Show Review

Justin Townes Earle

Live @ The Bluestone

Photos by Steve Sirk
Brian Ahnmark
Justin Townes Earle is gradually scaling the ladder of recognition.

The proof is in the venue. Last time through Columbus in August 2011, Earle played the tiny Rumba Cafe, sardine-packed to capacity with about 75 loyal followers. Nine short months later, Earle appeared at The Bluestone – a converted church with hardwood floors, a raised stage, and a balcony awash in color courtesy the stained glass windows. So perhaps it's not a “ladder of recognition” so much as a stairway to... nah, too easy. And considering Earle's propensity for vulgarity in his stage banter, all of this church imagery is woefully misplaced.
For the record, there were certainly more than 75 fans in attendance. But Earle has not forgotten his humble beginnings. As he comically responded to a catcalled request, “I used to play at honky tonk bars where you'd play for tips, so you had to take requests. Now I don't play for tips, so I don't take requests.”

Earle opened the show alone on stage, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar – “The way it all began,” he acknowledged. In another nod to his roots, Earle selected “They Killed John Henry” to start the performance, his fingers nimbly driving the folk narrative about his grandfather. Earle next dedicated “Wanderin'” to Woody Guthrie, asking “What would Woody do?” and suggesting that such a query would serve as a justifiable guide to life.

An excellent backing band joined Earle for the third number, “Memphis in the Rain” from the brand new Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now (which takes longer to say than it takes to spin). The supporting cast, comprised of Paul Niehaus (pedal steel and lead guitar), Vince Ilagan (upright bass) and John Radford (drums), proved to be fundamental in bringing the new songs to life.

Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now is arguably Earle's mellowest and most soul-inspired work to date, but “Look the Other Way” and a boisterous “Baby's Got a Bad Idea” crackled with energy, thanks largely to the clever fretwork of Niehaus.

In addition to nine cuts from the new album, Earle churned through an array of material from his three preceding LPs, often with a fresh twist. “One More Night in Brooklyn” (“I have a knack for finding terrible places to live and terrible people to live with,” as introduced by Earle) sported a loose Calypso feel; piano ballad “Rogers Park” kicked the ivories to the curb in favor of Niehaus' mournful pedal steel, to moving effect.

The band left Earle to his vices mid-concert for a two-song solo set, and Earle took advantage of the opportunity to deliver his kill shot. Live staple “I Been Burning Bad Gasoline,” a Lightnin' Hopkins cover, elicited the loudest crowd response of the night. Earle's two-headed monster of a guitar line remains mythical – heavy bass with the thumb, screaming leads with the fingers – and his vocal was the most impassioned of the set. Follow-up “Unfortunately, Anna” is the best song on the new record, yet somehow became exponentially more soul-crushing when delivered alone onstage.

The band returned for a spirited take on “Harlem River Blues,” and the party was officially on (with guest vocals from the crowd). A beautiful rendition of “Mama's Eyes” was preceded by a rare moment of tenderness, as it was the Friday before Mother's Day: “My mom is my hero. She will always be my hero,” Earle said. “She always told me that she'd put up with my shit because one day, I'd have to put up with her shit.”

(To be fair, The Bluestone is a converted church. No lighting bolts dropped from the heavens.)

The main set closed with “Movin' On” from the new record, and a three-song encore followed: A long-awaited train tune (“Halfway to Jackson”), a new one (“Down on the Lower East Side”), and a crowd-pleaser (“Slippin' and Slidin'”). This concentrated cross-section of Earle's career felt like a subtle tip of the cap to the past, and a determined leap forward into a promising future.