Justin Townes Earle brings country to the city

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Kate Snowdon
Production Manager

Having been moved from Oran Mor to the O2 ABC due to high demand, Justin Townes Earle and Lindsey Black raised the roof for the third day of the Celtic Connections festival, talking about absent fathers, single mothers and not dealing with break-ups.

Lindsey Black, an Edinburgh-based singer, opens for him, and as I chat to the other photographer waiting in the pit, he tells me he’s been following her career steadily, and this is her first really big show. As she takes the stage, her stripped back band give an inoffensive if uninspiring background to a breathy voice which invokes Scottish folk without the lyrics actually being audible. The simple acoustic strumming by Black is complemented by skilled and subtle drumming, a cheeky walking bass and involved finger-picking by her band members, who also provide epic harmonies.

The penultimate song has a massive sound you wouldn’t think capable from such an understated gang, with Black and her guitarist both strapping on the electrics, before finishing with her most impressive vocal performance, on Don’t Walk By, the initial simple guitar building to a massive finish with crashing drums and an almost hypnotic electric guitar backing Lindsey’s fluid vocals, leaving the audience breathless for more emotionally charged content.

JTE doesn’t disappoint. Having flown in from Nashville just the day previously, he admits to the audience that jetlag has set in, and spends some time tuning his guitar, which charmingly continues to detune after every song, prompting Earle to imagine his guitar would actually still like to be a tree and for Earle to ‘stop fucking with me’. His easy banter and Southern drawl characterise the set. He announces his first song as one dedicated to those people who ‘can’t hold it together when a relationship ends’, to massive cheers, and it’s a beautiful song, which encapsulates just that. Earle appears on stage with only himself, a black and white acousitc and Paul Niehaus, who alternates between an incredibly smooth-toned guitar and the absolute joys of a well-played pedal steel. He also contributes highly atmospheric harmonies and backing vocals to Earle’s emotional ones, where you can tell he’s absolutely singing the words of the song, which are clearly more than just lyrics to him.

As he forgets the intro to another song, he quips; ‘you try writing seven albums and remembering all your shit!’ and to make up for it, he plays, judging at least by the audiences reaction, the best known of all his songs, Harlem River Blues. The majority of the crowd join in the chorus of an incredibly catchy pondering of suicide, and the full, upbeat guitar sound, with impressive percussion effects from the guitar body, belies the seriousness of the content. For the last chorus Earle’s voice is the only sound and the crowd lapses into silence in awe at his incredible vibrato performance.

Despite wearing double-denim, Earle’s performance is incredibly raw emotionally, and the simplicity of the stripped back band showcase his rolling vocals and beautiful bluesy solos to their fullest. His combination of casual chat, bizarre and honest anecdotes, genuine lyrical content and charming blend of country and bluegrass give Earle’s performance a simple and profound appeal, whereby you just cannot help but side with him.