For starters, you had to respect Joe Pernice for the degree of difficulty of the tour he is attempting. Working without the safety net of his crack Pernice Brothers cohorts was the least of it. Lots of singer/songwriters do that. But Pernice’s show at Philadelphia’s Tin Angel was advertised as part reading of his new novel and part set of the cover songs he released as a “soundtrack” to accompany the book.
It is with great relief that we report the selections from It Feels So Good When I Stop were entertaining and compelling, both in content and in Pernice’s delivery. There was none of the awkwardness that stifles some author readings or the raging egotism that spoils others. Pernice read with the same keen ear he brings to singing his gorgeous and literate pop songs. He read two sections, both funny and sharply observed. One related a drunken conversation about Hitler’s mustache, the other a fictional (ahem) interaction with Lou Barlow during a gig at Brownie’s in New York.
The best gauge of Pernice’s reading: When he said he was finished reading from the book, none of the 75 or so in attendance cheered in that let’s-get-on-with-the-music tone that would have changed the temperature of the whole performance.
The second part of Pernice’s gamble paid off, as well. You don’t generally go to see a songwriter of Pernice’s caliber to hear him sing other people’s songs, especially oddities like “Chim Cheree” from Mary Poppins or Sammy Johns’ ’70s hit “Chevy Van.” But the twist here worked. These are songs that figure in the novel, and they’re in the novel because they affected the author in some profound way during his formative years (mostly).
So it turned out that Pernice playing covers with an acoustic guitar is a wonderful idea. His passion for the songs came through, and they were transformed by his airy, ethereal voice and songwriter’s sense of dynamics. Highlights included Barlow’s “Soul And Fire” and James And Bobby Purify’s “I’m Your Puppet” and, yes, Pernice’s heartbreaking take on “Chim Cheree.”
Pernice capped the evening with a short set of his own songs, selected, he said, because they worked best without the lush pop arrangements of the recordings. “Amazing Glow,” “How Can I Compare” and “Pisshole In The Snow” felt more immediate and direct in this setting. And “Bum Leg,” from way back on the Chappaquiddick Skyline album, was a perfect downer of an encore.
There’s no way to know whether Pernice will focus on writing fiction or making records from here on out. This project takes a step in a new direction with the book while standing firmly on familiar ground with the CD. For a night, at least, Pernice made the two pieces fit perfectly.