When the music started at Tuesday night’s solo Justin Townes Earle Show my date said, “He has to have a background track playing.” By the second song, we weren’t so sure. By the third song, it was clear that all that music was coming out of one guitar—who needs a backup band when you’re able to make that much noise all on your own?
And so it went, one man, one guitar—a stripped down set for a stripped down Earle, who rather than the retro western-themed clothes he often wears onstage, opted for a simple plaid shirt, blue jeans and a newspaper cap. And, is always the case at a JTE show, he came onstage cracking wise, and didn’t stop. He told the crowd that he was in a car accident in an Uber and it broke his trademark glasses, but, ever the optimist, Earle said, “I decided with the state of the world, that I’d rather it just be fucking blurry.”
His performance, however was anything but blurry. Sharp as it ever was—Earle still enters his own world when playing. His eyes close, his mouth twitches and smiles and his body sways and jerks as his top two fingers do the picking and the rest strum along.
There was no setlist—that was easy to tell by he way he paused after every song to decide what to play next. The result was a couple hours of music spanning his catalog and heavy with covers—starting with the first single from his latest album, “Champagne Corolla,” a handful of old blues songs, Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and plenty of his own material before closing out the set with “Harlem River Blues.”
He charmed the crowd with stories, “You may know, Earles can be kind of mean,” he said as a reference to his famously cantankerous father, Steve Earle. He told a story about his youth in Chicago that involved a drug dealer and the necessity for him to “abscond to the hills of Appalachia.” He took a somber moment to talk about the opioid epidemic (something with which he has personally struggled). And he engaged with the crowd throughout the show.
About that crowd… Recently Salt Lake crowds, especially at The State Room, seem to believe the performer is there to engage in a dialogue with them. Between the guy behind me who kept talking to Earle from the pews and the people up front who kept shouting out requests, this crowd needed to shut up. Earle took it in stride, telling them to “settle down” and going so far at one point as to ask, “Do I look like I need suggestions?”
In the end, it was very clear he did not. He had everything he needed right there on the stage.