Playing support to a much-loved figure can be a daunting task, but Texan singer-songwriter Robert Ellis makes it look easy.
Blessed with a full room to work with and a level of engagement that most opening acts can only aspire to, he looks relaxed from the start.
A chatty figure, his claim that he needs a comedian to do his banter seems more inspired by modesty than any discomfort.
Playing mostly material from his latest LP, Photographs, his earnest lyrics and finger picking guitar are matched to good effect on confessional fare like ‘Only Lies’ and ‘Two Cans of Paint’, the latter of which recounts setting up a new home and see the task as equally exciting and daunting.
‘The TV Song’ is also entertaining, looking at a healthy obsession for channel surfing and gets roars of approval for its Mad Men reference: “Betty Draper / I wish my wife was less like you”.
Like much of the best country music, Ellis’ songs are lyrically direct, aiming more at making a straightforward connection than seeking to veil meaning behind allusion.
‘No Fun’ introduced as a “cheatin’ song” and “one for anyone who likes a bit of speed… in their music;” its honky-tonk feel and sped-up delivery push it towards novelty song territory, but it gets the biggest response of a well-received set.
The title track to his new record ‘Photographs’ also shows a fear of being cuckolded but is a far more reflective affair. It caps a set that doubtless won Ellis – in Australia for the first time – more than a few new fans.
With space at a premium and the temperature seemingly rising, the wait for Justin Townes Earle to appear is mercifully short.
A lanky figure in a travelling salesman suit and dishevelled hair, he begins with the beautifully wistful Americana of ‘Memphis in the Rain’, which features evocative, fragmented lyrics of travelling cross country on the vague promise of a job and “lookin’ for a girl without a name.”
More spirited Americana follows with ‘They Killed John Henry’ which features early in the set, apparently out of habit.
He explains playing the song at a reasonable hour is necessary to appease his mother, who likes to surprise her son by appearing unannounced down the front of his shows, but also enjoys an early night. Even on the other side of the world from his adopted home in New York, he’s not prepared to take any chances.
It’s one of a few references throughout the night to his family – he later dedicates a song to his mother, a small token of thanks that he explains is in order as neither he nor his father, legendary alt-country hellraiser Steve Earle, were remotely easy people to live with.
One of the best things about a Justin Townes Earle show is how he introduces each song and how it was written, giving you fresh insight and new perspectives on his work.
The Woody Guthrie influence on ‘Wandering’ for instance, seems obvious once he’s mentioned it, while ‘Maria’ seems more complicated after hearing how he gave his current girlfriend (not called Maria) a stuttering explanation to her most reasonable question “Who the fuck is Maria?”
Similarly, introducing the awesomely world-weary ‘One More Night In Brooklyn’ as an ode to bad decision making and being written in “one of the worst apartments I’ve lived in as a sober adult,” adds context to the song’s mood of disconnection and ambivalence.
The stomping ‘Halfway To Jackson’ is a change of pace, seeing Earle in a more raucous mood, while the restless ‘Movin’ On’ (“Well I woke up wondering / like I always do”) is one of many songs that tip their hat to Bruce Springsteen circa Nebraska.
Responding to a fan request for a particular song, Earle says with a sigh “Oh, I’m just gonna go ahead and do what I wanna do.” The crowd are unmistakably on his side after this reply and even more agreeable when it turns out what he wants to do is ‘Harlem River Blues’; the most gleeful look at self-destruction this side of The Mountain Goats’ ‘No Children’.
It sees the audience join in on a full-throated sing-along “Dirty river’s gonna cover me over and I’m not gonna make a sound.”
An artist true to his own muse, Earle may not be one to honour requests, but on a deeper, more cathartic level, he’s the very best kind of crowd pleaser.