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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Discovering Chinagrass

A friend in the UK recently mentioned an artist who has been around for a couple of years now, but of whom I’d not heard – a guy called Mamer. My friend called his music Chinagrass.

The bluegrass part of that term conjures flatpicking, fiddle, mandolin associations; voices at higher, more nasal, registers; Monroe, Scruggs, Rice and Rowan or Alison Krauss. Maybe the occasional jug band or jew’s harp. For want of a better description, that Appalachian mountain music which, by definition evokes an indelible sense of place.

I gave up trying to mentally reconcile those associations with what little I know of Chinese music and instead just dived in. What I got was something not a million miles away – but somehow entirely original.

Mamer is a young, 30-something who has become a cult figure in the underground music scene in Beijing. I’m no authority, so I’ve done some digging and have some seemingly intelligent and informed links at the end of this post which you can look into. Of note is that he grew up in Xinjiang province (northwestern China) listening to traditional Chinese and Kazakh folk music, but his life since then has been thoroughly modern – dropping out of music college to become a voice over artist (thanks to a beautifully resonant voice which had him overdubbing all the baddies in TV shows) and also singing in an 80s covers band doing Michael Jackson, the Police and Metallica. His influences throughout this time ranged from Yes to Pink Floyd, the Doors, King Crimson and Television.

However it appears he’s not lost sight of his past, and his album, Eagle, encapsulates both his modern and traditional sensibilities. The result is what I can only call an intoxicating sound. I’m getting the bluegrass elements: the stringed instruments (traditional dobra and guitar), the jew’s harp, the song structures. But there are so many other elements – middle eastern and sub-continental rhythms, dub, electric guitar looping through and all overlaid with a rich, low voice that puts me in mind of Tuvan throat singers.

Others have heard everyone from Woody Guthrie to Velvet Underground in what this guy is doing.

The sources I’ve looked at talk about how the open grasslands of his childhood are evoked by this music. I get that. Maybe because I grew up on wide open grazing plains in the Riverina. I admit grass was often a luxury where I’m from – but that sense of openness definitely speaks to me (undoubtedly brought into sharp relief by some level of nostalgia after many years of urban living).

I can only suggest you have a listen for yourself.

You can go to his My Space page here and listen to 4 or 5 tracks from the album.

But I think this You Tube video gives you a great summary sense of who he is, his music and some of his influences.

Chinagrass performers are not unknown to Australia. Sydney Festival in 2011 brought out another group of performers which has been added to the Chinagrass genre called Hanggai. From what I’ve seen, I’d class them as more world or folk music than Mamer. Then again – I have a lot more listening to do…

Enjoy.

Links on Mamer

Scarborough Evening News (UK) Review

Read about and listen to Mamer via Real World Records