Justin Townes Earle + The Morrisons @ The Lansdowne Hotel, Sydney 04/09/19
He’s been a regular visitor to these shores since 2008 and even though each tour has shown a new stage in the evolution of Justin Townes Earle as a songwriter, it was that first show at the Annandale Hotel that, for me, remains the most vital and visceral – the performer wired and wide-eyed, pacing incessantly, pale and sweating as he took his songs right to the edge. The couple of full band tours that we’ve seen haven’t lived up to the thrill of the solo shows so it was nice that, on the back of a very strong new album, JTE was back with just guitar, songs and stories.
The Morrisons were a stellar choice to open the show and their set felt like a greatest hits one for those who have followed them over the years. Exquisite harmonies, solos that sparked with virtuosity and songs that embraced traditional subject matter and their contemporary surrounds (‘Cumberland Plain’). ‘Ruby’, ‘Wild Eleanor’ and ‘Whiskey On The Brain’ all sounded superb. They really are the jewel in the local folk/bluegrass/country scene.
Surprisingly Earle’s set was light on tracks from the new album, especially given its critical acclaim ‘Ahi Esta Mi Nina’ and ‘The Saint Of Lost Causes’ showcased Earle’s commentary and perspective on social issues and in the context of the full set they proved how strong his writing continues to be. Mance Liscomb and Malcolm Holcombe covers (the latter an exquisite rendition of ‘Who Carried You’) were littered through a set that included long-time Earle gems ‘Mama’s Eyes’, ‘They Killed John Henry’ and ‘Harlem River Blues’.
Tying it all together were Earle’s stories and song introductions. Many were personal memories and reflections on his parents and grandfather, the contrasting hillbilly and Texan stock of his family tree, social equality, and his influences. It was all laced with his acerbic humour, a stage manner well rehearsed but highly effective in drawing the audience into his orbit and keeping them locked in and fully engaged for 90 minutes.
Returning to the stage for the encore sans shirt and with his near definitive version of The Replacements’ ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’, it wasn’t hard to draw a parallel back to that first tour. It felt like he was back at street level, singing songs of internal and societal struggle without the restrictions of a band and the trappings of hillbilly couture. It felt real, vital and through a life well lived, with lessons hard learnt and no doubt still being learned, Earle showed he continues to be a captivating singer, a stellar and at times mind boggling guitarist and above all he defiantly remains his own creative self.