Though a fan of his albums, I had never seen Justin Townes Earle before and had always taken him to be the laconic cowboy type, a road-weary performer of few words who gave you the songs he was playing and that was it. As usual, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Earle never stopped regaling the crowd with his magnetic Southern charm, and backed by a female stand-up bassist, female fiddle player, and Jason Isbell on guitar, he played a marvelous set of ambling, blues-y country folk to a nearly sold out Friday-night crowd at the Showbox.
After a lovely opening set by up-and-coming Nashvillian Caitlin Rose, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit took the stage in front of a Showbox audience that featured more western shirts than maybe I have ever seen in my life. The crowd was raring to go and barely halfway in to Isbell’s first song there were already a few couples dancing in front of one of the Showbox’s back bars. With their formalized but drunken style of twirling and stepping, and anachronistic Southern dress, it looked like a scene plucked out of the past.
Alabama-native Jason Isbell is most commonly known as a member of the Drive By Truckers, but he left the band in 2007 and has since been performing under his own name. His “400 Unit” consists of a drummer, keyboardist, bassist, and their music alternates between lively, Southern guitar rock and slower country ballads meant to tug at the heartstrings. It didn’t take long for the energy in the Showbox to level out, however, as though they did have some catchy electric riffs and Isbell’s voice was impressive, he seemed to be overextending himself for much of the set, especially as he struggled through one prolonged guitar solo after another. Duane Allman he most certainly was not. Nevertheless, the band was solid and after a surprising R.E.M. cover to close the set, the 21+ crowd at the Showbox was thoroughly primed for Justin Townes Earle.
Always a sharp dresser, Justin Townes Earle came on a few minutes later wearing a bright blue blazer and stylish spectacles reminiscent of those often worn by his father, Steve Earle. He played from both of his albums – Midnight At The Movies, and last year’s follow-up Harlem River Blues – as well as some new material. Even the new songs, however, sounded like they were old country standards, and it started and ended with Earle’s stage presence, voice, and incredible guitar playing chops. For one passionate, blues-y song in which the rest of the band cleared the stage, Earle told the audience of how he was often accused him of using a looper or playing with the assistance of a per-recorded guitar track. As soon as he started the song I knew exactly what he meant; it sounded like multiple guitars were being played, and it took me a while to catch up to how Earle was making it all happen by himself with his lone capo-ed acoustic guitar.
For most of the set he had a simple, drummer-less setup on stage, and it was within this simplicity that Earle’s dynamic personality and songwriting were able to shine. Earle used his time on the stage to share some of his life’s story, through his songs as well as through oblique Southern idioms and musings, all delivered with a confidence and charisma that was impossible to resist. He effortlessly charmed the audience between songs, spouting brief anecdotes and bits of wisdom related to his life that he used to introduce the next song he was about to play, making it all the more real and relate-able. An upcoming song might be about how “he has always been a hard dog to keep under the porch;” or about his mother, who can “be as mean as a rattlesnake, just like me;” or about more universal Southern-isms like how “all men are liars and all women are thieves.” All in all, the performance felt more like a piece of oral tradition being passed down than something strictly musical.