Tall, bespectacled and full of pent up energy, Justin Townes Earle walks onto Whelans’ stag and asks how everyone’s doing. He begins his first song, Memphis In The Rain, from his current album Nothing’s Going To Change The Way You Feel about Me Now. From that album he also included the title song and Maria amongst others. In fact he plays songs from most of his albums but nothing I recognize from his debut. Earle says that when he made that album all he wanted to do was play honky-tonk music, but he soon realized that what was called “country music” had nothing to do with what he liked or wanted to play. That when 12 bar had been taken out of country music and country had lost its way. 12 bar and the blues are still fundamental to Earle’s music live.
His songs are rooted in restlessness and the travails of traveling. This was highlighted by titles like Movin’ On, One More Night in Brooklyn and Wanderin’. The latter he prefaced by an intro that explained that Woody Guthrie “talked the way we talk and wrote the way we talk” so his songs are straight forward and have a universality which is missing from most of the current crop of singer/songwriters. Earle’s songs are rooted in his own experience with They Killed John Henry, a tribute to his grandfather. Mama’s Eyes was dedicated to his mother “she’s my hero” he told us, saying that she wore cut-off shorts and lived her live and that “no-one fucked me up, I’m just fucked up”. He is intense and insightful, prefacing his song with some well chosen words. He saved some of those for a section of the audience who sang along with the choruses of several song. He thanked them for the participation, but told them they sounded like a bunch of drunken pirates and would they ever “fuck off”. Likewise he asked those who decided to clap along to stop as it was messing with his head. (and therefore his timing) — not that there wasn't humour and self-deprecation involved too in both song and in the introductions. He wasn't acting all high and mighty, rather he wanted to put on the show the way he wanted to without unnecessary interference.
He also played, as well as his own strong songs, a number of covers including one he had learned from his Dad called variously Cadillac Blues and Big Car Blues. This again emphasized his own effective rhythmic guitar style, which if there was any criticism of the evening, mentioned by some, was that the tempo and delivery was a little repetitive over a long set. But that was not a view held by the majority of this younger than usual audience who took Earle to their collective hearts. He had just finished playing dates in the UK with his band and hoped that he could return with them soon. That should be something special for both sides of the stage