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Live Review: Justin Townes Earle at The El Rey, LA 6/28/12

Justin Townes Earle: Live at the El Rey 6/28/12
By Natalie Rahhal, Staff Writer

“This is the first song I ever wrote at somebody,” Justin Townes Earle confesses into the mic. But he doesn’t say this at the crowd.  He inclines his head to the right, quietly refusing to look at anything straight on, and slides his words sidelong from the corner of his mouth.  And that’s all they get before he steps back from the mic with something like bashfulness and starts plucking away on his twangy six-string.  When he returns upstage to the spotlight, he sings every lyric—whether belting, or crooning, or rasping them—with this same dodgy coolness.  The audience quickly forgets his country-royalty bloodlines and lean forward like they might toward an enigmatic stranger on the next barstool, enchanted by his not-quite-confessions.

Returning to L.A. on tour to promote his new album, Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, this time at the El Rey Theater, Justin Townes Earle opened the show alone without presumption or introduction, warbling out a warm and plucky performance of “They Killed John Henry.” This first unassuming opening, was listened to by a hushed audience. But, as Earle delivered the song’s final lyric and riff, “they killed John Henry, but they won’t kill me,” the crowd hailed this claim of immortality with shouts and whistles suitable to the raucous Southern roots that color all of Earle’s music.

Justin Townes Earle somehow manages to walk the razor-thin line between unapologetic bluesman and ingratiating Southerner.  When his band joined him on the stage of the El Rey, he turned to and introduced them before an easily energetic rendition of “Ain’t Waitin'” and repeatedly invited the crowd to applaud them between songs.  For his part, Earle treated the performance as something casual and intimate, cracking jokes like the one about “Maria” (“When my girlfriend got home, I played it for her, and I was so excited, and she said, ‘who the fuck is Maria?'”), or trailing off at the end of a forgotten sentence, and shrugging it off before turning to his band to start up the next number.  And maybe this kind of casual approach is essential to the delivery of such heart-breaking numbers from the new album, Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way you Feel About Me Now, such  as “Unfortunately, Anna,” and “Am I That Lonely Tonight?” which, treated differently, might come off as too sentimental.  But instead, Earle strolled through some of these more downtrodden songs with a mixture of honesty and self-deprecation.  This attitude invited the audience to sway quietly along to sorrow-soaked lyrics.  Earle and his band were aware of the weight of songs like these and punctuated the heavy stuff with light-hearted jams like “One More Night in Brooklyn,” or the spiritual crowd favorite “Harlem River Blues,” which turned the L.A. audience into a something like a clapping, harmonizing congregation.

Overall, Earle’s performance suited the mood of new album, which at this point in his career, suits him.  His music maintains a sense of humor and ‘fuck it’ attitude that makes him accessible,  in spite of the heart-string tugging lyrics and mournful bass lines that characterize the majority of the tracks on his latest effort.

His vocals may have fallen behind the beat here and there, but as a performance, the effect was convincingly mournful, or careless (in surprising sync with the feeling behind each song) and served his current artistic evolution well.  He’s the kind of performer that an audience forgives of that, because he’s up there on the stage skirting the edges of something deeply personal, but making everyone laugh and stomp their feet.  And that is the soul of country music that’s had the blues put back into it, as Earle adamantly suggested every country singer-songwriter ought to do.


Justin Townes Earle performs “Memphis in the Rain” at the El Rey in LA

For more information on Justin Townes Earle visit: http://www.justintownesearle.com

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