Savannah Music Festival Review: Justin Townes Earle

IT'S NOT easy to dominate a stage and captivate an audience when it's just you and your guitar. But Justin Townes Earle did just that Friday night at Ships of the Sea Museum, in a solo gig in preparation for an extensive tour with full band behind his new album.

Earle's distinctive, richly voluminous and expressive baritone was on fine display. Part of his talent is in mining the great Southern musical tradition without playing the coy or borderline culturally insensitive mimic; his voice is his own even when he pays homage to others.

Indeed, the highlight of the set for many were the deep-track covers he performed, spanning the gamut of Deep South tradition. An old tune from A. P. Carter, a blues classic by Lightnin' Hopkins, and a brilliant song by the underrated Malcolm Holcombe all made appearances.

He did play some new material from the new record, including the early-release single "Champagne Corolla." Truthfully it's hard to get a good picture of how the new tunes will fit into more full instrumentation.

Earle is captivating even when not playing, a trait he shares with his famous father Steve. With a quick, often acerbic wit, he tells hilarious stories between songs, usually drawing on his often-checkered life growing up in the South in a musical family.

(My two favorite lines: "I break out in handcuffs every now and then," and "Church ain't over 'til the snakes are back in the cage.")

Personally I was most impressed by his guitar work; Earle makes a capoed six-string sound like a 12-string. His unique finger-picking style enables him to play a full rhythm while embellishing with lead lines simultaneously, and it's a real treat to see and hear performed in person.

Unsurprisingly, the two biggest audience hits were indeed Earle's biggest hits, "Mama's Eyes," and "Harlem River Blues." If he's tired of playing them, it sure doesn't show.

The only problem with the show had nothing to do with Earle, but with the usual gaggle of entitled drinkers who insisted on talking to each other loudly nonstop during literally the entire set.

This rudeness is a problem in many Savannah performances, and the only answer unfortunately is for concert staff to be more assertive about protecting the rights of the majority of attendees who want to be respectful.

Hey idiots — donate that ticket money to charity and go to a bar next time. It's Savannah — we've got plenty of good ones to choose from.