Justin Townes Earle Charms the Charleston Music Hall
Ok Charleston live music fans, we need to have a talk. I love you for the way you’ve helped build up the Holy City into the music destination it is. We have a vibrant local music scene, our own world-class music festival courtesy of Zack Brown and his Southern Ground Music and Food Festival, and we attract a bevy of bands that used to go straight from Charlotte to Atlanta on their tours. Seriously, back in the days before great venues like the North Charleston Coliseum/Performing Arts Center and the Charleston Music Hall, Charleston would only get the occasional national or international touring act. I remember being in high school and having a certain nationally-known act play the Gaillard Auditorium. I won’t identify the iconic ‘60s band by name, despite the fact that it changed its name several times over the course of its career, but let’s just say that it Built This City on Rock and Roll. While I didn’t attend that show, the rabid reaction among my friends who did go demonstrated the cultural drought (at least as far as live pop music went) that existed in Charleston in the ‘80s.
Nowadays, we have an embarrassment of riches as far as music options go, and with the opening of the new Gaillard Center next year, the options will only increase. I call attention to this because despite the fact that we have any number of musical acts visiting the Lowcountry in any given week, we don’t seem to be truly appreciating them. Folks seems to simply be attending shows just to be seen. That’s the only reason I can think of to explain what I witnessed at Sunday night’s performance by Justin Townes Earle at the Charleston Music Hall.
First, let me just say that the performance itself was exquisite. Earle, the son of alt-country troubadour Steve Earle, has forged his own path in the music business, releasing six great albums of music and emerging from the shadow cast by his father with relative ease. I had a chance to see him play at the Pour House a few years back, and I was impressed by the way he seemed to engage the crowd in a manner that made each person feel like he was singing just to them. He reminds me of Hank Williams in his prime, and although Earle has battled his substance demons in the past, he is now sober and healthy and seems destined not to follow in the tragic footsteps of that country icon. Backed by a simple three-piece band, Earle turned in a performance on Sunday that featured new music, fan favorites, and even a surprising cover or two. “They Killed John Henry,” a song from his 2009 album Midnight at the Movies, got a great crowd reaction, as did tunes such as “White Gardenias” and “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving.” Earle’s between song comments proved to be as entertaining as his music. At one point, he started to introduce a song, then realized to his apparent surprise that the song was on an album that will be released early next year. “The next song is not on my most recent album,” chuckled Earle. “It’s on the one that comes out in January. I reserve the right to forget my own words. I’ve made six albums. Can you remember every word you’ve written at your job in the last six years? No, you cannot.” Prior to performing “Learning to Cry,” Earle advised that it was a request from his wife. “It’s the only person I’m honoring a request from tonight,” he deadpanned. “Mama’s Eyes” was introduced as, not surprisingly, his mother’s favorite song, and Earle also mentioned his famous father before playing “They Killed John Henry,” discussing growing up listening to stories about communism in his grandfather’s house. “Yeah, all that pinko shit didn’t start with my dad,” said Earle.
At one point late in the show, Earle went on a bit of a tear, talking about how at the beginning, rock, blues, and country were complimentary of one another. “That’s why (today’s) country sucks,” said Earle. “You think Hank Williams would be okay with what was happening in country music today? I’m all about hybrid forms of music, but country music and hip hop? Hell no.” That rant got a huge cheer from the crowd. “Wanna Be a Stranger,” a song from his most recent release, Single Mothers, got a good reaction, as did “Harlem River Blues,” a hypnotic tune that featured the chorus “Dirty water gonna cover me over and I’m not gonna make a sound.” The encore featured Earle performing excellent covers of Townes Van Zandt's song “Rex’s Blues,” as well as Fleetwood Mac’s “Thunder.”
Prior to Earle and his band hitting the stage, the crowd was treated to a great performance by Cory Branan. The Memphis, Tennessee-based Branan was a wonderful bundle of nervous energy as he performed witty, thought-provoking tunes, such as “It Is What It Is” and my personal favorite, “The Prettiest Waitress in Memphis.”
It was a great show all around, which makes it all the more mystifying as to how the folks seated directly in front of me acted throughout the performance. It was a group of four folks who looked to be in their mid-to-late 20s, including one guy sporting the current lumbersexual look (short and styled hair with a long ZZ Top beard) that’s apparently all the rage. During nearly every song of Earle’s set, three of the group engaged in animated conversation, speaking in voices well above a whisper. The fourth member of this party of boneheads didn’t join in the chat, mainly because he was asleep through most of the show. As much as I wanted to tap the lumbersexual chap in front of me and suggest that he zip it, I’ve leaned through experience over the years that this accomplishes nothing and more often than not leads to either a verbal or physical altercation. Finally, during that cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Thunder,” the last song in the show, a woman seated in front of the chatterers had endured enough. I’m not sure exactly what she said to the group, but it was effective enough to hush them up for the last minute or so of the song. I commend her for speaking up, but just as I expected, as soon as she turned back around to watch Earle, the lumbersexual douche made a what’s-her-problem face and smirked to his friends. It’s a scene I sadly witness at almost ever show I attend, and it’s unnecessary. I’ve even seen artists stop the show and remark at how rude the audience is at Charleston shows. Folks, when a singer has to stop a song and tell you to shut your pie hole, then you shouldn’t be mystified when bands once again start skipping Charleston on tours. Word gets around, and for a place that is constantly heralded as America’s most polite city, we have some truly terrible manners when it comes to attending a live performance. Why not keep your mouth shut and your eyes and ears open. You just might be entertained by what’s on the stage instead of in the seat next to you.