Jon Hardy & the Public: On the Porch

In many cases, opening bands are practically designed to be ignored, especially when the opener is a one-shot performance from a local artist. Oftentimes, these bands get the unenviable task of simply providing the background for spaced-out bar patrons awaiting the stars of the evening and maybe, if they’re lucky, they get to sell a T-shirt or two. I was certainly expecting to easily ignore a new, little-known local band called The North Country when they took to the stage at the Galaxy in March 2003 to open for Canadian indie-pop darlings Tegan and Sara, but that was, frankly, impossible. This was roots rock at its finest, with aching, mournful lyrics sung in a yearning moan over gently strummed acoustic guitars and slow, measured violin. The musicians clicked in a way that made them seem like brothers, neighbors, and lifelong friends who had been working out these songs on hot summer nights out on the porch for as long as they could remember.

Not quite. “Yeah, we had been playing together for, what, about two or three months,” remarks Jon Hardy, who fronted The North Country and leads its new incarnation as Jon Hardy & the Public, when I told him about my introduction to the band. The Public operates as a foursome, with Hardy’s voice, guitar, and the occasional piano and organ joined by Seth Pendergrass on percussion, Greg MacNair on violin, and Shaun Lee on bass, who has been playing with Hardy since before The North Country days. What brought about the name change? “For one thing, people would always get the name wrong,” says Hardy, “like they would say ‘North County’ or whatever. Also, we were looking for something that was more ambiguous and not as easy to peg.”

A more ambiguous name is only fitting, given the much more varied sonic palette that the band has developed over the last two years. Make Me Like Gold, their first full-length, builds upon the band’s innate alt-county sound by adding a variety of rock influences. Album opener “Grand Canyon Meltdown” belies a definite Doors influence, made even more pronounced on the following track, “The Flood,” in which Hardy barks dark, drugged-out poetry easily worthy of Jim Morrison (“Without words there’s no tomorrow/The steeple wrapped in sorrow/But we want darkness and silence/And feel at peace in this violence”) over a relentless drumbeat that gives way to a tender, piano-led chorus with doo-wop backing vocals. The punky adrenaline of The Replacements lets loose on “Lost in San Quentin”; “The King of Main Street” wouldn’t feel out of place on a late-’60s Bob Dylan record, but the most instantly likable song award goes to “Cassius Clay,” which features a lovely harmony vocal by Rachel Huertas that plays like Natalie Merchant dueting with Jeff Tweedy.

The country influence pokes out on the downtrodden “Fire,” built on a low key organ figure, Hardy’s hard-strummed electric, and some dark, depressed strings from MacNair, and there’s plenty more slow, sad songs to cry into your beer to on the back half of the album, as well. The dark folk of “Radioman,” “What They Say,” and “Prophet Blues” form a suitably dark triptych, but the album reaches its most heart-wrenching point on the closer “Running Hot,” an elegant lament set to a tender organ playing a funeral march. Make Me Like Gold was recorded by local producer Chris Deckard of The Penny Studio. Known for working with decidedly noisier bands like The Conformists, Deckard seems an odd choice, but his hands-off production gives the album a raw, unrefined quality that very much works to its benefit.

Jon Hardy & the Public have pulled opening duties for a number of national touring acts, including the Pernice Brothers, Brandtson, and a double bill featuring John Vanderslice and Okkervil River. Their sound plays especially well in Chicago, where the band played a show at Paddy Mac’s this past October. “We were supposed to play a much bigger show that fell through,” Hardy recalls. “We ended up basically playing as the bar band. The next night, we played a show in Milwaukee and all these people told us that their friends in Chicago called up and told them, ‘You have to see this band.’”

The Public hopes to spread their fanbase even farther with their upcoming visit to the Midwest Music Summit (in part, sponsored by PlaybackSTL, for those of you who haven’t been paying attention) in Indianapolis late this July. What can fans look forward to at their MMS shows? Turns out that the band will debut some fresh new material at the show. “Actually, we’ll be recording right before we leave,” Hardy reports. “About five new songs.” Does this recording activity mean that a sophomore album, or perhaps a follow-up EP, is in the works? Not quite yet, says Hardy, but the songs will be available on The Public’s MySpace.com page. The uninitiated would do well to check out the songs for a sample of a band that’s definitely worth paying attention to. | Jason Green

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