w/ Jordan DePaul
Toll Gate Revival
September 3, 2016
Photos and review by Melanie Stangl
On Saturday night, September 3rd, Lawrenceville was buzzing with its usual crowd of weekend fun-seekers. Some of them, though, had a less-than-typical destination: Toll Gate Revival, an eclectic American vintage store near the intersection of 37th and Butler. Normally the store closes at 5, but tonight the lights were still on at 8:30, and people had packed in: sprawled out on the shop’s worn leather couches, sitting on folding chairs, and standing around the main room’s perimeter. The occasion? Local singer-songwriter Paul Luc, playing the unusual space with his touring partner, friend, and collaborator from Nashville, Jordan DePaul.
Given Luc’s Pittsburgh roots, his particular brand of honest Americana folk, and his affinity for classic motorcycles, Toll Gate Revival was a perfect fit; the ideal not-technically-a-venue venue. Everything in the place could be described with Luc’s most recent album title, “Tried and True.” The walls were lined with fascinating memorabilia: retro gas station signs; old tools; the slightly rusted back gate from an old Chevy pick-up truck; a black banner that proclaimed “WORK WITH YOUR HANDS;” and most notably, a giant taxidermied bull’s head, which hung proudly over a makeshift stage area where two mics and three guitars waited. Two coolers were packed with ice and several varieties of Straub beer, which came free with ticket purchase, and the joyful buzz of conversation (as well as the perpetual line in front of the store’s lone restroom) made it clear that the crowd was already partaking. It was shaping up to be an intimate night of lovely tunes, wisecracking jokes, and sincerity in both the music and the moments between songs. I cracked open a (tasty, and strong) India Pale Lager, and the show began.
DePaul kicked things off with “Me + U,” a midtempo, contemplative number from his 2016 release, “Forces.” It was immediately obvious why he and Luc have been on tour together. Both are equally compelling and talented with just an acoustic guitar, their open and thoughtful lyricism, and fantastic voices. DePaul’s hair is longer and curlier, and his singing has just enough of a Nashville twang, but the two artists’ styles complement each other perfectly. The next song, “Allison,” addressed an ex who still calls him, with minimal fingerpicking and self-aware lines such as “I’ve always been the guy/you hit up this time of night.”
He followed that up with a yet-to-be-released track, “Debt to Yourself,” and prefaced it with, “This song’s about not giving up on your dreams to make money.” His story bears uncanny similarities to Luc’s. He, too, had held a 9-5 job at a big company, but was incredibly unfulfilled there. When offered a promotion, he quit instead, and dedicated his life to music. With lyrics like “I made a lot/but I gave it all away,” occasional stomps on the worn wooden floor, and forceful strumming, the strength of his conviction was clear and resonated with the audience, who responded enthusiastically.
Next up, Luc joined his friend to perform the song they had written together about their tour experiences, called “Tiny Hotel Rooms.” “It’s a love song, so…I don’t know what that says,” quipped DePaul. It was an upbeat, encouraging tune, with Luc singing the second verse and banging along on a tambourine. The following song, “Question Marks,” will be the title track from DePaul’s upcoming record. It details the realization he had at Americanafest shortly after his arrival in Nashville four years ago: the guy on stage sounded just like him. A lot of other people sounded just like him, and that scared him. This openness and skillful between-song banter made his performance shine: he’s a natural storyteller, both with music and without. Here, his smooth, strong voice displayed some grit. After confessing that his inescapable twang was actually from having his nose broken during high school football in Youngstown, Ohio, he moved into his only cover of the night, Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy” (which he dedicated to “anybody who owned ‘Now That’s What I Call Music’ Volume 1.”)
The next song, “Lucky,” was a highlight of the set, written after an uncomfortable phone conversation with his mother when he told her he had quit his job to pursue music. Beautiful guitar parts and lines such as “I don’t know how I wound up in this mess/I’m lucky, I guess” held the audience spellbound: they were completely quiet, respectful, and attentive. DePaul’s final two tracks took a sadder turn: “Sleepwalker,” another unreleased song, discussed merely going through the motions with a significant other. He ended with “Brighter Shade of Blue,” which has impressively garnered nearly 600,000 plays on Spotify. Written after his father’s passing in 2009, it was a gorgeous tune delivered with compelling emotion: a sincere, poignant mix of melancholy and optimism. During the musical interlude between the chorus and second verse, a bus zoomed by on the street—and that brief reminder of the world outside, the rush of noise and wind, couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. As the crowd clapped and cheered for him one last time, he said with a smile, “Pittsburgh, you’re already my favorite place to play.”
