Double Decker Arts Festival 2011: Justin Townes Earle
"I've been told I'm a hard dog to keep under the porch." Justin Townes Earle grins at the crowd, then hits the punchline: "That was by my dad." Then, in an aside that works as the explanation for those outside the joke and a second punchline for those of us who were inside, Mr. Earle adds: "He's been married 8 times." Someone in crowd suggests it is really 7 times but that's beside the point - after 5 or 6, who's counting?
The clouds are out in Oxford, Mississippi on Saturday afternoon, keeping the day from morphing directly from late April to mid-August. There's a large crowd at the 16th take on the Double Decker Arts Festival, which is situated on and just off the Oxford Square. I'm not an Oxford person (in Mississippi, you either are or you aren't and it goes back to college loyalties) but it is hard to find anything but good about the town during Double Decker, which not only has two stages of music, but also has a very large collection of arts/crafts in booths set up all around the Square. Oxford's Square still has the facade of an old-fashioned county-seat square, but it's really a modern Disney World for adults, filled with good restaurants, high-end boutiques, and condos. Those lucky enough to have a place on or near the Square are out on their balconies today, hosting parties. All this gives you the feel of being in a very large three-dimensional throwdown as you stroll around during the festival.
Justin Townes Earle is playing on the North Stage, which is a couple of blocks off the Square. A modest portion of the festival crowd is there at the beginning of his show, so we're able to take up a position just a few feet from the stage while he plays. The show is a restrained, workmanlike, hour-long set. Mr. Earle narrates the whole way through in his white shirt, skinny jeans and straw hat. He tells stories of his mom, his dad and his grandparents as he introduces songs. One of the best is Mama's Eyes, his song that starts out, "I am my father's son, I've never known when to shut up . . ." Here's a nice video of that tune, in case you aren't familiar with it:
Mr. Earle is accompanied during Saturday's show by two excellent musicians. Bryn Davies is on the stand up bass, giving the impression that she can play anything she wants to play anytime she wants to play it and will, on her terms. She doesn't sing a lot, but when she does join in it is a sweet sound. Josh Hedley is on the fiddle and wears it out while singing most of the harmonies with Mr. Earle. Mr. Hedley shows his stuff on several songs, including Halfway To Jackson, a nice little train song.
In the middle, Mr. Earle plays a couple by himself. He tells us that Townes Van Zandt said that there should be blues song in every set, then does a Lightnin' Hopkins tune, Automobile Blues, after lecturing the crowd a bit on the need to know about Hopkins and Van Zandt. His guitar work is good. Only distraction is a rhythm loop he uses when playing by himself, but once I figure out what's going on, it sounds good. [Or that I thought he used - see comments/convo below.]
The set closes out with Harlem River Blues:
Lord I'm going uptown
To the Harlem River to drown
Dirty water gonna cover me over
And I'm not gonna make a sound
The crowd, which had grown quite a bit during the show, is completely on board by the time Mr. Earle finishes Harlem River. His old fans are smiling and you can tell there are several in the crowd that have some business to take care of on iTunes in the next day or so. Nice show.