Mike June and I have fallen into a comfortable routine. Every summer, Jon Dee Graham’s booking agent and frequent tourmate sends Jon Dee and his band the Fighting Cocks up through the Midwest with the ultimate goal of playing the basement and a slot at Fitzgerald’s American Music Festival before turning around and heading home. Then he joins a solo Jon Dee on the same run just before the holidays. The first they like to call “The Run for the Roses,” the second “The Run for the Mistletoe.” It’s hard to say which I like better, while his show this summer was a powerhouse rock show over two sweaty hours long, this was more of an introspective storyteller show. “I didn’t use to tell the stories behind my songs,” Graham confessed, “but screw that, I’m old now, and tired.” You wouldn’t have guessed he was tired from the nearly two hour long show he put on tonight.
While some of the songs received entertainingly long introductions, at other times he would play three in a row without stopping for more than a thank you to the audience. Many of the songs were familiar but the ones that weren’t stood out even more. The most memorable of these came early in the set. The story of a missing boy and the man who may or may not have abducted him and hung for the crime was a darkly sad song where no one was a winner and there were only losers. Surprisingly his Bah Humbug-sounding holiday song “I Hate Christmas” finishes the title with the heartwarming “when I’m not at home.” Also appropriate for this time of year was the story behind “Robot Moving” which was inspired by a hand-drawn holiday card from his young nephew, who had obviously been forced to do it. Under the angry evergreen trees which graced the front was a tiny arrow, when you flipped it over there was a tiny stick figure of a mechanical man. “Robot moving” it was labeled. The lyrics, which drew appreciative chuckles from the audience, tell of a man trying to make sense of life. “Everyone says put one foot in front of the other, but the irony is that’s the only way feet work,” he posits, adding “I never meant to use the word irony in a song, but the irony is I never meant to live this long.”
The pleasant irony is that whether he meant to live this long or not, he is currently having the time of his life. He’s happier than I have ever seen him. He’s playing more shows like these across the country, in living rooms, basements, art spaces and rooms above the general store in a small town in Mississippi. And that’s thanks to Mike June who has played over a hundred of these shows with him this year. Though June has lived in Austin for many years now, he’s a Jersey boy at heart. “How are you doin’?” he asked a couple songs in. The crowd did what we do here in Wisconsin when someone asks us that question, we cheered wildly, translation “we’re doing great.” “How are you doin’?” he asked again, and then again when we still didn’t give the right answer. “See, I’m originally from New Jersey,” he offered by way of explanation, “and when someone asks you that, you reply with ‘how are you doin’?’ emphasis on the you.” He tried it again and this time we got it right. June’s songs bear similarities to the Garden State’s most famous musical son. His are the songs of the working class, the average man, with all their problems and victories. They are grounded, relatable songs, all belted out in his strong, comfortable voice. He also had a Christmas song, though it wasn’t as heartwarming as Jon Dee’s had been. In fact, it was flat out hilarious. The narrator finds Santa in bed with his wife, shoot him in the balls, and spends Christmas in jail. Ho ho ho.
Jon Dee Graham