Glasses, silverware and dishes didn’t clink; cell phones had gone into hibernation. Was this intense love of music by a standing-room-only audience really happening? They were hanging on every verse and every note.
Such thoughts must have crossed the mind of the tall singer at the microphone, who throughout his sold out Friday evening performance at Club Helsinki smiled, even when playing a mournful blues riff on his acoustic guitar.
Son of the iconic Steve Earle and nephew of Stacey Earle (who never gets enough credit for her equally vivid songwriting and energetic performances, for the record), Justin Townes Earle has inherited an extraordinary family legacy of talent and turmoil and transcendence. His songs are often deeply personal, but their effect on an audience is as well. He is making some of the best roots music heard in recent memory.
Opening with a yet to be released “Passing Through Memphis in the Rain”, Earle had the audience mesmerized. His finger-picking on “Ain’t Glad I’m Leavin'” provided a perfect foil to his strong voice when he warned the woman in question, “But girl, you ought to be.” Paying debt to the indomitable spirit of late grandfather Jack, Earle played “They Killed John Henry” with gusto, and followed it with one of the best songs of his young career, “My Mama’s Eyes,” a story of trying to make sense of his identity in the years following his parents’ bitter split.
Three songs from the excellent “Harlem River Blues” album got the attention of even the bartenders and wait staff. “One More Night in Brooklyn” showed off Earle’s remarkable rhythm-meets-lead guitar style and gift for evoking a setting; “Ain’t Waitin'” was gut-bustingly soulful; and “Christchurch Woman,” written as a love song for the 2010 album, now became an affirmation of a proud New Zealand city recovering from a major earthquake.
When it comes to the blues, few of his generation have the talent to delve as deep as Earle. Roaming the stage during a take on Lightnin’ Hopkins’ double-entendre classic “I Been Burnin’ Bad Gasoline,” Earle tapped into the sound of the room, revelling in the purity and snapping the strings. It was like the stage had been transported to a summer night at a beer ‘n’ ribs joint in Houston by the end of the song.
New songs (for an album due out next March) tapped into the blues of approaching 30, looking back at past errors and “trying to move on.” Joined by opener Tristen (and someone named Buddy) on the chorus harmonies, Earle sang “Harlem River Blues” as if his adopted city were a family touchstone, as was also the case for “Halfway to Jackson.” Adjusting the strings on his well-worn guitar, he mused, “I always wonder if Woody Guthrie would like a song I’ve written before I record it,” before launching into a spirited “I’ll Keep Wandering.”
Returning to the stage after a thunderous round of applause from the audience, Earle paid tribute to one of the unsung heroes of American music, offering a superb take on Mance Lipscomb’s “So Different Blues,” before ending the the night with the rousing gospel of “Birmingham Jail.”
Review by Fred Rudofsky
Photo by Ruby