How to handle the Himalayan weight of famous fathers and their troubled friends?
Justin Townes Earle — son of Steve Earle and namesake of the late Townes Van Zandt, iconic singer-songwriters both — has had to deal with more pressing personal demons: as he put it at the 9:30 Club on Sunday night, "a continuing problem with incarceration and chemical dependency."
He meant it humorously, and it was taken so. But the joke barely masked the reality of disenchantment and self-destruction his songs leave in plain view. Earle, 28, was dressed like a Depression-era busker, nervously stalking center-stage as though basketball's three-second rule applied to microphones. Flanked by a violinist and an upright bassist, he served up delightfully time-warped rockabilly ("Move Over Mama") and country blues (Lightnin' Hopkins' "I Been Burning Bad Gasoline").
The proficient picking and fiddling gave way to moments of pin-drop quiet, as Earle unfurled confessional ballads like "Who Am I To Say," "Someday I'll Be Forgiven For This" and "Mama's Eyes," the latter offering a complete genetic picture of his mother's "long thin frame" and his father's penchant for hell-raising.
Not that mom (Carol-Ann Hunter) was meek: Earle — with his trademark admixture of pathos and farce — recounted that she once decked dad with a single punch that detached his retina. Musically, if not emotionally, Earle has staged a great escape. He's kept up a prolific pace, dropping three full-length albums in as many years, including most recently "Harlem River Blues."
A dexterous, old-fashioned Travis-style finger-picker with a love for Dust Bowl folk and postwar acoustic blues, Earle tends toward the formal in onstage couture. The look and sound add up to a tradition-bound pose — young hipster with an old soul. The juxtaposition worked beautifully on "One More Night in Brooklyn," a tale of dreary tenement living in Crown Heights. Earle delivered it with a combination of warmth and tartness that fans of Lyle Lovett have appreciated for years.
Earle wrapped his set with a drawling cover of the Paul Westerberg-penned classic "Can't Hardly Wait" — thereby invoking the name of another godfather with a history of occasional bad behavior.