Justin Townes Earle

By Poppy Tohill

Artist:  Justin Townes Earle

Date / Venue:  Saturday October 25th, Tuning Fork, Auckland

The Tuning Fork has been a busy wee place as of late, with the Americana Folk Festival bringing a number of critically acclaimed international folk musicians to our New Zealand shores and stages.

But all good things must come to an end of course, and Nashville indie-folk star Justin Townes Earle was the man who had the job of drawing the festival to an end last night, with a performance that was undoubtedly enjoyed by his abundance of enthusiastic, loving and obviously, long time fans who made up the audience.

Lyttleton seems to be producing a number of talented and successful folk musicians recently, with Aldous Harding also taking the stage as support act for the Wellington group, Eb & Sparrow. This time however, it was Marlon Williams turn to take the support act stage light, delivering a breath-taking set that kicked off the night beautifully. Now, it's not often that a support act out-does the headliner, but in my opinion, Williams just owned it, maybe even slightly more so than Earle did.  Justin proved very impressed with Williams also however, singing his praises highly, numerous times throughout the night. In saying this however, Earle's performance was an experience, and a loved one at that, by many.

Apparently being no stranger to New Zealand, this is however, the first time around Earle has brought his band of talented musicians with him, and although not having seem him perform a solo set live before, the band added a rhythm and emotion to the songs that I believe would have been lacking otherwise.

"I'm going to do three songs and then get my band up here," Earle announced, as he introduced ‘They Killed John Henry' a song from his 2009 album, ‘Midnight Memories,' as "a song for my grandfather."

Having previously interviewed Earle, I was aware family is very important to him, an attribute he made clearly obvious as the night went on, continuing on to perform a cover of Townes Van Zandt's, ‘Mr Mudd & Mr Gold,' a song about ‘a game of five card stud told from the point of view of the cards.' "This song has got a lot of words," Earle announced before proceeding to play the tune. "So if I miss any words... well, I'd like to see you try," he laughed.

The crowd impressed with his fine effort of the song, Earle went on to perform his last solo song, before his band joined him on stage, performing his wife's favourite tune, ‘Learning To Cry,' from his 2010 album ‘Harlem River Blues.'

Still not performing a song from his latest album ‘Single Mothers', Earle now informed the crowd that he had in fact recorded enough material for two albums when releasing his latest, and that the rest would be released early next year, on another record which will be titled ‘Absent Fathers,' to tie in with the tales of his childhood, and family theme of the two albums.

With this Earle's band who included Paul Niehaus, on guitar and pedal steel, Mark Hedman on bass andMatt Pearce on drums, took to the stage after Earle's three solo numbers, to turn things up a notch, performing ‘Call Yo Momma,' an unreleased track that will feature on the ‘Absent Fathers,' record.

‘Ain't Waiting,' from ‘Harlem River Blues' was next on Earle's set list, as Neihaus warmed the crowd up to the band, adding an impressive rhythm to the tune, which definitely gave it the lift it needed, as the band then went on to conclude the track with an instrumental.

Justin proved talkative in between songs, telling the audience various stories of his childhood, life and hardships, also informing the crowd that country music was dead, after losing its connection to the blues and becoming pop music, "Nashville has killed country music!" Earle announced to the audience. Proving his point by going on to play 'Ain't Glad I'm Leaving', a Country song that did seem to have a strong connection to the blues.

The best part of the song however, was Paul Niehaus' pedal steel playing, which added a more interesting, captivating and enchanting element to the song, and any song that actually gave him the chance to pull the instrument out.

Eventually going on to perform the title track of the album, ‘Single Mothers' which of course was a popular song that encouraged many of Earle's die-hard fans down the front to scream and applaud very loudly, 'White Gardenias', a song written about a young Billie Holiday, remained one of my favourites of the night, as he shared with the crowd, "I know what it's like to be referred to as a drug addict, except, I didn't die."

"People seem to forget though, that Holiday wasn't always an addict and there was a point in her life where she was just a little innocent girl who had never tried any of those things," Earle exclaimed before continuing on to perform the slow, soft and heartfelt ballad.

Later turning up the volume and pace for ‘Memphis In The Rain,' Earle's performance proved to be one of those shows, where the longer you stick around the better it gets. With a few of the slower songs beginning to sound the same, Paul Niehaus' pedal steel playing continued to save the day, with his excellent riffs and melodic rhythms on electric guitar also working their magic on Earle's tunes. Without Niehaus, Earle's slightly mono-tone (at times) voice singing of his life sorrows, love and hardships could have quickly become a bit annoying.

The songs from Earle's recent album came quick and fast at this point, with ‘Worried About The Weather,' and‘My Baby Drives,' following one another as he finished off his 19 song set with the pleasant ‘Today And A Lonely Night' which again was highlighted by Niehaus' exceptional pedal steel playing.

Departing the stage for a brief two minutes, Earle was soon back, performing a two-song encore, which showcased the two best performances I believe Earle gave that entire night. Returning on stage to kick the encore off with a country and rockified version of his 2010 album title track 'Harlem River Blues', I was glad I stuck around and came to the concert, on the basis of that song alone, as Earle and band then went on to truly conclude the night with ‘Christchurch Woman' from the same album, which although had nothing on ‘Harlem River Blues,' was still an enjoyable listen.

With Justin Townes Earle show overall not proving what I had originally expected it to be, I have a feeling my expectations upon arrival were slightly too high, but an enjoyable experience for sure, which his adoring fans seemed to undeniably love. So if you're thinking of heading along to see him tonight, I say why not give it a shot. Because if nothing else, you will get to witness the talent that is Paul Neihouse on pedal steel, and see just what I mean when I say, I really believe he saved and made the entire show.