Justin Townes Earle at Celtic Connections, Glasgow
Another new year, and another Celtic Connections festival to bring rays of sunshine and warmth to an otherwise dark, cold month. Taking place over 18 days in Glasgow, and with literally hundreds of artists, the festival has become an annual pilgrimage for lovers of traditional and roots music, world, indie, jazz, folk, soul and Americana.
Justin Townes Earle was originally scheduled to appear in an intimate converted church with a capacity of just a few hundred. However, demand for tickets was such that his gig was moved to a very large venue with a capacity of 1500 – certainly not my favourite venue, as it tends to be soulless and a bit claustrophobic when packed to capacity. And it was packed to capacity, despite the freezing tempratures in the City. Before he appeared on stage, Justin’s set initially looked a bit lost on the massive stage as he had only brought a single musician to accompany him. But that musician was the stellar Paul Niehaus, who accompanied Justin on guitar and pedal steel, and together they created layers of sound that surpassed all expectations.
Justin has played Celtic Connections before – he appeared back in 2011, when he was little known in the UK and certainly didn’t attract such large crowds. I recall that gig well, not only for the great music and my first introduction to ‘Mama’s Eyes’, but for the sense of sadness I felt watching the musician, who was clearly troubled, as has been well documented, and he had very little interaction with the audience. Roll on four years, and Justin now has a huge presence on stage, joking with the audience, cursing his guitar which won’t stay in tune, and brimming with energy and confidence. He jokingly referred to his previous appearance at Celtic Connections, saying he couldn’t remember it at all! His performance of Mama’s Eyes this time round was once again a highlight of the evening. He let Paul Niehaus take a break whilst he entertained the enthralled audience with a clearly ad hoc set. He had two attempts at Mama’s Eyes before he was happy, saying that it was his Mother’s favourite song so he needed to get it right!
With two very recent albums – ‘Single Mothers’ and ‘Absent Fathers’ – Justin had a wealth of new material to cover. The large audience was hushed to silence for ‘White Gardenias’ and, with eyes closed, it was almost impossible to believe that there was only a single musician on stage, such was the complexity of Justin’s guitar playing. When he was joined by Paul Niehaus on pedal steel, the duo created layers of sound which brought soul to the large venue. Much of Justin’s back catalogue was covered, although he quickly admitted that he couldn’t always remember the words of his earlier songs. Thankfully this wasn’t the case for Harlem River Blues which was repeatedly requested by the crowd.
Justin has come a long way since his 2011 appearance at Celtic Connections – his sound has matured, but he has also matured and is clearly much happier personally. Hopefully he will remember his 2015 appearance at Celtic Connections, as I certainly will.