Concert Catch-Up Week, Day 2: Justin Townes Earle
(click here if you missed Day 1: Todd Snider)
Fiona Apple said something in her recent interview with The New York Times that immediately jumped off the page at me. Just kidding, I wasn’t reading on an actual “page,” I was reading on my iPad. What, do you think I hate nature or something? Of live performances, she said…
“I would rather watch somebody actually going through something.”
Her words jumped off the ‘Pad (See? Just doesn’t have the same ring to it…) for a very specific reason — they immediately made think of Justin Townes Earle. May 22’s fantastic installment in the Groovin’ in the Garden concert series at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden was my fourth time seeing Earle perform, and a common source of amazement I’ve found in each of these experiences is the substantive nature of the connection he forms with the audience.
Anyone can slick-talk his or her way through some between-songs stage banter. Start out with “It’s great to be here in ________,” throw in a joke or two, ask “How y’all doin’?” at some point in the middle and you’re most of the way there. And while Earle excels at these pleasantries, with an outgoing persona and a repetitious use of the phrase “ladies and gentlemen” that suggests a deep-seated appreciation for decorum, that decorum is just the surface level of a relationship that goes much, much deeper.
Earle is an open book when he’s onstage, willing to speak about topics as personal as his rocky relationship with his father, ex-girlfriends, drugs, troubles with the law, even a deceased friend. This last example, taken from a show I saw in Charlottesville a few years back, produced the tensest sequence I’ve ever seen at a concert: Earle stopped the story about his late friend to castigate a member of the audience for shouting a flippant remark, paused for a few moments, then launched into an emotionally supercharged cover of The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait.” Ever since that exchange, I’ve felt nervous at his performances, wondering what he’s going through at the moment, hoping that everything’s OK. In that way, going to see JTE when he’s in central VA isn’t just a matter of watching him play new songs; it’s also a way to repay the trust he’s shown time and time again by laying his raw emotions on the table.
He was as open as ever at Lewis Ginter on May 22, talking about songs’ origins, his decision to avoid a career spent taking requests in honky-tonks, and his short-lived stint as a Chicagoan, but there was an overall sense of calm to the proceedings. It was my first time seeing him with a full band, and I’d guess that the additional backup accounted for some of that stable feeling, as did the cool tones generated by the lead guitarist — a man several years Earle’s senior who didn’t venture far from the lines that appear on Earle’s newest album, Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now. Earle’s demeanor seemed steady as well, and while I’ll always remember that tense exchange I saw in Charlottesville, it warmed my heart to see him as he was this time around — smartly dressed and in command, charming the pants off a group of ladies and gentlemen who truly understand what it means to listen.
Sample two of the songs from his latest album below, and click here to snag ’em both on iTunes.