The night begins with another singer of similarly famous musical parentage, Ricky Albeck and The Belair Line Band, a rag tag ensemble of current Adelaide music alumni performing their self-described “dole-country-rock”. Except for their final song which was a fast paced 70s rocker, they played an accomplished set of Australian infused country to a patient and mostly attentive audience.
Justin Townes Earle opens with “How’s everybody doin’?” in his Texan drawl and continues, “Believe me, I’ve got plenty of talking to do” and there is a fair amount between songs during the next hour and a half that he plays to this appreciative audience. The first song is Flint City Shake It, one of only four played tonight from latest album The Saint of Lost Causes during a set that takes from throughout his career (although he omits material from the thematically titled albums Single Mothers, Absent Fathers and Kids in the Street). This first song sets the scene to follow, Justin’s lazy smile, happily affected demeanour and making sleepy eye contact with the audience while playing in a mostly forceful, mechanical, rhythmic rapid strummed fashion that almost seems a trademark. A lady returning from the bar to her seat at a table front of stage during this first song has her cardigan caught on something on the edge of the stage and mid song Justin ad-libs, “You’re hung up”.
“I know you’ll gonna be fun” precedes the next song One More Night in Brooklyn. Before Am I that Lonely Tonight, a song about his father, Justin points out that his “goal at every gig is to play as many songs as I can without removing the capo from the second fret, Guy Clarke style” and certainly a fair portion of the set is played before I note that the capo has been moved elsewhere.
After Frightened By the Sound, he places something into his mouth that he clarifies is a fisherman’s cough drop. “What? You think I’ve packed speed into this? I wish!”
The Saint of Lost Causes is introduced as being a song about marginalisation and he precedes the brief Ain’t Waitin with a note about the grim reality of the tourist mecca of Memphis: “I wouldn’t go to Memphis without a gun. It’s dangerous ass city”.
When he asks “How many of you all have heard of Malcolm Holcombe” and gets little to no response, he is surprised and disappointed and plays a cover of Who Carried You but not before first giving a lesson on musical history that apart from those musical artists drawing from the lineage of Woody Guthrie (including placing himself alongside Springsteen and Bob Dylan which draws a laugh from the audience), “ There are only three where you can’t trace back to where the bodies are buried: Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Malcolm Holcombe”.
He dips into the not too distant past of his first full length album The Good Life to perform the rapid Appalachia styled Hard Livin’ which he informs us, “My dad told me one day I would write a song that was too fast and too high I’d never be able to play it again… maybe tonight’s the night”. Afterwards he tells us he wrote it at the age of sixteen (as he did most of that album) while he was in a band called the Swindlers.
He continues with songs about family, his mother (Mama’s Eyes), and his granddaddy (They Killed John Henry).
Ahi Esta Mi Nina, which Justin translates as “there’s my girl”, is song in which he inhabits the role of a father affected by the drug trade in America. Along with the subsequent Christchurch Woman, these are exchanges from the relatively stable set lists that Justin has been performing on this current tour.
As he nears the end of the set, Justin has to respond to the audience becoming more adventurous than their cat calls and howls up to now as they start to ask for songs. He playfully but firmly refuses to play any requests, stating “If you behave yourselves, I’ll play three songs, go away and then come back and do two more”. Those last three songs are the aforementioned Christchurch Woman, Lone Pine Hill and Harlem River Blues which ends the set with Justin leading the audience into an acapella rendition before letting his guitar strap fall to his waist and he steps out of it like a stripper removing an undergarment to leave the stage momentarily.
He returns shirtless, perhaps commenting on his reduced state of attire with “Shimmy that shit off baby”. Earlier on he had spontaneously denied he was a kid (“I’ve been doin’ this for years”) but physically and especially latterly with his shirt off, he looks like a grownup kid. The first of the two closing covers is the Carter family song Gold Watch and Chain. He introduces the last song with, “I’m gonna leave you with the drunkest band that ever walked the face of America… not the world, that’s the Pogues”, suggesting a campaign to have Shane McGowan proclaimed a saint. He continues, “We’re going to Minneapolis” and there’s a call of “Prince!” from the audience which at first has Justin taken aback before he embraces his now more than appropriate semi-naked state and does a moderate physical impersonation. With this diversion over he plays the set out with the regular more recent set closer of the Replacements’ Can’t Hardly Wait.
After Justin leaves the stage and fans meet him out the back to get autographs, there is a murmur that he might play the front bar later but although he does make an appearance to wind down after the show this possibility has not eventuated before I choose to make it a night a little while later.
Live Review by Jason Leigh