By Jon Stone | @jwstone - February 14, 2011
In our recent interview with Justin Townes Earle, he had this to say about his stage performance:
“There are plenty of people that can write songs as good as I can but the one thing that I hold over a lot of songwriters is that I can burn you up in a solo acoustic performance. I’m very proud of that fact. I want it fucking bullet proof. That’s how you stick in the memory, that’s how you stick in people’s memory, you gotta grab their attention, then they’ll listen to fucking songs.”Friday’s show in Bloomington, IL wasn’t solo – Bryn Davies and Josh Hedley joined him on stand-up bass and fiddle, respectively – but that “burn you up/bullet proof” mentality carries over regardless. Earle was, in every respect, the tallest man in the room at Bloomington’s Six Strings Club -- and his lank was easily matched by his wit and charisma. Apt, then, that the club is an honest-to-goodness honky-tonk. It’s hard to imagine a regular venue being able to contain that personality.
It was my first time seeing Earle play live, but it’s true what they say: JTE is a natural showman. Over the course of the evening his between-song quips reveal an archetypal narrative for the hard-livin’ traveling singer-songwriter. This arc includes nostalgic tributes (to his namesake Townes Van Zandt, to Woody Guthrie with “I Don’t Care” and his grandfather with “They Killed John Henry”), portraits of both of his parents (“Momma’s Eyes”), and, most of all, tales of his chemical and sexual conquests/defeats (see “South Georgia Sugar Babe” and “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving”). Reproducing those asides here would be robbed of both context and color, but it suffices to say that the only thing Justin likes more than booze and cocaine are "fried chicken and the young ladies” (“Ain’t Waitin’”).
Earle has mastered the balance between the old and new. He sings in the traditional tongue of a country gentleman but those same songs bite with modern teeth – and they bite hard. Earle’s live sound is punctuated with an almost-brash acoustic guitar ("Travis") picking style. He startled the audience with the volume of that heavy thumb with his opener, “Move Over Mamma” – a song that moves away from the two-step it appears as on the record and into a steady, plucked out rambler. Most of the songs get a similar deconstruction in their transfer from the Nashville production. Earle often slows down the tempos making sure, as was mentioned above, that the audience is paying attention. This formula also allows him to take full advantage of the instrumentation and harmony vocals of his two companions. The result is measured but unrelenting intensity. I was also impressed by the crowd at Six Strings. From what I read, JTE shows seem notorious for obnoxious hecklers, but this crowd couldn't have been more respectful -- lots of facial hair and hunting caps and not a single one of them ironic.
My favorite moment of the night hit at around mid-set when JTE invited Hedley and Davies to take a short break and picked up the Gibson J-45 I’d been eyeing on his rack. From there, he started “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” a lovely bluesy waltz on the new record with a sweet horn arrangement that keeps a lyrically heavy song (“Why do I try my luck? I should never touch the stuff”) a bit lighter. Bereft of production, though, this song hits hard. Earle followed it up with a cover of Lightnin' Hopkins' "I Been Burning Bad Gasoline" (“Townes always used to say, every set should have blues, so here it is”) and finished out the solo set with a new song that seemed to address his recent stint in rehab with the less-than optimistic but self-aware refrain “It won’t be the last time.” Emotional devastation all around. It clicked for me sometime during those three songs: Justin Townes Earl’s talent as a songwriter is undeniable, but his charm is in his honesty (see the intro to "Slipin' and Slidin' above). Throw in a lovely Springsteen cover ("Racing in the Streets") and it was hard to not want to stick around for the line-dancing after the show.
To sum up, I drove an hour to Bloomington and found myself in a honky-tonk listening to one of the best country music artists in the country. I'm thinking of transferring to ISU.