July 4, 2012

i feel it pushing down on me / so please baby, just drive

I woke up this morning still glowing and reeling from last night. Justin Townes Earle captivated the Aladdin Theatre in Portland, the way I have a feeling he does every single time he brandishes that guitar and opens his mouth to sing. I see hundreds of shows, and this man sparkles with charisma of the real deal. I had a strong sense that I was watching greatness. I don’t say that lightly.

Justin is Steve Earle’s son, sure. Justin is named partly after his dad’s friend Townes Van Zandt, sure. Both musical legends swim in his blood, alongside all the bits of experience and struggle he’s accumulated. But there is a whole other kind of self-impelled magic that he owns and possesses that is solely his and, whoa — that is unmistakeable when you see him for yourself.

You should add him immediately to the very top of your “must-see live” list. Justin is a consummate storyteller, in the vein of the traveling salesman that rolls into your town with a twinkle in his eye and a smile that twitches with a deep, unseen pleasure that’s unfolding in his brain and he tells stories through his songs. He’s watching worlds that we can’t see. It’s riveting to watch his process from four feet away, as I did. As I said the last time I saw him, “I wouldn’t mess with him, but I’d believe him and let him buy me a drink so he could tell me a story.”

This is a song from his newest album, Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now (out now on Bloodshot Records), and when he sang it last night by himself under those blue lights, it hung out there in the air and pressed down on me as one of the loveliest, saddest, most perfect songs I’ve heard in a very long time. It’s a simple song about a girl named Anna, and about that longing we’ve been trying to name and wrestle down for a long time. The way he weaves it is breathtaking and timeless — somehow completely young and entirely his own, and also belonging to the ages. Like all of his songs.

[last night's setlist]

March 2, 2010

Justin Townes Earle and Joe Pug knocked my boots off last weekend

Pug-Earle 120

Today as I drove from Ohio to Indiana and pondered what a Hoosier actually was, I listened to two artists who seemed to embody those snowy midwestern hills and endless highway: Justin Townes Earle and Joe Pug. I paired their CDs together as homage to the fantastic concerts I saw last weekend in Denver: one at the Bluebird with the both of them, and then a house concert on Sunday night with just Joe Pug in a breathtakingly intimate living room setting in Boulder.

Relentlessly polite and wholeheartedly earnest, Justin Townes Earle seemed to have landed from another era completely, but his music rang true and struck directly. If I were casting a movie set in 1940s Atlanta, and I was looking for a counterweight to the golden guy that the girl is going to marry, a man who shows up perhaps selling hairbrushes or snake oil with a half smile and the promise of adventure – I’d cast JTE in a heartbeat. His lanky, super-slim frame draped with a classy suit just a fraction too short as he threw himself wholeheartedly into the performance of his songs. The cover art of his 2009 record Midnight At The Movies shows Justin sitting next to a gorgeous starlet in a movie theater, drenched in green light and a flickering glow, and in so many ways that is how his music feels.

Justin fully seems to somehow straddle the world of WWII America and the bluegrass hills and Appalachians, as well as the modern alt-country rock scene – even some intangible nod to the punk aesthetic. I wouldn’t mess with him, but I’d believe him and let him buy me a drink so he could tell me a story.

Pug-Earle 134

Pug-Earle 110

His music surely feels old-timey, all waltzing rhythms and “yes’m” tips of the lyrical hat, but seeing him live cemented for me that his earnestness makes all the difference in making this still feel like a vital, youthful genre. There is no shtick that I could detect. This is the style of music he makes, and he means it no less than Nirvana or Thao Nguyen or any other number of young folks in passionate bands.

Justin dedicated a bittersweet end-of-the-night rendition of “Midnight At The Movies” to Chris Feinstein (aka Space Wolf), bassist for Ryan Adam’s Cardinals who died unexpectedly at the age of 42 in December. They were apparently NYC neighbors. The slow-wheeling song was one of the sweetest things I’ve heard out in the night air in many months – it was a 3am slow dance, the bartender wiping the tables, the snow falling somewhere very far away from these warm walls. But then lest you forget his range of influences, he also covered both Buck Owens, the Carter Family, and The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait” (with stand-up bass and fiddle), alongside his own well-crafted tunes.

