In the past seven months or so, Justin Townes Earle has become one of my favorite musicians. He's in my top eight on last.fm, and his 2012 album, Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, was my favorite of last year. You can imagine, then, how stoked I was to get to see him live at the Social in Orlando last Thursday, Jan. 10.
The show opened with Cory Chisel, an Americana up-and-comer from Wisconsin who reminded me of a more subdued, less whimsical Langhorne Slim. Like Slim, he sang honest, heartfelt songs and wore what appeared to be the current indie uniform: crisp, pegged jeans, shirtsleeves rolled, sundry tattoos, work boots, a trilby hat. Unlike Slim, however, Chisel's songs failed to resonate. Though he tried to engage the audience with humorous quips, while he was playing, he came across as overly serious. If the musician isn't having fun, how can the audience? Perhaps if I had caught his set unexpectedly at New World, I'd have been more impressed, but with JTE's performance looming, I found myself looking more at the clock than at the stage.
A little after 10 p.m., Justin ambled to the mic alone and strapped on his acoustic guitar. With most concert videos on YouTube showing him flanked by an upright bassist and a violinist, all three typically singing in those three-part harmonies so favored in country music, and his last album being so heavily instrumented, a solo set defied my expectations. He often performed solo for radio appearances that engaged and entertained, but could he carry an entire set on his own bony shoulders?
Opening with "Memphis in the Rain," he immediately dissipated my concerns. This song is a current sonic obsession of mine; at times, I'll listen to it on repeat during my entire drive to work. On the album, I love the song for its jangly guitars and lively horns, and for the very specific vocal inflections, the stressed syllables — the way, for instance, he sings, "We got work for you to be doing." Live, these qualities were absent, but not missed.
By paring a song down to nothing more than a single voice and an acoustic guitar, by stripping it of the bells and whistles (reverb, distortion, midi synths, whatever) so often used in modern production, you can tell if a song is strong enough to stand nakedly on its own. Bolstered by his powerful voice and intricate, rhythmic finger-picking, "Memphis" stood strong and proud, as did the rest of Justin's 20-song set. Yes, it was a lot of songs, but the majority hover at the lucky-if-you-get-3-minutes mark.
It makes sense that the songs he played, culled from four of his albums, can exist on their gritty own without that studio magic. His namesakes are Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt, so in a way he was born into the man-with-a-guitar lifestyle — but he also grew into it on his own, citing Woody Guthrie as a main influence. So if Woody's machine killed fascists, perhaps it could be said that Justin's killed the stereotypes of popular Americana music. He broke the mold along with the rules. He's known to throw in soul and punk influences (as with his cover of the Replacements' "Can't Hardly Wait"). Between songs, he spoke candidly, anecdotally, about his troubled past, and while a musician dabbling in drugs and drink is expected, Justin admitted he used to smoke crack. A lot of crack. At one point during his set, he explained the only thing that removed him from a path to doing 10 years in the penitentiary like a friend was his guitar and us, our willingness to listen to what he plays.
Under those bright lights, he wasn't polished to perfection or pretty. From the neck up, he looked like someone you wouldn't want to meet in a back alley alone at night. (From the neck down, he looked quite dapper in crisp jeans and a sweater vest.) His movements were absolutely graceless. Lyrics were forgotten and shrugged off with an awkward smile. "That's one way to end a song," he deadpanned. "Slap a blues lick on it, bring it to a grinding halt." When he spoke, he mumbled and slurred as though drunk, but he'd been downing Smart Water all night. When he sang, he pushed his voice to the edge of its limits, just shy of shattering it on the floor before him. And had that happened, no doubt those perched at the front of the stage would have readily scooped up the pieces, handed them back to him and, flashing another gawky grin, he'd continue the song.
Memphis in the Rain
They Killed John Henry
Look the Other Way
Ain’t Glad I’m Leavin’
One More Night in Brooklyn
Baby’s Got a Bad Idea
Am I That Lonely Tonight
My Starter Won’t Start (Bad Gasoline) (Lightnin’ Hopkins cover)
Harlem River Blues
Halfway to Jackson
Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out (Jimmy Cox cover)
Can’t Hardly Wait (Replacements cover)
Slippin’ and Slidin’
Down on the Lower East Side