Justin Townes Earle-Live at the Cat’s Cradle, December 13, 2010
In his song, “Mama’s Eyes”, Justin Townes Earle proclaims, “I am my father’s son”. Having seen him live for the first time last night, I would second Justin’s statement. Nattily dressed in a vintage thrift-store suit, the lanky son of Steve ambled onto the stage, strapped on his guitar and like his father held nothing back, as he immediately addressed his recent, well-publicized brush with the law: “We’re gonna send this first song out to the great city of Indianapolis, whose fine law enforcement officials decided to have me incarcerated!” With that, Earle delved into a solo rendition of “Who Am I To Say”, eliciting roars and hollers from the packed Cat’s Cradle crowd. Such was the setting on a frigid Monday evening in North Carolina as Earle, along with upright bassist Bryn Davies and fiddle player Josh Hedley put on a lively and heartfelt two-hour show that hearkened back to the golden days of Nashville country gems.
Earle’s material toes the line between earnest and confessional singer-songwriter in the vein of his father and a traditionalist in the mold of Hank Williams. On Monday night, both sides were on display with songs like “One More Night in Brooklyn”, “Christchurch Woman”, and “Midnight at the Movies” reflecting the former, while “They Killed John Henry”, “Move Over Mama”, and “South Georgia Sugar Babe” echoed the latter. This duality plays well on his albums as the listener is constantly surprised by the wide ranging sounds of his catalog, captivated by both the lyrical insights and the toe-tapping country arrangements. Live, the versatility of Earle’s songs was even more distinct as he moved the audience from deferential silence to rowdy sing-alongs throughout the night. Holding equal weight though is Earle’s stage presence and charisma as a performer. As mentioned before, Earle did not shy away from his troubles, talking frankly about some of the substance abuse problems that have plagued him throughout his young life so far. He also proved himself a commanding raconteur, indulging the audience in various family tales, his love for “young women and fried chicken” (celebrated on his song, “Ain’t Waitin’”), and the travails of living in Brooklyn. While most artists would shy away from sharing such delicate and personal matters, Earle affably fessed up to mistakes and showed the crowd his vulnerable side, offering no excuses, but acknowledging his own struggles with making decisions and living his life. The crowd ate it up, smiling and cheering almost as hard for the between-song banter as for the tunes. While the political nature of father Steve’s onstage musings can sometimes get in the way of the music, Earle’s stage presence gave depth and profundity to his songs and provided a glimpse inside the mind of their creator. And there’s always a little fire with the Earles as evidenced last night when a would-be heckler attempted to interrupt one of Justin’s anecdotes. Earle refuted her claims and then sternly suggested that she move to the back of the room, much to the enjoyment of the fans. Very badass and very much approved.
A very rewarding show came to a close with Earle inviting opening act Caitlin Rose (a rising singer from Nashville worth checking out) and her band onstage to sing harmonies to “Harlem River Blues”, the standout lead track on his latest release. After a short encore, Earle emerged back sans guitar and launched into an A cappella version of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927” that brought the Cat’s Cradle to church-like silence. Thinking there was no way Earle could possibly leave on a higher not, he proved otherwise as the band was called back out, giving the crowd a few more numbers before calling it a night. A great night of music indeed.