Imagine if you took Elvis Costello circa My Aim Is True, tied him to the rack and stretched him for a mile. That's exactly what country by Justin Townes Earle looked like, that or an instant mix of Tommy Tune and the Scarecrow in "The Wizard Of Oz".
At Webster Hall on Thursday, May 17th, Justin didn't sound like Costello, but rather is a cross between country and New Wave, a modern know it all and a melody machine. Coming off what is the album of the year, and with an excellent backing band, this should have been a slam dunk but it wasn't.
Justin with his knee kicks, and his voice from on high, and his nervous ticks, was an uncomfortable MC. When I first saw Justin, 2008 at Joe's Pub, he was the same rambling story teller, with the same wit, but it hadn't descended into patter and Justin's entire stage patter is spiel, if not out right lies, right now,. he prefaces each remark with an annoying "Ladies And Gentleman" clearing of the throat, before telling us something useful about the always based upon his own life, stories behind the songs. The stories sound forced and then he claims the title track off his newbie "Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now" as being the only song he has written for a real person. "She knows who she is," Justin claimed with a stern smirk. Perhaps. But then what the fuck has been talking about for the entire concert?
At a slim 70 minutes, the set went down without too much difficulty. The back up band was terrific, the stand up bass player nailed down one of Justin's very best songs, "Am I That Lonely Tonight" and the lead guitarist filled in all the holes missing from the absence of horns.
And Justin can write em, and Justin can sing em. But, except for a seething "I Been Burnin' Bad Gasoline", a cover at that, he fails to invest them with the passion they deserve. There is a self-serving ego mania in his delivery, a self-reference that is insulating and a little annoying. While it is hard to go wrong when the penultimate song of the night is a decisive "Movin' On", still even this hat in the ring for song of the year number, doesn't quite capture it all.
Justin is talkative but he doesn't talk to us, he talks at us. not a smile to the audience, not a give and take, it is as perplexingly strange as his knowing that he needs to leave the stage by 1010pm, and still getting on stage at 9p. Instead we got a 45 minute set by a pretty good opening act, but way way way too long. Why didn't he cut em by 15 minutes and play his own set early? Los Campesinos had the same problem with a shortened set a couple of years ago. Is imple mathematics beyond them???
I was real disappointed and it has me thinking whether I overestimated the album. Justin has perfected the art of fake intimacy, maybe he wants to try the real thing and see how far that gets him.