As for the U.S. press outlets covering Britain’s solemn-faced folk-rock warrior Jake Bugg, indie heavyweights Pitchfork, Stereogum, Noisey and FADER have chosen to largely ignore him. I suppose that implies you either don’t need to hear him or they assume you already have. For those left in the cold, a career synopsis thus far: His self-titled debut hit number one last year on the U.K. charts (this spring, it was released in the States, where it hung out at number 75 for a while). He’s nominated for this year’s Mercury Prize. His video for the single “Lightning Bolt” is nearing 7 million views on YouTube. He’s played Glastonbury twice, SXSW, Coachella, Leno, Letterman and Ellen. A columnist for The New York Times has called him this generation’s Bob Dylan. His show last night at Webster Hall had been sold out for months. He started playing guitar just seven years ago. He’s 19.
The crowd in attendance reflects Pitchfork et al.’s ostracism, leaving lots of swooning college-aged girls, the type of people who still read Rolling Stone, and, at least where I was standing, an inordinate amount of Brits to pick up the slack. He is, by current indie-rock standards, uncool. His influences are uncool. His unsmirking self-seriousness is uncool. His hair is uncool.
Earnestness was everywhere last night, to start. More than once his bassist and drummer leave him alone on stage so he can soak his self-described “little acoustic songs” in emotional blood. There’s not a lot to decode in lyrics like, “I want to go someplace and find you there,” sung with his head up, eyes closed, in a voice that rarely attempts to stretch beyond its natural range so mostly sounds like a hoarse whine. He half-smiles maybe twice during the course of the night, but does a little bow after wanderlust ballad “Country Song,” suggesting that being away from wherever he is at the moment is where he’s happiest. At a time when the most popular indie artists seem to over- or underdo whatever it is they do, from uber-minimal synth-pop projects to exaggeratingly self-aware disco robots, Jake Bugg is a dying breed playing it straight.
At his poppiest, when his band spins into straight-faced hoedown mode, the flash of Mumford & Sons suspender strapping could be considered further repellent for the indie sect. “Trouble Town” and “I’ve Seen It All” chomp at Johnny Cash’s blue-collar honky-tonk, distancing Bugg from Alt-J‘s dub-folk, King Krule‘s understated jazz-folk, and the other, Urban Outfitted variations of the genre. Despite being the square staying on course with tradition, he’s got some Folsom swagger, relaxing into the second portion of the show and showcasing a lost appreciation for technical prowess as he rotates between five guitars. The outlaw persona peaks with “Two Fingers,” a song whose flippant punch stems from lines like, “I drink to remember, I smoke to forget/Some things to be proud of, some stuff to regret” to the merriment of a crowd completely locked in. He does another one of those little bows after that. The guy to the left of me yells out, “Yeah, Jakey!”
The encore hits on all three of his prominent strains: he plays acoustic heartbreaker “Broken,” a cover of Neil Young’s “My, My, Hey, Hey,” and Mumford-y juggernaut “Lightning Bolt.” Then, like a dork, he walks to the side of the stage, throws his guitar pick into the crowd and waves. He keeps waving. He looks up and waves to everyone in the balcony. As he takes it in, the wearied voice and Bob Dylan comparisons fade, and a new image snaps into place: small-town teenager winning over New York City, not needing the cool kids to claim a significant spot in our musical landscape. Here’s to being in it for the long haul.
Follow Lauren Beck on Twitter @heylaurenbeck.