You know the usual math around here: One show is rarely enough. Even with a free festival in progress and plans for stages and sets, I'll take the opportunity to double up on favorite acts -- such as Justin Townes Earle at the Great American Music Hall.
Justin Townes Earle, Great American Music Hall, Oct. 3, 2014: Justin has become a standby at Hardly Strictly, much like his father, and he's made a habit of scheduling extra activities around the city around the festival. By no coincidence, he also had a new record to promote -- thus, this show at the Great American.
Regarding that new record, I haven't actually listened to it. A trip to the record stored turned up the CD, but I wanted vinyl. You can chalk it up to blind faith (which artists earn over time) that I'd hit the gig, but it's a good system for me.
Paul Niehaus remained with Justin on pedal steel and lead guitar, but now Matt Pence and Mark Hedman (from Centro-Matic) joined on drum and bass, respectively, and I don't mind pointing out Matt Pence resembled Christian Bale in The Prestige. They all sounded great together, with an ease and a comfort that might as well have been years in the making.
Not having heard the new album, I couldn't know how much of the sound and treatment were new, but the second track, "Ain't Waitin," said a lot. Justin had smoothed over this classic honky-tonk track to the point where it was almost unrecognizably mellow and breezy. In fact, they maintained this general tone throughout the evening, maintaining an even keel, all the way to the closing cover.
From the back catalog, the band played "Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now" and "Harlem River Blues," and I recognized "Worried Bout the Weather" from last year's Hardly Strictly performance. I also remembered "They Killed John Henry," during the solo acoustic part of the evening, which grows sweeter with every listen, especially knowing the inspiration for the tune.
As usual, Justin was talkative and prickly in parts -- for example, when shutting down the hecklers. One guy in the front requested that lead mic be turned up, but as Justin pointed out, the sound would be better if he stood a little farther back. Believe it or not, the guy took the advice. Another dude requested some incomprehensible song. Justin's comeback: "I remember my first beer too." Of course, we also heard gripes about the state of modern country music.
Justin offered a caveat that his songs were not entirely autobiographical, but he referred to his mother a few times -- not least before the title track "Single Mothers." His comments about "Mama's Eyes" were particularly sweet, and I'm sure you can find her presence on many other songs.
I have to admit: If this is the new, sober, settled Justin, I'll need some time to get used to it, but bless him for staying in the zone. I imagine this will be a work in progress. His voice sounds great as always, and his rougher edges still show in his banter and conversation. I may be alone among my friends for sticking with him, but truth is, I wasn't an old-school fan anyway. I don't mind the less bluesy edge.
In earlier shows, Justin's closer of choice was the Replacements, inspired by his mother's favorite tunes. Justin drew from the same well for the new concluding track, which happens to be near and dear to my heart (though it also makes me nervous to realize I'm almost old enough to be his mother). The song was "Dreams" from Fleetwood Mac, and I've waxed lovingly about the title before. No irony: That's an all-time great album, and I was thrilled to hear Justin make it his own.