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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Vanguard Roulette 1: Boy Outside Live – October 13, 2011

I’m playing Vanguard Roulette at the moment.

Picking random gigs that are on nights I can get there, and just going along for the ride. Excellent way to shake yourself out of your usual music choices and see what’s around. No guarantees.

I have 6 gigs booked – 6 chambers if you’re a Deer Hunter fan – and the first shot was Thursday night.

It was Boy Outside launching his latest EP, supported by The Falls and Little Bastard.

I got there just in time to hear the last of the Falls’ songs. The person on the door was well impressed and from what I could hear I was inclined to agree. I have since had a listen on their MySpace page. They’re acoustic folk, and they sound pretty good. Nice harmonies. Realised later I was sharing a table with one half of the band the whole evening. From what I heard, they would have been the perfect lead-in for Boy Outside.

Instead, we got Little Bastard. Great name. These guys are undoubtedly talented. They call themselves a ‘hoedown collective’. And from what I have read they usually have a full band behind them. However on Thursday they were restricted to a mandolin, fiddle, percussion and acoustic guitar.

I’m not sure if it was this pared back form. Maybe they weren’t working with their usual sound engineer. Certainly there’s not a lot of info available about them, so maybe they’re just starting out (I gather at least the mandolin player is a relatively new addition). I’m really wanting to give them the benefit of the doubt. But essentially they didn’t do anything for me. There was great energy, but no obvious hoedowning. Also couldn’t quite pick up on the cheekiness or mischief I was expecting based on the name and description.

And their set seemed to have only one gear…around third. Engine labouring a little to get to that efficient cruising speed.

The guitar was harsh and overpowering. The effect was like being hit head-on, rather than being surrounded and carried. This was mitigated a little with a change to a warmer-toned guitar towards the end of the set. And the last song wasn’t a million miles off Justin Townes Earle’s style, of whom I am a huge fan. I know they can sing – they blended nicely together on occasion. Essentially it felt like a jam session at a folk festival rather than a polished gig. Maybe they also need to think about their set structure – a bit more light and shade. I know lots of acts have based careers on doing the same thing over and over again, but I, for one, get bored way too quickly.

But that’s what the roulette game is about – you get what you get. And I’m richer for the experience. I don’t think I’m going to love everything I see. Where’s the fun in that?

That said, Boy Outside was a completely different proposition. Quick back story: his name is Aidan Cooney and he’s the former frontman of a garage band called Lincoln Brown which wove many folk, blues and country influences into an alternative rock sound. They toured the UK and Europe for a number of years. He’s since moved to Sydney and the Boy Outside moniker signifies a different sound and approach. Thursday was the launch of his new EP Hush of the City.

He wears his influences on his lapels with the alt country look going on, but the sound is much more diverse. I was immediately struck by the sparsity – early Chris Isaak came to mind. When you read up about him, he speaks of a dark melancholic sound with positive tones – so that comparison holds true for me. I heard a lot more there though and it’s a real mix: touches of Tom Petty, the gravel of Guy Garvey, moments of Mike Scott and then suddenly a flash of latter-day James Reyne. Hard to pin down, essentially beautiful.

He’s a quiet and charismatic stage presence, happy to let the music talk but also engaging.

And the band Cooney put together made the most of the space, creating an intimate atmosphere with muted drums, double-bass and semi-acoustic lead with Cooney on acoustic rhythm. They are a very fine example of a close-knit unit, working effortlessly together with lovely little fillers and embellishments that colour in the lyrics and carry the story along.

If I have one quibble, it was the choice of the encore. I believe it’s a song he’s carried with him for some time. As he said “Some songs stay around…”. It clearly has a lot of meaning for him, but it just left what was otherwise a great experience a little flat. However this is a tiny complaint.

I did buy the EP and I’m definitely favouring ‘Asleep behind the wheel’ and ‘Left a light’. Though not a live album, the EP production captures the essence of what we experienced and I’m looking forward to hearing more from this guy.

So that’s it – round 1 of Vanguard Roulette was a most excellent success – looking forward to round 2…

Boy Outside on MySpace

Lincoln Brown on MySpace

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: