It must be a blessing and a curse working your way into an industry with a name loaded with history and expectation. Justin Townes Earle carries the surname of his father Steve and his middle name is that of his father’s mentor, Townes Van Zandt. From his comments during the show and the inked word ‘Townes’ tattooed across his chest, it would appear that Van Zandt is a figure that Justin also looks to for inspiration in his music. The three men are also linked in their battles with drugs and alcohol and those experiences play a key role in the music they play.
Local supports were Perry Keyes and Lucy Lehmann who both provided a strong start to the evening with their Australian take on Americana styles. Lehmann’s was very much an indie folk approach, often with whimsical lyrics in a Darren Hanlon vein. She delivered a great riposte to Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ from the point of view of Jolene herself and incorporated some lovely touches of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ into one of her own songs.
Keyes, a much respected singer songwriter, was exceptional in holding the attention of the audience with his stories of lost love and lost lives. His strong acoustic guitar playing and descriptive poetic lyrical style captures a certain side of Sydney life that isn’t widely represented in our cultural landscape. His strong and confident performance style is a great audience leveler as we quickly dismiss any thoughts of missed notes or forgotten words. Keyes uses observation to create vignettes of inner city life and its inhabitants, a style similar to Willy Vlautin from the band Richmond Fontaine.
Earle strode on stage with just his lanky frame, gaunt cheekbones and acoustic guitar in hand. Over the next 90 minutes he delivered an incredibly entertaining and technically impressive performance that swung from swing to blues to folk to rock n roll and beyond. It was immediately apparent from his greeting and the first song that the audience were in for a treat. Eyes gleaming and darting across the front row, neck veins bulging, he launched into the songs with a frenetic urgency, delivering lines that were often at double the speed of the the recorded versions on his debut solo album The Good Life. He was either hunched like a dickensian villain over the microphone or shuffling and dipping his way across the stage.
The bulk of the evening’s set was taken from The Good Life but there were also previews of songs that will appear on his recently recorded album Midnight At The Movies, which is due for release next March. Earle took delight in telling us that his father hadn’t even heard one of the songs and that he wanted us to hear it first. He also threw in some covers that were enthusiastically received by those in the audience already well schooled in the songs of people like Van Zandt and Buck Owens. These songs also served as an education for others looking to explore the influences and origins of contemporary indie/americana bands such as Calexico, Okkervil River and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.
Another highlight was the pacing of the set and how effortlessly Earle switched between styles. One minute the crowd was swaying to a song like The Replacements’ ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’, sounding like a cross between Calexico and Billy Bragg, before he shifted gears and had everyone nodding their heads to the jazz/bluegrass stylings of ‘Biscuit’. It has been a while since a performer has been able to navigate multiple genres (albeit within an Americana sphere) with such skill and confidence.
Sonically, the Annandale (and the soundman) excelled with a crisp and rich sound. Too often live acoustic shows are unnecessarily soft and quiet, never having the right mix of grit and depth for a style of music that often has strong emotional gravitas. It was a revelation to hear the stomps of Earle’s boot on the stage and the creaks of his guitar when he pulled back to just a lone voice during the moving tribute to his grandfather who passed away late last year.
Earle comprehensively showed the Annandale tonight that he has the talent to carry the weight of his name and doesn’t take it for granted. You can see the respect he has for the history and evolution of the strands of Americana that he studies, yet in a live setting he performs with an intense showman attitude and isn’t afraid to show the raw and real honesty that is often missing from contemporary music.