for the first time in 15 years) has some apologies to make to the audience. He says he’s sorry if he’s pissed off all the guys who thought they stood a better chance with the girls before they realised how good looking he is without the beard. He’s sorry too if the girls are pissed off now because previously they thought they stood more of a chance with him. The funnies keep coming and he admits he never knows what’s going to come out of his mouth next. To prove this, he tells us a joke: What’s the difference between a chickpea and a garbanzo bean? I wouldn’t let a garbanzo bean on my face. We laugh despite ourselves.
Luckily the swooning, yearning ‘A Love Song (Set Me Straight)’ with its gorgeous trumpet solo and a cover of Neil Halstead’s ‘Yer Feet’ with words almost as beautiful and heartbreaking as Josh’s own (“I was drunk when I met you, I was drunk when you walked out the door”) make me forget all about his awful jokes.
For someone who previously sang such sad sad songs, Pearson is way more entertaining and insightful than I expected. “An unexamined life isn’t worth living. But an over-examined life isn’t worth shit” he tell us. “Nietzsche, infinite loops and all that bollocks”. He promises this is a new positive chapter for him. And that he’s going to release more records. It’s all about the smash hits. The straight hits. I sure hope we can hold him to that promise because this man is worth listening to. Damn straight.
Words + Photos by Tracey Bowen @INeedDirection