Justin Townes Earle really delivered Saturday night (Sept. 18) at Lincoln Hall, singing his smart original songs and some well-chosen covers with a strong voice and a raconteur’s flair. It was a great performance from beginning to end by a musician who can hold his own on the stage with nothing more than his voice, his acoustic guitar and his wit.
But the concert also came with some disturbing news about an incident two nights earlier in Indianapolis. I hadn’t heard anything about it until Saturday night (and I got the impression that many others in the audience were similarly unaware of the news), but Earle was arrested after his show in Indy. At several points during the Chicago show, Earle mentioned that he’d just spent a night in jail. He said his wrists were still chafing from the handcuffs. But when an audience member asked him what had happened, he wouldn’t get into details.
According to a report on the American Songwriter website, Earle was arrested and charged with battery, public intoxication and resisting law enforcement after his Sept. 16 gig at the Indianapolis club Radio Radio. “Earle, who had complained about the sound during the show, allegedly became incensed after the audience heckled him,” the website reports. “According to reports, Earle is accused of destroying equipment backstage and punching the club owner’s daughter.”
The websites My Old Kentucky Blog and Saving Country Music also described the concert and its aftermath. Audience members and Earle reportedly got into a belligerent exchange during the show, and someone in the audience threw a shirt that landed on Earle’s guitar in the middle of a song.
On Saturday night, Earle sounded defiant about what had happened, blaming the owner of the Indianapolis club for his arrest and criticizing the treatment he’d received from the police in Indiana. When Earle played some covers in the middle of his Chicago set, someone in the crowd shouted at that lamest of concert remarks, “Free Bird!” As it happens, one of the contentious moments in Indianapolis occurred when an audience members yelled “Free Bird,” and Earle reportedly responded, “Fuck ‘Free Bird.’ I fucking hate Lynyrd Skynyrd.” In Chicago, when that oh-so-predictable song request rang out once again, Earle said, “Don’t act like Indianapolis did. That’s what got me locked up.”
On Saturday, Earle was actually quite well-behaved, constantly referring to the audience as “ladies and gentlemen” in his Southern drawl. Whatever happened in Indianapolis, he mellowed out by the time he reached Chicago. But as Earle wryly remarked, “We’ve had an eventful tour so far.”
Saturday’s show also featured a pleasant opening set by singer-songwriter Jessica Lea Mayfield. When Earle took the stage, he said he was feeling under the weather — possibly because of his overnight stay in that jail cell — but it didn’t seem to affect his singing. “I’ve got a bit of a sore throat, but I’m going to sing my ass off,” he promised — and that’s just what he did.
Midway through Saturday’s show, Earle’s violinist, Josh Hedley, broke a string and was unable to continue performing — leaving Earle to perform alone for the rest of the set. Earle performed many of the songs from his new album, Harlem River Blues, a solid collection of alt-country songs with full band arrangements in diverse styles. Notably, one of them, “Rogers Park,” is about Chicago, drawing on Earle’s memories of the gritty neighborhoods where he lived as a teen. “I lived in Pilsen for a little while, and I lived in East Rogers Park,” he said Saturday, indicating that not all of his memories were pleasant. “In ’99? Hell no.”
As good as Earle’s own songs are, the concert was also memorable because of the great covers he played: The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait” (which he introduced as a “country and Westerberg” song), Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Bad Gasoline,” Mance Lipscomb’s “So Different Blues” and Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927.” For that classic song, Earle laid his guitar down on the stage and bravely sang it a cappella, all by himself. The crowd inside Lincoln Hall barely made a noise, other than a few whoops of appreciation, as Earle sang out: “Louisiana! Louisiana! They’re tryin’ to wash us away!” It was a stunning and powerful moment of music-making by one very talented guy. Now, let’s hope the rest of his tour (and career) aren’t eventful in the same way as his visit to Indianapolis.
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UPDATE, Sept. 23, 2010: Earle’s website posted this news yesterday: “Justin Townes Earle has decided to suspend the remaining dates on his tour and enter a rehabilitation facility. Earle is strongly committed to confronting his on-going struggle with addiction and thanks his family, friends and fans for their continued support through this difficult time.”
PHOTOS OF JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE