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Photograph: Zach HollowellSimon Joyner

Simon Joyner at Empty Bottle | Concert preview

A rare visit from Conor Oberst’s mentor.

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Over the course of his 20-year career, Nebraskan singer-songwriter Simon Joyner has made some mighty raw records and some exquisitely crafted ones. Ghosts, his latest, is a double LP in the classic mode of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde or the Ex’s Joggers & Smoggers; it’s carefully cut from rough cloth, full of vertiginous performances of immaculately constructed songs.

Most of it was recorded live to tape, with the band arrayed around Joyner in a makeshift studio he set up in the warehouse of his antiques business. The 16-track tape machine was borrowed from fellow Omaha native Conor Oberst, who looked to Joyner as a mentor early in his career. To close the analogue circle, Joyner has self-released it on vinyl, not CD; the only concession to the digital age is the download coupon tucked into the gatefold sleeve.

If this sounds like an endeavor from a bygone age, it’s well matched to the characters in Joyner’s songs. They live in towns that most people drive past, mulling over the things and people they’ve lost with a little temporary comfort from a drink or a prayer. There’s a lot of darkness in these tunes, but they aren’t mopey wallows so much as balanced portraits of hard lives in a pitiless world. In clumsier hands, this would be standard bummer Americana fare, but it’s exalted by Joyner’s wordplay and infused with compassion by his perfectly imperfect voice. This is his first Chicago gig in years, and he’ll be accompanied by most of the musicians who play on Ghosts.

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