On how Justin Townes Earle is not his father, in case you didn’t notice
The first time I saw Justin Townes Earle live was here in Seattle at the Tractor Tavern two years ago. He was opening for someone else, although I don’t remember whom. As was true of his return to the storied Ballard bar last night, Earle easily out-shined the headliner. Since then, he’s probably played a couple hundred dates at bars, clubs and festivals. I caught him at least four or five times at Pickathon last summer, where each performance was a little better than the last. Once again, last night he took the stage in front of a crowd where at least half the audience knew of him only because of his last name and, within minutes, it was clear that whatever expectations folks have of an Earle, Justin was there to tell his own story and not that of his father.
The man standing next to me before the show was dressed in a Jason Isbell t-shirt. He’d driven all the way from Port Orchard (over an hour) to catch the night’s headliner and noted he only gets out to shows in the city about three times a year. Anytime Isbell or the Truckers are in town, he’s there. He didn’t know anything about Justin but he loves Steve Earle. I decided not to clue him into what most people are, for whatever reason, surprised to learn: father and son are two completely different songwriters. Go figure. Instead, I watched him learn for himself, as Earle took the stage – announcing he’s Justin Townes Earle from Nashville, Tennessee – and lit into the old school-ish folky number “They Killed John Henry” from his latest disc, Midnight at the Movies.
We’ve seen enough artists come on the scene with the musical gift handed down through their bloodlines: Jakob Dylan, Julian Lennon, Eliza Gilkyson, Rosanne Cash, etc. Why we expect the offspring of great songwriters to sound like their folks is beyond me. We don’t look at Rumor Willis expecting her to embody some combination of badass action star and whatever kind of character Demi Moore tends to play (sexy and vulnerable, although she was kind of a badass action star in that Charlie’s Angels sequel). We’re happy to let Tom Hanks’ kid act in a different kind of movie than his pops, happy to let Stella McCartney design clothes Paul wouldn’t be caught dead wearing, so why should someone like Justin Townes Earle ever have to entertain the question about sounding like his old man? Is it because he played in Steve’s band for a few years? Or is it because the roots world appreciates families who sing together and we’d all secretly love to see a Steve and Justin harmony album emerge somewhere down the line? (Not likely.)
As for the actual performance, Earle and his long-time musical partner, multi-instrumentalist Corey Younts, were on fire. Younts’ steel-lunged harmonica solos and easy-flowing mandolin noodling were fail-safe crowd pleasers, and Earle’s delivery of tunes like “Mama’s Eyes” and “What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome” was surprisingly vulnerable and sincere. By the time they were done, the crowd was delivered, demanding an encore.
Isbell’s loud, chunky, grinding guitar solos were too much for my congested head, though, and I wound up leaving early into his set. His delivery was sharp and the 400 Unit were unsurprisingly tight. Were I not in the throes of a mid-spring head cold, I may have been happy to stay. As it were, though, not unlike the last time I trekked across town to catch whomever Justin Townes Earle was opening for, my need to see great live music was beyond fulfilled on Earle’s set alone.