Justin Townes Earle is a tall man--6'6'', to be exact--and from the looks of his sold-out Saturday-night show, so are his fans. It was a sea of urban cowboys and brawny men in plaid, with ladies scattered about straining for a glimpse of action through a wall of muscle. Something about Earle's drug-addled, hard-living past, his rugged masculinity, and his country-music pedigree--his dad is singer/songwriter Steve Earle, who named him after troubled singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt--resonates strongly with men.
Cheery singer/songwriter Dawn Landes opened with a solo set of confessional folk songs, offset nicely by her piercing blues yodel. She had the crowd's attention and ran through her set briskly, keeping the energy level high for Earle's set of down-home blues rock. The crowd was getting anxious, and more bodies filled the main floor for Earle, who appeared shortly before 11 p.m. He was well-dressed in a suit and bow tie, but his imposing height and prominent brow made him a brooding figure, and his large, expressive features told a story far older than his 29 years.
But turbulent times make for great lyrics, and Earle filled the next hour and a half with his bluesy ballads and country love songs. He addressed the audience formally, always starting with "Now, ladies and gentlemen . . . " with the slick charm of a traveling salesman, and was quick with anecdotes. "I have a weakness for two things," he said. "Fried chicken and women. I don't know what I like better, but women sure have given me more to write about." Accompanied by an electric fiddle player and an elegantly dressed upright bassist, the lack of percussion took nothing away from the show. Earle's mellow baritone and soulful guitar playing emphasized his natural gift for songwriting. And the three-piece made as much noise walloping away on their instruments as a band twice its size.
Justin spoke of his father--"I love him," he said, "but he's a pain in the ass"--and quoted Townes Van Zandt, who said, "You can't play a set without playing the blues." After a riotous call for an encore, he closed with his cover of Paul Westerberg's "Can't Hardly Wait," and the crowd roared as he left the stage. For all the troubles of his past, Earle seems to have his destructive tendencies in check, and performs with ease and showmanship. If things keep going this way for him, he's in fine shape for shows to come--and well on his way to rival the successes of his dad and Van Zandt.
The Crowd: Late 30s and up, an unusual amount of folks over 6', and chatty, heavy drinkers.
BTW: Earle's fiddle player was a dead ringer for Tim Harrington of Les Savy Fav.