Based on his album titles alone (Midnight At The Movies, Harlem River Blues, Single Mothers, Absent Fathers, to name a few), it’s easy to assume that the invocation of emotion for a Justin Townes Earle show would be a lugubrious one. It’s easy to imagine the lanky, crestfallen visage of a 2017 version of Roger Miller dragging a broken guitar with worn-out strings onto stage to bellow a few songs about driving a truck to lonely-town, embracing “the same old country song” cliche. It would be easy to assume that, because it’s easy to be wrong.
Monday night at Turner Hall, buoyed by the opening acts The Sadies and Sammy Brue, and in promotion of his forthcoming album Kids In The Street, Justin Townes Earle (semi-estranged son of singer-songwriter Steve Earle) took the stage with an unexpected panache that brought in the rarely achievable combination of melancholy and charisma. No pompous intro music or dramatic dimming of the lights—just Earle, his guitar, and his band greeting the modest but enthusiastic crowd and promptly gliding into the set. No grovel-y gratification, no interrogative or interactive segments in between songs—merely songs and, if it felt appropriate, a little shit-talking.
What followed over the course of an effectively trisected set was a masterful interlacing of songs spanning Earle’s prolific career (eight albums in the past 10 years), earnestness, unexpected levels of profanity, and a refreshing candor. Earle’s no-nonsense approach provided a flip-side to the dichotomy in terms of what a crowd expects from an entertainer: referring to not one but two of his songs by “this motherfucker right here,” or cuing his band to end a song before admitting through a wry smile, “I forgot how to end that song a looooong time ago.” Unconventional, perhaps, but Earle’s through-and-through ability to take genuine ownership of his set was a welcome divergence from the theatrical pandering inherent in so many acts that feel compelled to wax grateful and pour their hearts out to an ambivalent audience. Sad!
Still, despite the aforementioned wryness, the set was sincere and enthusiastic, perhaps finding its opus in the middle with a doleful acoustic version of “Mama’s Eyes.” The evening ended on a note consistent with the happy cynicism Earle has become synonymous with. “We have time for two more, and then we’ll come out and do two other ones,” he said, commenting on the ubiquitous and surprising-to-no-one encore that ends every show these days. After the show ended with “Harlem River Blues,” the lights hit the heavily intoxicated and widely varied crowd, all filled with the spirit of a man whose music always sounds like the words of a sad man leaving to get somewhere. Sadness and satisfaction somehow holding each other’s hands.