“Some people have come to see a show, so let them see a fucking show, right?”

Justin Townes Earle – Whelan’s (5th September 2012)

So teased the wonderfully gangly Justin Townes Earle mid-show from atop the sparse stage in Whelan’s on Wednesday night. Well, to be honest, it was probably meant to sound like a joke, but in reality it was a serious threat to those upstairs who needed to “shut the fuck up,” as they were told by an unapologetic, much-applauded punter, and “just to listen to the songs.”

This was the first time I’ve been to a table-seated gig at Whelan’s, and so I obviously found there to be a very different vibe; candles aglow and the audience relaxed. We actually arrived on time, but the sold-out show must have prompted doors to open early, so rather than wrestling for a table we decided to sit at the side of the stage, beneath the speakers (the sound was excellent, I’ll have you know, I think it might just be my new favourite spot, sonically, at least!)

The music kicked off with support from Maeve Dunphy, an excellent singer from Omagh with a devious sense of humour; before the show she asked my friend and I if we had any knickers to throw at the main act – and there was a certain twinkle in her eye that told me she was being deadly serious. Her voice was commanding, and her stage presence wonderfully compelling; if you see her playing anywhere near you, I’d certainly check her out!

Maeve Dunphy

Justin himself was welcomed to the stage with a rapturous applause; it’s been more than a year since he was last in Ireland, and the audience made it very clear that he’s much loved. His band had flown home the night before, so we were treated to a very intimate acoustic performance. Everything felt beautifully relaxed and off-the-cuff; those little technical mistakes and forgotten lyrics? They’re the imperfections that manage to make each night magical.

Now, saying that, I’m certainly not implying that this man is in any way an imperfect performer; he is a master storyteller, anecdotes told honestly and blithely, whilst his setlists manage to encompass each and every one of his albums without sounding cluttered or forced. Each song feels like a natural progression of the last, and you realise that whilst a band can be a great addition, he really doesn’t need one. Justin Townes Earle is literally every instrument needed; his hand heavy on the guitar easily makes up for lack of drum and bass, in fact, his style is very reminiscent of, pardon the pun, a young Neil Young, really hitting hard on those top strings.

I must confess, however, that if it hadn’t been for my dear friend Holly, I wouldn’t have been at this show; she introduced me to his genius about a month ago, and I’m so very glad that she did! Since she started linking me his back catalogue, I’ve been taking a crash course in JTE, trying to hear as many of his songs as possible before the big night, and the array of songs he played certainly didn’t disappoint. It was a set varied enough for the avid fan, but definitely appropriate for the more casual onlookers. He played everything from the superb They Killed John Henry, a tear-jerking Mama’s Eyes, and of course the ominously upbeat Harlem River Blues which prompted a fantastic sing-along (minus the so-called “pirate singing,” from earlier in the night which seemed to somewhat bother Justin) and not forgetting a fantastic array of covers including Automobile Blues – though I’m not going to lie, had I been lucky enough to see him perform Springsteen’s Racing In The Street last year here in Dublin, I would have wept, and I mean wept. 

Each day that has passed since last Wednesday makes me feel increasingly grateful that I was lucky enough to see this guy. I feel like I witnessed a truly special night that will never quite be replicated, not only musically, but also thanks to all the little quirks and nuances. There’s something about Justin Townes Earle that tells me he won’t be playing small venues like my dearest Whelan’s forever, and as he said himself, it’s time to forget the damage that the late seventies did to the genre, and “put the spirit of the blues back into country music.”

Justin Townes Earle

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