Justin Townes Earle at the Jefferson [9/2/11]


Last night, the Downtown Mall was packed. Fridays after Five, a UVa football rally with the ENTIRE marching band, and a 3.5-year-old, 130-lb Bernese Mountain Dog meant there was little space to walk. We took refuge at the Jefferson Theater for the 8PM Cinnamon BandJustin Townes Earle, and The Hold Steady show.

Did I mention we're getting married here?

Earle is an artist I first discovered with the help of NPR,* albeit a little late in the game [his first record was released in 2007, but he came to my attention in the spring of 2010]. He has aptly been described as an “alt-country bad boy.” That might be putting it lightly, for he truly has quite a storied past.

His setup was simple: an amp, two guitars, a carpet literally rolled out for him by the stagehands, and two women playing fiddle and upright bass. He planted in the middle of this carpet in a Thom Browne suit. At 6’6″ and probably a scant 140 pounds, Earle has the body I imagine Browne intended his clothes to cover.

The irony of watching a Texan-cum-hipster in a TB suit sing folk songs about New York was not lost on me, or Earle, who often commented about the quirky combination of his influences as a musician [think: his father is Steve Earle and he’s named for Townes van Zandt] and the inspiration for his lyrics [namely, his hatred for New York City]. For this reason, his music crosses geographic space and time, bringing a modern perspective to an old style. This was particularly apparent in “They Killed John Henry” and “One More Night in Brooklyn.”

He’s a talented songwriter. Some of his concepts and lyrics are borderline brilliant, such as “Workin’ for the MTA,” in which he manipulates the old railroad ballad into a song about the New York City Subway system. Live, his delivery was so powerful that it wasn’t difficult to follow along and visualize the stories behind the songs.  He’s also an extremely talented guitar player with a gorgeous voice, which allowed for a set-break cover of an old blues track that was as laid back and un-mechanical as such tracks should be.

The performance was also clever. The three string players were able to transform the Jefferson into a railroad station in “Halfway to Jackson” by extending the song’s studio introduction and imitating the arrival of a train.

But the trouble with Earle is he knows all too well that he’s talented. It was clear from his attitude and stage presence that he wasn’t performing for Charlottesville. Instead, Charlottesville had rolled out that paisley carpet for him, and he was graciously allowing us his presence. It was also clear that he had no intention of individualizing the show for the city. All the way down to a moderately racist comment** about a particular area of Brooklyn, his show mimicked  his NPR live concert podcast to a T. I don’t think I was the only person there expecting a rendition of “The Ghost of Virginia,” which didn’t seem to be in his canned game plan.

JTE ended his set with “Harlem River Blues” and a comment to the crowd about how he had a hunch that many of us would need some extra time under water to wash away some pretty bad sins. All you could do was laugh off the insult, make a mental note of the irony, and enjoy the song.

* I never remember this when actually asked, but my answer to “if you could have dinner with anybody, dead or alive, who would it be?” is Bob Boilen and Stephen Thompson from NPR Music.

** I’ve spent a bit of time trying to dissect this comment, which I heard on the NPR podcast first and sincerely hoped that he wouldn’t recycle in Charlottesville. Anyone who was there or has listened should know what I’m talking about, but it’s probably not worth much discussion here.

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Categories: C-Ville, Music

Author:ryesandshine

Courtney grew up in Reading, PA, and has lived in New York City (where she earned a bachelor's degree at NYU), Prague, Philadelphia, and Charlottesville (where she received a J.D. from UVa Law). Courtney and her new husband will settle in Philadelphia following a six-week Euro-trip extravaganza in September of 2012. Courtney's interests include music, writing, criticism, fitness, travel, cooking, and sports. Please enjoy the blog. LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/courtney-marello/1a/375/b30 Tumblr: http://abarrelofoddsandends.tumblr.com/

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