Josh Hedlund takes his place, adjusts his lyrics sheet and starts to play "Small Town Hunger," a song he says he wrote in the midst of Sandpoint's winter doldrums. He wrote it in response, he says, to the sexual power-plays that are the result of too few beautiful people playing musical partners. "There were a lot of people showing me a lot of interest," he had said prior to getting onstage, "but at the same time taking great interest in my girlfriend." He concludes, "[This song] was to let them know my teeth are bared." Faced with a wall of backs at this casual open mic that he's decided to play in preparation for his first Spokane show, Hedlund's voice starts a bit unsteady and off the beat. The guitar part, though, is strong and Dylanesque, forcing his voice into step. Like his best songs, this is built around a series of emotional and vocal crescendos, and by the time he hits the song's quasi-chorus, he's at full steam.
"This is a pack of wolves I run with," he coos, "Hungry for love / and for truth and for love / and for truth and for love / and for all of the above." The last line ends early and gauzily. His voice quickly turns into a strangled growl: "But I've been sharpening my teeth."
The audience stirs. Bizarrely, a woman at the bar produces a shaker and begins to rattle out a casual percussive accompaniment.
There's a deep sense of shared history in Hedlund's work, though not necessarily first sources. Through the impressionistic warble of Devendra Banhart, he touches on T. Rex and Nick Drake. Through Conor Oberst's anger and vocal dynamics, he reaches back to Woody Guthrie's tales of hardship and Dust Bowl populism. He touches on the poetry and cadence of Dylan, the tactile lyricism of Neutral Milk Hotel. These aren't uneven musical fits, and this isn't mere mimicry. Hedlund has spent years assimilating the history of pop and folk into expressions of considerable personal power. Audiences love him for it.
"I told this guy I'd be quick," Hedlund said shyly after his first song, motioning vaguely to the group of Sandpointers he's come down with. He repeats the sentiment after his second, standing to leave. The barroom that had been a series of clusters is now entirely turned toward him. This is not how open-mic audiences normally behave. A kid near the front begs for another song, but Hedlund is already off the stage.
Josh Hedlund with the Shook Twins at Caterina Winery on Saturday, Feb. 17, at 8 pm. Tickets: $5. Call 328-5069.