Sub-zero wind chills and ice covered streets made the Grey Eagle seem even cozier Tuesday as classic country revivalist Justin Townes Earle captivated the full house with his dark ballads and twangy tales of heartbreak, betrayal and self-destruction.
Fellow Tennessean Caitlin Rose — a relative unknown on the national scene, though a well-respected player in the Nashville songwriting community — opened the show, warming up the frigid crowd with meandering lap steel and and a host of clever narratives reminiscent of country greats like Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. Though few in attendance had heard of the Southern-bred songstress at the start of the show, I’m quite sure Caitlin Rose will not soon be forgotten by those lucky enough to catch her set.
By the time Earle appeared, it had become impossible to find a seat and increasingly difficult to stake out a place to stand. Not surprisingly, the wiry singer was greeted with roaring applause as he opened the set with the sparse and subdued “Who Am I to Say,” accompanied only by an acoustic guitar. Soon joined by fiddle player Joshua Hedley and stand-up bassist Bryn Davies, Earle continued the show with unusually dry takes on tracks like “They Killed John Henry” and “I Don’t Care” that sounded more like the soundtrack to a ho-down than the raucous ramblings of an outlaw country singer. Though the band was tight and the sound was impeccable, anyone who has seen the troubadour before would affirm that something was missing from this uninspired opening. Between songs, however, Earle was chatty and charming, engaging the audience with background stories and jokes, even delving into his personal struggles (including a recent, highly-publicized arrest for assault and subsequent stint in rehab).
After addressing the elephant in the room, Earle appeared more at ease, and the remainder of the set found him shimmying around the stage, straining his vocals to their limit and sounding more and more like the passionate rambler of concerts past. The second half of the show also included one new song, a bleak, regretful lament that he included “to shut everybody up.” Joined by Caitlin Rose and her band, Earle closed the set with a soulful, gospel-heavy version of “Harlem River Blues” before returning alone to perform an a cappella encore. Graciously accepting the crowd’s warm response to the intimate number, Earle ended the evening with a cover of his namesake Townes Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues” that hushed the crowd and finally seemed to satisfy their appetite for heartfelt acoustic blues.
“I might f**k this up,” Earle warned, “but I heard Townes f**k it up plenty of times, so I guess that’d be all right.”
Check out a photo gallery of the show here.