He chatted with fans while Luc got things ready for his set. The buzz of conversation resumed, louder this time, thanks in no small part to the Straub beer, which was still flowing strongly. Before the night was out, over 200 bottles would be drunk. (Seriously though…if you ever get the chance, try their IPL.) Once Luc took the stage, DePaul shouted “What a babe!” from his merch kit in the back. Everyone laughed, and Luc quipped, “I’m gonna play a really quiet one, so I don’t get too worked up.” That one turned out to be “Hearts and Arrows,” a song from his 2010 record, “A Revival. A Roadsong. A Rearview Mirror.” The lovely tone of the guitar and his smooth, powerful voice delivering genuine, intelligent lyrics quickly reminded everyone exactly why they came out: unrestrained whoops accompanied the applause after he was done. But there were still nine more songs to go, and aside from the constantly moving bathroom line, the crowd stayed put and enjoyed the ride.
Another older tune, “Aftermath,” was next, a stronger and faster track, followed by “High Walls” from his 2014 album “Tried and True.” Between these two, Luc also displayed his gift for banter, remarking on the choice of venue, “I wanted to do a house show…but in a much, much cooler house than most people have.” He then talked about joining DePaul on the road, how similarly they tended to dress, and how “if our careers ever fizzle, we’re gonna form a supergroup: Jordan DePaul Luc.” It’s always a bonus when musicians can make you laugh too, and Luc delivered there. He then moved into “Unlucky in Love,” on which he claimed to have gotten some perspective since writing: “The common denominator was me…they’re probably perfectly sane.” This frank, uptempo confessional, detailing four former flames, proved his versatility: he can tell stories well in a wide variety of speeds and moods.
Luc reinforced this versatility with a switch to a more electric-sounding guitar and his intro to the next song: “I’m gonna get noisier, if you don’t mind.” He commended the crowd for how much beer they had already consumed (“I’m proud of you guys”), then began an altered version of “Idol.” Low, heavier notes were prominent both instrumentally and vocally, which suited the different guitar tone; the rendition was more purposely choppy and stripped-down. This version reflected the song’s subject well: his issues with the current state of the music industry, shown in verses such as “So I jumped into my car to drive/I flicked the radio alive/I heard another shallow song/turned the dial, that same song was on/every station, it felt like indoctrination, like no one’s even trying.” He kept this instrument for the next two songs, the older, unreleased “Driving Rain” and “Adam and Eve.”
Before beginning “Good Times,” (for which the music video won a Sound Scene Express Best of 2015 Award), he switched back to his first guitar and explained the song’s inspiration. He has the same name as his father and would sometimes get his dad’s mail – including living will advertisements. Most twenty-somethings aren’t all that concerned with mortality, but this postal mix-up made him consider who would get what, should the unthinkable happen. This midtempo track (“my will and testament”) is the result. In it he bequeaths prized possessions like his guitar, motorcycle, and record player while exploring his relationships with their recipients—again, revealing the honest and thoughtful storytelling that draws so many to his songs.
“Stranger to Me” showed this as well. A parallel to DePaul’s “Debt to Myself,” it’s racked up nearly 140,000 Spotify streams, and explores frustration at his inauthentic life at a 9-5. DePaul joined him in performing this one, adding lovely harmonies during the chorus for a stirring rendition. Last but not least, Luc closed out the night with “Ode to My Friends,” an uncommonly-played “Tried and True” track. The bittersweet song details how the people in his life bolstered him through hard times and tough realizations, and gradually builds from a slow lament to a jauntier celebration. Considering the audience was full of people from “every cross-section of [his] life,” it was a fitting choice to conclude this unique show.
After the music stopped, people milled around the store, talking to the musicians and each other, finishing up the last of the beer, buying merchandise, examining the store’s wares, and—yes—still waiting to use the bathroom. DePaul found a street sign that bore his hometown’s name and took several photos with it, wanting to take it home despite its enormous size. The energy had been consistently positive, and it spilled from the perfect makeshift venue out into the late summer night.
There’s a line in “Stranger to Me” which goes, “Now I’m just looking for some honesty, I’m not asking much.” Coming out to a Jordan DePaul and/or Paul Luc show will get you exactly that, wrapped up in excellent vocals, poignant instrumentals, and genuinely good vibes. The two are playing together in Chicago on September 13th, and again in Nashville on the 22nd. Both have other local shows between and after those dates: check out the specifics here and here.