Justin Townes Earle Live – The Basement – March 4, 2011

The last in my series of ‘delayed reactions’ and this time it’s Justin Townes Earle who played at the Basement back in March.

Another one where I was not sure what to expect…a feeling which grew as I checked out the audience. Fair to say it was varied: ageing hippies and the typical folk/blues crowd but also lots of urbanistas, forties retro kids and then a small clutch of flannel shirts (not worn ironically). It made for some colourful exchanges and, had JTE heard them, he would likely have revelled in it. He’s a party boy and makes no apologies. As he told the crowd later: if you’re offended by things like swearing and stories of a hard life “You’re in the wrong ****ing place”.

So the tone was set. Or so I thought.

Out walks this guy looking sharp in a suit (brave in the close environs of the Basement). Add liberal doses of bad boy southern charm delivered via some disarming honesty and it’s not hard to see how the room was his. Well – most of it – the guys in the flannies were seemingly rendered immune by large quantities of Bundy.

Being a fan of one person and a guitar on stage, I was glad JTE opted for this setup. But I was also very impressed with his occasional accompaniment on the fiddle by the unassuming yet extraordinary Josh Hedley. His playing is intricate and precise and comes complete with a lovely vocal that you wouldn’t intuitively pair with Justin but which works beautifully.

As for JTE, the first thing that struck me was his guitar playing. I’ve since learned his style is his take on clawhammer banjo style. Essentially he anchors with his pinkie, plucks with the thumb and strums with the other two fingers. To achieve the sound that he gets clearly requires an incredible strength in the hands, and watching him live shows how much strength he has. The style is totally unique and the effect is marked – a really full sound which makes you look for at least other two strummers on stage. This style also allows him to change up easily from a soft shuffle to a much more strident attack on the strings as he moves seamlessly across his musical influences.

I also like how his vocals shift. It’s not just softer when he slows down for something like ‘Who am I to say’. It takes on a graininess and there’s an extra twang in the accent which isn’t as obvious in his more upbeat songs. These are also the songs where I can very clearly hear his father.

But then, when he’s not in ballad mode, he sounds completely different again. In fact, try as I might, I can’t actually think of an artist who sounds like him. That definitely makes it harder to recommend him to others as it’s nice to be able to cite similar artists to pique interest. But at the same time, comparisons like that can often do artists a complete disservice. And of that – as well as the fact JTE is going to be living with comparisons in other quarters all his life (including mine in the previous paragraph) – I’m really rather glad.

With four albums under his belt, three of which charted in the US, JTE has a nice bunch of material to choose from but the emphasis was on Midnight at the Movies and Harlem River Blues – his two most recent, and definitely more successful, albums. The latter was actually something of a crossover success making some headway on the rock and indie charts in the US (which might go some way to explaining the diverse audience he attracts).

And on top of all his skill and great music – he’s a funny guy. I don’t mean that in a goofball way. It’s a sharp, natty, knowing wit which adds up to that ‘bad boy southern charm’ I mentioned earlier. Others might want to investigate his darker side – and for some of the forties ‘dames’ in the room, I’m sure that’s a big part of the appeal – but I, for one, am more than happy to leave it there and just get on with listening to what he does best.

So here’s a little of what he does best – the title track from Harlem River Blues:

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Gomez – Live at The Factory, Wed August 3, 2011

Gomez Live at The Factory

It took me 13 years, but I got there in the end.

At the risk of coming across as rubbish for someone who calls themselves a music fan, I must admit it’s taken 13 years from the time I first heard of Gomez to actually seeing them live this week.

The story is a short one. I was living in the UK in 1998. My UK music friend, the one who referred me to Chinagrass music (see earlier post), and I had been going to see as many acts as we could while I was there (including Dr John, Alabama 3, John Hiatt, Bonnie Raitt, Eddi Reader and Boo Hewerdine and others). He mentioned this new act called Gomez were playing in Camden Town so we rocked up to the front door of the venue only to find they were completely sold out. Exactly. I’m rubbish. So we spent the evening in a nearby pub. As you do.

