Struggling with substance abuse. Fighting to escape the shadow of a famous musical father. Clashes with family, club owners, and labels. These are the conflicts that threaten to define Justin Townes Earle. Instead, those influences are redirected into a gift for songwriting, for creating tales of characters whose lives are tinged with suffering. Justin Townes Earle has built those songs into a musical career that blends folk and blues into a unique flavor of Americana, and brought a number of new songs from his recent double-album release and a grab-bag of his earlier tunes to the Music Farm in Columbia.
Earle’s set opener “Burning Pictures” was a microcosm of the evening’s performance. The live rendition of this beautifully-constructed piece was more engaging than the studio recording, but there was a distinct hint of a disconnect between Earle and his accompanist Paul Niehaus. Despite that oddly disconnected feeling, Earle clearly poured himself into performing the song with an engagement that filled up the song but never quite seemed to spill out into the room. Throughout the night, Earle never quite seemed to connect with his audience.
The evening’s set list ranged over some of the highlights of Earle’s recording career. Earle’s guitar-thumping picking style on acoustic guitar created a hypnotic pulse that invoked the sense of a rhythm section. His chord voicings left plenty of room for the tasteful leads and gliding slide work of Niehaus. The sparse use of backing vocals provided a light touch of reinforcement to Earle’s evocative and frequently melancholy lyrics. Despite performing many songs that were recorded with a larger ensemble, these two musicians did a masterful job of creating full-sounding renditions.
The Music Farm showed its flexibility as a venue, providing a good-sized seating area for the more intimate performance experience with plenty of standing room for what grew into a large audience. The subtle use of a fog machine and gently-shifting lights made the large stage feel full, even with just one or two musicians performing. Opener Gill Landry of Old Crow Medicine Show started the show off with an engaging and energetic set.
Justin Townes Earle states that his songs are not strictly autobiographical, although his life certainly has contained enough strife to fill a career’s worth of blues tunes. The live presentation of his songs gives a feeling that rather than telling his own stories directly, Earle is building characters based on his experience and letting those characters express their stories through song. Although the audience seemed to connect to the music and its characters, Earle remained separate. He sometimes mumbled through lines and swallowed syllables, almost as if he were trying to hold some of the song back within himself. The resulting effect was a pervasive separation between audience and artist.
Earle performed the middle set solo, introducing a number of the songs as favorites of family members. Even sharing those stories failed to open a connection to the audience and the performance began to lose direction. Niehaus returned for a final set that started with several upbeat tunes, but when the tempo dropped a few songs in, the performance began to meander. Finally, the end of the set picked up some momentum and drove into a brief encore. Everything came together perfectly for an excellent rendition of Earle’s early hit “Harlem River Blues.” Finally there was some energy in the room and Earle seemed to bridge the divide between himself and the audience, but just as it was ready to take off that was the end of the night’s music. Regardless of that disconnect, Justin Townes Earle remains a talented songwriter whose work is best experienced live.