Roots Rock Begins with a Bang at Landmark

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Justin Townes Earle and Carrie Rodriguez share an exhilarating double bill

justin-earle-600px-v3-ed6fdb080225671845887c8983095708The crowd at Landmark on Main Street got more than their money’s worth with the Saturday night Roots Rock double bill of Carrie Rodriguez and Justin Townes Earle. Roots Rock describes the influences of folk, blues and country on rock music, and this year Landmark on Main Street has teamed up with WFUV to create a Roots Rock series. This concert was the first in the series. (The next is The Holmes Brothers on April 10).

Rodriguez and Earle, who were only playing this one show as a double bill, have what I call the Townes Van Zandt connection. Van Zandt (1944-97), a country-folk singer-songwriter, influenced countless musicians including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Lyle Lovett, Norah Jones, and many others. Earle’s father, the well-known country musician Steve Earle, named his eldest son, Justin Townes, after Van Zandt, and Rodriguez’s father was once a keyboard player in Van Zandt’s band.

Rodriguez opened the show with a bang. Playing a tenor guitar (which has only four strings), and backed by a stand-up bass player and an outstanding guitarist/mandolin player, her voice was powerful and intense. She brought to mind Joan Osborne and Roseanne Cash, with a bit of the young Linda Rondstadt thrown in.

She played a 45-minute set, during the course of which she switched from guitar, to fiddle, to an Epiphone Mandobird – an unusual-looking electric mandolin. With two solo albums under her belt, and a new one — Love & Circumstance — coming out in April, Rodriguez’s work runs the gamut from Charlie Daniel’s-style country fiddling to bluesy folk to aching Spanish ballad.

But perhaps the best thing about Rodriguez and her two backup musicians was their sheer enthusiasm. Their performance wasn’t flawless — her Mandobird strap unhooked during a song, and her guitarist accidentally pulled out the cord to his amp during a solo — but they played with gusto and energy, and somehow their minor problems made their performance more authentic.

Earle was the real surprise. He was introduced by WFUV’s John Platt who noted that Earle had just been named one of the “25 most stylish men” by GQ Magazine. Hearing this, and never having seen Earle, I suppose I was expecting a Johnny Depp-type to appear on the stage. Instead, out shambled a Buddy Holly look alike, complete with high-water trousers, a skinny tie, and horn-rimmed glasses.

The tall and lanky performer greeted the audience with a thick Tennessee drawl, and launched (and I do mean launched) into his first song. Earle performed like a dynamo – hands flying on his acoustic guitar, effortlessly finger-picking as he sang his folksy blues numbers at top speed. He ended each number with “Thank yah now folks, thank yah,” and almost immediately began his next song.

As he sang, he shuffled in circles on the balls of his feet, periodically stomping a foot explosively on the stage. At the end of each song, he would stumble backwards on his heels, coming frighteningly close, I thought, to toppling over. It was like watching a demented crane performing a mating ritual – you couldn’t take your eyes off of him. He played non-stop for an hour, periodically talking about his “mama” in Tennessee, his musical influences, and the songs he’d written with the intent of making girlfriends cry.

His voice brought to mind Elvis, Johnny Cash and Buddy Holly, combined with the slightly nasal twang of traditional Tennessee folk performers. In his whirlwind hour on stage, Earle performed 20 songs, ranging from bluegrass, to swing, to spiritual, to honky-tonk. It was a marvelous and captivating performance – an evening well spent.

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