Since then however, I’ve bought most of their albums and, whenever I heard a new track of theirs on the radio, almost subliminally connected to the sound before I realised who I was listening to.

So it beggars belief that it’s taken this long – but there you are.

So 13 years later, what was it like?

I was hoping to get a real sense of the musicianship that I respond to so much on their albums. I got it. These guys are not just good at what they do – they seem to be good at what everyone else in the band does as well. Gomez appears to shape-shift on almost every song, with Tom Gray swapping from rhythm guitar to keyboard to bass, and Ian Ball jumping on the keyboards to take a break from rhythm. All of them sing, almost all of them write the songs. Even the drummer played a tambourine (you’re right – doesn’t count). I know there are a lot of versatile musicians in the world – I just don’t see it that often in indie land. Of course, I’m happy to be corrected.

These guys also appear to have a mind-boggling collection of guitars – acoustic, semi-acoustic and electrics – between which they alternate at every song. I’d hate to be their roadie. Too much like hard work.

I was also interested to see how live Gomez might achieve the sound they get in the studio. I tend to think of them as being a little like Wilco, always tinkering with new sounds whilst injecting influences from so many different styles and legacies. Of course it turns out it’s easy – technology has taken care of much of that. And that’s something I’m grateful for these days. 20 years ago, using technology in a live performance smacked of bad lip syncing and excruciating howlers as horrified muppets got caught out when the backing tape jammed. Now it’s a non-issue and for bands like Gomez, the ability to bring their whole bag of tricks along means we get what we came for.

And I guess that’s why I really liked this show. I wanted to see Gomez because I like what they do. And they delivered what they do in spades.

Standouts for me were ‘Bring It On’, ‘Revolutionary Kind’, ‘Whippin’ Picadilly’ ‘Girlshapedlovedrug’ and Tom Gray getting his growl on for ‘Fill My Cup’.

I also love the contrasting vocals. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a voice like Ben Ottewell’s. It’s certainly big and gritty and all those words. But it also has the versatility that encapsulates what Gomez is about. I’m currently listening to the infectious ‘See The World’ with Ottewell coming over all sweet and sending it trippingly across my ears. But then try ‘Get Miles’ or ‘Bring It On’ and it’s like someone’s taken to his vocal chords with a rasping file – and simultaneously sent me a-quiver. Pretty sure that’s not a word. Whatever. Let’s just say it’s a magnificent thing when you’re in the room.

Then there’s Ian Ball’s lighter, sweeter sound – a touch of the Shins? Whilst Tom Gray has moments where he sounds like he’s channelling Damon Albarn or (dare I say it) a Gallagher, even Travis-like? Then in something like ‘Fill My Cup’ I’m getting Sergeant Pepper. I sound like I’m tasting wine now. But that’s not a bad analogy – because with these three seemingly unlikely ingredients – or notes – in the vocals, you get an altogether singular flavour and finish.

So was it worth the wait? Not a doubt in my mind.

And I might just say – what a venue. The Factory at Marrickville is a great room. Tiered floor space, wonderful ageing art deco interior, some St Vinnie’s sofas and a bar. And with the outdoor bar and merchandising area essentially in a shed out the front, it’s all pretty low-key – like you’re at a barbie in your friend’s carport. Really welcoming.

Although I have to note – I’m worried about what’s happened to the Inner West I used to know and love. Having previously lived about 5 minutes from the Factory and various other IW locations, I was expecting that edginess and attitude the IW is known for. But no – here was a crowd full of happy, polite, attitude-free punters getting right into the music, but checking they didn’t block your photo or stomp on you as they jumped about. Or was that just at the back? Seemed like everyone ‘cos even the sweaty ones at the front were smiley. Just something I noticed.

Here’s the happy ‘See The World’ – just to capture that glow:

Anyway – thanks Gomez – let’s not wait another 13.