Posted by Bobby
Justin Townes Earle returned to Chicago last Thursday, after our city had been the abrupt endpoint of his previous tour in support of the killer album Harlem River Blues. The tour came with reports of run-ins with the law and copious amounts of substances, and following his Lincoln Hall show last fall Earle checked into treatment. Luckily, fans had the excellent gospel, folk and blues influenced record to tide them over.
On Thursday, the Bloodshot Records star was supported by local songwriter Tom Schraeder and touring support act Jessica Lee Mayfield. Schraeder took the stage with a creeping calm and began a series of wailing melodies that evoked a sort of twilight wandering. His pace was slower than that of the headliner but it was a good way to warm up - and a necessary one - because it was sooooo cold outside.
Mayfield looked up coyly from the mic as she said hello, and from that moment to the very end of her set she was thoroughly convincing as a young girl living up to what country music is all about, rather than what it has become in a lot of arenas. Her songs were very good, her voice was amazing and her guitar player Richie Kirkpatrick was unearthly. He stretched between fuzzy urban sidewalks and lonesome Ohio River Valley with each verse to bridge transition, yet he never overshadowed Jessica Lee's gorgeous, understated voice.
Earle took the stage in a slim, sharp as all hell suit and loafers. He was accompanied by Josh Hedley on vocals and fiddle and the ever impressive Bryn Davies on the upright bass. They cut quite a figure. While Earle commanded the stage, his accompaniment was also wildly impressive. I had previously seen Davies when she performed at the Heartland Cafe, and she is masterful. And not only were Hedley's string skills exquisite, but the vocals he provided made me want to hear a solo album from him, too.
The group was on top of their form with no remnants of the debauched drama from the fall, and Earle was self-deprecating, charmingly warm and appropriately standoffish all at the same time. Numerous times he made reference to his famlous father, Steve Earle, to his namesake Townes Van Zandt, and the general havoc a life of rambling can have, but also to new found sobriety. The past substance abuse was the inspiration for the beautiful "Slippin' and Slidin'," as well as the only new material of the evening - an absolutely gorgeous song I can only assume is called "It Won't be the Last Time," which did give an ominous message of an addict's eventual relapse. He burned through a very special cover of Lightnin' Hopkins' "I Been Burning Bad Gasoline" and closed the set with the title track of Harlem River Blues, with all of Metro singing along. Earle came back for an encore of three songs, the first of which - "Rogers Park" - harkened back to his days as a broke, lonely kid on Chicago's North side.
The Gingerman was packed afterward with people discussing the show (always a good sign), and the general consensus was that, regardless of drama, Earle is simply one of the best contemporary roots music songwriters out there. If you don't yet own Harlem River Blues, I would recommend that you fix that and support one hell of a songman.
Check out more show reviews:
JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound at Metro
Free Energy at Double Door