Justin Townes Earle returns in style, and will again.
The last time Justin Townes Earle came to Australia, he promised he’d return with a full band in tow. He was touring his latest album Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now, his most considered release to date. The Prince Bandroom in St Kilda was an odd choice of venue, and despite his often hilarious banter, the performance was slow and stilted.
“Earle publicly denounced the potency of Australian cocaine, but tonight it looked like he was struggling to contain what a good time he was having…”
So when it was announced he’d be returning to Australia and playing the Corner (twice), albeit without any band whatsoever, one was hoping for a more energised affair. We should all feel pretty spoilt with his affection for our shores, mind you; he’s visited us some five times in as many years.
This time round, he’d brought some State-side supports in Elizabeth Cook and Robert Ellis.
Elizabeth Cook is a Florida native, Loretta Lynn-recalling singer who spent as much time regaling the crowd with her life story as she did playing songs. Luckily, her life story is bloody interesting, and Cook herself is all Southern charm. The youngest of eleven, her mother was a singer, and her father a prison inmate jailed for running moonshine.
Shifting between the heartfelt (‘Heroin Addict Sister’) and the lackadaisical (‘Yes to Booty’), Cook had the crowd at her beck and call. Gracious, polite, and blessed with a sensational voice, (which she put to sensational use during a rendition of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Sunday Morning’) Elizabeth Cook was a perfect start to the evening.
Following Cook was Robert Ellis, a young Texas native who’d recently relocated to Nashville. He has a typical country-twang to his voice, but is a stunning guitar player. The majority of his set people spent in silence, transfixed by his playing. His final song especially, a barrelling condemnation of religious indoctrination in the Bible-belt entitled ‘Sing Along’ had the crowd stunned. Anyone who considers the Tallest Man on Earth an adept guitarist would do well to check out his cross-Atlantic country counterpart.
After a short wait, Justin Townes Earle emerged onstage, immaculately presented in suit, tie and hat, and greeted the crowd in his thick Tennessee drawl. Launching headlong into his ode to his Grandfather, ‘They Killed John Henry’; Earle slinked around the stage, eyes closed, jaw wandering, slurring his words, letting them trail behind the beat. Earle publicly denounced the potency of Australian cocaine, but tonight it looked like he was struggling to contain what a good time he was having. Considering he’d already run through a set earlier in the afternoon, he can be forgiven for appearing a little tried.
Not that it was a problem, he never missed a beat with his guitar playing, and though his voice was slurred it never lacked any power. Slower numbers like ‘One More Night in Brooklyn’, ‘Mama’s Eyes’ and ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change…’ were well measured, while his more freewheelin’ songs, ‘Harlem River Blues’, ‘Ain’t Waitin’’ and ‘Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving’ were festive.
His set was evenly waited between his three most recent albums, with cuts from Midnight at the Movies getting a surprising showing. The set’s highlight, however, belongs on Harlem River Blues, with ‘Wanderin’’. His self-asserted Woody Guthrie indebted troubadour ballad, it lacked no power despite the absence of strings. There were a couple of absentees which left a sour taste, with ‘Slippin’ and Slidin’ and the rollicking ‘Halfway to Jackson’ not earning a place on the setlist.
As always, his banter was jovial, referencing his mother, previous girlfriends, Hank Williams’ incorporation of twelve-bar blues into country music; the usual. He spoke of his brief move to Brooklyn, and his return to Nashville. He touched briefly on his old man, and also his long history of addiction, arrests and rehab; all of which he’s slowly but surely putting behind him.
Towards the end of the set Earle announced that once again, he’d be back to Australia soon. While it would be a rare artist not to make a similar gesture to an eager audience; when Earle asserts Australia as “easily my favourite place to tour in the world”, it’s hard to doubt his sincerity.