2015 is shaping up nicely for tonight’s performers. On the back of two albums in twelve months and a new found security, Justin Townes Earle is fast making up for any time lost in a career that started in the dim depths of his teens and has ridden an out of control rollercoaster ever since. Whilst Earle is looping the loop, Andrew Combs is still queuing for his ticket. Nashville’s fastest rising star, his second album All These Dreams is already in line for end-of-year accolades when the votes are counted. The Union Chapel (England’s Ryman Auditorium, © Andy Washington, a staff member of this wonderful venue) is a sell out and fills up early.
Combs will have thirty minutes to prove his worth tonight, but only needs four. Any four as it turns out; there isn’t a bad apple in his bag. His songs have an immediacy that belie their depths and by the end of his second song Please Please Please the crowd are with him, partly because the song is great, partly because he’s admitted to drinking whisky from a coffee cup below the large rose window of the chapel. Rainy Day Song, the opener on All These Dreams, showcases the vocal rasp he can bring to a lyric when he wants and the title-track his ability to write an up-tempo country rocker. New song Silk Flowers proves he’s in a rich vein of form, a lovely ballad that would have graced either album to date and bodes well for the future.
Too Stoned To Cry – ‘My Momma hates this song’ – and album highlight Pearl hail from the darker edge of town, the latter featuring a brilliant verse about a jumper being saved by a bent cop and tonight played to perfect effect, sung with conviction and passion. Combs closes with Foolin’, an irresistible song about the shallows of the internet that piles hooks on hooks and stays in your head for weeks. He goes all out, giving the middle-eight a ragged cry of a vocal that gains a few more fans, and then he’s gone.
Justin Townes Earle wanders onto stage dressed in chinos and blue shirt, looking across the top of his glasses at the audience like a Yale professor about to launch into a lecture. His speaking voice combines southern drawl with a hint of upper East coast and a remarkably consistent use of language frowned upon by the normal inhabitants of the pews; Earle is clearly comfortable in his own skin. Accompanied by Paul Niehaus on electric guitar and lap steel, we’re treated to a set peppered with amusing asides, stories and songs from across his back catalogue. This is stagecraft neither forced nor false, born of long experience, some of it hard won but retold for the umpteenth time with a splash of self-deprecation and wry half-smiles. Earle is endlessly quotable; songs are prefaced with choice cuts from his past that would make an entertaining monologue in their own right. The songs become the payoff, evidence that tough times often result in great art. It’s great to see him so energised, so relaxed and firing on all cylinders.
The pair are into their stride straight away. Early highlights include a one-two punch of White Gardenias and Worried About The Weather. New song Call Ya Momma includes a forgotten lyric moment and hasty segue into Christchurch Woman; during the encore Earle will tell us he didn’t even notice the mash up until Niehaus pointed it out off stage.
A trio of solo songs begin to raise the bar and ratchet up the emotion, Earle declaring forthright dedications to his wife, his grandfather and his mother on Learning To Cry, They Killed John Henry and Mama’s Eyes respectively. The moment clearly means a lot to him. He makes reference to being able to go home and support his wife through her father’s illness, suggesting that this is the first time in a long time, perhaps the first time ever that Earle has had something and someone to go home to. It doesn’t take a genius to notice the dedications don’t extend to his father, acknowledging the recent album title without needing to be explicit.
Earle mentions Billie Holliday before When The One You Love Loses Faith In You, the seminal jazz singer credited for teaching him how to sing behind the beat – ‘Singing on 1 isn’t rock n’ roll , and it isn’t Country’ – a student and a fan, then. As often happens mid-song, he can be seen to close his eyes and wander slowly from his mic spot, caught up in the moment.
Niehaus returns to the stage for a raucous My Baby Drives. Single Mothers draws whoops from the simmering crowd. Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving, the title a spin on a conversation he overheard in a diner – ‘…a lot of people think my songs are autobiographical – they’re not..’ and Today And A Lonely Night drive the response up a notch and a killer Can’t Hardly Wait has Earle claiming the Replacements cover as his own and the alternative rock band as the second drunkest behind the Pogues; you feel Earle knows this from first-hand experience.
The applause at the end is prolonged and rightly so. It is rewarded with a down-home cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams and a superb Harlem River Blues, the ‘Lord, I’m going to go uptown’ refrain sung lustily all the way back to the soundboard. Robin Hood style, Earle splices Country, rock n’ roll and blues and hits the middle of the target so often you can’t see where one arrow starts and the other ends. And whadd’ya know; we’re all the richer for it.
Review by: Paul Woodgate
From the Archive
If you do go a hunting for more from JTE then make sure you check this full concert from 2010 at Codfish Hollow Barn (Maquoketa, IA)