Justin Townes Earle, Live at The Gray Eagle, 5/23/12

This is what Justin Townes Earle looks like when he’s really into his songs. He has long hair now. In case you were wondering.

I’ll admit that I was a little apprehensive about going to see Justin Townes Earle on his most recent tour, in support of his new Memphis-soaked album, Nothing’s Going to Change the Way You Feel About Me Now. The album, while palatable enough, just hasn’t stuck with me at all. This spring I’ve found myself spinning Beach House’s Bloom and Sleigh Bells’ Reign of Terror; both of which stand in stark contrast to JTE’s almost bland aping of Americana.

But the tickets were only $14 dollars and Townes Earle is a great songwriter. So, despite the state perpetual exhaustion that I’ve been in over the past three months, I decided to go. And I’m glad I did.

The show didn’t really change my opinion of Nothing’s Gonna Change as an album, but it did do a nice job of casting a different light on its songs. Justin Townes Earle, you see, is a bit of a musical chameleon. He’s done country/honky tonk music (he is, after all, the son of country music legend Steve Earle), bluegrass, blues, gospel, and even covered a Replacements song. And now on his fourth album, Memphis soul has taken over his songwriting. This willingness to shift styles is both a testament to his talents and an indictment of his inability to fashion his own unique voice. He writes great songs, but they always sound like they might have been sung by someone else some time in the distant past. So when he started putting horns all over his new album, my first thought was that we’d have a jazz record in a couple of years. (I still think that’s a legitimate possibility, but my mood is better now that I’ve had a chance to actually dig into the album a little). If he’s not pushing any envelopes musically, Townes Earle makes up for it with some of the finest lyrics out there today. But in concert, without the benefit of a horn section or any other studio amenity, the new songs, full of heartbreak, jilted love, and long night drives, finally had the grit that their studio counterparts lacked. Justin Townes Earle rings true when he isn’t trying to be precious. And Nothing’s Gonna Change is, if nothing else, a too delicate album. If I could, I’d swap out my official record for a decent concert recording last night’s gig.

With a standard setup of Townes Earle on vocals and acoustic guitar, accompanied by an electric/slide guitarist, upright bass, and drummer, the stripped down arrangements forced each of his new songs into an immediacy that they don’t have on the recording. Soon these numbers, peppered with Townes Earle’s sprightly storytelling between tunes, became great pieces of personal reflection and heartbreak. Justin Townes Earle, rough-hewn and right there in front of you, is a presence you can’t deny; on the recordings (or at least on this new one) he is almost distant enough to completely ignore.

He and his band tore through most of the new album, roughly half of Harlem River Blues, a few selections from his first two records, and then a cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “My Little Machine”. The most pleasurable surprise of the night was in discovering that Justin Townes Earle is probably the most gracious performer I’ve ever seen; in almost self-effacing fashion, he constantly promoted his opening act, Tristen, and mentioned his band mates by name every time there was a decent pause in the performance. You got the impression that this guy, who has led a truly hard life, really did appreciate the fact that he was up there on stage singing his songs to a devoted audience. He seemed to implicitly know that he could never do this by himself; he needs us, he needs his band, and he needs other musicians to see him through. That graceful approach, perhaps more than any new perception of a soul song, is a breath of fresh air.

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