Justin Townes Earle missed a bus in Australia and ended up in Cairns, about as far north on the Australian eastern seaboard as any self-respecting international troubadour deserves to be.
In fact, he found himself performing in a tank before a small bunch - maybe 150 – of true-believers, well educated in both his music and DNA. It was Friday the 13th and near the end of a 20-gig tour of Australia & New Zealand.
Well the tank turned out to be a rather respectable concert venue converted from a huge water tank and sited in a most picturesque location – the city’s botanical gardens, carved out of natural sub-tropical rain forest. For this is what the locals call FNQ – Far North Queensland.
The son of Steve - arguably the greatest living Americana songwriter –Justin is quite grown-up these days. He has shed his enfant terrible image, replacing it with a wiser, somewhat potty-mouthed persona. He quickly engages his small, but responsive, audience with a wide range of expletives. “I’ve got balls like church bells,” was among his best.
“Hey I’m an Earle,” he declares. “I’m highly offensive.”
This is a stripped-down Justin Townes Earle. It was only him onstage, with two guitars. “Why don’t you play the other one,” shouts the talkative lady in the centre row of foldable chairs. “It’s only a spare in case this one breaks, bit like a spare tire,” he responds.
But in fact he needs only one guitar, as he is at his finger-pickin’ best.
This is a tour to promote his well-received recent release The Saint of Lost Causes and he launches the show, as has been doing in recent times, with an album track, the boogie-woogie song-with-a-message “Flint City Shake It.” But his next number “One More Night in Brooklyn” comes from nearly a decade ago – the acclaimed 2010 release Harlem River Blues.
These days Justin likes to mix his original work with a range of covers. He delivers “The Saint of Lost Causes” before the first of the night’s covers – from old friend, the scratchy and at-times abrasive Malcolm Holcombe, of whom he relates with a rambling tale about a ‘garlic burger”. He then does what turns out to be the highlight of the evening, a wonderful rendition of Holcombe’s “Who Carried You.”
He is soon talking about someone who is clearly not an old friend. Justin is no fan of Donald Trump, not surprising, given his Dad’s political leanings,. “He has to be the most dipshit president on the face of the earth.” He then pauses before declaring: “I never thought I’d be saying this but I’d rather have George W. Bush in the White House. So come back G.W. and while I’m at it, come back Garth Brooks.”
The true-believers erupt!
He spends time lamenting on the fact that there was no tour bus for him in Australia.
“I will die in the back of a tour bus,“ he says. “But it won’t be in Australia - where they don’t have buses!” He then reminds everyone he has been on the road for 20 years. “So how old are you?” shouts the talkative one in the middle row. “Thirty seven,” he immediately responds.
The autobiographical “Mama’s Eyes” – off Midnight at the Movies – is a setlist regular. The only question is what family story will precede it? He answers that quickly. “My mama’s a real bad bitch,” he states matter-of-factly, adding she is six feet one!. “She once detached my father’s retina. She hit him with her right hand even though she’s left handed.” He added: “When I asked why she didn’t use her left hand, she said I didn’t want to hurt him.”
“Mama’s Eyes” follows: I am my father’s son/We don’t see eye to eye/And I’ll be the first to admit I never tried.
As further proof to his heritage, he politely lectures on a pet subject – mandatory minimum sentencing. It is personified in “Ahi Esta Mi Nina” the story of a Puerto Rican ex-prisoner meeting his 16-year-old daughter for the first time on release.
He has one musical indulgence during the set – don’t all troubadours.” Has anyone heard of Mance Lipscomb?” he asks. No one has! Never mind, Justin then eases his way through two numbers from the distinguished Texan bluesman, often likened to Leadbelly.
Justin appears a little apologetic. “I don’t do requests, I do what I want.”
Ironically the next song – the wonderful “Christchurch Woman” – is one that is often requested, though not a regular on his setlists nowadays. He then finished with two all-time favourites “Lone Pine Hill” and “Harlem River Blues.”
He then exits stage-right, only long enough to strip off his shirt. He returns wearing nothing above-waist except a motley collection of tattoos across his lanky frame. This is the tropics after all.
He begins the encore by marking his country roots with a foot-tapping version of The Carter Family’s “Gold Watch and Chain.” He ends it with his very stylish guitar-take on The Replacements standard “Can’t Hardly Wait.”
He then takes off the guitar, waves his long slender arms in the air and the true believers return to the land where snakes, lizards and crocodiles roam.
And Justin? Well he’s probably looking for that elusive bus … to take him to the nearby airport.
Justin Townes Earle Live at Tanks Arts Centre, Tank 5, Cairns, September 13
Review by Paul Cutler, Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation.