One of former Ark program director Dave Siglin’s great legacies is the group of strong, often outrageous roots music personalities he brought to the club—a group seldom seen at most other folk and acoustic music venues around the country. You’d be more likely to find the Reverend Billy C. Wirtz in a bar or at an outdoor music festival than at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music or Cambridge’s Club Passim. But performers of this kind have been welcome at the Ark, and that’s still true even with Dave’s retirement: witness Paul Thorn, who’ll play a solo show there on Saturday, March 28 (see Nightspots). Thorn is from Tupelo, Mississippi, and his show offers a taste of the old low-down southern roadhouse.
Thorn has had a colorful life that included six rounds in the boxing ring with lightweight champ Roberto Durán, an experience that inspired Thorn’s song “I’d Rather Be a Hammer (Than a Nail).” He comes from deep enough in the South to have African American cadences in both his music and his speech, and there’s an element in his songbag of the kind of old blues routine that gets its energy from a confessional streak that cuts very close to the bone. His show also includes southern satires of the sort Wirtz writes, like “Joanie, the Jehovah’s Witness Stripper” (the Lord showed her how to make $1,000 a night) and a tall tale about a suicidal man who lands in the arms of an 800-pound Jesus he bought at a garage sale.
Unlike Wirtz, but like his forebears on the blues side, Thorn can play it straight. He balances out the comedy with country barroom introspection like “Where Was I (When You Stopped Lovin’ Me)?” and a good deal of between-songs patter that, for all the raunch, looks on the positive side of human relationships. Thorn grew up as the son of a Pentecostal preacher, and although he wrote a celebrated This I Believe essay a few years ago rejecting a Christianity of fear, a bit of his father’s influence must be present in his shows. It all comes together in a song about “the Holy Ghost Big Bang Theory Pentecostal Fire and Brimstone Mission Temple Fireworks Stand,” a one-of-a-kind call-and-response number about a black minister who gives up his pulpit so that he can be a “human bottle rocket” when the Lord returns.