Usually when festivals come around, the most exciting thing about them is the pick up gigs bands make around them. With Bottle Rock’s inaugural outing this year, we were lucky enough to score a solid double bill Steve Earle’s song Justin Townes Earle and North Carolina songwriter Tift Merritt. To make the show even more special, the two acts on the bill opted to play a stripped down set. Just voice, guitar, and a single accompanist. Put that into one of the most acoustically perfect venues in San Francisco, and you have a night out.
So, with the show starting about an hour or so behind schedule, as well the acts seemingly newly stripped down, Tift Merritt had an uphill battle to fight. The stage was empty save for herself and her peddle steel player that occasionally strapped on a six string. The crowd had already witnessed her sound check, and seemed to be less than enthused by the wait. Merritt was in excellent voice and spirits, however, and played a fine set of recent material. The back of the room, however, wasn’t feeling it. They kept talking. And talking. And it kept getting louder and louder. Now, Merritt is a professional, so tried not let it get to her. But after 20 some odd minutes off incessant chatter, she decided she couldn’t deal with it and needed to show the back of the room who the boss is. Did she do this by turning it up? No. She stepped in front of her mic, unplugged her guitar, and proceeded to inform the crowd that she was doing a song without amplification. So you better be quiet, or else you really won’t hear anything. The she sang Tom Wait’s “Take It With Me.” The crowd was rapt with attention. And, from this point on, everyone was focused on Merritt. Each beautiful, heart breaking note was the focus of the capacity crowd. I’m sure the crowd was quite upset that they didn’t start paying attention earlier.
Justin Townes Earle, however, didn’t need to work quite so hard to command the crowd. He simply exuded cool from the moment he stepped on stage. He strapped on his acoustic guitar and fingered picked his way through some of the most impressive acoustic blues I have ever heard. His stage presence is very, very different from his Father’s. Unlike Steve Earle, whose live show is pretty stone serious, the younger Earle played things loose and a bit silly. He was accompanied by an electric guitarist/peddle steel player, barely relied on a set list, and, most importantly, looked like he was having the best possible time ever.
To be totally honest, I’m not overly familiar with Justin Townes Earle’s work. It wasn’t necessary to know the songs in order to enjoy the set. The music was fantastic. However, even better was his banter. Every word out of his mouth was dry and honest, and at times hysterical. His stream of conscious wit was brilliant, beginning to the very first words out of his mouth. Those words were in regards to his performance at Bottle Rock earlier that day were “I don’t understand why anybody would go to a (music) festival. Those things are terrible.” When giving life advice? “It’s fun to do random things that you like. Tonight I’m going to play with my pants off.” In terms of songwriting advice? He offered up two fine piece of wisdom: “When your man or woman leaves you, don’t write a song for two weeks. It will be shit.” “Never write a song with someone’s name. It gets weird when you start dating somebody.” Of course, when he intro’d “Harlem River Blues,” he talked about his friends that would swim in the river. He mentioned that the Harlem River has “tested positive for syphilis.”
Justin Townes Earle puts on one amazing show.