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Justin Townes Earle Proves to be “A Hard Dog to Keep Under the Porch” at the Great American Music Hall…

Camera phone cameras rule because that was all I by HFC
Justin Townes Earle undoubtedly strikes an immediate presence on stage at 6’ 5” tall, lean and boyishly handsome, with an easy charm and a devilish twinkle in his eyes. But what is also clear from seeing him play to a near sell-out crowd at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall on Tuesday night, is that in addition to all that natural charisma, he is a serious songwriter on par with his more famous namesakes.  The near two-hour set drew from his entire three-album catalog, with a few well-chosen covers.  Performing alongside an electric fiddle player and upright bassist, this stripped-down approach to his songs put the focus on his expressive voice and keen lyrical sensibility. Songs like, “Slipin & Slidin”, “Hard Livin”, “Mama’s Eyes” and “Christchurch Woman” (dedicated to and inspired by the recently earthquake stricken New Zealand city) speak to an honesty and truth deep inside him. Some of these songs can make you feel things you don’t want to feel and might be a little bit afraid to sit with. What was truly remarkable to watch was how engaging and dynamic a performer he can be. Most performers won’t hold your stare or look beyond the crowd gathered before them, but Earle seems to want to make sure you understand what he’s singing about, that you get it. Like his father Steve Earle and godfather Townes Van Zandt (from whom he gets his middle name) he has the ability to distill feelings into the simplest of terms.

JTE tellin' you by HFC
At only 29 years old he has lived a hard life few of us can imagine, let alone identify with, a topic he doesn’t shy away from addressing on stage. The intros to his songs often contained biting remarks directed toward his father or explicit detailing of his battles with drugs and alcohol.  However, this was tempered by a sense of humor and humility about those very same things. He seems to have accumulated the wisdom of a man twice his age, a wisdom that is chronicled in his songs but often defied in his personal life. I don’t want to characterize his set as a purely reflectional, soul-searching experience. In fact, the set varied from the shuffle of “Ain’t Waitin” and “Move Over Mama” to the bluegrass trad-country of “They Killed John Henry”, “Wanderin”, and “Boy Keep Movin”. Earle played solo for a few songs, which included a “Houston blues” he relayed Townes Van Zandt deemed essential to any set. This song highlighted how gifted a guitar player he is, as he walked the stage lost in the beauty of the notes emanating from his six string.
Haunted by by RLC
 The set closed with truly imaginative re-workings of “Midnight at the Movies” and “Harlem River Blues”. These songs were well suited to the more stark arrangements inflecting the former with understated elegance and stripping away the latter to its gospel core. The encore featured a commanding rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Racing in the Streets” off Darkness on the Edge of Town. Like Springsteen, Earle writes songs that put you in situations that you aren’t brave enough to put yourself in, but through them you get a glimpse of what it might look like for you if you were. He closed the show with another incisive and enigmatic songwriter Paul Westerberg’s, “Can’t hardly Wait”. Earle had something of a hit with the song a couple years back. There is no doubt that Justin Townes Earle will one day have his songs covered with the same reverence as his father and godfather’s songs have inspired. Already at work writing new album Earle seems to be following the advice his grandmother gave him when she told him to, “Just keep going.”

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