Justin Townes Earle wows Milton

Americana Stars Wow Milton Theatre
By Matt Tay
It was a fantastic night at Milton Theatre on Saturday the 9th of February with two stand out sets from two emerging Americana stars.
Being the son of a music legend must be hard work.  As a youth Justin Townes Earle took up golf in a misguided but amusing attempt at rebellion against his father Steve Earle.  With four LPs and one short player under his belt his only handicap appears to be his inability to fit into one easily classifiable genre.  He has previously won best song and emerging artist at the annual Americana Music Awards and was nominated for artist of the year in 2012.

Americana music evolved in the 1990s as a direct response to the highly polished dominant musical formats of country and rock.  The Americana Music Association [AMA] was established to bring together artists that did not fit comfortably into either genre.  The AMA defines the music as, “Contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-orientated sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw”.
Justin Townes Earle’s latest album [Nothings Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now] is an artistic journey through Memphis Soul as made famous by the label Stax Records. It is a stunning album made even more impressive by the fact it was recorded live over four days with no overdubs in a converted church in Asheville, North Carolina.  It channels his many influences including Woody Guthrie, early Springsteen, and Tom Waits along with elements of slacker icons Paul Westerberg, Kurt Cobain and J Mascis in the vocals.  It is streaming free on his website and at an average of a very punkish 3 minutes per song I challenge any reader not to be humming the tunes after only a few listens.
Support act Robert Ellis was beaten in the 2012 AMA Emerging Artist Award by the Alabama Shakes who only recently played the Big Day Out circuit.  He finger picked and sang his way into the hearts of the Milton Theatre audience.  His latest album Photographs has been described by Bernard Zuel as ‘like a physical representation of the LA music scene of the early 70s, divided into a folkish and decidedly country side’.  The Jackson Browne comparisons are not wide of the mark and anyone who took the time to speak with him will know he was also a pretty cool chap.
Preliminaries aside Justin Townes Earle took the stage.   JTE likes to keep his recordings organic and real so that he can “do the songs justice’ whether he plays them live with his seven piece band, as a duo or, as he was tonight, solo.  That said, it is no easy task bringing a multi instrumental track to life with just an acoustic guitar and mic.  The finger picking of the recalcitrant Loar guitar gave me cramps just watching but it was Justin’s slick baritone that carried each song, filling in for a trumpet here, an organ sound there the southern drawl just apparent.  Unfortunately his voice may not be the only piece of genetic baggage left to him by his father.
His song writing encompasses his life growing up on the road with all the inevitable, ethical dilemmas this could bring.  When he sings, “I thought I’d be a better man” from the latest LPs opening song you know he sort of means it.  Then on Movin On he mentions that he is ‘sick again’ to his mum but then ‘we both pretend we don’t know why’, ditto when she asks about ‘my father’ and he laments that after ‘thirty years of running’ he spends ‘most days wondering if I’ve learnt anything at all’.
This exposition of his life continues through his story telling between songs and, as in all good theatre, completes the narrative of a boy who may have grown up a little too quickly on the road and after many years in denial is only just now coming to terms with the man he became.
At the end I was sort of glad that Robert Ellis had Justin Townes Earle to depend upon and vice versa on this tour.  I imagined the two of them in Milton after the show on a thunder tinged Saturday evening staring down the highway at the beginning of a road trip that will take them north to Byron Bay via the soon to be closed Annandale Hotel, Newcastle, Tamworth and Lismore.   Like tonight it promises to be one hell of a trip.