Live Review: Justin Townes Earle – El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles

We walked into the El Rey on that Saturday night to the sound of a white hot fiddle screaming some old-school country rock, setting the tone for a night of satisfying music, running the gamut of American roots. The fiddle belonged to Dallas Good of the Sadies, who, along with brother Travis, threatened to steal the whole show just as it got started. I’d never heard of the Canadian band, but I was instantly captivated by their compelling combination of classic jam rock and Johnny Cash-esque western grit with a laid-back stoner vibe. They rambled through their set with long, pseudo-psychedelic instrumentals, and searing guitar solos including the brothers’ trademark move of playing each other’s guitar at the same time.

The Sadies played double duty as the backing band for solo-act Justin Townes Earle. He took the stage with unassuming charm and broke right into a spirited performance of Champagne Corolla, the cool single from his recent release Kids In The Street. Lanky and charming, Earle seems so comfortable on stage he may as well be standing in his kitchen. Throughout his set he wove his songs together with a string of brief anecdotes that dripped with warm Nashville humor and hospitality. “I heard the call ‘go west’ and I didn’t go that far” he jokes, when introducing One More Night In Brooklyn, a song about moving from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Or when introducing What’s She Crying For: “Not ‘why is she cryin’, that don’t work where I’m from. It’s an Arnold County question.”

Earle’s songs are timeless and simply, effectively crafted. The musical tradition that runs in his veins is such an authentic expression of his place in the world, his birthright, and seemingly his destiny. Yet what struck me most about his onstage presence was the fragility that underlies his effortlessly confident musicianship. His innate sensitivity and the vulnerability of his sweet, velvet vocals are covered up by his razor-sharp Southern wit and a world-weary sense of detachment that comes with the territory of living a musician’s life on the road, coming up under the wing of a country music legend for a father, and overcoming addiction. “Why do you get high? That’s a stupid question” he posits to the audience on the subject of addiction. “The question should be why do you hurt? You get high because you hurt.”

With the expert accompaniment of the Sadies and Earle’s “right-hand man” Paul Niehaus on lead guitar and pedal steel, Earle can certainly lead the band and “show ‘em how to honky tonk back in Nashville”, as he put it, launching into a pre-encore performance of one of my favorites from the new album, Short Haired Woman. But for my money, he’s best when he’s alone onstage with his guitar, crooning gently on tunes like Graceland. In those moments, he can be totally himself, without the slight nervous energy he displays when singing without his guitar as the band backs him up, without the pressure of needing to rock and roll, just himself and his songs, personal lyrics and simple, heartfelt melodies. Earle is a strange bird, but his music is clearly a sanctuary, and a groovy one at that.

Phoebe Silva