Last Night: Justin Townes Earle At Fitzgerald's

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Justin Townes Earle Fitzgerald's December 2, 2010

It's been a tumultuous year for folk-rocker Justin Townes Earle. Lucky for him, we're fast approaching year's end. This fall the Nashville native and recently settled New Yorker released his third album Harlem River Blues, the follow-up to 2008's lauded Midnight at the Movies.

Midnight earned Earle some well-deserved press and a handful of Americana Music Awards, including Best New Artist. He also managed to turn the fashion industry's heads in the process; his chic style earned him the title of one of GQ's 25 Most Stylish Men of 2010.

It's no surprise Earle flourishes in his trade. He's a folk-rock blueblood, the namesake of late country legend Townes Van Zandt, not to mention the son of Americana titan Steve Earle. But his path to success hasn't been particularly painless.

By the tender age of 12, Earle began abusing drugs, an addiction that would shadow him into adulthood. Following the songwriter's September 16 show in Indianapolis, he was arrested and charged with battery, public intoxication and resisting law enforcement.

The mêlée proved to be a sobering moment for Earle. Admitting drugs played a contributing factor in his behavior, he consequently checked himself into a treatment center and postponed the remainder of his tour. Thursday night's Fitzgerald's show was one of his first performances since he completed his month-long rehabilitation.

Earle swaggered onstage sporting a crisp grey suit, confidently defending his fashionable GQ title. Joined by upright bassist Bryn Davies and violinist Josh Hedley, Earle kicked the set off with Harlem's "Move Over Mama," his gangly stature towering above the mike. Within moments of seeing Earle live, spectators get the impression that the singer is, in fact, singing exclusively to them and them only. He creates an air of affability that enigmatically reels in his crowd.

Though liberally pulling from Harlem, Earle also sprinkled in tracks from his previous records, like The Good Life's "Ain't Glad I'm Leaving" and the vengeful two-step twang of Midnight standout "Halfway to Jackson."

If you've seen JTE before, you're likely already familiar with his sheer onstage charm, best expressed in his entertaining storytelling. "My Mama raised me all by herself," Earle announced, his Southern twang endearingly exposing itself. "And if you've been reading the papers, you know I'm still a handful," he joked to a laughing audience. "Here's to Mama," Earle saluted before strumming the opening chords of the earnest "Mama's Eyes."

Earle evenly glided from subdued folklore to greased-up honky-tonk tunes fit for a dusty dancehall. Clearly a crowd well-versed in all things Earle, the fans were just as eager to reverently appreciate hushed numbers as they were to kick up their heels in spontaneous square-dances during his revved-up songs.

As Earle introduced "Slippin' and Slidin'," a tune that appears to narrate the songwriter's struggles with addiction, he finally acknowledged the elephant in the room: "I like to drink and do drugs... a lot," he admitted to his dutiful crowd. "But I'm not very good at it, as I seem to always end up in handcuffs."

But Aftermath's favorite song introduction preceded "Someday I'll Be Forgiven," as the singer bitterly quipped a faux dedication of sorts: "This one goes out to What's-her-name, wherever she is."

Nearly one-upping himself, he revealed Midnight's title track to evidently be inspired by "strippers, prostitutes, dope dealers, Jack Kerouac and Truman Capote." Evidently, this guy has a haphazard grab bag of influences.

The between-song raconteur continuously amused us with his backstories. Apparently, "Christchurch Woman" was inspired by a New Zealand woman who, according to a suddenly coy Earle, "made quite an impression."

Upon hearing someone in the crowd shout, "Marry her!" a bewildered Earle shook his head and explained, "See, that's the difference between my Daddy and me - I know better." Fans familiar with the many marriages of Steve Earle (seven, to be exact) erupted in laughter.

Earle continued with a tasteful selection of covers, including the bluesy Lightnin' Hopkins number "I Been Burning Bad Gasoline," as well as a nod to his namesake on Townes Van Zandt's "Rex's Blues."

As the set evolved, Earle peeled back those layers of influence, revealing a mingling of folk-rock, gospel and gritty country. What never fails to surprise us about his shows is how well his songs transfer when played live. His cool charisma and tasteful accompanying band make his songs shine even brighter than their recordings.

Between Earle's vintage air, Davies' throwback attire, and the band's frequent stylistic nods to their ragtime roots, we nearly felt hurled into a time warp, revisiting decades past. But Earle breathed new life into such epochal genres - respecting their roots but adding upon them, which ultimately molds a timeless sound.

Inviting opener Caitlin Rose and her band onstage, Earle led the crew into set closer "Harlem River Blues," which flourished with added vocal harmonies.

After receiving a rowdy applause from the tireless crowd, Earle launched an encore of exclusive covers, including "Hesitation Blues," a saloon-primed ditty originally written in 1916 and since covered by artists including Janis Joplin and Leadbelly. A cover of Tom Waits' "Union Square" followed, setting the stage for what has become Earle's signature cover, the infectious Replacements staple "Can't Hardly Wait."

As Earle left the stage, he thanked the crowd, offering a simple promise, "We'll see you next time, Houston." Look no further than the sentiment captured in his final song - we can't hardly wait.

Personal Bias: Aftermath is obviously Team Earle.

The Crowd: Would it be terribly un-PC of us to say the crowd was full of really good-looking guys?

Overheard In the Crowd: "America! Fuck yeah!" Over and over again.

Also, courtesy of our own Craig Hlavaty, about opener Caitlin Rose (above): "Of course I'm buying her a St. Arnold's. She's cute!" Who says chivalry is dead?

Random Notebook Dump: Note to Self: Learn how to two-step.

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