Singer/songwriter Justin Townes Earle arrived in town hot on the heels of the release of two new albums, the tandem pair of Single Mothers and Absent Fathers, both of which take a leaner approach in terms of sound and arrangement than the genre hopscotching of Harlem River Blues and the soul turn of Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now.
Fittingly, then, he took the stage with just one sideman—the sturdy pedal steel and electric guitarist Paul Niehaus, a prolific session player whose solos shined bright but never overtake the spotlight. And even though Earle is a gifted guitarist in his own right, much of the night’s focus was on his inimitable vocal delivery, something which has become increasingly more pronounced in recent years. He's formidable even when he's singing straight, but its the masterful, swooping shifts in volume and timbre that are his secret weapons, livening up even the most plainspoken of tales with melancholy ache and longing. Often during the set it seemed as if he was deliberately slackening the tempo in order to wring even greater nuance out of his singing, something which suggests a certain joy in the act of performing that feels cozy and comfortable even in the cavernous walls of the Music Farm.
And while the music had an almost reverential quality to it—Earle seems to be downplaying some of his more humorous and ribald material this time around—his between-song banter with the crowd more than made up for it, as whimsical asides provided new perspectives on tunes like “Christchurch Women” and “Am I That Lonely Tonight?” while he turned tender in introducing “Learning to Cry” as his wife’s favorite tune followed by what he said was his mother’s, “Mama’s Eyes.” While those moments were poignant, he also tacked on to the latter that “Nashville spreads bastard children like sprinklers.” The combination of emotional openness and hardened wit that serves his songs so well was quite apparent.
Earle appeared to be working without a set list for much of the night, and the show pulled fairly evenly across his albums save for his twangy debut LP. Highlights abounded, particularly when Niehaus was at his most effective, like on “Memphis in the Rain” and “Burning Pictures,” but workhorses like “Harlem River Blues” and Earle’s familiar take on “Can’t Hardly Wait” were clearly the biggest crowd pleasers.
The only thing lacking was one of his bruising confessional ballads (“Won’t Be the Last Time,” “Who Am I To Say”), but that could be chalked to an increasingly large catalog of songs to pull from. Here’s to hoping the presence of the Music Farm means we’ll be seeing Earle here again soon.