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Possessed by Paul James at Chicago’s Moonrunners Fest

ATX folker proves a reaffirming antidote to shocking violence

By Kevin Curtin, 4:20PM, Mon. Apr. 28

Konrad Wert, aka Possessed by Paul James, performing at Reggies in Chicago, April 25.
Konrad Wert, aka Possessed by Paul James, performing at Reggies in Chicago, April 25.
photo by Kevin Curtin

Friday, after pushing our tour van through the pissed-off crawl of Chicago’s rush hour, arriving at the crash house, and scooping up an old pal, Black Eyed Vermillion and I arrived at Reggies for Moonrunners Fest. We’d be playing the next night, but our tour’s sole day off meant seeing friends perform. It didn’t take long to find a familiar face.

As I walked in, Konrad Wert, better known as Austin’s Possessed by Paul James, was onstage lending violin leads to Kansas folk upstarts Calamity Cubes, who were also joined by members of fellow Wichita residents Carrie Nation & the Speakeasy, a collaboration that speaks to the community element of the underground roots music fest.

Outside the club, things were getting ugly.

I exited for a smoke exactly as a tussle between a street kid and the Reggies security staff escalated to a dire level. The altercation, which had apparently begun when an employee sprayed cleaner on a loitering crust punk, quickly went from fistfight to mob beatdown about 40 feet from the club’s patio. The transient, part of a group that included two female friends and two dogs, was overtaken by four guards and stomped when he brandished a knife.

Suddenly, a security guard emerged from the scrum clutching his bleeding stomach and groaning, “That fucking crust punk stabbed me!” His coworkers and one volunteer ass-kicker pinned the attacker to the ground and repeatedly slammed his head into the concrete. As the brawl dispersed with approaching sirens, the kid sobbed loudly, his face awash with blood and one eye bulging from a visibly crushed socket.

He scrambled to retrieve his whining puppies while one of his female companions lay inexplicably unconscious on the ground. Soon the police arrived, hung caution tape, hauled members of both injured parties into ambulances, and exited. The blood on the sidewalk remained, a reminder that you need to watch where you step in this world.

Everyone was in the wrong, but I felt sympathy for the stabber. He wasn’t there by coincidence. Whether he was a fan of the music or a hanger-on to the scene, he’d surely arrived hoping for a good time, not emergency face surgery at the ER. Being semi-homeless and annoying didn’t warrant the treatment he got.

No-necks bouncing at clubs will always tell you they’re just doing their job, but this was all tribalism and testosterone. In the VIP room, one of parties involved bragged to me about how they’d made that “Oogle’s face swell up like a pumpkin.” Good god. There were no victories here.

Disgusted and disillusioned, with my hope in humanity needing a boost, I sought salvation songs and I knew where to turn. Possessed by Paul James, the goodhearted schoolteacher who moonlights as a multi-instrumentalist folk singer, had taken the stage. Tapping steady rhythm on a foot board he’d foraged up in the alley, he opened with “Breathe Again,” strumming his banjo so feverishly that he broke a string.

“If anyone out there likes to put strings on banjos, they can fix this,” he offered as he plugged in his violin. “We’re laid back elementary school teachers and we don’t give a shit.”

After sawing out a whirlwind of melodies, Wert dropped into a breathtaking version of his 2013 LP’s title track, “There Will Be Nights When I’m Lonely.” It was so honest, arresting, and pure that it knocked the wind out of the whole audience.

“Things are going to break, people are going to get fucked up,” he promised as his restrung banjo arrived back onstage. “What can you do? You gotta keep rolling with the punches.”

Throughout the hour-long set, from which he drew the night’s largest crowd, Wert alternated between acoustic guitar, banjo, and violin, working, as always, without a set list, playing requests or whatever moved him at the moment. Rolling out singalongs “Color of Your Bloody Nose” and “Feed the Family,” along with the intense emotional declaration of “Hurricane” and a resounding version of his best-known song “Should’ve Known Better,” he inspired revelry and gravity in equal measures.

The greatest asset of Wert’s warts-and-all, thinking-out-loud performance style – which is sometimes awkward, always imperfect, and often sublime – is that he’s openly reacting to the present situation: the sounds, the vibe, the technical difficulties. On Friday, he tuned the room, musically and emotionally, into beautiful harmony. The brutality was behind us.

I needed that.

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