Justin Townes Earle may be the son of Steve Earle and the namesake of Townes van Zandt, but his sound largely draws from an earlier era of roots music, heavy in country swing, bluegrass and group harmonies. He voice recalls hillbilly bandleaders in the era of live radio — a nasal, reedy tenor that cuts right through the speakers, and rides atop group vocals. Suggesting in the intro to one of his songs that he was a regular at a methadone clinic at age 15, Earle has aged prematurely; if there’s a touch of the epicene to his promo shots, on stage he looks skeletal, skin taut about his face, hair slicked back and a rictus implying both our impending doom and urging us to drink and enjoy the party.
Earle, accompanied on mandolin and banjo by Cory Younts and fiddle by Josh Hedley, with group vocals when necessary, played solo for about 40 minutes during two breaks for the band; the whole show clocked in at two hours with a three-song encore that seemed to have taken Younts by surprise and may have been inspired by the enthusiastic crowd (Earle mentioned that his record sales at shows are better in Indianapolis than in any other city). Really, all focus is on Earle, bent over his guitar as if ready to pounce, pushing the band or himself through his own material, old-time country and covers of van Zandt, the Replacements and Bill Monroe.
An hour of songwriters in the round preceding Earle featured locals Cliff Snyder and Mandy Marie along with Chicago’s Joe Pug.
Snyder, who also booked the show and organizes the Indianapolis Songwriter’s Café series, took his droit de seigneur to open. He sounds about 20 or 30 years older when he picks up a guitar and assumes a muted growl. The slow title track to his album Fool’s Highway sounds a bit soporific on record, but picks up energy live, and I’m always morbidly pleased when the first two songs by any singer are murder ballads.
With her teal guitar and white, Fender-style pickguard channelling rockabilly even in an acoustic setting, Mandy Marie said right from the top that she’s never played without her band before, and that she felt a bit lonely without a bassist by her side. She was also perhaps unnecessarily humble about her work; while her songs aren’t in the sometimes verbose style of classic folk narrative, they pay plenty of attention to detail (James Burton’s session work as shibboleth, a dial permanently turned to 650 AM for a country fan) and are occasionally hilarious, especially her last song, an attempt to blow off steam at every pretentious band that has ever treated and opener with contempt— just because you’re bigger than us doesn’t mean you have to act like a dick and fight over electrical outlets, basically. Cool Hand Luke staples like “Dresser Drawer Bible” worked about as well solo, if a little energy was lost.
Pug kind of stole the stage during the opening round; he seemed a little more energetic and comfortable with the solo setting than the two locals, and was invited back by Snyder for an encore. His songs, laden with agricultural and family imagery, rely a bit too heavily on tweaking clichés, but his delivery is flawless, seemingly earnest and emotive, with a strong, slightly skewed voice. “Bury Me Far (From My Uniform)” is an excellent and moving war song — the chorus “Bury me far from my uniform, so that God might remember my face” is chilling — and his “Hymn 101” is a terrific list song about all the things he’s come to this world to do.