This was a day of firsts. I had never experienced a show at Manchester’s Band on the Wall and this was the first time I had seen Justin Townes Earle play. He’d previously brought his Harlem River Blues tour to the city four years ago, which I’d had the misfortune to miss and I was not going to make the same mistake again, especially when one considers the magisterial quality of his recent records. The show became doubly enticing after the announcement that Nashville troubadour Andrew Combs would be accompanying him.
I was to discover tonight that Band on the Wall is a truly wonderful venue to experience live music. It is blessed with impressive acoustics and the low stage puts you at eye level with the performers, making for an intimate experience, which is certainly what the large crowd gets when Andrew Combs walks on stage and introduces himself. It’s difficult to gauge if those present tonight are familiar with his material, but within moments his authentic sound and wonderfully sophisticated vocals has the room hooked. The night proves to be an opportunity to air tracks from forthcoming album All These Dreams and they certainly don’t disappoint. Pearls is full of melancholy, sombre imagery which disguises the age of the young man delivering them. The vocals in this song in particular possess the earnestness of Springsteen and Andrew certainly does not seem out of his depth alone up there on the stage. This is not his first visit to Manchester. Caitlin Rose brought her good friend on tour in 2013 and he performed tracks from Worried Man meticulously to a packed Ruby Lounge that night. Tonight’s show proves to be an even more satisfying evening. It’s marvellous to hear a confident yet humble musician ply his trade in such a convincing manner. Andrew Combs manages to reflect his clear inspirations in his compositions, yet delivers something completely individual. Indeed, JTE exclaims later tonight that it is rarely possible as an acoustic guitar-wielding singer-songwriter to retain any sense of originality. JTE even admits that many of his support acts have actually not been very good. Although he would not divulge names, it is safe to assume that most acts would be unable to claim material as evocative as Andrew Combs’ Too Stoned to Cry for example, which is performed exquisitely tonight. The crowd tonight are a respectful bunch and by the end of his slot, it appears that Andrew Combs has won over a roomful of new fans. I hope the new release provides the opportunity to present more of this Nashville residents innate ability on a headline tour in the near future.
The crowd push forward as Justin Townes Earle saunters on to the stage with guitarist Paul Niehaus. The tour accompanies the recent release of Absent Fathers as well as companion piece Single Mothers, released at the back end of 2014 and this is where first track Burning Pictures comes from. The show does not feel like a promotional exercise though and JTE revisits many highlights from his burgeoning back-catalogue. What these new tracks do represent though is a pleasing consistency in theme and style. JTE really seems to be prospering now that well-documented personal issues seem to no longer define his output.
JTE also demonstrates what a fine guitarist he is as well. Yes, he may rely on Niehaus to remind him what key a song should be performed in, but once that song begins JTE is in the zone and next tracks One Night in Brooklyn and Ain’t Waitin’ are relaxed, laid-back moments of real quality. This is a pretty stripped back affair and tracks lack the musical complexity that album versions possess, but the intimacy of the show more than makes up for this.
A great gig provides context to the songs we hear and this is where JTE excels. The material performed tonight is complimented by his musings about a songs origins and this somehow results in a more complex experience for those in attendance. Lyrics become more poignant and inspirations more relevant when one knows some of the back-story that led to their creation. As a result, JTE becomes much more than the son of Steve, and although he acknowledges the importance of his family during the gig, all of his songs come from the heart and from his experiences and performed live they possess real personality. A high point of the night therefore comes during his solo section. They Killed John Henry is a marvellous slice of Americana made all the more evocative due to the family context it is placed in prior to it being performed.
The final third of the show becomes more upbeat and Niehaus’ return after the solo section seems to energise Earle. The pairs seem to enjoy each others company and Earle’s cover of Can’t Hardly Wait is a joy. The decision to cover Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams is unexpected but JTE proves to be a worthy replacement for Stevie Nicks and co’s harmonies. Harlem River Blues concludes a magnificent evening that has allowed this most natural of musicians ply his trade honestly.
Justin Townes Earle
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Review and Photos by Iain Fox | @IainFoxPhoto