Justin Townes Earle: Worst Nightmare to Sweet Redemption at Carnegie Hall

Justin Townes Earle at Carnegie Hall - Photo by Stephanie Berger

Last Friday, in his first show back in the U.S. following s Euro solo tour, Justin Townes Earle took the stage with a full band at New York’s holy of holies for music: Carnegie Hall. He said that all day on Friday, people asked him, “Are you nervous?” “Nope,” he told them. But when Earle was given a glowing introduction by the incredible Rita Houston of WFUV and took the stage in Carnegie’s gorgeous Zankel Hall with his mom, up from Nashville, in the audience, he unsurprisingly got nervous. In fact, he was so nervous at the start of the show that he forgot his lyrics…four times. And this included blanking on some of his most popular songs, like “Mama’s Eyes” and “They Killed John Henry.”

Shocked, frustrated and embarrassed that this was happening, Earle (and his band) didn’t know what to say. Later in the show, after he was safely pulled together in front of a very encouraging and forgiving crowd at this pretentious home for music snobs, he paused, looked up and said, “Well, this is a guarantee that I will never forget the first time I played Carnegie Hall.” While we all felt so terrible for him, we loved him all the more for it. We’ve all had those moments. The whole incident only drew the crowd in closer to the deeply genuine lyrics that have made Earle a star. Earle still played an unforgettable and sometimes moving set, with the good significantly outweighing and redeeming the show from that initial struggle. And there was something about that struggle that humanized this amazing (and well-dressed) performer that many of us idolize.

The set included a number of songs from Earle’s upcoming record, which is titled Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, and is set in 1960s Memphis. But he warns, “don’t worry…it’s not a white boy soul explosion.” Each of the songs he played felt more like Midnight at the Movies (AmazonMP3 & Spotify) than Earle’s latest album, Harlem River Blues (AmazonMP3 & Spotify), which had more of a gospel influence.

The performance was a mix of mesmerizing solo performances with just Earle and his guitar, and other kickass break outs with the full band, which included my friend, Gerald Menke, on guitar and pedal steel, Amanda Shires on fiddle, and Bryn Davies, one of the most aggressive upright bassists I’ve ever seen. Each of the band members offered up incredible solos, which is always a little scary since JTE isn’t the biggest fan of rehearsals. I spent a lot of time watching Bryn. I was afraid of her at first, as she beat the hell out of her bass, but she smiled in between songs…which was nice (check out her bio here, she’s a badass.)

For more, check out a solo clip below, a few photos by Stephanie Berger and this great pre-show interview Jeff Tamarkin, associate editor of JazzTimes.

Bootleg Video (NOT mine!): “I Been Burning Bad Gasoline” (cover of the song by Lightnin’ Hopkins)