I’ve now seen Justin Townes Earle three times in three years, all three utterly different crowds: the first in 2008, a small but supremely enthusiastic crowd at the Berkeley Cafe in Raleigh (a tiny venue); in 2009 on one of the mainstages at Bristol Rhythm & Roots, to a huge (thousands) but utterly placid crowd; and last night, in the Cat’s Cradle (a good old fashioned mid-size venue) to a mostly full house, an engaged but polite audience. Three times, three scenarios, and I’d have to say — as fun as the Berkeley show was, and it was a blast — that last night was the best option. The crowd was good sized but not overwhelming; they were engaged but not making a drunken ruckus. And, unlike Bristol, a million old people were not taking up all the good real estate in front of the stage with folding chairs.
As I noted when I wrote about Harlem River Blues, I sometimes let JTE’s music get buried in the horrifying testament to obsessive behavior that is my iTunes — that album slipped away into the depths of my iTunes, and I was surprised and delighted to discover, again, how great it was. But so had Midnight At The Movies fallen off my radar, and as great as HRB is, I think that MATM might actually be JTE’s masterpiece thus far. Hearing those tracks last night — the heartbreakingly poignant title track, a slowed-down, careful version of “Mama’s Eyes” — reminded me exactly how exquisite that album is.
And Justin is just such a great performer, at the end of all things; he’s one of those musicians who’s charming and disarming both, brutally honest and with an ear for the best sort of story. He has no problem telling the stories on himself, even the ones that make him look less than fantastic — he didn’t shy away from talking about his arrest in Indianapolis and subsequent trip to rehab, in rather great details — and unlike some musicians, whose talk between songs can kill a set, Justin’s cheerful self-deprecating drawl just moves the songs along. He confessed that he loves women and fried chicken best of all things in the world; he talked openly about his father’s relationships (and how they’re not exactly a model of good relationship health, except that he’s learned that “you just don’t marry ’em”) and his addiction problems.
The crowd — though they didn’t dance, again — was engaged and focused solely on JTE all night, and they were primarily polite and excited about the set. There was only one moment all night when the evening wasn’t spectacularly perfect; a heckler, a woman who seemed to have paid money to attend the show for the sole purpose of yelling at Justin, almost got out of control in the middle of the set. Justin handled it perfectly — he admonished her that you shouldn’t believe everything you read, and then mutteringly suggested that her reading comprehension was equivalent to that of our former president. Someone from the Cradle — Hoppie, I’m giving you credit, but if you tell me who it was if not you, I’ll give them credit instead — either shut her up or removed her, and the rest of the evening went off without a hitch.
And I’m glad — Justin is hands down one of my favorite live performers, the best mixture of compelling and funny, talented and charming, that makes him both an absolute joy to watch and shoot, and if a rotten heckler had kept him from coming back to the Triangle, I’d have punched her for him. He doesn’t play the Triangle often enough, and I am hoping that last night’s good crowd + good response is enough to get him back to the Cradle, soon.
The whole evening was fantastic, and the show is making a late run into my top five of the year (sorry, Superchunk; I think you’re about to be demoted to six), because of everything, but primarily based on the strength of two moments: the moment at the end of “Harlem River Blues” when the chorus goes a cappella and the crowd’s voices rose up from the audience with the voices on stage, which gave me goosebumps, and the moment in the encore when Justin came out by himself, fiddled with his guitar, put it back down, and stepped up to the mic, no guitar, hands at his sides …
… and delivered one of the most stunningly, shakingly gorgeous a cappella covers of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927” that I’ve ever seen. Y’all who weren’t there are lucky that my friend Dan is awesome, because you can go watch video of it here, and you should, because hoooooooooly fucking shit, that might have been the single best live performance I’ve seen this year … and y’all know how I felt about the Big Star show last week.
I forget, I think — that Justin’s voice is one of his strongest assets. It’s never more apparent than when he has nothing else to depend on, and, oh, oh, oh, that moment — just, oh, my heart, my heart.
Caitlin Rose and her band opened, and she was fantastic. I will absolutely go see her again. A++.
JTE setlist, courtesy @danschram: Who Am I To Say/Move Over Mama/They Killed John Henry/I Don’t Care/Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving/Mama’s Eyes/Mama Said/One More Night in Brooklyn/Ain’t Waitin’/Christchurch Woman/Wanderin’/Slippin’ and Slidin’/I Been Burning Bad Gasoline (Lightnin’ Hopkins)/It Won’t Be The Last Time (unreleased)/South Georgia Sugar Babe/Someday I’ll Be Forgiven For This/Halfway to Jackson/Midnight At The Movies/Walk Out/Harlem River Blues
Encore: Louisiana 1927 (Randy Newman)/Rogers Park/Can’t Hardly Wait (The Replacements)