Live review: Justin Townes Earle @ the Bluebird TheaterBy John Hendrickson | February 17th, 2011 | 5 comments
With his cocked Stetson, cuffed Levis and high-slung guitar, Justin Townes Earle does not look like your average New Yorker. Nor do his retro country songs sound like they were written in the city’s East Village neighborhood, which he calls home. But New York is merely the current locale where the dropout-junkie-addict is hanging his hat, and the universal themes of his honky tonk can translate to any corner of the Americana tapestry.
Earle, the son of singer-songwriter Steve Earle and godson of the late Townes Van Zandt, brought his three piece traveling band to a packed Bluebird Theater on Wednesday night. Touring in support of his third album — last year’s “Harlem River Blues” — Earle delivered a calculated vaudevillian performance rife with banter about his hard-livin’ ways.
To skeptics, Earle comes across as yet another fish in the sea of Hank Williams or Woody Guthrie impersonators. Indeed, his twangy fingerpicking, thick Southern accent and waltzy rhythms feel removed from contemporary pop music, though his lyrics shine with winning sincerity. “Put on a country station/On that satellite radio,” Earle crooned during “Ain’t Waitin'” early in the set.
Much like Dylan in his early days, Earle has constructed an image both onstage and off that adds credibility to the lonely troubadour life of which he sings. Wednesday’s show, originally scheduled for October, was one of the many postponed following Earle’s September arrest after trashing a dressing room and assaulting a venue owner in Indianapolis. He spent much of last fall in rehab and largely evaded the public until late last month, where he emerged clean and sober to perform “Harlem River Blues” on “The Late Show with David Letterman.”
On tour, Earle is flanked by fiddler Josh Hedley and upright bassist Brynn Davies — each in their southern Sunday best, each properly shredding the strings of their vintage instruments. Davies, in particular, straddled her large bass with puckered lips and a confidence that recalled June Carter. The trio bopped and grooved over Appalachian bluegrass rhythms on “Halfway to Jackson” and “They Killed John Henry,” slowed it down for ballads like “Mama’s Eyes” and two-stepped on “Walk Out.”
Through it all, Earle made numerous references of affection toward his father, whom he has had a difficult relationship with since growing up in Nashville. Both the elder Earle and godfather Townes (whom he simply calls “T”) have undoubtedly carved a path for the still-young Justin, for better or worse.
“Here’s hopin’ I get somewhere someday,” Earle said late in the set, slugging water — not vodka — from a bottle on stage.
Earle returned for an encore with a cover of the Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait,” a song he countrified on 2009’s “Midnight at the Movies,” which has since become a staple of his set.
Joshua Elioseff is a Boulder-based freelance photographer and regular Reverb contributor. Check out his website.