LIVE: Justin Townes Earle @ Club Helsinki, 12/9/11
Justin Townes Earle is the true embodiment of the genre of music known as “Americana.” Mixing folk, blues, bluegrass and gospel with a strong country influence, the son of legendary Texas troubadour Steve Earle has come a long way over the course of three albums (and a debut EP) in distancing himself from his family legacy and carving out his own history of being a great songwriter/performer.
Justin rolled into Club Helsinki in Hudson with just an acoustic guitar in hand and proceded to mesmerize and blow-away the packed house with a combination of amazing guitar playing, inspired vocals and top-notch songs that criss-crossed the landscape of American music. His musical narratives painted emotional, personal accounts of his life and those around him, that at times were both plaintive and uplifting. Songs like “Working For The MTA” and “Wanderin'” were reminiscence of two of his most obvious influences, Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. The latter he proclaimed was the only person that mattered to him when applying a litmus test to a song he had written… “What would Woody have thought?”
He writes a lot about his family and his unconventional upbringing, “whether they like it or not.” In introducing “Mama’s Eyes,” he spoke of how tough his mother is, a roadie while he was growing up, she is one women you did not want to mess with. During the introduction to “They Killed John Henry” he stated, “My grandfather was a strong man… stronger than me… stronger than my father.. I guess I just miss him…” One new song “Tryin’ to Move On” – slated for the next album, due out in March – was just devastating. An emotional and very personal telling of a phone conversation with his mother while on the road, that referenced the demons that both he and his father have struggled with in the past. The song was nothing less than brilliant. So powerful and heartfelt you could almost feel the collective lump rising in everyone’s throat. Wow, what a song… simply stunning!
But that was just one of the many highlights throughout the evening, with another being ‘Churchchrist Woman,” a song written about someone from “the most beautiful place I have ever been in the world,” the recently earthquake-ravaged Churchchrist, New Zealand, which includes the sensational line: “She may be pretty, but someday I will be sick of her shit.”
With the stage presence and guitar chops of a bluesman twice his age, striking a long-tall figure, Justin looked confident, casual and relaxed as he strolled around the stage delivering intricate finger-picking guitar work; playing lead, rhythm, bass and percussion all at once on his acoustic axe. At one point, he even felt the need to mention the fact that, no… there were no backing tracks or loops being used… “Not the way I roll.” Towards the end of the main set, he brought up opening act Tristen and friend Buddy to sing backing vocals on the title track of his most recent album, “Harlem River Blues,” before wrapping things up on his own.
As he came out for an encore, the fans were, of course, yelling out their favorites that had yet to be played, to which Earle replied, “I don’t do requests. It’s a family tradition.” Which prompted one genius in the audience to yell out, “FREE BIRD.”
Without hesitation Justin came back with “and I especially won’t play that, asshole,” to the cheers and laughter of the crowd. He then continued on, playing what he wanted to play, proving again he has it all – the songs, the heart, the soul, the honesty, the musicianship. And those things all together equal one thing: the Real Deal… and with such a long road still yet to travel.
Born in Chicago, but now residing in Nashville, singer-songwriter Tristen opened the show, accompanying herself on guitar, with a nice set of songs about love and relationships. Titles like “Avalanche,” “Pep Talk” and “Doomsday” were filled with pop hooks and delivered with a voice that ranged from a soft, sweet whisper to a gutsy, blues-soaked snarl. This was Tristen’s third stop in Hudson, following a previous performance at Helsinki and her debut at the Spotty Dog. On Friday night, her lead-off performance both nicely complimented and contrasted Earle’s headlining set.
Review by Tim Livingston
Photographs by Ruby