Justin Townes Earle at First Avenue, 2/14/11
Justin Townes Earle
Photos by Steve Cohen
February 14, 2011
I'd like to couch this review as a half-assed intervention. If I may.
So, I received a little criticism last week by one of my educational cohorts (I am a student of Hamline University's fine, fine MFA in Writing program), who questioned my ribbing Justin Townes Earle about his chemical dependency problems.
Now, I wrote it off as totally above the waist, kosher, a-okay. Akin to poking fun of Keith Richards. Obvious and ethical. But perhaps my journalistic integrity (haha, of which I have none but let's pretend) calls for me to be a little more responsible than that.
And so, my review of Justin Townes Earle's Valentine's Day performance at First Avenue, doubling as a (totally projecting says my therapist) intervention.
Justin Townes Earle appeared onstage Monday night, met by the enthusiastic cheers of a perty-full crowd at First Avenue, he in contact lenses, proclaiming himself to be "all hopped up on B vitamins, ladies and gentlemen."
So this issue begs mention: Justin's health and welfare concerns of this past year, and as an echo of his years past. Now, I've done plenty of this and that and had my share of public embarrassment, and the last thing I want is for people to talk about it. The this and that tends to happen in a moment or two of revelry and poor decision-making, and of having little concern for one's well-being. It's embarrassing to the well-adjusted, sober, adult self. So we won't go there, Justin, and my reading public. We won't get into the details of all that. But I will say, knowing Justin not a bit personally, as compared to his last performances in these parts ('bout a year ago at the Turf, and then last summer at the Taste of Minnesota) he seemed cooler, calmer, better collected. Perhaps thanks in part to his newly-found and perhaps temporary sobriety, or some such thing.
In his stage performance, he offered up the same banter as is typical about his family, his mama in particular, his father in specific, his girlfriends as related, and how he's dealing with all this, that and the other. That, and some stuff about detached retinas (thanks to a punch-friendly mama and an askin' fer it daddy).
Speaking of which, on to the inevitable comparison. My appreciation for Steve Earle is as long as the day's long in July. But his son's got him beat in straight-up, unmistakable and undeniable earnestness, a quality that ain't easy to come by in a songwriter these days. The boy sells it, and not by the yard, but by the mile.
The bottom line: much of Earle's writing seems inspired by his piss-bad relationships. I get it. I've been in plenty, and since I've been out of 'em (it is possible, brother), I feel I've lost my inspiration.
Photos by Steve Cohen
But I'm happy for it. Bless those who opt for that dark side of unhappiness in favor of the art it inspires. That said, hon'bon, "the Christian life" (as it fuckin' were - I ain't no Christian but you catch the reference and my drift) ain't all that bad, and it often ends in a good long tenure on this earth. I hope you will consider it. No one girl or succession of them deserve so many songs, 'hear?
Okay now, was that intervention convincing? Perhaps not yet. How's this? I took note that you, Justin, were confessing your love for booze and cocaine, and in that moment the chubby suburban waitress-lookin' ladies behind me were all, "Hellllll yeah!"
Now. Is that whom we look to impress? Come on now. We can do better than that.
Again, I project. And no, that is not whom we look to impress.
But is it about them? Of course not. All I'm saying is, slow your roll bud. Listen to my projections. Join the enlightened side of sobriety and responsibility with me, dude. Get married. Have some kids. Buy some educational toys for those rosy-cheeked babies and adopt a gluten-free diet. It'll be...f-f-f-. F-f-f. Fffffff....un? Right? Yes. Most definitely. But more importantly, it is the life that will make our mamas proud. And that stands for a lot.
You know it.
Critic's bias: Been there, man.
The crowd: For the most part, real cool. But the folks in front of me were all dancin' from the knees down, and pokin' out their elbows like they were doin' the chicken dance at their cousin's wedding. Not cool.
Overheard in the crowd: Fan, drunk and enthusiastic: "Thank you for playing honest music." Justin, deadpan: "Okay." Fan, drunker, and more enthusiastic: "It's SO GOOD!"
Random notebook dump: (Regarding opener Jessica Mayfield) Have read online that while her roots are in bluegrass, and she now performs in the vein of country and rock, one of her greatest influences has been Dave Grohl. Come now. That could mean one of a few things, a couple having to do with one's awareness of hipster irony. One: She is totally serious, unaware of the hipsterish "irony" that could be factored into an appreciation of Dave Grohl. Fuck man, she's from a small town, "Everlong" was their prom song just as mind was some shit from the 80s that totally predated the prom king and queen that chose it, and she genuinely thinks it's the best. Two: She realizes it is way fucking not cool to list Dave Grohl as an influence. And so, as cool people do, she's embracing it. The ill-informed definition of musical "irony." See: my appreciation of the worst of 90s country. Three: She realizes Dave Grohl fucking rocks. She realizes it's not cool to like Dave Grohl, nor is it cool to like him "ironically." She's moved past both these things, and has a meta-appreciation of Dave Grohl that both encompasses an awareness of this vast Dave Grohl cultural meaning and a true, seminal appreciation of the man as a musician, pure and simple as it gets. Fuck, I dunno which it is. One, two or three. All's I know's I'm not hearing even an inkling of Grohl influence. Except that girlfriend has that sorta 90s alterna-girl rock than goin' on. Not to her detriment - she sounds real good. But I'm expecting Sheryl Crow to bust out from backstage right about now with the chorus, "If it MAKES you haaa-aaaa-ppppyyyyyyyy, it can't be that baaaa-aaaa-aaaad." Y'know. And that time of my life does remind me of Dave Grohl, if only due to proximity of hits on Top 40 radio. So, there ya go.
For more photos: See our full slideshow by Steve Cohen.
Set List: Or rather, my closest approximation with a few songs perhaps missing.
Mama I'm Coming Home
I Don't Care
Ain't Glad I'm Leaving
"Don't You Ever Cause No Trouble" (?)
One More Night in Brooklyn
I Ain't Waitin'
Slippin' and Slidin'
My Starter Won't Start This Morning
(Something off his album-in-the-works that seems to be about fuckin' up - maybe called "Won't Be the Last Time"?)
South Georgia Sugar Bage
Someday I'll Be Forgiven For This
Halfway to Jackson
Midnight at the Movies
I'm Learning to Cry
I Won't Cry When You Walk Out on Me
Harlem River Blues
Racing in the Street
Can't Hardly Wait