Justin Townes Earle’s Redemption in Austin, TX

When Jamey Johnson released his critically-acclaimed album The Guitar Song this year and the four star reviews began to roll in, I so much wanted it to be an excellent album that I could sing the praises of, and that we could finally have a mainstream country project that was true to the roots, and more importantly, just enjoyable to listen to, and that all the disparate elements of “country” could unify behind. A similar reason is why I named Justin Townes Earle’s 2009 Midnight at the Movies SCM’s 2009 Album of the Year. Declaring The Guitar Song a home run would have made my life so much easier. But the problem is that I cannot tell a lie, and from my perspective, the album was only average, and I could not offer my support.

Similarly, it would make life much easier for me if on Saturday night, Justin Townes Earle put on the performance of a lifetime. With all the negative publicity he has received here and other places, but especially here, it has characterized me as a madman on a mission to destroy him. From NPR stuff, to more NPR stuff, to breaking the story on his arrest, it has branded me a Justin Townes Earle adversary in a way that has adversely effected my standing with many people I respect. And maybe, just maybe, if I could say one thing positive about Justin, it could lend credence to my assertions that my Justin coverage has been a matter of the way the cards played out, as opposed to a vendetta.

But I cannot tell a lie. I’ve built this website on giving my honest opinions at all times, damn the popularity or political fallout. So how was the Justin Townes Earle performance?

It was fucking phenomenal. Absolutely unbelievable. It was the best live performance I have seen all year. Hell, it may be the best music performance I have seen, ever. It was genuine, it was pure, and outright magical. Justin Townes Earle is gifted beyond words, and it seems almost foolish to try and describe it. I’ve given careful, sober thoughts to my reactions to his performance Saturday night at The Parish in Austin, TX, and I can say with confidence that Justin Townes Earle is nothing less than a national treasure.

Really, I’m speechless. I could put together pretty sentences with big words trying to describe what he does live, but that seems so banal when still basking in the natural high his performance afforded. I will say that Justin has a magical way about him, where he is like a concentrated explosion. It is like all the energy of a punk rock show concentrated and honed in his long, awkward body, and then that energy is emitted only when it can come out with class and infinite taste.

Does that mean that I have changed my mixed feelings about Harlem River Blues? No, in fact it has strengthened them. And strengthened the feeling of horror I felt when I saw him try to perform wired at 2010’s South by Southwest in March, and the downward spiral in my JTE coverage began. JTE wrote, produced, and performed that album while under the influence, and though on the outside everything seemed to be in order, for those who have a sense for these things, they could see beyond the music to the neuroses running deep beneath it’s surface. Justin’s path will always be a shaky and dogged one, but he must stay on it. Drugs and drinking or not, for most of 2010, JTE was off his path, and it showed, just like it would show in the underbelly of this article if I did not give my honest opinion, or my best effort.

If there was a lull in the set, it was when Justin performed “One More Night in Brooklyn,” but as weaker as the Harlem songs may have been, overall their live versions were much better than the album takes. Josh Hedley did an excellent job on fiddle, and I was very pleased to see Bryn Davies back on bass. Bryn had gone AWOL at least for a little bit after the Indy embrolio, and somehow her presence there on Saturday validated the whole thing. If JTE needed a bass player, the line would form to the left, and same can be said for the talented Bryn Davis if she was looking for a new band. If she wanted out, she had plenty of excuses to exit amicably. But she believed in Justin, and where he is right now, and stayed.

The arrest and Justin’s checkered past did come up, numerous times, and in numerous ways. Justin broached the subject first (see second video below), and then during in-between song banter he would allude to it at times. At one point to be comical, someone yelled out “Freebird,” and Justin, just like he did in Indianapolis replied “Fuck You,” in a fairly playful manner. Another person yelled, “Take your shirt off.” You have to give the crowd credit for being educated on the situation. But overall the attendees were unbelievably respectful. They had no choice, they were spellbound. At times the place was as quiet as I’ve ever heard a concert venue. When Justin came out for an encore, he performed “Louisiana 1927″ (see first video below), and the place was like church. The unbelievable silence became an element of the experience in its own right. When he took his solo set during the middle of the concert, the place was remarkably hush as well.

I also have to give kudos to The Parish in Austin for their smoke and light show. At first I though it was going to be annoying and overkill, but the visual element combined with Justin’s already engaging stage demeanor made for some cool visual moments beyond the music. Another cool moment was at the end of the set, when Justin invited opening act Caitlin Rose and her band onstage with Joe Pug for a performance of “Harlem River Blues” (see third video below).

I was planning on getting a few videos that night, but each song seemed so important to capture, so I captured what I could, and still missed JTE performing Tom Waits’ “Union Square” and a high energy blues song (got the tail end). I am still uploading video, but as they come online, I will added them to the collection of photos and such from the night to This Message Board Thread. You can also read a review of opener Caitlin Rose.

A lot of people criticize that I spend too much time dwelling on the negative, that I spend too much time fighting, and not enough time supporting. I fight because I believe in things. I don’t fight Nashville or country music because I hate them. I fight for them because they are worth fighting for, and I love them. Many things are NOT worth fighting for. It’s trivial if they spiral into obscurity or self-destruction. But Justin Townes Earle is not one of them. He’s worth fighting for, and I’m glad I have. I’m not running a popularity contest. Some will not understand. But that is irrelevant to me. I must do and say what I think is right in my heart, and let history judge it. And in my heart, I know that Justin Townes Earle is gold.