THU: 25º/14º FRI: 23º/16º
Justin Townes Earle lives up to his legacy
Justin Townes Earle's father hung a heavy cross around his son's neck on the day the boy was born. First by simply being Steve Earle, the man who, if he didn't reinvent country songwriting in the 80s, at least tried to rescue it from the pablum pits it tends to wallow in. Then Steve went and named the boy ‘Townes’ after his friend and mentor Townes van Zandt, a man that Steve Earle himself has called the greatest songwriter that ever lived.
Young Justin had his work cut out for him, songwriting wise.
Pumpehuset is not my favourite place to enjoy live music. It's hot, it smells old, the sight lines stink, it is usually a standing venue with people constantly pushing and shoving for position...it sucks. When I take in a show there, I want to see the act I came to see and get the hell out. Unfortunately, Earle's Tuesday night show started with an unbilled opening act.
I hate unbilled opening acts.
The show opened with a solo set by a Danish guy who identified himself only as ‘Mikkel’. Perhaps he didn't give his last name in an effort to cover his tracks from the the music police. He was, not to put too fine of a point on it, wretched. Oh, he had purchased the entire urban folksinger starter kit: flannel shirt, baseball cap, beard, mewling Neil Young-esque harmonica, minor chords and even the requisite anti-war rhetoric for a folky crowd. He just didn't have any listenable songs or discernible talent. One of his songs contained the lyric: "this has gone on for too long."
I couldn't have agreed more.
I was more than ready for Earle when he finally hit the stage. Starting solo, he dedicated his first tune to his grandfather and the late Levon Helm. Employing the same thumb and first finger acoustic finger-style picking that his dad - and countless blues players - before him have used, Earle is a solid, if not particularly inventive, guitarist. He named checked Woody Guthrie before playing ‘Wandering’ and it fit.There are a lot of highways and towns in Earle's songs. He wears his influences on his sleeve, but he wears them well. It is clear he is wandering down well-traveled musical paths, but he never sounds derivative or mannered.
Justin's voice is a more melodic and supple instrument than his dad's - a touch of his namesake van Zandt here, a smattering of Dylan there. Minus the horns and ersatz Stax production, ‘Memphis in the Rain’ from Earle's latest release Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now was better live than on record, with a countryish swing that had a nice Tom T Hall feel. In fact, most of the songs bettered their studio versions. Earle's releases are often a bit cluttered with too much reverb and faux-rockabilly type instrumentation that diminishes the power of the songs.
Earle's writing is stronger when he sticks to blues and folk styles. To my older ears, he gets a bit thin and a lot more maudlin when he attempts poppier chord structures and lovelorn lyrics. The nearly full house at Pumpehuset seemed to disagree. The youngish crowd, filled with typical Copenhagen male hipsters in fedoras, pork pie hats and scruffy beards and pretty, well-dressed young women, hung on every word.
Earle himself looked healthy. Razor thin but strong in a white three button t-shirt and jeans, with stylish round glasses and longish, centre-parted hair, he had a very Lennon-esque air. He has good stage karma and told some good stories well - the one about his lousy Brooklyn apartment that came before ‘One More Night in Brooklyn’ was both wry and funny. The crowd was with him all the way.
Justin Townes Earle has already written a bunch of very good songs and a handful of great ones. Not bad for a 30 year-old with all that legacy he has to haul around. He tours constantly and is well worth a look the next time he comes around.