Paul Thorn’s storytelling gifts on full display at Berwyn show

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times
August 21, 2010

As the professed son of a Pentecostal minister, singer-songwriter Paul Thorn is not shy to tailor his music with his own brand of evangelizing. In between songs at his new release show at Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn Friday, Thorn introduced many of his songs with true and likely not-so-true tales, pulled from conversations with audience members beforehand and from his own biography, to offer insight about the song to come next and, more often than not, to get a good laugh.

Redemption and faith underlined every point of each quasi-sermon, but never much so to make the most secular of the crowd squirm — like when he compared life to a chicken that, when cut open, exposes both black and white meat.

“Such is the soul of man,” he concluded, solemnly.

Thorn relies on strong regional character in his music, which in this case, because he was born in Tupelo, Miss., a state in which he still lives, there are requisite themes he was obliged to deliver Friday, such as good tequila (“Tequila is Good For the Heart”) evil women (“Evil Women”) and small town romance (“Nona Lisa”). He also told stories about trashing a television he bought at Walmart and being hand-delivered Ritz crackers topped with cheese from a spray can.

As entertaining as those songs were, they were easily familiar; even if it was the first time you heard them. Thorn’s five-member band did not work to create any barriers; despite obvious sophistication in their playing, they played to the audience’s comfort level with the brawny guitar riffs and other signatures of classic Southern rock. During the 21-song set, fans of .38 Special and Georgia Satellites were in hog heaven.

But to anyone who spent time with his albums, or pored through his paintings that often compliment his songs, Thorn’s music has many more layers that during this entertaining show rested high on his natural gifts as a charming storyteller.

They came out most during a solo acoustic middle section that forced a deeper listen to songs that were mainly about personal (“I Hope I’m Doing This Right”) and spiritual (“You Might Be Wrong”) vulnerabilities that lead both people and nations into quagmires.

At its most basic, “Pimps and Preachers” (Perpetual Obscurity), Thorn’s sixth and newest album, is tailor-made for people who miss the bygone days of singer-songwriters who froze and then elevated mundane moments of everyday life so they could be shared in a kind of unspoken but communal catharsis.

Now they are songs reverent to a classic sound. The show was packed with styles that all fit this band comfortably — including power-pop, Southern soul, honkytonk county, meat-and-potatoes rock. One new song, “I Don’t Like Half the Folks I Love,” delivers discontent in such a recognizable way, it could be mistaken for a song from John Prine’s songbook 30 years ago. A lot of songwriters ask why we all can’t get along, but Thorn knows the answer: “We all need more tolerance/to get along peacefully,” he sang, each line pierced by the slide guitar playing of guitarist Bill Hinds. “But I’m not as nice as Jesus/and I really am fed up.”

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