Justin Townes Earle: Harlem River Blues (Album and Concert Review)

September 18, 2010

Justin Townes Earle arrived at Headliners in Louisville, Ky last night fresh from a night in jail in Indianapolis. According to JTE, it was a misunderstanding and emerged from “trumped” charges; the report here has quite a different spin on it. If it’s correct, I hope for the health and talent of this artist that he works his issues out. Regardless of what happened at the Radio Radio gig in Indy, Justin was in excellent form in Louisville.  He worked the stage and the audience with wit and charm. His voice is great, and matched with the overall acoustics of this venue, that voice sounded even better live than on record which is a rare occurrence these days. Jason Isbell, formerly of the Drive By Truckers and a great solo artist as well, plays guitar with Justin on the new record so I had hoped he’d also be on the road with him since he had already left the Truckers when I began seeing them live a few years ago; but it was a pretty streamlined show-Justin with an acoustic guitar assisted by a fiddle player for most numbers. One of the best moments came when Justin sat the guitar down and gave us an a capella cover of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927.” There were a lot of great songs–“Midnight at the Movies,” his version of “Can’t Hardly Wait,” which he introduced as “Country and Westerberg,” noting that without that fusion there would be no Ryan Adams. Hearing his songs like “What I Mean to You,” make you feel as if you’re catching the spirit of Hank Williams (Sr) on the stage. His version of Guthrie’s “They Killed John Henry” was phenomenal, as it is on record, and every track he played off of his new record translated well to the stage–“Move Over Mama,” “Harlem River Blues,”  and especially the closer,  “Rogers Park.”  JTE blends the blues, country, and gospel in such a way that the real power of live Americana music comes through in great strength. So all in all, a wonderful show and combined with a very entertaining set by the Louisville band The Ladybirds who played a great bluesy rockabilly set of original songs and Jessica Lea Mayfield who did a very nice acoustic set, this was more than worth the price of admission ($11-12).

So, what about the album? Well, released the same day as the much anticipated new record by Jamey Johnson, which many are already calling the country record of the year, “Harlem River Blues” has my pick as country record of the year–sorry Jamey. Admittedly, Jamey works within the framework of traditional country more than Justin. Jamey hearkens back to the best parts of mainstream country whereas Justin is well on the periphery and could easily be better classified as “Americana,” with his mixture of folk, blues, gospel, and rhythm. “Harlem River Blues” is just a bit better than “Midnight at the Movies,” making it his most consistent work yet. Though I loved many individual “Movies” songs better than any of the individual ones here so far (“Mama’s Eyes,” “Someday I’ll be Forgiven for This”), I have a feeling that with time the overall flow of this record will win out. “Christchurch Woman,” “Rogers Park,” and “One More Night in Brooklyn” are fantastic. The title track and it’s album-closing refrain encase this entire affair in the ethos of celebrating giving up with joy in the mood and despair in the words. Yet it’s not a downer of a record, it’s very fun yet real. Whether singing about characters or himself, Justin places modern situations in the realm of a weird mixture of dust-bowl America and neon-light escapism of ’50s era Nashville.

Earle may have first gained attention for his famous father-Steve Earle–but it’s always been clear that although he makes outsider country music as his father did, his style and sound is wholly in his own path, with the obvious nods to Woody and every other great “traveling signer-songwriter,” as he would be apt to say.

So, if Justin’s arrest Thursday night is actually an indication of drug and alcohol problems, a sign that he’s struggling with the same forces that led him to heroin addiction and a time in rehab in his youth, then here’s wishing him strength and conviction to address that. With so few authentic and talented voices in modern day country music, Justin’s talent is too much to waste.

* The pictures from the live set were taken by my wife. The full setlist for the show can be found here.

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3 Responses to “Justin Townes Earle: Harlem River Blues (Album and Concert Review)”

  1. Lynn Dee said

    Justin Townes Earle, not Woody Guthrie, wrote They Killed John Henry. There are other songs about John Henry, including one by Woody Guthrie, and one (which I think is not the Woody Guthrie song) that includes the line: “This old hammer killed John Henry but it won’t kill me.” That refrain (or a similar one) is sung at the end of JTE’s song, but the rest of the song — including a verse about John Henry, a verse about Joe Hill and a verse about JTE’s grandfather — is by JTE.

    • dmhamby2 said

      Lynn, thanks for pointing that out. I was aware that his version wasn’t a cover of Guthrie’s, but that it was a reinterpretation of it, I knew his lyrics were unique to his version but it seems like every version is a reinterpretation of Woody’s with it’s own unique improvisations. JTE even said in concert that “Woody is the beginning for all of us [singer songwriters]” b/f playing his version of the song. There have been other great versions: Johnny Cash, and I really liked DBT’s version from “Dirty South” a few years ago…

  2. […] reviewed this record and the live set I heard Justin perform for it on its opening day here, and I still maintain that little in modern country music can compete with this in overall quality. […]

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