LIVE: Justin Townes Earle @ MASS MoCA’s Hunter Center, 3/10/12
Review and photographs by J Hunter
The little blonde girl was named Amelia, the same name as my virtual niece, although this one was two years old: She turned the cuteness meter up to 11, and liked to walk in circles around her close-to-thirty-something mom and aunts when she wasn’t running and jumping in joyful exuberance; her older sibling was, as her mom put it, “in the mosh pit.” The adults were in the Berkshires to celebrate the 70th birthday of their aunt, who was also at the show… though, presumably, not in the mosh pit. It was Solid Sound in Winter at the Hunter Center, with people from Amelia’s age to retirement age getting repeatedly knocked out by second-generation singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle.
The “mosh pit” in question was a vast open area MASS MoCA staff had left between two sets of seats, one on either side of the theatre. Presumably the arrangement was meant to resemble the “skanky-ass rock clubs” Richard Buckner referenced as he sat down to begin his opening solo-electric/acoustic set. (“I feel like an artist,” he laughed, gazing bemusedly at the Hunter Center’s skank-free environment.) But while the space was big enough and wide enough to get a good running start at your fellow concert-goer, Earle’s brand of straight-no-chaser alt-country wasn’t exactly conducive for that kind of kamikaze flying. About the only movement I saw beyond multiple head-bobbing was from couples swaying front-to-back – not because Earle’s brilliant lyrics were in any way romantic, but because the music itself drew you in without breaking a sweat.
“This is the first show of the tour,” Earle told us in explanation for his casual attire. “My suits haven’t come in yet.” A rhythm section hadn’t come in yet, either, so Earle was only backed by violinist Amanda Shires and guitarist Gerald Menke as he started off with new music (“So I can learn how to play it…”) from his upcoming disc “Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me.” Not only was bass and drums not needed – either on the new material or on older material like “Christchurch Woman” and “Mama’s Eyes” – but when Earle announced he’d be playing with a full band later in the year, I wasn’t the only one who shouted, “DON’T DO IT!” Earle called the title track of his new release “the meanest song I ever wrote,” but pretty much everything he played had a little bit of meanness in there somewhere, and this stripped-out matrix brought that out in no uncertain terms.
Earle’s father was an early innovator of the hard-rocking sound that took over country music in the late ‘8’s and early ’90s, but JTE’s influences are far away from that burning nasty attack: The chords are Lyle Lovett with a side of Bob Dylan; the vocals can barely be differentiated from Jeff Tweedy; and the eyeglasses are pure Elvis Costello. But even though he goes between old-time country and old-time blues without blinking, the integrity of the whole package touches hearts in every age group. The fact that it was as far away from the pre-packaged, over-processed sound of today’s country music didn’t hurt, either — nor did Earle’s deadpan humor, which connected with the audience every time.
When Earle needed assistance from a roadie to re-connect a pickup on his acoustic guitar, he mumbled, “Sorry… this never happens.” And when Shires let out a whoop after “When You Walk Out on Me,” Earle cracked, “She’s from the Texas Panhandle. That’s a common occurrence.” Shire’s fiddle playing is pure country, although there are elements that are less Alison Krauss than they are Scarlet Rivera, who backed Dylan many a year ago. Menke’s got the blues and rock side nailed down, adding teeth to Earle’s biting songs. Earle can hold his own on his own, as he demonstrated on the new piece “Am I that Lonely Tonight,” but the trio made everything they touched burn like a bonfire. “They Killed John Henry” could have been a sing-along song around a bonfire by the railroad tracks, and “One More Night in Brooklyn” had an undeniable Nashville shine.
Although Buckner’s been recording since 1994 and his most recent recording was 2011’s “Our Blood,” the only evidence of him at the merch table was an email list. That was disappointing for those of us whose first exposure to Buckner’s music happened on this evening. Buckner may look like Meat Loaf’s long-lost nephew, but his lyrics are deadlier than anything Jim Steinman could ever hope to write. He used an effects box to set up chainsaw-sharp accompaniments for his songs, most of which he performed without any break: At one point he let one nasty riff roll on and on while he leisurely put a capo on his guitar, cutting off the loop right on the beat so he could play his next song. Like Earle’s brilliant set, it was unadorned and uncompromising, and it took me back to the small stages at Solid Sound – where Liam Finn and Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion were keeping it real while little kids like Amelia were enjoying the biggest play date ever.