Rather than running away from the drug busts and arrests that caused his fall Salt Lake City appearance to be delayed, troubled troubador Justin Townes Earle used his rocky past for comic relief during a thrilling sold-out show Thursday night at The State Room.
The son of fellow countrified instigator Steve Earle, the young singer/songwriter arrived on a wave of good will and critical praise for his most recent album, Harlem River Blues, even though the album's release coincided with a bar brawl that landed him in rehab instead of in the country's clubs and honky-tonks.
Now, just a few months later, Earle looked healthy and spryly danced around the stage in his unique hunchbacked way of picking at his guitar while his feet scoot him around the stage. Accompaned by just a standup bass and fiddle, Earle delivered 21 songs spanning his career, with a serious dose of Harlem River Blues as the show's centerpiece. From the opening "Move Over Mama" to the closing cover of The Replacements' "Can't Hardly Wait," Earle had the crowd enthralled with both his performances of the songs and his honest between-song banter.
In introducing the second tune, "They Killed John Henry," Earle dedicated the song to his grandpa, " who had to put up with both me and my father's shit; quite an accomplishment." Other songs were introduced with statements like "I like to drink a lot and I like to do a lot of cocaine. And I'm not ashamed of the fact I like cocaine." Later on, introducing an excellent version of "Midnight at the Movies," Earle explained that the inspiration for the song came after he had gone to a cheap New York City porn theater to shoot up with his friends, "in case you wanted to know."
Most of the songs, though, came with stories about women who had done him wrong, or vice versa, including one moment when he talked about how he loved both women and fried chicken, "but friend chicken has caused me a lot less problems, and a lot less money."
Between all the banter came stellar performances of songs like "Mama's Eyes," "Slippin' n Slidin,'" "One More Night in Brooklyn" and "Wanderin'." He covered Lightnin' Hopkins and Bruce Springsteen along the way, and one new song that's yet to be recorded. Among my favorites of the night were "South Georgia Sugar Babe," the stirring "Someday I'll Be Forgiven for This" and the set-closing take on the title track from Harlem River Blues.
By the time the show ended nearly two hours after it started, there was little doubt Earle still has some work to do in slaying the demons that threaten his career. He essentially told the audience as much. But there was also little doubt that we were witnessing a singular talent who is not coasting on his daddy's coattails in the least. Here's hoping we get to enjoy that talent for many years, even if his junkie tales of heartbreak and loss become a lot more rare. That would probably be best for both Earle and his audience.