April 7 saw acclaimed singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle stride onto the low stage in the North Assembly Room of downtown’s Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum in front of about 300 listeners for his second appearance in five years at the esteemed Savannah Music Festival.
Clad in a tucked-in pale green and white plaid long-sleeved shirt (which mostly hid a number of elaborate tattoos), navy blue khaki slacks and brown lace-up leather shoes, the lanky, gregarious, bespectacled — and, it must be said, slightly awkward — performer offered up a briskly paced solo acoustic set of mostly original guitar and vocal compositions steeped in the traditions and approaches of Piedmont blues, country, gospel and folk.
Earle, the son of fabled folk, country, blues and rock troubadour Steve Earle, has earned a solid and devoted international following all his own, and this subdued concert demonstrated the copious influence he has clearly absorbed — regardless of intent — from his father. That is not to suggest by any means that Justin Townes Earle is some sort of slavish chip off the old block. Far from it. He is clearly a product of this time and no other, yet maintains an abiding interest in — and respect for — the giants of his chosen profession who’ve come before him.
Earle played the entire show on a borrowed acoustic guitar (it seems he and his personal instrument had been unexpectedly separated while en route via plane to Savannah) that unfortunately suffered from some minor intonation issues. However, those slight deviations in pitch and fret buzz at times seemed to enhance the charmingly ramshackle nature of the musician’s stage presence. Opening with “Passing Through Memphis in the Rain” from his 2012 LP “Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now,” Earle set the mood for the rest of the night: lighthearted, heartfelt ballads, laments and blues, tinged with moments of extreme pathos and soul-baring introspection.
Over the course of the show, the 35-year-old artist delivered strong renditions of tunes drawn from his seven existing full-length albums, as well as a handful of newer, unreleased tracks which will appear on his forthcoming album, “Kids in the Street,” to be released at the end of next month on Americana label New West Records. Earle explained that this SMF gig and a handful of others he had played of late were a warm-up of sorts for the major tour he would soon embark on to support that next LP.
The respectful and quiet crowd at this evening show seemed filled with folks quite familiar with Earle’s back catalogue. At times throughout the loquacious singer’s set, a handful of audience members loudly shouted out requests for their favorite songs, which Earle pointedly ignored at first, until derisively dismissing them in totality with a cold stare and an unflinching retort. “I’m just gonna do what I want,” he drawled with a slightly antagonistic chuckle. This brush-off was met with loud laughter and thunderous applause from the crowd, including, one can only assume, the very people who’d been insisting on specific songs just moments before.
Standout moments in Earle’s set included the wonderfully wry and self-aware Bruce Springsteen-esque tune “about a modern car” which he explained he’d written on a dare after being told it was virtually impossible to pen a classic love song invoking the name of a car — unless it was about an older, vintage make and model. He rose to the challenge with “Champagne Corolla,” a mid-tempo, 1950s-ish boogie number filled with clever wordplay and a wry sentiment that’s recently been released as the first single off his upcoming disc.
He also delivered a wonderfully minimalist take on “Burning Pictures” from his 2014 LP “Single Mothers” and the tremendously affecting “Mama’s Eyes” from 2009’s “Midnight at the Movies.” The Ships of the Sea crowd was also treated to near-reverential cover versions of little-known songs by some of Earle’s favorite songwriters, including Texas bluesmen Mance Lipscomb and Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins, as well as North Carolina’s hidden Americana icon Malcolm Holcombe (who Earle heaped expansive praise upon).
At the end of his set, Earle opted to stay onstage for a few moments before playing an encore, rather than go through the rigamarole of walking the somewhat lengthy distance to and from the makeshift music venue’s green room. The final songs of the night included “One More Night in Brooklyn,” from his 2010 release “Harlem River Blues” and 2012’s “Look the Other Way.” And then, just like that, this studious, cocksure figure — who it could be said resembles a shy high school history teacher who’s secretly a stoner — left the stage to a rapturous standing ovation.