Justin Townes Earle: Celebrate Brooklyn! 30 June 2011

Another great summer series for music, dance, spoken word and film is Celebrate Brooklyn!, which is held in Prospect Park. And you can’t get much better than seeing Justin Townes Earle for free.

I got there early hoping to score a good spot on the concrete or on the grass and it turned out they had seats set up – and I managed to get three seats in the third row right behind the reserved section (so 11 rows from the stage). I was very psyched. Before the show started I was standing and looking around and suddenly there’s Justin walking with his girlfriend and headed over to the ice cream cart. I didn’t even have to point and make him appear. No one seemed to notice him and I thought that was strange. They were just setting up the cart so he was doing his normal affectionate stuff with his girlfriend and waited patiently for about 10-15 minutes until they were ready to serve.

Both rtb and violaleeblue had after-work commitments so I didn’t know when either would be showing up. rtb got there in time to see some of the opening act and violaleeblue saw most of Justin’s set. The night (like so many this June) was perfect. Just warm enough with a breeze. Since the chairs are set up on the concrete we didn’t get the benefit of the trees but it was cool enough not to need them even when the sun was still out.

The Hackensaw Boys are from Charlottesville, Virginia and haven’t played Celebrate Brooklyn in 10 years and they looked thrilled to be at Prospect Park. Their music is punk bluegrass leaning more towards old-time music than modern music. On stage there was a mandolin, fiddle, acoustic bass, acoustic guitar, harmonica, banjo, drums, and a percussion instrument that seemed to be made of a hubcap with coffee cans wrapped around each other and hanging off the bottom. There were six musicians on stage but they list seven on their website and I’m not sure who was missing from last night. The musicians are Ward Harrison, Shawn Galbraith, Ferd Moyse, Jesse Fiske, Rob Bullington, Brian Gorby, and Justin Neuhardt. Each one of the guys I saw was talented and fun and a couple looked like they just walked off the set of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and they all sounded as if they did. This band charmed the pants off me.

I wasn’t familiar with The Punch Brothers but apparently a good portion of the crowd was there to see this local band. One of the things I liked a lot about The Punch Brothers and The Hackensaw Boys was that they didn’t use monitors. The musicians all stood close together and listened to each other and fed off each other. Although musically both bands were a great fit, sartorially they couldn’t be further apart. Where the Hackensaw Boys were jeans and flannel, the Punch Brothers were dress shirts, ties, and suits or suit vests with dress pants. The Punch Brothers bluegrass was closer to traditional and some of the songs were a lot of fun (“Rye Whiskey”) and others were too quiet and seemed to be trying too hard to be serious. I see that leader Chris Thile, who looks more like Jude Law than Jude Law does, (mandolin/vocals) has written a forty-minute suite in four movements that the band performed at Carnegie Hall. Sometimes I could see where they wanted to go but they didn’t always get there and the fun journey would end abruptly. The rest of the band is Gabe Witcher (fiddle/vocals), Noam Pikelny (banjo/vocals), Chris Eldridge (acoustic guitar/vocals), and Paul Kowert (acoustic bass/vocals). I liked the band didn’t love them as much as many in the crowd did. Their penultimate song was “Ophelia” and that did a lot to bring me to their side.

By the time Justin Townes Earle took the stage, some of the audience had left. I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t give the headliner a chance. I knew Justin could wow them. But then he didn’t. And more people started leaving. For the first part of his set Bryn Davies was again playing a kick-ass acoustic bass while in a pretty dress and high heels and on electric guitar, pedal steel, and dobro was newcomer Gerald (?) [maybe rtb caught/remembers his name – I can’t find it]. Paul Niehaus was playing guitar with Justin earlier this year in England. Josh Hedley is gone. And Cory Younts seems to have been long gone but rtb found a YouTube clip where Cory joined Justin on stage at a recent festival. We keep hoping for a real reunion. Because the first time I saw Justin, he and Cory took the stage, and started playing and everyone was blown away. This time Justin had to show the newcomer what to do and Justin was just strumming along. Justin didn’t show what he could do with an acoustic guitar until later in his set – he should have started with the playing that had people in Prospect Park loudly saying, ‘Holy shit!” Justin can play the guitar as if they’re two or three instruments – you’ll hear two guitars or guitar and a bass when he plays.

I’m still waiting for Justin to find a musician equal to Cory, who can keep up with him and blow us away. Not that I’m disappointed. I love Justin and I love his songs and his choice of covers and he always makes me happy. He could just make me happier.

Set List

With Bryn and Gerald

  • Ain’t Waitin’
  • They Killed John Henry
  • Ain’t Glad I’m Leavin’
  • Mama’s Eyes
  • One More Night in Brooklyn
  • Christchurch Woman
  • Move Over Mama
  • Wanderin’ (with Gerald only)
  • Solo acoustic

  • I Been Burning Bad Gasoline (Lightnin’ Hopkins cover)
  • Slippin’ and Slidin’
  • With Bryn and Gerald

  • South Georgia Sugar Babe
  • Learning to Cry
  • Walk Out
  • Can’t Hardly Wait (Mats cover – really miss Cory and his mandolin on this one)
  • Racing in the Streets (Springsteen cover)
  • Halfway to Jackson (this time Justin alone made his guitar sound like a train speeding along)
  • Midnight at the Movies
  • Harlem River Blues (brought out two female back-up singers)
  • Encore (solo acoustic)

  • (I don’t know what song this was – maybe new?)
  • Photos of the concert on Brooklyn Vegan

    By Carene Lydia Lopez