There’s a part in movie Crazy Heart that I’m probably going to misquote, but when Jeff Bridges is picking at his guitar, writing a song, and he asks Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character if she knows the song, and she’s sure she already does. “The best songs are always the ones you think you’ve heard before,” he tells her – and that’s precisely how I felt the first time I heard this song:

Midnight At The Movies – Justin Townes Earle

Justin also recently recorded a Dolly Parton cover with Brooklyn artist Dawn Landes:

Do I Ever Cross Your Mind – Justin Townes Earle & Dawn Landes

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While on-stage, Justin also referred to opener “Joe Fucking Pug” as having put out one of the best albums of the year (an assessment I can get behind), and even though I only caught half his set due to a persistent snowfall, Joe completely blew me away. Again. As always.

Pug is a songwriter of uncommon weight and heft, and rare purity and conviction. If you’ve gotten jaded as to the effect that a simple well-written song can have when howled and emoted from the main stage, under the dust particles swirling in the stage lights, just go see Joe Pug (or Josh Ritter, for that matter) and have those convictions washed off and set aright. His set was an unrelenting cavalcade of identification with so many of the sentiments he elucidates, using only the right number of words and devastating acumen.


Then, two nights later I got to see Joe Pug again, packed shoulder to shoulder with 45 other people, on the couch and in the kitchen and kneeling on the floor in the living room of a home modestly-sized for half that many friends at best. I feverishly noted the setlist, since I had the overwhelming feeling that I was witnessing the best show I might see this year. Maybe ever. Hard to say.

Nation Of Heat
I Do My Father’s Drugs
Unsophisticated Heart
Hymn #35
Nobody’s Man
The Door Is Always Open
Speak Plainly Diana
Called By Many Names
(unreleased song)
These Days
Sharpest Crown
Hymn #101

I’ve never been to a house concert before Backforty Presents made this one possible. I was startled by the intimacy, as I think many of us were. I am used to (and prefer) my shows small and earnest, but often with the artificial barrier between performer and audience hedged cleanly by the drop-off of the stage to the sticky floors below. As eager as I was, it felt almost too intimate at times, especially given the songs he performs – sharper at excising things from my heart than any scalpel. It would be akin to kissing a stranger at a loud, smoky nightclub or kissing them on a quiet Sunday morning at the sun-drenched kitchen table. In such close quarters, there is nowhere to hide.

Joe is amiable and has grown, even in the last year, to become a more confident performer (no doubt a byproduct of the sheer insane number of shows he’s played). But again, the intimacy of this show and the immense wall of camaraderie reverberating back to him seemed to also take him a bit by surprise. As the final note from opening song “A Nation Of Heat” died out into the suburban condo living room, the thunderous applause that rained down like a tidal wave might have even made his eyes shine with a bit of extra glossiness as he broke into a wide smile, if my perceptions were correct. And I felt the same way.

“Not So Sure” is a gem of a song from the new album, chronicling a gnawing disillusion, with ennui mushrooming in its lyrics. When Joe stood four feet from me, stared somewhere intensely at the back wall, into space, while he plucked the opening notes and launched into lines like: “I bummed expensive cigarettes, I wrote John Steinbeck’s books / I undressed someone’s daughter, and complained about her looks” – I was done for. Then it happened again and again with his songs piercing us all, peaking at the final “Hymn #101” in front of my nose. That is such an incredible song, I couldn’t believe I was seeing it in an environment like that.

Not So Sure – Joe Pug (from his new album Messenger)

Hymn #101 – Joe Pug (from his Nation of Heat EP)

After seeing Joe Pug (twice) and Justin Townes Earle in the same weekend, I woke up Monday morning feeling a radiant, warm glow tingling around me like an aura. Did that really happen? Do shows like that still occur, despite the jadedness of life?

