By Jennifer Gibson
Anyone remember uber-geek Waldo from the Van Halen video for “Hot for Teacher”? Well, if I didn’t already know Justin Townes Earle was the eldest progeny of former junkie and sometime-musician Steve (sorry, but his records have been hit or miss for me for the past decade), I’d swear he was sired by that bespectacled runt. With oversized dark-framed glasses, slicked back hair, a red bow tie and ill-matched socks exposed by a pair of highwater dress pants accentuating a stature ripe for an ass-kicking, Earle most definitely does not look like the sort of guy who could bring some bad ass back to country music.
But there’s a reason old sayings like “don’t judge a book by its cover” have such staying power. While he may look in desperate need of a pocket protector, Justin Townes Earle wields a fierce blues streak coupled with a knack for penning lines that belong on every lovelorn drunkard’s jukebox selection. And his live performances don’t lack an ounce of the heartfelt, ragtime-y bite of his recordings. In fact, his dimly-lit sold-out Sunday set at Eddie’s Attic showed far richer skills than have been laid down on tape. Even if you have a hard time appreciating his style of music, Justin Townes Earle’s live show is quite a story time, as well. If you’re not into the genre, he’ll have some off the cuff musings to make you laugh or think, and not so much that you forget where you are. But chances are his engaging personality will win you over on both fronts. And if the audience make up is any indication, everyone from punks to blues boys to Old Navy shoppers can find something to appreciate this man.It’s also very important to note one thing, something you should know if you have a problem with the old man: if you hate Steve Earle, know that Justin Townes Earle is not the same as his father. Yes, there are similarities aside from the fact that they practically share an identical face, but when it comes down to it Justin doesn’t seem to use the stage to regale you with leftist politics. At least he didn’t this night. He also won’t use his show to get drunk and hand off a half-assed performance. Not that Steve would, but with the family history there it’s nice to see his son nursing a bottle of water all night. I hope it was water, anyway.
However, before Earle took the stage, there was the requisite opener. Now, I don’t want to sound down on opening acts. Most reviews I write don’t bode well for them, and that has nothing to do with how well-known they are or anything of that nature. Unfortunately, most I come across are either god awful or just plain boring. And I hate to say Earle’s opener, Dawn Landes, falls into one of these categories, but she does and it’s the worse of the two. You can be bad and still have passion about what you do, still show some spirit. But passion is something you can’t fake, and Landes’ wan and tried take on folksy acoustic something or other was one yawn after another. Not that Eddie’s Attic is known for particularly raucous performances, but Landes could have been any one of several female singer/song writers on that stage. To be fair, female singer/songwriters aren’t really my thing, but I do appreciate a lady who has something to say and all Landes could muster was a perpetually happy, chirpy tone even when delivering lines about her baby’s “wandering eye.” Really, that’s not something you should sound happy about.
Maybe she’s afraid to really throw her emotions into her vocals. It can probably be a scary thing to do, and there was a sense of her holding something back. But she could never break through whatever it was. Everything she did was just bland. Not offensive, but rather not a lick of flavor to it. I would have preferred offensive. Her white cowboy boots and cheap-looking black dress were offensive. She, on the other hand, was not much of anything but a mildly pleasant but forgettable passage of time.
(There’s no cruelty intended here, but one day the chick singer/songwriters of the world are going to have to wake up and realize that there’s more to life than quiet acoustic tunes sung with high, girlish voices. Dare I say take a page from the Joan Jett/Lita Ford song book – rock out. Use your guitar as it was meant to be used. You are not a mouse. You have a voice. You are not sequestered by folk music. Don’t be afraid to tread unfamiliar terrain. Please, because I can’t take this anymore.)
It would have been easy to be impressed by anything after that performance, so Earle started out on a high note. But he had something else up his sleeve – what Landes lacked in punch, Earle made up for tenfold and then some. The guy may be pushing some of the same acoustic business as Landes, but he’s got soul and that makes all the difference. His song writing hails from another era, from a time when country music was a means of expression rather than a machine. And his simple yet charming stage presence, accented with his perfectly drawled southern-fried catch phrase, “Oh my damn,” made him feel more like a friend rather than some far off performer.
And despite the earlier comments, he’s absolutely Steve Earle’s boy even though he’s not using the stage to preach. Example: they apparently share the same sentiments on song writing. Steve opined on stage at Variety Playhouse back in 2004 that some girls are good for nothing but writing songs about, and Justin related Sunday night that he’s got a talent for writing songs for girls who don’t appreciate them. (One of them is the catchiest ultimatum I’ve ever heard, “What I Mean to You,” off his latest record, “Midnight at the Movies,” which is every bit as tear-in-your-beer as it sounds.) He even mentioned starting the night off right with a phone call from his dad – Steve had just won the Grammy for best contemporary folk album.
But Justin is a more personable performer than his dad, and it showed even when he was doing his best to drown himself in the country blues. Earle certainly has emotive vocals, but one thing he never did was bring the audience down. It’s a gift he held high through a show that was without significant incident, nothing major to report, yet still seemed to leave listeners stone cold quiet and wanting more.
It’s not a matter of singling out one song or one moment in which he really cemented the show. He did nothing out of the ordinary, and was fairly predictable. He wasn’t loud or aggressive. He played old time-y, folksy country on an acoustic guitar and had a fiddle player and an upright bassist, both as unassuming as him. But he ultimately had something to relate, and in a show like this that may be more important than anything else. There’s a story in every one of his songs, and the music world is low on decent storytellers these days. He stood there in his goofy attire and sang a bunch of tales we’ve all heard before, and we believed every word of it. He connected with the crowd, and the crowd in turn supplied the rest.
That was it. He said nothing new, no one danced and life went on. But it all went down with perceived honesty and soul. This is a kid who’s not playing with us, even if he did show up in a nerd suit. But that was part of the fun, and it’s always nice to see a performer take themselves with the right amount of seriousness. Hopefully his talent won’t go to his head.
Category: Live Reviews