Review by Seth Rogovoy
Photography by Sabina Curti
(HUDSON, N.Y.) – With so many different and varied influences flowing through his veins, musical and otherwise, Justin Townes Earle is bound to produce a unique blend. But rather than anything being watered down, it’s like everything is heightened in his hands and voice – the blues are bluesier, the urban is grittier, the Texas has more drawl, the country has more twang, and, perhaps most significantly, the female side of him has primacy over all.
Earle, the son of Steve Earle, paid tribute to all his influences, including his father but most prominently his mother, throughout his concert at Club Helsinki Hudson on Thursday, March 20. And not only his mother – through her influence, he was exposed to a slew of female singers, including Billie Holiday, who cast a deep spell over his performance.
“It’s all composite characters,” Earle said at one point, in answer to the perennial questions about how he can write so seemingly vividly about his parents. “But still, aimed at certain people,” went the punch line, before launching into another number presumably wrestling with the legacy of his dad (in a song that, oddly, was mostly about his mom, or so it seemed).
Earle offered a selection of original tunes, including a new one with the intriguing line, “She may be pretty, but someday I’ll get sick of her shit.” He was an affable, eccentric entertainer as well as a virtuoso guitarist, equally adapt at ragtime fingerpicking and blues.
Speaking of virtuoso guitar playing, it doesn’t get much better than Natalia Zukerman in that department. Zukerman, a folk-rock singer-songwriter from Brooklyn, warmed up the crowd for Earle with her own brilliantly drawn compositions, accompanying herself like a one-person chamber group, making full use of the panoply of guitar techniques including hammer ons, drone notes, slide, and harmonics, as well as her own seemingly effortless fingerpicking.
In addition to playing a few numbers off her most recent studio album, the terrific “Gas Station Roses,” including the title track, Zukerman debuted a few newer numbers, including one about the Toulouse-Lautrec model Jane Avril, who has a dancer was the inventor of the Can-Can – a jazzy tune that featured a little scat singing, a little bit of French lyrics, and the immortal phrase, “Yes you can-can Jane Avril.”
Zukerman also debuted “I Don’t Feel It Anymore,” a song co-written with Erin McKeown about how youthful passions fade, but which featured Zukerman at her vocal best, the melody prompting her to soar, drawing upon her natural vibrato in territory probably markedly close to where she leaves off and her opera-singing sister picks up.
It was a great evening of original roots-based music by two rising stars, the sort of program for which Helsinki Hudson has come to be renowned.