Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Alex Hornbake at Echo Mountain
Gary Jules played a gig here in Rock Island a few months ago, driving down from his last stop on the Joshua Radin tour - getting off the tour bus in Milwaukee for the first time in weeks, renting a car and taking a circuitous route that took longer than the three and a half hour drive normally takes. Jules, a Californian beach boy who was talked into moving to Asheville, N.C., by his wife to be closer to her family, is best known for a fortuitous remake and rearrangement of the Tears For Fears song "Mad World," which was featured in the climactic end of cult movie "Donnie Darko," all thanks to a friendship with the soundtrack's scorer, Michael Andrews. It led to him touring Europe, opening for Bobby Dylan and falling into anecdotal stories involving Victoria Beckham and her blatant toplessness in the green room of a talk show. It's what he's widely known for, but here in Rock Island, we got a sense of what he's really known for. It's not some movie featuring a pre-fame Jake Gyllenhaal with a lot of plot points that were hard to decipher on a first view, that's for sure. It's got nothing to do with the thick soul patch scratching out from beneath his lower lip. It's got nothing to do with his bowler hat or the nondescript, fitted, royal blue baseball hat he had on during this particular recording session at Echo Mountain. It's not even the look of complete leisure that he gives off without even trying, though that's getting closer to the crux of it all. It's more about the sweet grin that he seems to always have - other than when he's battling with his chronic migraine headaches and mysterious stomach pains, as he was doing the night before this very same recording session. And it's really because that sweet grin is not contrived, though it's a fantastic kind of masking. He rarely writes happiness, instead drawing from unforgettable pain to make his pretty odes to it. There was an older woman at the show here in Rock Island, who sat halfway back in the room and just a few songs into the set could be seen visibly weeping. It was one of those uncomfortable, yet real as rain moments that Jules mentioned later seem to happen at his shows quite often. The woman made a comment that the $5 that was being charged at the door wasn't enough. She told us, "He's worth way more than that," and handed over a $20. It's not only people like this woman - who has obviously formed a very personal relationship to Jules' soothsaying, crystalline folk music - who find themselves touched by the tragedies that come out of his mouth. It's available emotionally for everyone, mostly because of that sweet smile and the sense that he's not being devoured by all of the black angels and stormy weather that has been accumulating in his heart. It's okay to deal with it in the ways that you can find to work best. He sings, "Yeah, I come from sad stories" and from sad people at one point in this session and yet, this doesn't seem to be anything like a curse, just one line in a biography or some version of an autobiography. He sings about the heavenly influences that he's under and there's a general influence of Mr. Moonlight and the kinds of hallowed beams that come down from the skies when no one's out looking, the grayish, purply ones that are tracing shadows and the creases on faces making them, on him and his temperament. The thing that keeps him going and the idea that likely leads to a woman who's never met the man before, just has his songs as an introduction and is willing to shout out the forgotten words of "The Boxer" during the middle of his set in a small town in Illinois, weep sloppily at the sound of certain words in a certain song is that, after all of it, "maybe this time could be beautiful."