Joe Pernice was delivering a lovely rendition of "Chevy Van" when he suddenly cracked up like a school kid trying to suppress a laugh in class.
"Sorry," he said with a grin. "It's just too fucking creepy. I've never done this before, but I really implore you: listen to this last verse."
Pernice recovered and finished the song, recounting the end of a one-night stand in "a town that was so small/you could throw a rock from end to end," imbuing it with more pathos than the original 1975 hit by Sammy Johns.
Pernice's jokey aside was one of many he delivered during his performance Friday (August 7) at the Bowery Ballroom in New York. The Pernice Brothers frontman is on the road promoting his first novel "It Feels So Good When I Stop" (Riverhead Books) and an accompanying "soundtrack" of the same name featuring some of the songs that are mentioned in the book.
During his 90-minute set, Pernice sat alone on stage with a bottle of Corona, an acoustic guitar and a copy of his book. What could have been an awkward sales pitch by a recording artist for his written product turned out to be an entertaining evening of evocative, often hilarious, prose and great tunes, with Pernice reading extended passages from his novel and playing selections from the soundtrack and his own song catalog.
The unnamed protagonist of the book is a struggling musician who's just walked away from a day-old marriage, providing ample opportunities for knowing riffs on popular music. "Everything I knew about how fucked up the music business was came from a story about Fugazi I'd skimmed in Magnet," Pernice read at one point, drawing appreciative laughs from the audience.
After knocking out a cover of Sebadoh's "Soul and Fire," he described the time he wrote the band's frontman Lou Barlow for his blessing to include him as a character in "It Feels So Good When I Stop."
"He wrote back to me and said, 'Thanks for asking, I appreciate that,'' Pernice recalled, noting that Barlow magnanimously added, "you can turn me into a dick if it's more appropriate.'"
Pernice clearly had fun name-checking songs in his book, performing -- and expressing unabashed fandom for -- Plush's "Found A Little Baby" ("perhaps my favorite song from the whole decade of the 90s"), the Del Shannon-penned Peter & Gordon hit "I Go To Pieces" ("it's a hard song to fuck up 'cause it's so good") and even "Chim Chim Cheree" from "Mary Poppins," which was edited out of the book but stayed on the soundtrack ("I've always loved Dick Van Dyke and I think he's a genius and I'll meet anyone out back who says otherwise").
As fun as all of this was, most of the audience had come to hear Pernice perform his own material. He didn't disappoint, devoting the second half of his performance to a mini-set of self-penned compositions, and providing a vivid reminder, if any were needed, that Pernice has few peers among his songwriting contemporaries.
With just his acoustic guitar for accompaniment, Pernice performed exquisite renditions of oft-overlooked entries in his oeuvre, including "Pisshole in the Snow," "Up in Michigan" and the haunting "Prince Valium."
That last number includes the line, "So help me Lord, get me stoned again," which Pernice says prompted his devoutly Catholic mom to declare, "You take the Lord's name in vain, it's not going to be a hit."
After closing the set with the lullaby-like "Two Of You Sleep," Pernice returned to the stage for a final reading and then a cover of Tom T. Hall's "That's How I Got to Memphis."
"Has anyone ever seen someone read for an encore?" he asked sheepishly. "I'll speed-read so I don't put you to sleep."
He needn't have worried.
Here is Joe Pernice's setlist:
"Tell Me When It's Over"
"I'm Your Puppet"
"Found a Little Baby"
"Chim Chim Cheree"
"I Go to Pieces"
"Soul and Fire"
"Pisshole in the Snow"
"How Can I Compare"
"Up in Michigan"
"Two of You Sleep"
"That's How I Got to Memphis"