8.5 out of 10: Melancholy twang done authentically
Tonight belongs to the charismatic and bespectacled; tonight is a night of loving homage tinctured by tongue in cheek.
Henry from Wagons and Justin Townes Earle are gregarious performers with charmingly nerdy exteriors. Their magnetic stage presences fill the capacious Thornbury Theatre despite the tables and chairs set out for diners that makes the sold-out show seem sparsely populated. Resplendent in their coiffs, Nashville shirts and rockabilly tattoos, the crowd is appreciative of Wagons and Earle, both of whom revel in the melodrama, melancholy and mirth of the musical heritage they draw from.
Wagons warm up the chilly night admirably. As always, Henry Wagons’s sultry baritone and the band’s jauntiness are a sheer delight heard live, while the almost vaudevillian nature of their show — Henry’s comedic songs and between-song banter are that good — is happily entertaining.
Wagons’s departure brings Earle sauntering almost goofily onto the stage, spectacles thickly rimmed and large, hair neatly arranged, his build as thin as the stick figures drawn playing Pictionary. He looks like a physicist from the 1950s, yet he’s the son of the legendarily hard-livin’ Steve Earle and was named after the more subdued musical drug abuser in Townes Van Zandt.
There’s no need to second guess Earle‘s Nashvile roots. His guitar and voice effortlessly evoke the Southern way of life with his impeccable renditions of the Southern way of cataloguing its ups and downs. Earle sings mostly from his latest two albums. Midnight at the Movies is a maudlin highlight, as is the achingly good Mama’s Eyes. The honky-tonk of What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome sets people a-toe-tappin’, and a cover of Buck Owens’s Close Up the Honky-Tonks in the encore is hilariously good.
Although he plays solo, Earle manages to create a full sound from his guitar that oftentimes sound like two, so well does his dexterous finger-picking capture a rhythm and a lead. His heavy stomps of the stage add an occasional earthy accent to proceedings, while the quality of his honeyed voice, naturally Southern as it is, rings resonantly true.
Earle, however, is short-changed by a muddy vocal mix that makes his lyrics difficult to comprehend at times. And without the diverting tale-telling for amusement, the lack of musical variety in Earle‘s solo performance allows one’s attention to drift.
Be that as it may, Earle wins the night, affably, gracefully, naturally, all the while demonstrating the richness of country music’s traditions.