“Oh my damn!” The phrase was shouted many times by Mr. Earle during his headlining set at Stubb’s. The inside stage suited him just right as he plowed through 70 minutes of old school country music full of twang, swing, and most importantly, personality. This was my first time to see Justin even though he plays in Austin pretty often. The past two shows he played the supporting role for Old Crow Medicine Show and The Pogues on the mega stage that is Stubb’s outside amphitheater. This night had the feel of a 1940s or 50s high school auditorium show due to the appearance and music of Justin Townes Earle. It didn’t hurt that the stage has a worn black curtain as the backdrop. I was instantly reminded of vintage pictures of musicians like Elvis and Cash playing old gymnasiums and halls before their rise to coliseum prominence.
Wearing a vintage suit and tie and sporting black rimmed glasses, the man of the evening took full advantage of his headlining spot. As a sidenote, I recently learned that Earle was named one of GQ's "Most Stylish Men" which was made apparent by his fancy attire. But back to the music, Earle’s band consisted of a Stetson-wearing fiddle player and a female stand up bass player. From the opening note the sound was right on; which I was worried about due to the feedback of Dawn Landes’ opening set. Earle’s vocals were strong and confident, a result of years of straight touring and playing the largest and smallest of venues. It seemed like he was glad to finally be headlining shows and playing to crowds that appreciate his songs and presence. He won the crowd over quickly and I even heard one guy exclaim, “He won me over within the first 20 minutes! I thought it would take him longer.” There were definitely some new fans at the end of the night as he played a nice selection from each of his two full lengths and even a couple from the Yuma EP. He mixed in some folk and country standards from Guthrie and the Carter Family which he dominated with his grasp of both genres. Even on the slower numbers the crowd was respectful, except for a gentleman toward the front that Earle kindly put in his place a couple of times toward the end of the night. “It’s all in good fun,” Justin explained as he compared the guy to his Mama except with a “shorter reach”. The Mama was referenced many times throughout the night, but none as clearly as when he played the standout track, “Mama’s Eyes.” The hit was one of the first tracks that I heard from him and practically answers all questions about his famous father and the mother that cared for him (interviewers take note).
Earle puts big messages in short country songs, which makes for an easy comparison to the country stars of the past. He takes simple ideas and thoughts that are easy to understand and combines them with rhythms that make you want to move. It’s at the foundation of all music but especially in traditional country, an idea that has been lost in today’s country dark ages where Nashville radio hits consist of shallow cookie cutter themes. Which brings me to my next point -- Justin Townes writes incredible songs and is an entertainer. His waltzes around the stage and Louis Armstrong facial expressions make for a wonderful companion to the tunes. He’s having a great time up there and it rubs off on the crowd. Last night was easily the most enjoyable show that I’ve seen this year. The year is still young but I’m guessing that it will have a lasting impact as the months go on. “Oh my damn” indeed.