Kate Koenig, Arts Editor
This past weekend saw an onslaught of shows in town, including Justin Townes Earle’s performance at Foothills Performing Arts Center. Son of well-known country musician Steve Earle, J. T. Earle doesn’t stray far from his father’s genre but retains his individuality as a songwriter while still carrying on the inherited talent.
The show was held in a room called the Production Center, which, unlike the room that held Carl Palmer and later Bela Fleck, has a capacity of 480. On Saturday, however, the room was designed to hold the much smaller number of 250, with roughly 18 candle-lit tables dressed in black tablecloths placed throughout the room. The audience was seated as if at a classy lounge, and the proximity and low height of the stage made for a rather intimate setup. The room was chosen for this show especially because of its warm acoustic response to solo acts just like the ones performing that night.
Foothill’s advertising for the show was a little confusing in respect to the starting time—8 p.m. on one webpage and 9 p.m. on another—and as a result, we arrived at the end of opening act Tristen’s set. A solo singer-songwriter act, she had a gentle and sweet but not saccharine voice and a soft, restrained style of playing that entranced the audience and effectively warmed them up for the headlining act that had gotten them through the door.
A gawky, gangly, bespectacled 29-year-old, Justin Townes Earle is one of those artistic figures that when he takes the stage, you can feel the audience beaming up at him without seeing their faces. He often takes inspiration from his family, with the second song of his set being dedicated to his grandfather “who raised five wild children,” and a later song called “Mama’s Eyes,” which he introduced in saying “[My mother]’s my hero and the most important person in my life.”
His style of guitar playing is traditional, and all of his songs employ experienced finger-picking, but as with most traditionalists who have made a name for themselves, Earle’s originality jabs through with deeply personal lyrics and various vignettes from his life. As he said to the audience, “I’ve gotten a reputation for being a fairly personal songwriter… I just don’t care all that much. I always give people who are on my records a chance to listen to it before it comes out, and if they don’t take it that’s their own damn fault.” That sentiment aligned well with his songs, as he sang bluntly of his romantic encounters, strumming the guitar in a forceful outward and downward striking motion that said as much of his release of troubles as did his words.
The setting of the room produced a sensitive atmosphere that forced the audience to remain silent while Earle performed, which made the entire event seem more meaningful. He played about 16 songs, including the soulful “Automobile Blues,” originally written by Lightnin’ Hopkins (also a cover in his father’s repertoire) and closed with an old gospel tune, “Down in the Valley.”
The night was a great one, not only due to Earle’s raw and genuine performance but also because of the perfect environment provided by Foothills. It wasn’t necessarily phenomenal, but certainly a treat, and a more than well spent evening. Get a feeling for Earle’s talent with his newest album, which will be coming out next March.