Justin Townes Earle – El Rey Theatre – 6/28/12 Justin Townes Earle – El Rey Theatre – 6/28/12

Justin Townes Earle – El Rey Theatre – 6/28/12

Photos by Scott Dudelson

Words by Aaron

Justin Townes Earle walked, alone, out onto the stage at the El Rey and opened by dedicating a song— the country-folk, Americana-filled, “They Killed John Henry”—to his grandfather. It was a fitting beginning to a show that felt intimate, personal, tied to the past, and was just flat out good. Earle is currently touring in support of his fourth album, Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, an album that sticks to his alt-county roots, but has some some soul and a horn section mixed in.

After two songs, Justin brought out the rest of his band—a drummer, a stand up bass player, and guitar player who did a few songs on slide. They started by playing a song off of the new album before Earle talked shit about Crown Heights, eliciting laughter from a crowd full of hipsters that looked like they were pretty familiar with the neighborhood, then launching into “One More Night in Brooklyn.” There was some debate between myself and Pinpoint’s man in charge Big Ben about whether this sounded more like something from Graceland-era Paul Simon (me) or Jimmy Buffett (Ben). We weren’t able to work it out, but it got the crowd swaying, at least until Earle’s next between song interlude.

In deed, the evening’s charm came as much from what Earle had to say between the songs as from what he was saying in them. He drew the crowd in with asides about his parents, his musical philosophy, his ex-girlfriends, and it sure seems like there are a lot of them, and owing money to “dangerous” people in Chicago. Even though he usually kept it down to a sentence or two, it felt like he was telling you a story or letting you in on a secret, even though he was somehow simultaneously a bit shy and evasive. One of the high points of the show was when Earle introduced the scathing title track off of his new album by saying that “she” had always wanted him to write a song about her, but that she didn’t get to choose whether it was before or after things went bad, adding—again getting some laughs from the crowd—that it was “the only song I’ve ever written at somebody.”

Earle brought out some Southern twang for one his live standards, Lightnin’ Hopkins’s Texas blues, “I Been Burning Bad Gasoline.” Earle punished his strings, finger picking so hard I was amazed he made it through without snapping a few. He controlled the crowd, letting the energy level ebb and flow between his alt-country ballads and crowd-rousing blues-based rockers, which included “Ain’t Waitin’” (about a bucketful of chicken!) and “Half Way to Jackson.” Of course, the biggest crowd reaction came from Earle’s most well-known song, “Harlem River Blues.” The crowd sang along to the refrain “Lord, I’m going uptown/ to the Harlem River to drown/ Dirty water gonna cover me over/ I’m not gonna make a sound.”

Even on the album, but even more so live with the crowd singing along, it’s the most upbeat song about suicide I’ve ever heard, but I guess sometimes you’ve got to embrace gettin’ while the gettin’s good. Similarly popular was “Mama’s Eyes,” which Earle introduced by saying that “It’s not her fault that I’m fucked up. I get that from the other side. I am my father’s son.”

And he is, with all that entails. He’s talented, troubled, and soulful. Thankfully, that all comes through in his performance. It wasn’t the tightest show I’ve ever seen, but it was genuine and feeling, and established a real connection between Earle and the audience. Bottom line, go see him when he’s back in town. He’s worth it.

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