Full house at The Tuning Fork in Auckland last Friday night. Place is buzzing. People coming early. Our little Auckland treasure might make some dosh tonight!! Because it’s Justin Townes Earle, his father’s son, but his own man. A man who loves New Zealand, loves coming here, loves our audiences, loves our beer. Hates Marlon Williams because he’s just a little shit. Which is Justin’s way of saying he really, really, really loves Marlon Williams.
Thus we are all eager in our anticipation. And the Tuning Fork’s Sam (for Samantha) saves my bacon by squeezing in a table in front of the sound desk so I can scribble in my little book in the dark. Thanks Sam!!! But before the main event, a little disappointment in that Emily Fairlight has had weather problems coming up from somewhere, flights cancelled or delayed, and won’t be with us. Damn, I wanted to see her again. She was a bit off last time, and I wanted to forgive her. But there will be a next time, for sure.
However, filling in at short notice is Jess Bailey, singer/songwriter for her project Fables. Good, another new one for me. It’s hard for a folk singer and just a guitar. Unless you can play. Like, really play. Otherwise, it’s often like the endless line of Taylor Swift wannabees which one sees in the Listening Room and other Nashville Open Mic venues and no doubt all across America.
But Jess can play, even when it’s just chord progressions. And her voice roams and wanders up and down the scale in ways not entirely remote from Joni Mitchell. And so it’s endearing and charming, and songs from her Minibar, and others from the recent Fables EP Portraits (which, incidentally, I subsequently have found to be a little gem, with the depth which comes from having a band). How to be comfortable? Don’t be afraid to take up space... but not too much, Justin is coming... And a well-deserved shout out to Tracey on sound. Behind every good woman, there’s often another one!
Justin Townes Earle strides on with Justin Townes Earle intensity, hair closely cropped, little goatee, and wiry, circling round, looking like a cross between his Dad and Dali. Seriously, he might not like this, but he’s looking more like Steve these days. Genes don’t lie.
It’s just him and guitar, but louder, and he launches into Flint City Shake It, one of the many songs on The Saint of Lost Causes (2019) which rock along joyously despite the sad, somewhat dark lyrics. (there’s another song of Justin’s which wins all prizes for a juxtaposition of darkness and light. Can’t quite think of it. Maybe he’ll play it).
Once the guitar sound is tweaked, precisely, we are off on a brisk journey through most of his catalogue. No obvious setlist, so some work to be done working it all out. But Justin talks, drops the clues, and I scribble madly. Turns out alright in the end. Here’s One More Night in Brooklyn from 2010’s Harlem River Blues. Another song about gentrification (he must have been chatting with Skyscraper Stan).
He slows down. He captivates. He’s got balls like church bells (where does he keep them?) And he asks Am I That Lonely Tonight? From 2012’s Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now (happily, not all his albums have such long titles). Of course, you can’t be lonely tonight, mate, we are all here!!
“Keep up the cable on the second fret”, I scribble, but I’m not Frightened by the Sound. “I’m not like my Dad,” he says (but he is!!). He’s a radical rejectionist, and The Saint of Lost Causes is about the need to reject all those people who try to marginalise other people, as I found out in my interview a couple of week’s ago. It’s probably about Trump.
Two songs from the new album (the last two) and we’re back to Harlem River Blues for Ain’t Waitin’.
And next, we have the first of several covers which permeate the set. This one is by Malcolm Holcombe, a prolific singer/songwriter from North Carolina. “Banjo is the guitar sucked down the wrong windpipe”, I scribble. Did you really say that? Or is it the chardonnay? But Justin can really play guitar. Has he been to the Crossroads? I can’t remember him playing the guitar with such prowess.
Ah, yes The Good Life, released in 2008. Debut. A story about Guy Clark taking the capo off the second fret (that’s guitar speak) and asking a young Justin to “play that one I liked”. Justin being so rude… no just Justin being Justin… as he launches into Hard Livin’. Segues into a tale about his mother and her gangster friends. His mother detaching his Dad’s retina with one show of her right hand. She was left-handed, but I thought he might have said: “with a blow of her nose”. But he didn’t. He is his father’s son (I told you so) but has his Mama’s Eyes. Presumably with retinas attached. That’s from 2009’s Midnight At The Movies. As is They Killed John Henry, a song for his (unwriteable) Dad.
Now we come to Mance Lipscombe, an old bluesman discovered late in life by Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records. Two of Mance’s songs, and after that the great Fishin’ Blues, first recorded by Henry Thomas in the 1920s, and more recently by Taj Mahal.
We’re on the home stretch. Justin refuses to take requests (I am guessing, but did someone ask for Christchurch Woman?) We’re back to the debut, and Lone Pine Hill. Great song.
And then... it’s that song I was thinking about, hiding in plain sight! I’ll say it again, Harlem River Blues wins all the prizes for the juxtaposition of darkness and light. And did you know that the original recording of that song features Jason Isbell on guitar and also in the choir, along with RayLand Baxter and Josh Hedley? It’s true, it’s on the record. Ask Josh about it when he’s here in October. Every day’s a school day.
Ok, it’s encore time without the encore, and we are treated to two more covers, firstly from the Carter Family, and then The Replacements (Recorded on Midnight at the Movies).
And then it’s over. He’s gone. Didn’t get my beer. But he’ll be on another planet. And deserves to be. Justin Townes Earle. Pedigree. His father’s son, but most definitely his own man. Check out the new album. One of his best...
Justin Townes Earle's setlist
1. Flint City Shake It
2. One More Night in Brooklyn
3. Am I That Lonely Tonight?
4. Frightened by The Sound
5. Saint of Lost Causes
6. Ain’t Waitin’
7. Who Carried You? (Malcolm Holcombe)
8. Hard Living
9. Mama’s Eyes
10. They Killed John Henry
11. Ashes in My Dreams (Mance Lipscomb)
12. So Different Blues (Mance Lipscomb)
13. Fishin’ Blues (Henry Thomas)
14. Lone Pine Hill
15. Harlem River Blues
16. Gold Watch and Chain (A.P.Carter)
17. Can’t Hardly Wait (Paul Westerberg)