We're trying to cut down on concerts a bit, but the tracks I've heard from Justin Townes Earle's soon-to-be-released record (Kids In the Street) are just fantastic. And when I recently saw some things by him on YouTube, including the video of one of the great new tracks (Maybe a Moment), and his recent turn on PBS's Tiny Desk Concert series, I realized that I'd be a fool to miss him at The Sinclair on Saturday, May 13. So we got tickets,
Had plenty to do at home that Saturday, and after a quick dinner we headed into Cambridge on another cold and rainy evening in a long, cold, and rainy Spring. We scored a great parking place at the Cambridge Common and got into the club in time to grab spots right in front of the soundboard and hear most of Sammy Brue's opening set. He's a bit of a bluesy singer-songwriter with powerful guitar technique, good opener.
The the next opener came on, The Sadies, who are also backing up Justin on this tour. Dallas (guitar, keyboards, and harmonicas) and Travis (guitar, fiddle, and mandolin) Good from Toronto are excellent multi-instrumentalists, and Sean Dean (bass) and Mike Belitsky (drums) are a fine rhythm section. They've been around for a while and have backed up musicians like Neko Case, John Doe, Neil Young, and many others. They played a great, rock with a tinge of country, set. At times they were reminiscent of Los Straitjackets and at times the Bottle Rockets. Some great guitar runs, some great songs, and one of the spookiest covers of Pretty Polly you'll ever hear. They also sported some fine duds.
Then another short break and Justin came out, in a stylish sport coat himself, as well as his trademark Coke-bottle glasses. Justin's long-time accompanist Paul Niehaus joined them on lead guitar, while Dallas moved to piano/organ. They did not disappoint! The subtle brilliance that I'd heard on record over the years (also seen him twice before) and recently on YouTube was on display. If you've never heard Justin's voice, very slightly off-beat style, and Hank Williams-honest guitar, you need to go see him right away. Or watch this.
Justin had his tenor guitar, and The Sadies and Niehaus were a beat-perfect back-up band. When we'd seen him before, Justin was all over the place, changing his mind about what song he was going to do in the middle of the intro, etc. It's amazing Niehaus hasn't walked out on him yet. But this time he was very much the professional musician and took pains to make sure the band was with him, and they sure were.
They covered a large number of the tracks from the new record (which was at the merch table), but also played some of the incredible opus Justin has already compiled at age 35. It was another case of him taking the entire audience to a different planet where we all grooved on his every note and swayed to his band. The Sinclair was sold-out and Sarah reported lots of very disappointed people being turned away at the box office when she stepped out for a smoke.
The middle-aged guys next to us knew Justin's work as well as I did, and though the crowd besides us was predominately young, it was apparently another case of them wanting to hear Justin T.F. Earle rather than just go out for a rock act on a Saturday night. Very actively listening crowd during the songs and very rowdy crowd between songs, while Justin looked a little embarrassed but devilish ("You liked that? Try this!") in his charming way.
Here's the setlist:
Maybe a Moment
One More Night in Brooklyn
What's She Crying For
Move Over Mama
Black Eyed Suzy
Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now
They Killed John Henry
Gold Watch and Chain
Farther From Me
What Do You Do When You're Lonesome
Short Hair Woman
Harlem River Blues
He opened with two of the most killer tracks from the new record, did some classics, did a mini-solo/acoustic set (John Henry, Mama's Eyes, and the Carter's Gold Watch and Chain), and finished with another string of great new songs mixed with stuff like Ain't Waitin'.
After Mama's Eyes, someone shouted out, "That's great, 'cause tomorrow's Mothers Day you know!" I think Justin knew that. And when he hit the first chords of Ain't Waitin', someone else yelled out, "Fried chicken!," which cracked him up so much he almost lost where he was. And when he introduced White Gardenias with, "This is for Billy Holiday," we and the guys next to us melted.
Fantastic stuff, very short break between the set and the encore, and then he closed it with the singalong Harlem River Blues. I think Justin had a good, mellow night, and we all did too. He's really, really, good.
Still spitting a bit when we got out, helped a lost but well-dressed older Chinese couple find their bearings on Cambridge Common, and then a short drive back home.