Monday, September 22, 2014

Justin Townes Earle & American Aquarium at the Carolina Theatre

On paper, the bill of Justin Towne Earle and American Aquarium at the Carolina Theatre in Durham is as strong as they come. One of the Triangle’s most beautiful venues hosting two of the more prolific country and Americana song writers. While the show had its moments, it was hard to overlook poor sound and a restless crowd.

American Aquarium are used to playing bars and managing a rowdy set of fans. Front man BJ Barham remarked that the Carolina was the nicest place they’ve ever played. They even put on button up shirts and jeans for the occasion.

“We were back in the green room and the announcer came on, ‘American Aquarium you’re on in five minutes’ and I thought, we finally made it,” Barham told the crowd.

To take advantage of the room, the band left their rowdier songs off the set list and focused on ballads and new songs off of their upcoming album, Wolves. The new songs set themselves apart from American Aquarium’s previous material. “The Man I’m Supposed to Be” and “Family Problems” sound incredibly personal and start to distance Barham from the more generic sad, white male rock and roll tropes.

The crowd was a mix of older Carolina Theatre patrons and younger American Aquarium fans. There seemed to be some restlessness in both groups with the older patrons eager to see Earle’s more traditional country and the younger fans unsure of how to react to a toned down American Aquarium.

Justin Townes Earle played with his full band Saturday night, which includes the awesome Paul Niehaus on guitar and pedal steel.

Earle is a compelling performer because he’s imperfect. His banter is often off kilter and creates open pauses that cause jokes to fall flat, but then he touches on a topic that means a lot to him – like his narrow definition of country music and the importance of the blues in it – and his passion shows through. In a way, it doesn’t feel like Earle is performing. It just feels like he’s himself, warts and all.

Earle cranked through a 19 song set that drew a lot on his latest records, Single Mothers and Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now, but he peppered it with older tracks and opened with “Call Your Mama,” a track that did not make the cut on his newest album.

Unfortunately, much of the set was marred by a surprisingly chatty crowd. For a seated show, it was completely disrespectful and it only got worse when one man decided he’d had it and incessantly shushed the crowded as loud as he could.

The root of the problem was likely the loud bass. On the quieter songs with little bass guitar and bass drum, it sounded fine, but as soon as the dynamics rose to about mezzo forte, the bass trampled everything else. Earle slips and slides around his vocals so he already requires close listening. With the bass stampeding through, it was impossible to enjoy the lyrics.

The highlight of the set was Earle’s solo rendition of “Harlem River Blues” to open his encore. The show could have ended there on a good note and my memories of it would be better, but instead Earle brought his band back out to cover Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” which was an nearly unrecognizable mess thanks to the bass again.

American Aquarium set list
The Man I’m Supposed to Be (new song)
City Lights
Southern Sadness (new song)
Lonely Ain’t Easy
Wolves (new song)
Family Problems (new song)
Harmless Sparks

Justin Townes Earle set list
Call Your Mama (unreleased)
Ain’t Waitin’
When The One You Love Loses Faith in You
Single Mothers
Mama’s Eyes
Ain’t Glad I’m Leavin’
Someday I’ll Be Forgiven For This
Worried Bout the Weather
Memphis in the Rain
My Baby Drives
Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now
Burning Pictures
White Gardenias
Midnight at the Movies
Down on the Lower East Side
Time Shows Fools
Today and a Lonely Night
Harlem River Blues (solo)
Dreams (Fleetwood Mac cover)

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