Live Review: Justin Townes Earle headlines an evening of heartbreak and honky tonk at the Fremantle Festival

Friday night saw the 2017 Fremantle Festival kick off, with events taking place in venues across the port city. Helping kick off proceedings, and taking over the Fremantle Town Hall, were American ‘country’ musicians Justin Townes Earle and Joshua Hedley, as well as local talent Ruby Boots. It also happened to be the last night of their Australian tour, and whilst there might not have been many impromptu collaborations or hijinks, the crowd were still treated to some wonderful performances and a plethora of sad songs.

According to Joshua Hedley, “You can’t be a country singer unless you sparkle”, but even without sartorial sparkles its pretty clear that Hedley has the chops. Kicking things off with ‘Weird Thought Thinker’ Hedley peppered his set with plenty of new songs, some even as newly penned as this current tour. Australia it seems is good source of inspiration. A regular fixture playing for tips at Nashville institution Robert’s Western World, and a near lifetime of performing, has left Hedley perfectly comfortable on stage, and particularly adept at winning an audience over. Indeed his wit, dead-pan delivery, and collection of sad songs quickly had the audiences attention.

A relatively recent addition to Jack White’s Third Man Records, Hedley road tested a couple of tracks of his forthcoming record, with “Mr Jukebox” one of the best. The audience were also treated to a wonderful cover of Hank Williams Jr.’s “Old Habits”. Hedley has been a bit of a regular visitor to our shores of late, but it’s always great to have him back, and I can’t wait for his record to drop early next year.

Speaking of which, it’s always a pleasure having Ruby Boots back in town. It’s been a busy year or two for the country/blues/rock singer-songwriter, having decamped to Nashville, toured the US pretty extensively and signed with Chicago-based Bloodshot Records. With a new record out in February, and a new single dropping that night, there was plenty of new material on show, with ‘Infatuation’, a track inspired by Chilcott’s experience with a stalker, and “So Cool”, being just two of the set’s many highlights.

A particular stand-out moment was an a cappella rendition of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” with the audience joining in on the final chorus to great affect. Backed by a three piece band, Chilcott’s vocals did occasionally get a little overwhelmed in the mix. The band certainly got into a groove though, sounding particularly great on Solitude tracks, “Middle of Nowhere” and “Wrapped in a Fever”.

 

It was six years and four records ago that I last saw Justin Townes Earle live. He’d not long released Harlem River Blues, and was playing Mojo’s in Fremantle. Joshua Hedley was on the bill back then too – albeit accompanying Earle on the fiddle. An impressive talent even back then, Earle has matured further as a performer and songwriter. Accompanied this time around by Paul Niehaus on electric guitar and pedal steel, Earle kicked things off with “Maybe A Moment”, from new record Kids in the Street, before treating the packed crowd to a selection of songs plucked from across his career, reaching as far back as 2009’s Midnight At The Movies. Whilst Earle might have a new record to promote, he seemed happy to delve into the catalogue with tracks from Harlem River Blues and Midnight seeming to dominate the setlist; not that the crowd were complaining.

Many of the songs were introduced by way of dry asides or short anecdotes, “They Killed John Henry”, for example, was prefaced with a story about his grandfather. “What’s She Crying For” came with its own hillbilly lexical explanation. Indeed, much of the night was peppered with little tidbits about hillbilly culture and idiosyncrasies. If you weren’t already aware, the evening’s set made it pretty clear Earle knows how to tell a story, and definitely how to write a great song – heartbreaking and sad or otherwise. Performed in a stripped-back style, with only Niehaus for accompaniment, Earle had nowhere to hide, and certainly wasn’t found lacking, with the stripped back delivery only highlighted the emotional quality of his songs.

It was a performance high on highlights, with “Memphis in the Rain” and “White Gardenias” being two personal favourites. Given Earle’s self declared colourful history, his PSA about the drug epidemics in the U.S. and Australia, and his plea that we ask the ‘right’ questions, proved a powerful moment. An encore of “Harlem River Blues” brought a wonderful evening of heartbreak, honky tonk and properly good ‘country’ music to a close. Hopefully it  won’t be another six years wait before I get the chance to see Earle live once more.