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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Lyle Lovett Live

I have a few reactions to some live shows which I thought I’d throw out there. These are from things I’ve seen in the past year or more. I won’t call them reviews – I don’t have the press releases a reviewer would get, so not as informed as I’d like to be. I’ll add detail where I can.

The first is Lyle Lovett at the State Theatre in Sydney back on 29 March 2010. Here’s what I sent out to a friend at the time:

I was so impressed. I have a DVD of him performing mostly his jazz stuff, with a guest appearance by Randy Newman and the two of them performing their work for the Toy Story franchise. Whilst the music was fantastic, and the Large Band a treat, frankly I found it a little lacking. I now realise why. The difference when you see him unedited and live is the chat between songs, which reveals more of his wit and warmth. And charm. The man is the consummate gentleman and extremely gracious – even in the face of those inevitable moments when people shout out from the back but clam up when Lyle actually tried to engage.

What I didn’t realise is that Lyle appears to have a studio band and a live band – with only one member from his studio lot joining him on the road (Viktor Krauss – brother of Alison Krauss). There was an interesting set up – very pared back. No drums – just bongos, a cello, Viktor Krauss on electric double-bass, and two fellows from a bluegrass background who blew me away. Keith Sewell played lead acoustic and mandolin and has a voice entirely suited to bluegrass with its nasal twang, and Luke Bulla played mostly fiddle and lead acoustic on a couple of songs. His voice is lovely – it has a lot more clarity and resonance and blends beautifully with Lovett. These two have been playing bluegrass since they were six years old and have known each other since then. They are only in their thirties or so, but it’s clear there is only bluegrass in their veins.

And I think Lyle and the band would have to be the sharpest dressers on the road. Ever.

Of course Lyle’s guitar work makes you realise how technically good he is. And the voice. That’s what you go for and it doesn’t disappoint – that catching, dry, almost faltering but somehow rich sound which is quite unique and delivers as emotively live as in the booth.

The effect of the sparse backing band is that he has been able to recreate the mood of Joshua Judges Ruth, whilst the bluegrass guys made the newer stuff from Natural Forces really work well. ‘Pantry’, ‘Farmer Brown/Chicken Reel’ and the title track were all superb.

For me the only downside of bongos with brushes is that you lose some of the drive behind some of the songs from The Road to Ensenada which is my personal favourite of his albums. ‘I Can’t Love You Anymore’ and ‘Private Conversation’ just missed that kick which is what I love about them. That said, it does inject a new feel to the songs and you start hearing them differently. And that’s a pretty petty criticism for a performance which delivered in so many ways.

I was on a total high after this show – and after watching live videos, I hadn’t expected to be. Then again – how could I not? I’m a fan for a reason – he’s one of the smartest, wittiest, sharpest, most talented singers and musicians I know of. I have almost all his albums. Why was I surprised?

His My Space page has some tracks from Natural Forces for free download – and I highly recommend ‘Pantry’. You can also demand that he comes back to Sydney (column on the right lets you DemandIt). Go on, I did. Because I, for one, hope he gets back here soon.