Justin Townes Earle + Joe Pug – The Forum, Melbourne (18/03/2011)

Justin Townes Earle has built a strong fanbase in Australia over the course of four tours in as many years, and accordingly The Forum theatre was a bustle of bodies, all aching to bear witness to some of the finest country blues coming out of the US today. However, it would be a misdeed to not first rave a little about the gentle majesty of support act Joe Pug.

Standing alone on the large stage, Pug constantly alternated the direction of his stance, as if wanting to make sure that the audience was connecting with his words. His singing style and stage presence bore an honesty that was immediately captivating, and please forgive the obvious lazy comparison, but one couldn’t help but be reminded of early acoustic Dylan. Hymn 101 from the Nation of Heat EP in particular is an incredibly beautiful piece of work, seemingly perfectly suited to the lush settings of The Forum; the singer, dwarfed by the stage and the theatre, appearing every bit as humble the lyrics of the song.

After a short break, Justin Townes Earle, tall, lanky and resplendent in a fine grey suit and oversized spectacles, took to the stage and proceeded to captivate his audience with his bittersweet tales and a cracked country voice. Earle was accompanied throughout the show by violinist Josh Hedley, which helped to add some depth to his very simple style of guitar playing.

When performing live, Townes Earle tends to play the material at half the speed at which they are delivered on record. This brings attention to the pain often evident in the lyrics and the thin beauty of his voice. Yet it does also draw attention to the fact that his songwriting style does not vary to great extent throughout a four album career. He never wanders far from the 1-4-5 country-blues balladeer format, always relying on a distinctive pluck of the E and A strings, using a combination of picking and strumming on the higher strings. Witnessing the catalogue revisited in this format makes one realise the extent to which the arrangements on the recorded versions have been used to embellish what are really very simple songs. While this particular style of playing is very effective, when placed in this even more stripped back and slowed down setting, many of the songs come off as sounding very similar to each other.

All of which is not intended as a criticism of the overall show; Earle was refreshingly sober, seemingly happy, self-deprecating, and charming, often making the audience laugh at his anecdotes of cocaine, women, booze and various thinly-veiled swipes at his father, country legend Steve Earle. Obviously very comfortable on the large theatre stage, Earle seemed every bit as at ease as his lazy drawl would have you believe, providing a counterbalance to Joe Pug’s humbled delivery in his proud references to his famed personal problems.

Highlights were numerous, a notable point being when Pug and opening act Lanie Lane joined Earle to sing Harlem River Blues, the title track of his latest album. Another was a song also from the new album, Christchurch Girl, which was dedicated to all the inhabitants of the city of the same name, where Townes Earle had been schedule to play but was forced to cancel in the aftermath of the earthquake.

Anyone who missed out on this string of shows and festivals now completed should rectify this mistake the next time Justin Townes Earle makes the trek back this way, which, based on the last four years, won’t be long. As Earle himself told crowd at The Forum, he’s a hard dog to keep under the porch.

Originally published on FasterLouder on 21/03/2011. View original article.

Photography by Ian Laidlaw. View photo gallery here.

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