After canceling his Newport Folk Festival slot last week because of 18 stitches on his right hand, Justin Townes Earle ignored his bandages, slowed things down a bit, and, accompanied by fiddle player Josh Hedley, played a charmed but brief set before the Manhattan skyline. The more leisurely pacing of his songs placed the emphasis on Earle’s commanding voice, its precise pitches and concentrated baritone cutting through the night like a keel in the adjacent waters. A new song, “Harlem River Blues”, from his upcoming release of the same name, possessed the familiar, macabre Earle tone and old ones like “Mama’s Eyes” held on to their lucid honesty. Naturally, Earle was his usual glib self, quipping about pushing limits, Woody Guthrie, and some fireworks shooting from Jersey City.
Last winter, in anticipation of his last release, So Runs the World Away, Josh Ritter and his Royal City Band opened for the Swell Season at Radio City Hall. It was a timid and rough performance further undermined by the hall’s monumental size. Five months later at Town Hall their newer repertoire was still lagging behind seasoned classics. Now, on Governor’s Island, the band was finally commanding and comfortable. Past unkempt arrangements now resonated with tightness and force. What were once new songs now relished under extracurricular breakdowns and interpretations. Perhaps the most glaring example of this new control was “Rattling Locks”, gaining muscle and articulation equally.
Additional add-ins, like a huge “Once In a Lifetime” tease during “Harrisburg”, brought new life to old songs, and opening with “Good Man” was just a solid move.
Ritter played his requisite solo song, “Girl in the War”, but the night’s best acoustic song was a duet with his wife, and opener, Dawn Landes, the Tony Hazzard penned “Fox On the Run”. While Landes and Ritter were both excitable and animated in their individual sets, here they were perfect compliments. Ritter’s gravely voice balanced Landes’ sonority, making their harmonies sound better than either one did solo. That Landes and Earle never played their duet, “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind”, was the night’s only disappointment—excluding the Governor’s Island ferries.
Justin Townes Earle