Jake Bugg plays in Berlin
By Sascha Krieger
At least in one aspect Jake Bugg has already beaten Bob Dylan: Dylan had his first number one album in Britain at the biblical age of 22, Bugg only had to live 18 years to achieve this. 19 now, he has his second album out, chart status not yet known, was in the studio with Rick Rubin, has a Brit Award nomination under his belt and has had eight singles in the charts. He is one day older than Justin Bieber and has been hailed as the new great hope for what some call hand-made music, a standard bearer for the retro rock and folk revival movement, compared to Bob Dylan and was inspired to take up a musical career when hearing a song by Don McLean on an episode of the Simpsons. He walks on stage to a recording by old bluesman Robert Johnson who had been dead for almost 56 years when Bugg was born. An old soul in a young body? Yes and no, as Bugg’s latest concert in Berlin shows.
Bugg shuffles on stage in black pants and t-shirt, accompanied by a bass player and a drummer, picks up his guitar and bursts into the energetic „There’s a Beast and we All Feed It“, the opener of his new album Shangri La, named after Rubin’s California studio. Bugg comes on stage as others would go to work, this, it seems, is just another day in the office. When he isn’t singing his face is expressionless bordering on derisive, at times he seems as bored as his stoical two-piece band. Near the evening’s end, he will routinely say that it was a pleasure playing here, before adding drily: „As always.“ The old soul who has, in the words of one of his songs, „seen it all“ does not quite fit with his almost puppy-like appearance. A bit of a pose that reveals his immaturity, and one he certainly doesn’t need.
Or have we been had and he is that cool, wise observer of the world and its dark spots he appears to play on stage? There certainly is a musical as well as lyrical maturity to many of his songs. Especially those of his eponymous debut album are often keen observation of the world he grew up in, the dangerous swagger and hustling of the Nottingham housing projects, an uneasy upbringing, a drug-filled lethargy to counter all youthful hopefulness. At times it is scary how resigned to the dark side of human existence his songs are, whether they deal with the realm of the unprivileged or with that dreadfully hopeless thing called love, the favorite topic of his current album. But there also is another side: he also exhibits a mixture of teenage rebellion, childish stubbornness and youthful naivety counterbalancing the worldly-wise persona. He is, after all, 19 years old and there are times when it shows.
Musically Bugg has already accomplished much: his Berlin show is a prime example of his musical versatility: there is pure country („Country Song“, „Me and You“), brit pop flamboyance („Seen it All“, „Two Fingers“) , blues („Trouble Town“), moving ballads („Broken“, „Song about Love“, even high-speed punk rock („Slumville Sunrise“, „What Doesn’t Kill You“) and rockabilly meets early Dylan („There’s a Beast and We All Feed It“). Several times he sends his band off to play acoustic songs before spending most of the concert’s second half leading a hard-edged rock band. His sound certainly has become harder, his blues-drenched, yet at the same time matter-of-factly guitar play better, the coolness with which he throws out his solos, casting a challenging glance at the audience, is impressive. The musical universe Bugg wanders through in these less than 90 minutes is vast and charts the musical landscape of the entire history of rock n‘ roll.
But there is no sense of nostalgia, as grounded in this musical tradition, he bawls out stories very much born in the present day. His voice is high-intensity all the time, half Dylan snarl, half Liam Gallagher whine. The ease with which Bugg jumps through the musical styles and with which he turns this eclectic mix into his own distinctive sound, shedding it completely of any retro feel is astounding. Sure, the fact that he is still just starting out, is apparent every now and then: at times, he gives it too much, goes over the top in his Dylan meets Oasis act. Some songs are rather insubstantial („Country Song“ is an example) and his one cover, Neil Young’s „My My, Hey Hey“ does come across a little lackluster and so routine, one thinks of high-quality karaoke. Having said this, Bugg overall delivers an excellent performance, presenting himself as the startlingly talented musician that he is, soaking up generations of musical tradition and giving it the treatment of an angry yet love-seeking 19-year-old. Most of the time this is an exciting mixture indeed.