Justin Townes Earle – Live at The Factory; April 4, 2012

‘My head feels like a rubber eraser.’

As live gig introductions go, it’s no ‘Hello Cleveland!’ but it was one of the more original.

Then again we’d never expect Justin Townes Earle to be anything less than upfront about where he is at any given time. So to see him performing whilst reeling from jet-lag was just part of the JTE deal.

So what did that mean for the show? I won’t say it wasn’t noticeable. The tempo on some of the songs ebbed and flowed with Justin’s energy levels (particularly on ‘One More Night in Brooklyn’), and the second last song, ‘When You Walk Out On Me’ was just plain out of tune because I don’t think JTE had his earpiece in. Then again, I’ve seen him perform it before and it’s not an easy song to get right at the best of times.

Bottom line is, it didn’t make a pinch of difference to the overall experience. This guy is the real deal, bundling up all his musical influences and ****ed up experiences into a package of raw and powerful songcraft, catching rhythms and a whole bunch of that natural Southern charm.

Justin Townes Earle - Live at the Factory, 2012 -IMAGE

Justin Townes Earle - Live at the Factory, 2012

Working a bit of the geek chic this time, with a slightly oversized plaid jacket, glasses, the hair longer and not slicked back, this was a more vulnerable looking JTE than the last time I saw him at the Basement. And if you’ve listened to the new album Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, that seems entirely appropriate. It’s been reviewed as ‘searingly honest’ and he himself refers to it as being chock full of ‘Mom and Dad issues’. But this is the guy who puts himself out there, as we’ve said.

Whilst he started the set with the upbeat ‘Memphis in the Rain’ and ‘Look the Other Way’ from the latest release, there was no attempt to reproduce the slick Memphis sound which dominates the recording. Considering this tour is centred on Bluesfest, the more pared back support of acoustic lead/mandolin and double-bass was the middle ground between solo and full band and it worked fine for this purpose. Although this may change in the future with Justin stating an intention to tour Australia again soon with said full band.

Still finding his stride, ‘One More Night in Brooklyn’ suffered slightly as I’ve mentioned, but then he gained his footing with ‘Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving’ from The Good Life and the gorgeous ‘Rogers Park’ from Harlem River Blues, arguably his most successful album to date. He swung back to the new album for ‘Maria’, headed to the deep south to fry some Sunday morning chicken with ‘Ain’t Waitin”, then examined some more Dad issues on ‘Am I That Lonely Tonight’ before letting loose with a cover of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ ‘I Been Burning Bad Gasoline’ which blew the whole bunch of us away. It looks like it’s a favourite of his to perform live and we lapped it up.

By this stage he was back in his solo element and trucking along nicely with ‘South Georgia Sugar Babe’ and ‘They Killed John Henry’ before one of my personal highlights ‘Unfortunately, Anna’ where he lets us in to a sense of helplessness as he pleads “All these years you’ve been waitin’ for the world to change / but unfortunately, Anna / Unfortunately, Anna / it’s you, that needs to change.” You know those moments when the whole crowd is in the song with you? That.

Capitalising on the love, the band jumped back on stage to get into ‘Harlem River Blues’. The ensemble by this stage was much tighter, with JTE’s clawhammer style driving the shuffle beat and kicking the whole room into a new gear.

This would have been the perfect launchpad for the title track of the new album, however it was let down by the double-bass’s dominance which created a buzzing that overpowered the song in parts.

Balance was regained with ‘Christchurch Woman’ before another of my personal favourites: ‘Mama’s Eyes’. “I am my father’s son…but I’ve got my Mama’s eyes.” Clearly I wasn’t alone in my appreciation.

He finished off with ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’ and ‘Movin’ On’ before returning for a patchy, but brilliant encore.

I’ve already mentioned ‘When You Walk Out On Me’, the only JTE song in the final three. But wrapped around that were two wonderful performances. He started with (of course) Townes van Zandt’s ‘Rex’s Blues’ and finished with Gram Parsons’ ‘My Uncle’.

