‘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.
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.