Tuesday, February 13, 2024

On the traveler’s trail with folk-punk messenger Average Joey and their new album Impermanence

 When folk-punk found me in need of folk-punk, more than 20 years ago, folk-punk fostered scruffy joy and defiance under clouds of anxiety and apocalypse. 

I keep craving and coming back to folk-punk today for the same honesty, the same over-sharing, the same grit and gravity that doesn’t do “toxic positivity,” but does do radical self-care and inclusive community and unconditional love as revolutionary survival skills. 

Enter the artist known as “Average Joey,” as one of the more real and relatable one-mand-bands in current folk-punk, a person who is doing all the things, and the things include a nomadic path, in a modestly tricked-out camper van, a life of voluntary subsistence that is ravenous with lived poetry encounters and festive eruptions, out on the margins. The political and existential crises have shifted a little in the intervening decades since my first folk-punk fits, that is, things have gotten even worse, but the ache for love and community to cope with daily life, while agitating and subverting “the powers,” has not.

I’d seen folk-punk coming on as a genre, long before I was fully immersed in Against Me! and Defiance, Ohio records and organizing a folk-punk festival on one August night in a rural Tennessee barn around 2003, because even before that I was reading Boxcar Bertha and watching my friends hop trains while we explored “the vanlife,” long before it was called the vanlife. We were ready for folk-punk as its all-encompassing thing that it would become, as soon as we saw a punk with a fiddle, a traveler kid with a banjo, maybe camping with friends on their communal land in remote California, maybe busking for dollars and change on the Asheville streets. 

Folk-punk helped me survive my last decade on the rural commune, helped me navigate the grief of war, and was as-safe-a-place-as-any to “act out” my last years of active addiction. Folk-punk was there when I got in heaps of trouble at work, when I wondered if the meager material and social benefits of “selling out” and getting a “real job” were actually worth it after all. 

Not unlike the account called “folk punk dad” and their great podcast “Back on the Grind,” I am that graying folk-punk grand-dad who still craves the visceral salve to every moral crisis that folk-punk-addresses. I am not necessarily saying folk-punk is a “new religious movement,” but as a generous form of outward anarchist praxis, it might be in the themes it explores and the mutual aid it practices. And now, the new Average Joey joint arrives to break and remake the hippypunk heart of me as spiritual seeker in the holy headphones, to supplement the typical places where one heals, in counseling sessions, on yoga mats, and at 12-step-meetings.

I first discovered Joey on the “Roots, Rednecks, and Radicals” podcast and was all-in right away, immediately blowing up their inboxes on multiple accounts with fanboy appreciation. Songs like “Cliche” or “Bro, I Told You I Contain Multitudes” or “Anarchists Who Don’t Do Anything” had me tapping along and whispering “that’s right” and “amen.” 

A quick scan of their web presence, and I learned they were also a prolific poet and zine-publisher, even releasing an audiobook of radical analyses of our collective context. Next thing you know, we are co-organizing a gig for Average Joey, in a storefront Unitarian Universalist church, in this-here micropolitan-college- town, because the venue Joey had played at previously when in these parts, that brewery had been essentially shut down by a coalition of cops, actual nazis, and anxious landlords, after said venue did the next right thing, by hosting one too many drag brunches.

Joey’s latest (Impermanence, out everywhere since 2/2/24) knocks the listener from the first bursts of the opening track called “Hello, Hell.” The raunchy keyboards get saucy from the gate, and it’s clear some crazed circus caravan has rolled into the town square. The piano suggests there might be a roadhouse saloon nearby, because how did that hobo fit that Steinway in his rucksack anyway? The tattooed-dancing-girl-vaudeville-vibes immediately made me think of mismatched striped stockings and early 00s Dresden Dolls and maybe crave some episodes of Carnival Row. The entire set is so laced with wonky samples, as to almost make us want to listen to this by candle-light on headphones, in the wee hours while microdosing (don’t worry my fellow sober pals, my default setting is psych-enough to not require microdosing). 

This 12-song and 45-minute album is a weird monk’s mindmeld, and everyone knows that Teacher On The Radio mainlines the mystical in most everything, but this is next-level real heart balm, the sacred seeking in practically every song surely gives this album a moral center and a narrative arc. As I finally scribble this review-essay from a modest Mardi Gras on the eve of the Lenten season, I am drawn again and again to the ripping revelation contained in “WTFWJF?”

Inspired by Joey’s readings in radical and historical Christianity, the opening lines lay out the thesis of my religious deconstruction that began in 2020: “Christ was crucified for sedition/Not for your sins.” That is, following Jesus meant public sedition against police brutality, not private atonements and liberal hand-wringing. Then with a refrain, Joey warns us about the war within every imperial church, one which spirit is surely losing: “Who do you serve/A Higher Purpose or authority?” Then: “Who do you worship/A Higher Power or powers that be.” I don’t practice Lent like I used to, but I reckon every leftist-Jesus-lover could gain strength from meditating on this track during the coming fast between feasts.

“Jesus Christ & Diogenes Walk Into A Bar” follows that, and tracks like “Indifference” and “Impermanence” and “Zen Tanks” and “No Thing,” all take different angles and many takes to explain our endless existential crises. The conclusion of “Impermanence” places the “poetic prophet” face-to-face with militaries and police and admits the difficult: “The pen is not quite as mighty/as the truth/That a Big Man With A Gun /Will do what he wants to.” Such honest admissions are also found in “Toxic & Fragile.” Talk about accepting some stuff that I cannot change. Talk about what is already one of my favorite new albums, released so far in 2024.

Look for Joey down the road. Imagine that he bags and instrument cases and canine companion are packed into the van and who knows who he’ll meet or what he’ll see as one called to the vagabond path, like the circuit-rider gospel barkers and painted carnies and holy medicine shows of old. This road show is because of Joey, a mystic-poet spun from a milieu that might include Walt Whitman and Willi Carlisle and always Dylan and maybe the Fugs or Holy Modal Rounders, not to mention their many folk-punk fellow travelers, and this all translates to politically-grounded transcendental troubadour with a box overflowing with left-adjacent empowering fanzines and stickers and patches, instead of gospel tracts. all available at the merch table. 

He’s humble about the itinerant singer’s actual mission while the world burns around us, the grief about avoidable tragedies that won’t keep Joey from trekking on. Amid it all, Joey is there, the traveling mendicant with a Patreon begging bowl. Watch their socials, because Average Joey might be on his way to your town, to shake up your day, to sing you a song in exchange for a bowl of soup, to tell a story and another story, recite some poems, park in your driveway or on your street, and enrich you from weariness again to a totally hungry human’s unreal hope. 

Fat Tuesday/Ash Wednesday 2024

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