Show Review

Justin Townes Earle @ Rumba Cafe, August 29, 2011

Brian Ahnmark
(Writer's note: Stage banter quotations are paraphrased as accurately as memory allows.)

Justin Townes Earle's August 29th show at Rumba Cafe was advertised as a double bill with Shovels & Rope. But an uncredited third act stole the show: Justin Townes Earle in stage banter mode.

A performer to the core through every fiber of his being, Earle delivered self-deprecating, autobiographical laughs between stellar renditions of songs from his three major studio albums. The crackshot supporting cast – Bryn Davies on upright bass and harmonies, Amanda Shires on fiddle and backing vocals – was bolstered by surprise guest Jason Isbell on lead guitar. Isbell (frontman of Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit) and Shires are accomplished songwriters of their own, and the nauseating collection of talent simply could not be contained by the tiny Rumba stage.

Earle's wholesome songwriting style transforms any venue into an intimate setting, a group of friends invited over for beers, sitting on the living room sofa and singing along as the lanky fellow churns out hook after hook. His confessional motormouth stage persona oozes charm, prefacing most utterances with a sincere, “Ladies and gentlemen.” He dedicated “They Killed John Henry” to his uncle, tall like the rail-thin Justin “but three times my wide.” Earle alluded to his grandfather later in the 18-song set, recalling a frequent admonishment from the days of his youth: “Justin, you're stupid.”

As the show picked up steam, so did the venue, prompting Earle to share this pearl of his grandfather's wisdom (and derision):

“He used to say, 'It's hotter'n 15 kinds of fuck, you're high enough to hunt ducks with a rake, hiding under the porch and smokin' dope. You dumbshit,'” Earle recalled to roars of laughter.

But while the conversation was loose and profane, the music entertainment portion of the evening was razor-sharp and focused. An understated Isbell and boisterous Shires traded licks on “Christchurch Woman” and “Walk Out,” at times playfully stealing solo bars from the other (eliciting at least one shriek of disdain from Shires). Compared to his records, Earle relaxes the tempo of many songs in the live setting to powerful effect, enhancing the emotional depth of lyrics in numbers such as “Mama's Eyes.” The easygoing pace allowed Davies to shine on “One More Night in Brooklyn,” confidently leading the way on her upright bass.

Earle took a moment to laud his female counterparts for their merits on the road.

“They show up on time, they don't ask for money, they don't drink it all away at the bar, and they smell good,” he said.

“I smell good,” Isbell countered.

Mid-set, the band exited and Earle manned the mic alone for a solo couplet. A scorching rendition of Lightnin' Hopkins' “I Been Burning Bad Gasoline” featured Earle's finest fretwork of the night, a clinic of old-fashioned acoustic picking; bass line and rhythm steadied by the thumb, solo lead with the fingers, and a percussive heartbeat slapped by the palm. The ferocious performance resulted in a broken guitar string, accompanied by a throat-shredding vocal. Earle also debuted a new song that sounded... well, like Justin Townes Earle, with a lovely “I'm trying to move on” refrain. He introduced the tune by subtly expressing gratitude to the new woman in his life for keeping pace with his rambunctious lifestyle; as Earle is fond of saying, “I'm a hard dog to keep under the porch.”

Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent of Shovels & Rope joined the band for set closer “Harlem River Blues,” and the six combined voices impressively replicated the gospel choir warmth of the studio version. Earle returned to the stage alone for an encore of “Wanderin'” – sans shirt, naturally.

“It's too goddamn hot,” he explained, perhaps oblivious to the fact that it was his own goddamn fault.

Kudos also to Shovels & Rope, the Charleston-based duo who opened the show. The punk-folk pair of Hearst and Trent worked up a considerable racket using little more than a couple of guitars, a broke-ass beat kit and their appealingly roughshod vocals, earning more than a few followers in the process.