Both were played with the respect Justin affords all of his heroes and the humility to resist fiddling with the formula too much. And both were just superb – especially the deep sadness and underlying determination of the young man wanting to avoid the Vietnam draft in ‘My Uncle’. It’s such a sweet, sad song, the kind at which Parsons was expert, and Justin channelled just enough of that sweetness to leave me, at least, spellbound.

So as you imagine me shuffling amongst happy hipsters towards the Factory door, here’s a clip of Justin doing the Lightnin’ Hopkins song. It gives a good sense of his stage presence, his wit and also his raw playing talent.

Justin Townes Earle singing Lightnin’ Hopkins’ ‘I Been Burning Bad Gasoline’ live:

And if anyone had issues with the jet lag, Justin did mention you should Google ‘Justin Townes Earle live at KEXP’ to get a sense of perspective…hi-jinx warning…

Meanwhile – I’m heading out in about an hour to see his Dad.

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Lucinda Williams – Live at the State Theatre; April 3, 2012

This show has made me run the gamut of emotions.

I started with being miffed, uncomfortable and annoyed.

This had nothing to do with Williams and everything to do with the first support. I get that Daniel Champagne is a hit in the Spiegeltent and at festivals everywhere. I hear he’s the future of music. I get that, technically, he is astonishing. He manages to make noises with a guitar that are really quite extraordinary using the body, the neck and even the tuning keys to change key and change direction. At 21, he’s a prodigious talent and he’s more than welcome to divert my attention for 1 or 2 minutes in Pitt Street Mall.

It’s not that he’s not good, it’s just that I found what he does to be totally alienating. He did three songs that went for about 7 minutes each. All instrumental trickery, wandering in and out of the spot, singing unmiked, then back to the mike and stopping for elongated pauses that had the crowd applauding – half because they thought he’d finished, and the other half seemingly to encourage him to.

I have since asked myself what I reacted against. A couple of factors are at play. Firstly, he’s not the first person to use a guitar for percussion and other effects. It’s been done before. He certainly does it very well, but it’s just not new or interesting. Certainly not to me. Secondly instrumentals, like any music, require structures that people can easily grasp. Dramatic shifts from almost rock licks to delta blues and then long passages of showing off – all in the one song – just didn’t seem to hang together in any kind of musical or stylistic narrative. Thirdly, those long pauses are a luxury a new artist simply can’t afford. If we don’t know you, we’re not going to be that into you, so what you consider dramatic is in danger of being interpreted as self-involved by the outsider. Pick your audience, make it sharp and bring us along. We’re not hanging on your every note. We’re waiting for Lucinda. Maybe it was the crowd on the night. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood. But I wasn’t the only one. Overheard snippets were as bemused and largely disengaged as I was.

To mess with my emotions even more, we were then introduced to the wonderful Eilen Jewell. I didn’t know I knew any of her songs until she played the excellent ‘High Shelf Booze’ which local radio in Sydney had picked up over Christmas. Idaho-born and now living in Cambridge Massachusetts, Jewell has a fresh and sweet style that belies her mischievous sense of humour (in ‘Bang Bang Bang’, Cupid is a six-shooting two-year-old with bad aim) and her often dark and gritty lyrics (‘Santa Fe’, ‘Queen of the Minor Key’).

Voice-wise, those who know Lanie Lane would recognise some of the fifties-style sound, but Jewell’s influences are much broader encompassing gospel, honky tonk and rockabilly. So when she kicks into these modes, she and the band really kick. Jewell has a number of releases but concentrated on two in this set: Sea of Tears and Queen of The Minor Key. Highlights for me were the aforementioned ‘Santa Fe’ and the title track from Sea of Tears, as well as ‘Heartache Boulevard’. It was also a stroke of genius to cover Normie Rowe’s ‘Shakin’ All Over’ as the final song, totally winning over a crowd left somewhat disgruntled by Champagne. She already had us, but her take on this classic was the clincher.

