Justin Townes Earle w/ The Sadies and Sammy Brue @ Turner Hall Ballroom
May 22, 2017
Dishing dryly witty, often autobiographical asides between his astutely written songs in his sport coat and faded jeans, Justin Townes Earle looked to be a candidate for “Grand Ole Opry” hosting duties Monday night at Turner Hall Ballroom.
Earle’s propensity for dropping F-bombs and lack of commercial country radio hits (probably for his idiosyncratic Americana) take him out of the running to helm that hallowed institution, but it’s not for lack of touching song craft nor country pedigree. Named after esteemed singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt by his country-rooted dad, Steve Earle, Justin has a lot to live up to.
So far, so good on that living, too. Though he has had to overcome substance addictions similar to those in his father’s history, his decade of recording has yielded artistry and accolades rivaling his namesakes. That’s about as far as a comparison to his pop’s musical output goes, though.
It’s not that the younger Earle doesn’t produce worthwhile art about his life. He joshed about how weeks of touring allows his wife to become accustomed to sleeping in the middle of their bed, thus inspiring “Move Over Mama,” and he recalls his old Chicago neighborhood on “Rogers Park.” But the kind of chummy, garrulous asides, political ramblings and song descriptions his father shared when playing the same venue a couple of Novembers ago isn’t Justin’s strong suit.
If his father’s feistiness is a hereditary trait, then it comes as much through some of his quips as music. He chided an audience member giving him a bit of guff over his potty mouth and spoke of how his years playing honkytonks led to his current policy of not taking requests or tips. And, if someone’s going to give him the latter, Justin would prefer it be substantive enough to help him afford the upkeep of his rented tour bus—if not to actually purchase one of his own.
That attitude manifests itself musically, too, as on “15-25”—one of his hardest-rocking numbers yet, appearing on his latest album, Kids in the Street. That title appears to form a triptych in a commentary, perhaps, on the sort of dysfunctional family in which he was raised, along with 2013’s Single Mothers and 2015’s Absent Fathers.
Earle is as apt to sing of others’ hurt and misfortune as his own. He dedicated “White Gardenias” to the late jazz vocalist known for wearing the titular flowers in her hair, Billie Holiday, adding that there may be a lot of junkies, but not all of them are great singers. “They Killed John Henry” depicts another sort of harrowing vignette and formed part of a three-song solo acoustic set, including the tear-jerkingly tender “Mama’s Eyes” and a rendition of Paul Simon’s “Graceland.”
Throughout the rest of the set, Earle’s backing band was largely comprised of his second opening act, The Sadies. The Toronto quartet holds a geeky and glamorous visual appeal similar to Cheap Trick, but their collision of garage punk rave-up and fiddle-laden hardcore country is singularly their own. Co-lead singer-guitarist Dallas Good offered his band’s gratitude for their spot on the bill in a gentlemanly manner, enhanced by his shiny black suit and cuff-linked shirt. Among the highlights of their 13 songs was when Dallas and his brother, Travis, played each other’s guitar fret boards while picking their own instruments.
First on the bill, Sammy Brue has a connection with the headliner (apart from Earle liking his music): He’s the lad appearing on Single Mothers’ cover. Coming on in what looked like the same glasses and hat, he had to be reminded to tell us his name, but 16-year-old Sammy Brue sang six of his own songs with a vulnerable maturity belying his youth. His forthcoming I Am Nice should be among the year’s roots music highlights.