Justin Townes Earle at Varsity Theater, 5/7/12
Varsity Theater, Minneapolis
Monday, May 7, 2012
There were a few times last night when all fell silent inside the Varsity Theater, save for Justin Townes Earle. He paced around the stage, wearing a pair of round eyeglasses and a gray suit with a kerchief tucked in the breast pocket, a black Martin guitar slung over his shoulder. It was during those few moments that the full power of Earle's music, stripped down to its barest components, was put on display: The percussive string snaps and furious finger picking; the raspy, ragged howls and the wounded, woozy cries.
It was then, too, that Earle gave a glimpse of just how vibrant, sorrowful, and downright beautiful country music can still be today.
Granted, "country music" should perhaps be used loosely in Earle's case; his songs cover a broad range, from honky tonk to blues to folk, and even some bare-bones R&B and rock 'n' roll. But as he pointed out himself at one point last night, the music that Hank Williams played was based on 12-bar blues -- and, more importantly, the spirit of Earle's music runs straight from Williams, and goes through Johnny Cash, John Prine, and yes, even Townes van Zandt and his own father, Steve Earle.
Like those other artists, Earle has had his own demons over the years, and from watching him perform his songs -- eyes closed, mouth twisted and spitting and jutting out with his slight overbite -- you get the distinct impression that those demons might overwhelm him if it weren't for the music. It even came out in his goofy, lighthearted stage banter:
When I first wrote this next song, the woman I was seeing at the time just said, "Who the fuck is Maria?" That's when I knew that relationship had, er, run its course... I tend to be slow on the uptake with that shit.
Funny, no doubt, and all the more so with his charming drawl and comedic timing, pausing between each sentence to tune his guitar. But Earle's irreverence couldn't entirely shield the tenderness of the song's lyrics, or his own awareness of his shortcomings.
Earle spent most of the evening joined by his full band and, oddly enough, it was then that his gift as a songwriter came to the fore. The eclecticism of his writing came out, too: there was "One More Night in Brooklyn," which had a calypso flavor to it, and right after that came "Ain't Glad I'm Leaving," a straight honky tonk dominated by upright bass and steel pedal guitar.
The highlight of the night came when Earle, all by himself, played "I Been Burning Bad Gasoline." It was raw, visceral, even raunchy in its suggestiveness; just one man holding a room captive with his gifts as a performer. But the most instructive part of the night may have come with "Christchurch Woman:" during the introduction, the singer explained that the city in New Zealand for which the song was named had been completely leveled by earthquakes last year.
"It was the most beautiful city I'd ever seen," Earle said somberly, once more looking down to tune his guitar as he said so. "And now it's completely gone." He looked up, and laughed to himself. "They'll build it back up someday. They won't never get what they had had, but it'll be something beautiful. They're strong people."
Earle was talking about the people of Christchurch, of course. But he could have been talking about any one of the characters in his songs. And, yes, he could well have been talking about himself.
Critics Bias: I've never seen Earle play live before, and honestly haven't listened to him a lot over the years. But I'd heard such good things about his performances, especially solo, that I had to check it out.
The Crowd: Heavier on the side of middle-aged hipsters, but plenty of young people too.
Overheard in the Crowd: "Thanks for coming to Minneapolis!" (shouted drunkenly)
Random Notebook Dump: I'd be remiss not to mention the opener, Tristen. She's from Chicago originally and based out of Nashville. She had a charming, glowing sort of presence and a lovely voice. Worth checking out when she comes through again--possibly to promote the album she claims to be releasing in the fall.
They Killed John Henry
Memphis in the Rain
Look the Other Way
One More Night in Brooklyn
Ain't Glad I'm Leaving
Baby's Got a Bad Idea
Ain't That Lonely Tonight
Been Burning Bad Gasoline
Harlem River Blues
Black Eyed Suzy
Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now
Can't Hardly Wait
Halfway to Jackson
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