It did, and they do.

[See all of my photos from the show on the Fuel/Friends Facebook fan page; house concert photo credit Todd Roeth]

May 27, 2009

Justin Townes Earle can’t hardly wait


Man, something about these warm summery weeks, or maybe an aural hangover from my driving journey through West Texas, but lately all kinds of down-home music is grabbing me. Something about the authenticity of a good campfire sad song, or a mandolin + fiddle. I mean, sure I’m still going to dance my ass off at Ghostland Observatory this Saturday, but for today, this is hitting the right notes:

Justin Townes Earle (whose name I just learned how to pronounce correctly, because I am retarded) is Steve Earle’s son and a proper heir to that surname. Named partly after Dad’s friend Townes Van Zandt, 27-year-old Justin infuses his brand of Americana with a vibrant, organic streak of youth.

He does a surprisingly great cover of The Replacements’ 1987 classic “Can’t Hardly Wait.” It amazes me how this song is from an album typically thought of as all sloppy punk, but has these sterling country-road roots that Justin brings out so well. Justin’s also got strong strokes of that same off-kilter howl that Westerberg trademarked. Hearing this has made me smile.

Can’t Hardly Wait (Replacements cover, live 9/28/08) – Justin Townes Earle

I’ll write you a letter tomorrow
Tonight I can’t hold a pen
Someone’s got a stamp that I can borrow
I promise not to blow the address again

Lights that flash in the evening, through a crack in the drapes

Jesus rides beside me
He never buys any smokes
Hurry up, hurry up, ain’t you had enough of this stuff
Ashtray floors, dirty clothes, and filthy jokes

See you’re high and lonesome, try and try and try

Lights that flash in the evening,
Through a hole in the drapes
I’ll be home when I’m sleeping
I can’t hardly wait

Can’t Hardly Wait – The Replacements

Listen to the rest of this show over on the Live Music Archive, for a fine sampling of Justin’s original songs interspersed with classic covers of Woody Guthrie, Mississippi John Hurt, dad Steve Earle, Blind Blake, Townes Van Zandt, and Lightnin’ Hopkins.

album_main_bs160JTE’s Midnight At The Movies is out now on Bloodshot Records, and he’s massively on tour this summer.

Also — check out the recent Aquarium Drunkard feature of Justin Townes Earle and Jason Isbell (of the Drive-By Truckers) interviewing each other. Nice.

April 16, 2009

shake the dust off of your wings, and the sleep out of your eyes


Yesterday felt like full-on summer crouching outside my door. I even went for a run so hard and lovely that I almost threw up. Awesome. Today is grey and rain just started falling on my office window, little rivulets gathering speed by the minute. I am wishing I didn’t wear open-toed shoes.

But the good thing about this weather is that it needs some pensive tunes to go with it, and I have just the one — the perfect song for this and all grey days. As I previously mentioned, Steve Earle is releasing a full album of covers of songs written by his friend Townes Van Zandt. Townes may be one of the greatest songwriters of the last generation, with so many hidden gems that I am still uncovering.

How about this one?

To Live Is To Fly (Townes Van Zandt) – Steve Earle

We got the sky to talk about
And the earth to lie upon

Days, up and down they come
Like rain on a conga drum
Forget most, remember some
But don’t turn none away
Everything is not enough
And nothin’ is too much to bear

Where you’ve been is good and gone
All you keep is the getting there

Well, to live is to fly
Low and high
So shake the dust off of your wings
And the sleep out of your eyes

The album features appearances from Allison Moorer (she must provide the lovely harmonies on this track), guitarist Tom Morello (of Rage Against the Machine and recent folkier project The Nightwatchman), and for the first time on one of his dad’s records, Justin Townes Earle. Considering his name, this is a fitting album for Justin to be featured on.

Townes is out May 12th on New West, with a preview EP available now.

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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