Over The Weekend: Justin Townes Earle at the Granada Theater

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Justin Townes Earle, Caitlin Rose, The O's
Granada Theater
December 3, 2010

Better than: seeing a washed up, crappy honky tonk wannabe band in some two-bit bar.

There's a concept in the Orthodox Church that says, when you enter a worship service, you step outside of time into an eternal "now." There's no last week's service, no outside world, just the moment -- the very same moment that's been going on for a thousand years in the very presence of those who have gone on before.

I'm not about to suggest that attending a Justin Townes Earle concert is a religious experience. But, there's something timeless about his music that suggests this 28-year-old isn't just imitating a sound or fashion trend.

This guy is the real deal.

We have no shortage of bands and performers trying for an older, simpler sound these days. But, usually, these artists have to inject something, like distorted vocals, to give it an edge.  Or they just settle for a costumed bit, playing a role like Hal Holbrook doing Mark Twain for the umpteenth time. Few, however, appear to have so fully digested American roots music so as to blend it with their own original songwriting for such a sincere expression as Earle does.

Dressed sharply in a Billy Reid-designed sport coat and fitted slacks, Earle delivered a confident set at the Granada on Friday night, mixing covers (like stirring renditions of Lightning Hopkins' "My Starter Won't Start" and Tom Waits' "Down, Down, Down") with material from most of his albums, especially 2009's Midnight At The Movies and this year's Harlem River Blues.  

He showed off his skills as a showman by introducing many songs with the stories that inspired them, combining an "Aw, shucks" southern delivery with his worldly experiences. He dedicated "Mama's Eyes" to his mother, recounting how she once knocked out his father with a single punch, detaching his retina in the process.

"That's what you get when you mess with West Nashville white trash," Earle said. "I'm still scared of her."

Another song, "Last Night in Brooklyn," was introduced as being about living in a "shit apartment with a shit girl".  

He got a fair share of laughs with his stories, and drew nothing but admiration from the crowd with his strong song craft and deep sincerity of his performance.

Caitlin Rose, originally from Dallas but now based in Nashville, played before Earle. Her sweet, effortless style -- a combination of Kelly Willis and Zooey Deschanel -- endeared her early to the then-sparse audience. But, sadly, her approach to country hasn't found her much of a musical home in the states, making her hard to market to country or pop, so she's had to perform mostly in Europe thus far.

Hopefully that will change when her sophomore album, Own Side Now, drops early next year in the U.S.

Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias:
I was disappointed that Earle didn't perform "Rogers Park," one of the best, and most woefully underrated, songs of the year.

By The Way: Dallas-based The O's opened the show to a mostly empty Granada. They played a great set, however, anchored by strong folk-pop songs that would work just as well if they ever jettisoned the guitar/banjo thing for something a little more mainstream. They also played their new single, "We'll Go Walking," which will be available on iTunes this week.

Random Note: Adding to the charm of Caitlin Rose's set was the fact that much of her family was in attendance. Her between-song banter was littered with quick hellos to cousins and even her grandmother.

Another Random Note: Speaking of Rose's family, her mother co-wrote many of the songs on Taylor Swift's first two albums.  

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