Justin Townes Earle made his debut as a First Avenue headliner last night. / Photo by Leslie Plesser

Justin Townes Earle made his debut as a First Avenue headliner last night. / Photo by Leslie Plesser


It might’ve been his newfound sobriety (or re-found?), his complaints of fighting a cold (“I’m all hopped on Vitamin B tonight,” he warned), or maybe just the downside of spending Valentine’s Day on the road. Either way, Justin Townes Earle came off mellower and bluer Monday night at First Avenue than he has in other recent shows. Which wasn’t altogether a bad thing.

Some of the 29-year-old Tennessean tunesmith's more swinging, rowdier tunes lagged a bit in tempo and energy, including “Ain’t Waiting,” “South Georgia Sugar Babe,” and the pre-encore closer “Harlem River Blues.” However, many of the slower and more introspective numbers sounded extra tender and hearty, sometimes bringing the two-thirds-full crowd to a mesmerized, near-quiet state. Among the latter tunes were “Learning to Cry,” “Someday I’ll Be Forgiven For This,” a new song called “Won’t Be the Last Time” and “Mama’s Eyes.”

That’s not to say the show was a downer. Several of the most uptempo songs certainly did fly, especially the Lightnin’ Hopkins cover (which also showed off Earle’s finger-picking guitar-playing talent) and “Halfway to Jackson,” the latter buoyed by his two bandmates, fiddler Josh Hedley and standup bassist Bryn Davies. Earle also had a lively story before just about every song, his humor and candor disarming the tunes’ darker sides. He softened the empathy for his mom in “Mama’s Eyes” by pointing out that she was over 6-feet tall and had a long reach that his dad often felt. “She once dislocated his retina,” he said. And when somebody yelled out a request for “Can’t Hardly Wait” (the Replacements song featured on his 2009 album “Midnight at the Movies), Earle quipped, “Do you really think I’m not going to play that here?!” Here’s the whole set list.

Move Over Mama / They Killed John Henry / I Don’t Care / Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving / Mama’s Eyes / One More Night in Brooklyn / Ain’t Waiting / Christchurch Woman / Wanderin’ (start of solo set) / Slippin’ & Slidin’ / I Been Burning Bad Gasoline (Lightning Hopkins cover) / Won’t Be the Last Time (new song) / South Georgia Sugar Babe (bandmates return) / Someday I’ll Be Forgiven For This / Halfway to Jackson / Midnight at the Movies / Learning to Cry / I Won’t Cry When You Walk Out on Me / Harlem River Blues     ENCORE: Racing in the Street (Springsteen cover) / Can’t Hardly Wait (Replacements cover)

Click here for Leslie Plesser's photo gallery from the show.

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