words by Parker Langvardt, photos by Grant MacAllister

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Justin Townes Earle headlined the second week of Chicago's free Downtown Sound concert series at Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park on Memorial Day. Though a Nashville native and a New York City resident, Earle's label Bloodshot Records is based in Chicago. His opening act, the 74-year-old Andre Williams, was signed to Chicago's legendary Chess Records before it became inactive. Williams and his current band The Goldstars wore white suits, pounding out energetic rhythm and blues songs that span his entire career. The earlier songs performed include "Jail Bait," which advises not to get involved with underage girls, even if they are 17 and a half, and "Bacon Fat," which hit #9 on the Billboard R&B charts in 1957.

Williams set aside his white suit coat and matching fedora to reveal a slick red vest, which he later covered with a gold jacket. His voice is rough and deep, like many old bluesmen and roots rock singers, but occasionally his frailty shined through. He led call-and-response sections between the vocals as well as the horns, and punched out the band's accented notes. The guitarist, Dag, played a hollow-body electric guitar, which he added delay effects to and cleverly inserted a dark, tremolo-picking solo into an otherwise upbeat song. The rest of the band was comprised of a bassist, keyboardist, drummer, trumpeter, and a saxophonist with both a baritone and a tenor sax. The Goldstars led the audience in a punk-gospel chorus of "hallelujahs" as Andre Williams exited the stage.

The exceptionally tall Justin Townes Earle strolled out in a white suit, with only a double bassist and fiddle player to back him up. He began by strumming and fingerpicking a twangy steel-stringed acoustic guitar, with his bassist adding percussion on the body of her instrument. His fingerpicking style allows him to create rich chords and additional, subtle melodies while he is singing. The bassist pulled up on her strings as she plucked to produce a more distinct, slapped sound and the fiddle player filled in melodic gaps. When his band left for a couple songs, Earle began strumming a song, realizing, "shit, I can't remember the lyrics," brushed it off, and began another song.

Earle's southern accent and Americana songwriting helps keep him from being placed in a specific era, and with closed eyes the performance could easily take place on the porch of a general store in rural Tennessee at any point in the last fifty years. A definite storyteller, Earle had clever introductions to his songs, such as, "I've always been told that I'm a hard dog to keep under the porch," and, "My mother stands about six-foot-one and she's the most dangerous person in the world. I promise." He also discussed how women steal the covers from him in bed, and followed with a song he intended to use to call them out. Having recently moved from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, which he called "the worst place on earth," to Manhattan, Earle dedicated "One More Night in Brooklyn" to "...getting the hell out of Brooklyn." He also dedicated a song to the victims of the earthquake in New Zealand this past February.

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Andre Williams
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Justin Townes Earle
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