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Justin Townes Earl, Felice Brothers pairing makes for memorable music

IOTA's Club, Arlington, Va., April 18, 2008

Reviewed by Greg Yost

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The red-brick walls of the intimate club provided an ideal setting for an evening of diverse roots rock sounds as two of the hottest young acts in Americana music, Justin Townes Earle and The Felice Brothers, hit the Washington, D.C. region.

Following a nice set of mid-tempo folk rock tunes from the Nebraska-based band McCarthy Trenching that was reminiscent of Arlo Guthrie's best moments from the '70s, Earle took the stage in front of the packed crowd. Tall and skinny and decked out in a sequin-accented dark suit with his hair slicked back, Earle resembled the legendary performers from the early days of the Grand Ole Opry in both his look and his sound.

Accompanied only by Corey Younts, a talented multi-instrumentalist, Earle immediately cut through the considerable crowd noise with a galloping rendition of "Hard Livin'," the first track on his debut full-length release, "The Good Life." From that point forward, he had the full attention of the audience and rewarded them with a solid set of his self-described "hillbilly music." Album tracks like "Who Am I to Say" and "South Georgia Sugar Babe" highlighted Earle's songwriting ability while a cover of the traditional "Chittlin' Cookin' Time in Cheatham County" was one of the highlights.

As a performer, Earle is both entertaining and engaging - taking time to explain the songs before playing them. For his introduction to "Lone Pine Hill," a soldier's tale, Earle explained, "I'm going to sing a few songs about Virginia, but that's not because we are in Virginia. It's because I read a lot of books about the Civil War."

As much as Earle's music works on record, it is many times more entertaining and effective live. It would be easy to dismiss his music as merely a cheap imitation of classic country music, but when you see the sincerity with which he deliver his songs in concert, it is clear that Justin Townes Earle is the real deal.

The sounds veered completely away from the traditional as The Felice Brothers brought the evening to a conclusion. This band from the Catskills region of New York presented an interesting mix of instruments and styles that was very reminiscent of the early work of The Band and their collaborations with Bob Dylan. Not completely country and not completely rock, this band bounced around genres while seamlessly incorporating the unique sounds of the accordion into the mix.

The vast majority of the crowd was comprised of fans of The Felice Brothers, thus creating a warm and receptive atmosphere for the band's set. Almost every song that was played, especially the tracks from the band's recent self-titled release on Team Love Records, was greeted by an audience eager to sing along with almost every word and the spaces in-between the songs were filled with requests for favorite songs.

While the entire performance was entertaining, the show's best moments came from the group's more narrative songs. The dark and somber "Ruby Mae" and a rousing up-tempo rendition of the single "Frankie's Gun!" were two of the highlights, while the rockers "Whiskey in My Whiskey" and "Radio Song" had the crowd moving with their abundant energy.

Both Justin Townes Earle and The Felice Brothers have created quite a buzz with their vastly different styles, and even though they have little in common, the pairing made for a memorable evening of music that displayed the talent and the diversity of the current Americana music scene.