And now to Lucinda Williams. Fully engaged after Jewell, out comes the legend lady herself and I had a couple of moments. First was the totally human reaction when you realise 1) that the last time you saw her was in 1991 2) that that was 21 years ago and 3) that, in that time, you both got older. No-one likes that moment.

However that was followed closely by the memory of the sublime 1991 performance at the Enmore Theatre where Lucinda, Rosanne Cash and Mary Chapin Carpenter performed their ‘three chicks with three guitars’ (as Cash later called it) show, and which Kasey Chambers credits with inspiring her decision to perform professionally. Certainly it inspired in me an enduring love of all three artists.

So Lucinda launched straight into ‘Can’t Let Go’ from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, her Grammy-award-winning and most commercially successful album to date. The band seemed tight and her voice was clear and strong. Had she not said anything we would have been none the wiser. It was a great start. However it turned out that, for some reason, she had missed sound check (reasons for which I am unaware) and she was not getting any feedback in her earpiece. This created some discomfort for Williams as negotiations with roadies and sound guys were had at the drum kit. Nonetheless, between conversations she powered on through ‘Pineola’, ‘Everybody’s Happy’, ‘Drunken Angel’ and  ‘Well Well Well’, all of which sounded fine but which Williams admitted made her totally paranoid about what we were getting.

However, I think what followed gives us the measure of Williams and her fans.

She was uncomfortable and annoyed. She came to the mike and told us she wanted it to be great and that she was frustrated it wasn’t. For a lesser artist, it might have been a deal breaker, but it seemed every single person in that room just loved her all the more, willing her along and letting her know it was all good. And that’s the thing about Lucinda. The reason she is so loved and respected is her warts and all honesty. The fact that all the raw nerves in her life are exposed and hit hard by her cathartic processing of them into songs. So to not accept something of that rawness in live performance would be folly.

I’ve also since learned this sort of thing is not unusual. I’ve heard and read that even small things can seem to put her out, and one can only surmise it’s because she’s so invested in the success of her shows. But far from seeming precocious, this merely serves to bring her even closer to her audience. And so, problems sorted, Lucinda kicked on.

My personal favourites were ‘Over Time’ (which Willie Nelson has covered), ‘Fruits of Our Labour’, ‘Side of the Road’, ‘I Lost It’ and ‘Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings’.

I also loved ‘Joy’ in which she found her full voice and let fly with some funky anger. Brilliant.

However the unquestionable highlight was her performance of ‘Unsuffer Me’, from the West album. The darkness and desperation of the lyrics almost snarled out of her, carried on that crackling and grated voice as she pleads: “…Come in to my world / of loneliness / and wickedness / and bitterness / Anoint my head / With your sweet kiss / My joy is dead / I long for bliss.”. I defy any spines in that audience to have remained unshivered.

Of course no set would have been complete without ‘Passionate Kisses’ which was the first song of the encore. Whenever Williams performs it, you get the sense you’re sitting at her kitchen table as the ink dries on the last verse. It has nothing of the polish which Mary Chapin Carpenter brings to it, and you feel like you’re getting it fresh and ‘just as the maker intended it’. Don’t get me wrong, Carpenter’s version is wonderful. But this was just a lovely moment for one of my all-time favourite songs.

The gorgeous ‘Kiss Like Your Kiss’ from Blessed allowed the transition to the full band and added Jewell on backing vocals for the finale: a cover of Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What it’s Worth’ and Williams’ bluesy ‘Get Right With God’ from Essence. By now parts of the crowd were up and dancing and all of us were left with the experience we had hoped for.

We wanted Lucinda and that’s exactly who we got.

So it was a roller coaster of emotions starting with the dip of Champagne, the sweet lift provided by Jewell, the uncertainty of Williams’ beginning, then the emotional highs and lows of Williams’ own songs and experiences.

Like a kid at the Easter Show, I want another go.

Here’s a bad shot I managed to squeeze in before the photo police bore down (I promise to buy a better camera soon and stop using my phone):

Lucinda Williams IMAGE

Lucinda Williams Live at the State Theatre, April 2012