Justin Townes Earle, supported by Robert Ellis
Annandale Hotel, Sydney, Sunday, 2pm, February 10th, 2013
The Annandale, in Sydney's inner west, typifies Australia's pub music scene. Bands like AC/DC and Midnight Oil cut their teeth in places like this. The smoke clouds of yesteryear have gone, but pub venues remain crowded, often boisterous rooms, where artists sometimes have to work hard to win over a well-oiled audience.
So it was for Robert Ellis, when the young Texan opened for Justin Townes Earle. My friend and I had plonked ourselves on a bench seat at the back of the room and waited for show time. Although there was a big age spread, from 20s to 60s, the average was north of 40 and it was clear many had (like me) come to Justin’s music through Steve. Some were showing their colours – a Lucinda tour shirt here, a Drive-By Truckers cap there.
When Ellis took the stage, 45 minutes after the advertised time, two things became instantly clear – the acoustics at the back of the room were lousy, and a majority of those at the back weren’t listening. So we worked our way forward, until the PA-to-chatter ratio became bearable. Gradually, the 25-year-old Ellis won the crowd over, and he left the stage to sustained applause.
The set was built around his latest CD, ‘Photographs’, but the highlight for me was his reading of George Jones ‘The Grand Tour’, which he invested with just enough of Jones’ sound to pay homage, but without descending into parody. No easy feat, not for the faint-hearted. This is Ellis’s first trip Down Under, and he promises to return.
JTE, on the other hand, is a regular visitor and says Australia is his favourite place to tour.
It was the sixth time I have seen JTE in four summers and, while this show didn’t quite reach the heights of his switched-on Bluesfest sets last year, he remains a “must see”.
By the time he played, we had worked our way to the front, and the place was now packed – maybe 600 people – and Earle was welcomed to the stage like a returning hero.
"This is a brand new guitar," he said, taking a while to tune up. "Wood wants to be a tree. It has its own agenda."
JTE is a magnetic presence, with that “long thin frame”, doubled over his guitar, somehow awkward and insouciant at the same time. He has it all – an excellent set of songs, a fine voice, and an intriguing line of patter. His stories tend to revolve around familiar themes – his mama (loves her), grand-daddy (wishes he listened at the time), his dad (ambivalent), Nashville (home), Crown Heights (seedy), a crazy former lover (whatshername) – but it doesn't sound scripted, and can end up in hilarious asides or, sometimes, an embarrassing cul-de-sac.
The introduction to “Ain’t Waitin’” – a simple song about kicking back at home after time on the road – admonished emo types to lighten up a little and stop pretending to be miserable. “Elliot Smith was seriously fucked up, ” he says. “I knew Elliott Smith. But there aren't that many people who are really fucked up”. He said this with the enthusiasm of a new convert to lightness of being – it’s not like the JTE catalogue is brimming with froth. (Still, “Ain’t Waitin’” is a good companion piece to Guy Clark’s “Home Grown Tomatoes”, Patti Griffin’s “Making Pies” and other songs about food and contentment.)
“My Starter Won’t Start This Morning” was prefaced with the thought that the blues have become an increasingly important part of his musical makeup. Somehow, this led to a pronouncement that “Stevie Ray Vaughan wasn't as good as everyone thinks”. Everyone, including roughly 100% of this audience. There was an awkward silence until he name-checked Lightnin’ Hopkins, and we all moved on.
A large part of JTE’s appeal is his guitar work, based on claw hammer banjo style. It’s a piercing, metallic sound which cuts though the room, giving him an edge at gigs like this one. He seems to use every finger of his right hand, making a complex technique look deceptively simple.
Justin is clearly part of the Texas-Tennessee lineage of his namesakes, perhaps Townes Van Zandt more so than his dad. Lightnin’ Hopkins is an influence, as he was for Townes. He tours the South by song, starting with "Memphis in the Rain", ending "Halfway to Jackson", with a couple of detours to New York City. The three song encore includes Townes’ “Rex’s Blues”.
There was something a little different in JTE’s singing this time – an attempt at a smoother sound, perhaps, on some songs. This was most apparent on “Mama’s Eyes”, the softer sound replacing resentment with resignation.
Comparisons are unnecessary and odious, but we have passed the point - at least as far as live performance is concerned - where Justin is Steve’s son. Steve is now Justin Townes Earle’s father. That's the highest compliment I can muster.