Even though Justin Townes Earle is a semi-regular visitor to Utah, he still maintains some sense of mystery as a performer every time he comes back around.
That was certainly true Saturday night at The State Room, where Earle played a sold-out show all by his lonesome on stage, just one man, his guitar and a catalog full of retro-fied country and folk ballads and rockers. And he brought that rare ability to entertain well between songs, too, via short anecdotes and funny one-liners about the evolution of his songs.
Dressed in a leather jacket rather than the Western duds he's worn on some past visits, Earle jumped into a set of nearly two-dozen songs spanning his four full-lengths, but leaning most heavily on his excellent 2012 release Nothing's Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now. That was a good decision, because songs like the title track, "Maria," "Am I That Lonely Tonight" and "Look The Other Way" are some of the strongest of Earle's career to date. And despite the fact they lacked some of the STAX-style horns and instrumental layers of their recorded versions, they fit in perfectly alongside older favorites.
Earle didn't skimp on the older material, dropping in songs like "They Killed John Henry" and "Mama's Eyes" among the newer material. "One More Night in Brooklyn" was a highlight early on, and later he followed "Nothing's Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now" with a memorable one-two "Harlem River Blues" and "Lower East Side," songs written when Earle was still living in New York. Those days are over, he explained between songs, as he's moved back to Nashville to be close to his aging mother, "because that's what you do."
Earle's encore was more than a merely slapped-on coda to a solid show--it provided some of the best moments of the entire show. A couple of covers were in the mix, including his inspired take on Jimmy Cox's "When You're Down and Out" and The Replacements' "Can't Hardly Wait.' "Halfway to Jackson" and "Slippin' and Slidin'" helped bring a close to the last night on the road for Earle, and added to what has been a remarkable December for concerts already.