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Justin Townes Earle at The Bichmere
Justin Townes Earle
Mentally summon the memory of the raucous applause, shouts and near hysteria that erupts when a major rock star takes the concert stage.
That was just the vibe when Justin Townes Earle took the stage at the Birchmere in Alexandria, just outside of Washington, D.C. Yet unlike the unfortunate 2010 Indianapolis concert when banter with the crowd turned ugly, this evening was all about reverence, from both sides of the stage. JTE, as he’s known, warmly greeted the crowd as he took the stage. He was dressed as a gentleman might for a dinner date, dapper yet casual in a suit coat and tie.
“People ask me why I do what I do,” he said after playing a poignant version of Levon Helm’s “They Killed John Henry” and before playing “Wandering” from his award winning 2010 album Harlem River Blues “I say ‘Woody Guthrie.’ This song I wrote with Woody in mind, and I send it out to him wherever he is today.”
While fans of many second-generation performers frequently give shout outs to the elder, that wasn’t the case at this show. The audience seemed content to enjoy Earle’s music as a separate entity from that of his famous father, the much-lauded Steve Earle.
The elder Earle’s presence was still felt in the room as JTE, joined by his band which he introduced and praised several times throughout the evening, played songs including “Wandering” — with lyrics that include “Now, my father was a traveler and my mama stayed at home/and she cried the day he walked out and left us alone” and “Am I that Lonesome Tonight?” from his just-released album Nothing Can Change the Way you Feel About Me Now. He also played “Am I That Lonely Tonight?” that includes the lyrics: “Hear my father on the radio/Sometimes I wish that I could get away/Sometimes I wish that he’d just call.”
At age 30, JTE seems like a very old soul in a young man’s body as he wrestles with his personal history that includes seeing his father leave the family and following his father’s substance abuse issues that have landed him in rehab more than a dozen times.
Those were among the personal stories JTE referenced in song and on-stage banter. He also made reference to living in Brooklyn “which is a long way from New York City,” deciding after his first album that he didn’t want to play honky tonk for his entire career, and plenty of talk about past girlfriends, one of whom pawned his personal items that he had to retrieve from pawn shops “throughout middle Tennessee.”
“I have to remind myself not to take things so seriously,” he told the audience. “Some songs have to be serious. That’s the best way I know to talk about it.”
Soon he spoke about his mother. “My mother is my hero. She was left alone with me when I was 2,” he said as a prelude to the song “Mama’s Eyes.” “She was responsible for teaching a young boy how to become a man. That wasn’t her job. She is a lot more fragile these days. That pisses me off.”
In an interview prior to the concert, Earle spoke of how he took a hard look at his life when he turned 30, deciding he was no longer “bullet proof” and would try to take a more measured approach to life.
That seemed evident as he shifted gears from the anger over his mother’s life to the song that tells of his love for her giving fans hope that the Americana Music Association Award winner, who is again nominated for an award this year, will continue to let his life and artistry blossom.
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