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Live review: Justin Townes Earle at the Echo

February 12, 2010 |  1:27 pm


Steve Earle's son's stripped-down songs run the emotional gamut.

Justin Townes Earle is a young man of awesome traditions, who signifies his heritage every time he signs his name. Talent isn't a genetic trait that can be inherited, but Earle inhabits genuine country and blues with unusual force, transforming the old-timey back into something modern and dangerous.

He did it with a smile on his face at the Echo on Thursday, during 90 minutes of sad songs and barn-burners, simmering Texas blues and anxious honky-tonk. Many of the songs were from his new album, "Midnight at the Movies," a lively, graceful collection fueled on passion and bite. Onstage, the songs were stripped down and cut like a razor.

"Sometimes for a song to get finished, somebody's got to cry," Earle said, maybe not even half-joking.

He's the son of Steve Earle, with a middle name taken from the late Townes Van Zandt, two singer-songwriters of defiance and hurt. And he dealt with his place in that hard-headed tradition on "Mama's Eyes," strumming his acoustic guitar as he drawled: "I am my father's son, we don't see eye to eye / and I'll be the first to admit I've never tried / It sure hurts me, it should hurt sometime."

Earle's band was pared down to just fiddler Josh Hedley and bassist Bryn Davies, the three of them standing together, two country gentleman wearing suits and bow-ties with a lady bass-player in a flowery dress. He was a natural force onstage, all nervous energy and easy jokes behind the microphone. "I need a cigarette, but we're in L.A.," he said with a smirk. "They just outlawed smoking in grocery stores in Tennessee. It's a sad day."

For "Halfway to Jackson," Hedley sawed at his strings to approximate the sound of an oncoming train, as Earle sang with believable anguish, biting at his words: "Well, I got this woman, she don't treat me right / she just stay out drinkin' 'til the mornin' light."

"Someday I'll Be Forgiven for This" was in the finest tradition of his father's ballads of heartbreak, and "They Killed John Henry" rode a sharp fingerpicking melody. Earle played some blues in the styles of Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb, circling the microphone with a reedy snarl, and the band dipped into some local flavor (by way of Bakersfield) with Buck Owens' "Close Up the Honky Tonks."

The influences Earle lists on his MySpace page are not strictly country or blues and include Billie Holiday and Patti Smith, among other musical adventurers. The trio performed a dreamy, countrified version of the Replacements' "Can't Hardly Wait," somehow remaining true to the song's original post-punk essence.

The new album's title song was dedicated to Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and other Beat writers, blending Earle's slow strumming with the forlorn lines of Hedley's fiddle as he sang: "I ain't got nowhere to be / Ain't nobody waitin' at home for me."

A couple of fans shouted song requests at the stage, but Earle had his own ideas. "Hey!" he shouted playfully. "I know what I'm doin'!"

-Steve Appleford

Photo credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times