I first heard about Damien Jurado via Audiogalaxy, which was my music downloading service of choice through much of college. My school was way out front in blocking Napster, so from early on you needed to find an alternative. Programs like iMesh and KaZaA had more Napster-like interfaces, so they were probably more popular with my friends-- oh man, I wish I could still find the article I submitted to short-lived MainCampus.com (those guys briefly paid college kids for content, would you believe it?) breaking all this stuff down-- but I always thought Audiogalaxy was superior. You could search all the files that had ever been shared on the network, not only the files of the other users who happened to be online at that moment, and if somebody came back online a few hours later with the file you wanted, the software would automatically download it for you. There was also actual editorial on the website, written by smart people like Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff, and I'm pretty sure that's how I would've found Jurado. Maybe I was browsing "indie folk"?
Anyway, the first song I heard by Jurado was almost definitely "Ohio," from 1999's Rehearsals for Departure (his second record for Sub Pop -- he's on Secretly Canadian now). Real heartbreaking "sad bastard" stuff, the kind of thing I probably used to put on WinAmp playlists next to Elliott Smith and Richard Buckner and Pedro the Lion-- the last of whom even toured with Jurado back around 2002. Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber once called it "an elaborate and painfully sad tale of a girl deciding to return home years after being kidnapped by her father"-- I didn't even catch the kidnapping stuff, but I was done in by the image of this soft-voiced dude asking the woman he adores, "How far is Ohio?", as she laughs and goes back to her family, leaving him doing-- god knows what, what does a guy do who can't look on a map and find Ohio? "She belongs to her mother and the state of Ohio/ I wish she belonged to me." I also downloaded "Honey Baby" from that album, I'm pretty sure, but it didn't do anything for me, and I've dutifully listened to Jurado's albums over the years but not really had a connection with anything on them like I did with "Ohio."
Jurado didn't say much for most of his set at Vaudeville Mews on Sunday night, but it wasn't like Dum Dum Girls, where you could sense this almost palpable distaste-- it seemed like that's who he was, a quiet, understated dude. "I just don't feel comfortable in crowds," Jurado sings on his new album, Saint Bartlett, probably my favorite full-length I've heard from him (although now I really do owe it to myself to go back and listen to the rest of his discography again). Understated Jurado may be, but his voice was probably the biggest draw of the show-- it's an instrument he's obviously honed over all these years, and there were times, backed by a five-piece band, when Saint Barlett's songs compared favorably to the big-sky folk-rock of early My Morning Jacket or Band of Horses, both groups that fit soaring, howling-at-the-moon tenors within ragged guitar crunch. A real lonesome sound.
At one point somebody in the audience asked if Jurado could do any sad songs, and he said that's all I do man, and then he joked that "oh, you're joking." But he really did seem to brighten up around this point, telling us about how he had been busking on the sidewalk earlier, making up lyrics to tease passers-by-- something about a man on a cellphone, and then something else about this newlywed couple and how his wife told him to be nice to them so he was nice, I mean he only sang that they should consummate their marriage right here in the road, he didn't do the Beatles song from the White Album or anything. He said he's actually a happy guy, too, but the best songs were sad and occasionally geography-oriented-- "Kansas City," "Rachel and Cali." He did several songs without the band at the end of the night, and one of them was "Ohio," which he said he didn't like but would do because someone in the audience had specially requested it, and you wonder if it was about a girl he knew before his wife or something so he had to say he didn't like it, because it's still a gorgeous tune. My eyes were kind of wet, but I'm a sentimental guy. The song I know best by him is the theme song to KEXP's morning show with DJ John Richards-- which he didn't play so I don't know if he still likes it, but then again I didn't request it either.
There were free pencils but if you wanted him to sign your record there was a fan who really liked him who asked to borrow your Sharpie and kept wondering if he was going to be around later that night and asked him to draw a black eye on his face in a tour poster. That last part we thought was kind of weird but whatever.
P.S. There was also a mention of Richard Swift, fellow Secretly Canadian artist and producer of Saint Bartlett, when somebody in the crowd asked, "Who's on your guitar?" At first Jurado just said the name and you thought man that's kind of dismissive but then he warmed up and explained. At the end of the night he said he didn't know what to expect playing Des Moines but he seemed genuinely pleased at the warmth of the reception he (deservedly) got.
P.P.S. There was also an auxiliary percussionist playing a bottle of Crown Royal.