In full disclosure, I wasn’t completely sure what to expect Monday night at the Tower Theater in Oklahoma City. After all, it had been several years since I last saw Justin Townes Earle. And though I had a basic familiarity with Lydia Loveless material, seeing her live would be my true introduction. So, although I didn’t really know what to expect, I can tell you what I got. And that is one of the most memorable concert experiences of the year.
Taking the stage promptly at 9pm, Justin Townes Earle immediately recognized Lydia Loveless for her opening set, and repeated his admiration multiple times the rest of the evening. Almost immediately, as he began tuning up, the mostly good-natured banter back and forth with the audience began. It seems that there is a degree of encouraged audience participation at a JTE show. As if he plainly anticipates what is about to happen, Earle is quick to preface much of his commentary with “I don’t mean to offend”, or “I am an Earle”. This type of banter touched on a miscellany of topics, ranging from Baptists, Memphis BBQ, punk, Billy Graham and fried bologna sandwiches. But it was quickly proven that Earle is not one to push too far. In reply to one audience member’s suggestion that he should “go home”, Earle replied directly, and succinctly, letting it be known that he was the performer, and it was his stage for the night.
Playing only his Recording King parlor guitar, his ability to play like he was playing multiple instruments was evident, as his songs and the storied introductions really shone. With no predetermined set list, and letting the audience know that the need to yell out a request was a sure way to ensure that song wasn’t played, Earle opened his set with “Nothing’s Going To Change The Way You Feel About Me Now”, and then jumped into new material with “What’s She Crying For” from his seventh album, Kids In The Street from New West Records.
It’s no wonder that JTE is deeply knowledgeable in musical history, considering his family name and those he grew up around, in particular his namesake, Townes Van Zandt. With that said, it was no surprise that he was able to dive into a couple of acoustic blues covers from the legendary Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins, with “So Different Blues” and “Automobile Blues” respectively. Family is a common topic in Earle’s music, and this was evident in his renditions of “My Mama’s Eyes” and “They Killed John Henry,” a song for his grandfather. One of my favorite songs of the evening was a stunningly beautiful “Rogers Park”, with an accompanying tale of his brief time spent in Chicago.
In my opinion, the best portion of the evening followed. Making it clear that what he was about to discuss was of great importance, Earle addressed the opiod crisis in our country. Declaring this the only portion of the night that he was truly being serious, he addressed how opiods have impacted so many, and that we all know someone dealing with the drugs. This clearly was something that is meaningful and personal for him. Encouraging the audience to not judge those affected, but rather ask, “Why do you hurt?”
While that question, “Why do you hurt?” lingered over the silent Tower Theater, Earle slipped into “White Gardenias” a song about his favorite singer Billie Holiday, who had her own well known struggles with opiates. It was an incredibly moving portion of the show, and my personal favorite. As Earle’s set winded down, we were also treated to a wonderful “Brooklyn” and the generous gospel feel of “Harlem River Blues”. The set went by far too quickly, and definitely left many of us wanting more.
With her opening set, Lydia Loveless notched her belt with her first show on tour with Justin Townes Earle. And no, perhaps because it would have been far too obvious, she didn’t play her song “Steve Earle.” Instead, we got a nine song set with one audience request thrown in that spanned nearly every album in her Bloodshot Records catalog. Also playing a solo acoustic set, Loveless wasted no time launching into her opening “Say My Name.” The between song banter seemed to create a bit of nervousness, but she’s downright funny in her dialog. Introducing her song “Bilbao,” she declared that she was in the midst of a divorce, and that well, “everyone should get at least one.” And before “Same To You,” she discussed the merits of her first real bus tour over her previous van tours, and the fact that she doesn’t write her own set lists. Rather, a band mate composes them despite not being there. So, kudos to whoever is writing them, as it was masterfully done. The one addition was “Midwestern Guys”, an audience request that came somewhat shockingly, from a distinguished, older woman. If you don’t see the humor in this, I recommend taking a look at the lyrics of the song.
So, in closing, Lydia Loveless and Justin Townes Earle accomplished something special last Monday night. Armed only with acoustic guitars, deeply personal songs and just the right amount of humor, they captured an audience and left them stunned, And, they did so with such absolute ease it seems.
Justin Townes Earle continues his solo tour into October with Lydia Loveless sharing the bill through June 16th. Catch the show if you can. Tour dates, here. https://www.justintownesearle.com/ For our earlier show review of Lycia Loveless, click any of these bolded words here.