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Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013

Joseph Huber’s Conflicted Americana

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Joseph Huber may very well be the hardest-working musician in Milwaukee. After seven years as a member of acclaimed “streetgrass” group .357 String Band, Huber quickly began cobbling together a series of songs that would appear on his debut solo album, 2010’s Bury Me Where I Fall. Less than two years later, Huber was back with Tongues of Fire, an album that showed him adding more and more personal touches to his take on Americana (he also played nearly every instrument on the record). Even though most music critics overlooked it, Tongues of Fire was one of the best local releases of 2012.

From the slower, introspective “Burden on the Wind” to the impossibly catchy title track, Tongues of Fire showcases an artist finding his voice. As Huber explains, “The feel of this [second] album is much different, sort of freeing itself from the burdensome chains of the first album.” Yet there is still much tension present throughout Tongues of Fire, as Huber attempts to reconcile his love of playing music and touring with his desire to have a secure life off the road. Not surprisingly, then, the theme of traveling consistently rears its head throughout the album’s 10 tracks. Huber admits that “moments strike when you think you should be sacrificing yourself a bit more for the sake of your songs” and that he, at times, misses life on the road. “But the point,” concludes Huber, “is not choosing completely one lifestyle or the other—you hope to find the balancing act between the two.”

Huber’s musings on the ambiguities of travel are well captured on “Hello, Milwaukee,” along with his take on another dichotomy that informs his craft—the relationship between the rural and the urban. “Hello, Milwaukee” is the centerpiece of Tongues of Fire, a tale of leaving—and ultimately coming back to—the city Huber now calls home. The song’s narrator marvels at the “endless sun” of California, but also notes West Virginia’s “skyline of 10,000 pines is like a bloody jagged knife slowly swinging.” Closing in on Montana, “the mountains look like fallen giants overcome by all these things that I’m fighting.” Yet the journey brings him back to “my Wisconsin.”

As Huber explains, “I was having an extremely hard time during the writing of ‘Hello, Milwaukee’ and that song is essentially about me, on tour traveling America, seeing the beautiful landscapes of this amazing land, and interpreting them only in terms of my own absorbed loneliness, as if the land projected it.” As someone born and raised in a small, rural town, Huber seems to find peace in those broad swaths of empty American landscape. Yet he has carved out a life in the city, one that allows him to make a living doing what he loves. “I’m certainly a man torn between worlds,” explains Huber. “‘Hello, Milwaukee’ is playing off this theme, I suppose.” It is in his exploration of this uncertain status that Huber is able to provide a new take on the genres, including country and bluegrass, which have so clearly influenced him.

Joseph Huber performs with Hugh Bob and the Hustle on Saturday, Feb. 16 at 9 p.m. at Club Garibaldi.
Tongues of Fire is streaming at josephhuber.bandcamp.com.