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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John Grant

One of the reasons I wanted to set up this blog was to start talking about singers like John Grant.

Don’t worry – I have a lot to say about a lot of other artists, and if you’re trying to get a handle on my taste and my musical angle – don’t worry, so am I. It’s something of a moving feast, and always open to new ideas and directions. So there’s your invitation. Send me your thoughts. As I publish more, you’ll start to see what I’m on about.

Back to John Grant. I’d not heard of him until a musical contact of mine @Timinator let me know he had a ticket to see him at the Vanguard in Newtown and couldn’t go. Completely unknown to me, I nonetheless trusted Tim’s judgement and took the proverbial punt…and the ticket.

As I now know, John Grant is an American singer/songwriter who was the lead singer of a band formed in 1994 called the Czars which, as he told the audience, we wouldn’t have heard of due to ‘a complete lack of success’.

I am yet to hunt down anything of the Czars and will let you know once I do – but essentially I wanted to get this review and a couple of links and samples out there.

Despite what I’ve written below, after a number of listens to his first solo album, the song which has stuck in my mind on an almost continuous loop is the title track: Queen of Denmark. Not just for the lyrics which are wry and heartbreaking, but for that clear-throated vocal which, as a live performance, is still reverberating through me from the shoes up…have a listen…

The show was a little while ago now but, as I often do, I like to email friends with reactions. Here’s what I sent Tim at the time:

I cried.
Not sure what I expected, but out came this guy in a neat jacket and jeans and unleashed a voice that I still cannot believe.
May have been the venue as well (so intimate that his voice filled the room and came up through the floor). And then, in a couple of songs, he really let go, and I realised he hadn’t really been trying until then. Shivers up the spine stuff.
Love the songs – Sigourney Weaver, It’s Easier, Fireflies stick in my mind – Where Dreams Go to Die and TC and Honeybear seemed to be well-known to the crowd, and I loved those as well, but the first three really struck me.
Caramel is a beautiful love song – quite raw and unpolished in the live performance – just perfect. Although it’s very slick on the album.
I like the synth thing – he credits Iva Davies of Icehouse, and the 70s/80s stuff as an influence, and it really adds something you don’t see every day. He tended to stick to one effect/sound approach, which sometimes jolted me outside the song experience – but mostly it worked really well and just made for a fully unique experience.
He’s also brilliant on the keyboards.
Lyrically fantastic – great humour (esp Sigourney Weaver) and wryness which is genuinely amusing and endearing. Outer Space felt weird, may be a deliberate 70s homage, but felt strange/lyrically awkward because I was there the first time, and so it felt dated or something. Probably just a personal thing.
Here’s a guy with serious issues to work through and a lot of anger which he readily admits and discusses, but a little self-deprecation and a real warmth means there was a lot of love in the room. The way he breezes over the fact his coke dealer tried to suicide on the sofa made you feel like he was recounting the everyday larking about of a small child.
Although someone on Twitter said they walked out – but hey. Their loss.
I noted another Tweeter saying his wife was going to the concert and that she considered him criminally neglected as a talent – I wholeheartedly agree.

Here’s a Czars song for your edification because, from what I heard, their complete lack of success was another crime…

John Grant has promised he’s coming back to Oz soon. I’m so there.