“Don’t start telling me what to do,” Justin Townes Earle cautioned to a patron barking out song requests Friday night at Buster’s. “I’ve got this thing under control.”
The celebrated songsmith was true to his word. During a brisk 90-minute set – his first headlining gig in Lexington in more than a decade – Earle both played to and against expectations with unassuming authority.
To those who view Earle as an alt-country or Americana artist – a guilt-by-association tag he can’t help but bear as the son of Steve Earle – there were tunes that skirted with country tradition, such as the pedal steel-saturated Midnight at the Movies and the familial meditation Mama’s Eyes. The latter was one of two songs last night (Am I That Lonely Tonight? was the other) to reference Earle’s famous dad (“I am my father’s son. I’ve never known when to shut up.”).
But the more Earle stirred the stylistic pot, using country inspirations as components rather than foundations for his songs, the more playful and intriguing the performance became. A wonderful case in point was Baby’s Got a Bad Idea, one of several works highlighted from Earle’s recent Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now album. The song was a ripe, roots-savvy excursion that emerged from a rural country framework but was driven by a pure rock ’n’ roll charge. The resulting music sounded like a cross between Faron Young and T. Rex.
When Earle strayed completely from country-related turf, you heard a voice with a clear pop vision – or at least you did when the show’s muddy sound mix wasn’t making the songsmith sound as if he was singing underwater.
During the cleaner moments, stylists like Ryan Adams (in his lighter, less Americana-inclined songs) and even Josh Rouse came to mind. But a pop star Earle is not. The wily thematic depth of One More Night in Brooklyn and especially Harlem River Blues – not to mention an especially crafty choice of cover material served as encores (Billy Joe Shaver’s Georgia on a Fast Train, The Replacements’ Can’t Hardly Wait) – placed Earle very much in a musical camp of his own restless design.