John Henry’s Friends was the first annual charity concert for the Keswell School (formerly the McCarton School) in NYC. The school was founded on the belief that children diagnosed with ASD can live full and productive lives as integrated members of their communities. John Henry is Steve Earles’s son. John Henry is five years old and autistic.
There isn’t a bad seat in the 1495-seat theater. I was sitting in the very last row in the balcony. While waiting for the show to start I was noticing that there were a lot of old people there and then realized that I’m one of the old people.
Michael Dorf of City Winery spoke first. City Winery is one of the producers of the show and there had been a rehearsal concert at City Winery the night before. Justin Townes Earle had tweeted a very short video that started from the feet up that showed very long legs on one guitarist and the bottom of the beard on the other – a teaser that there would be a duet with JTE and his father.
First out were The Mastersons, an alt-country duo originally from Texas. They are a married couple – Eleanor Whitmore and Chris Masterson – and they are part of Steve Earle’s backing band, The Dukes. The voices and song melodies are sweet, which is an interesting counterpoint to the humor in some of the songs – “We can’t talk about it because I smashed my phone.” Also Whitmore can hold a note for a very very long time. The second song they did is the title track from their lastest album, “Good Luck Charm.”
Next, Steve went into this long introduction for his son, Justin Townes Earle, saying that Justin never answers his calls or texts (his wife answers the texts) but when Steve asked Justin to be part of the concert, Justin said yes right away without asking his manager or anyone if he was available. Later in the concert, Steve mentioned that Justin is a very good older brother. But during the intro someone told Steve that he had the order wrong and Justin was walking across the stage to go get his guitar and Steve had to tell Justin that Steve had fucked up and told Justin that he wasn’t going on yet.
So then Steve introduced Matt Savage, a piano prodigy before he was 10yo, who is also a teacher at John Henry’s school. Savage played one of his jazz fusion pieces and was very well-received by the audience. It’s not really my favorite type of music but I could appreciate the brilliance of the performance. There were hints of Savage’s autisim in the introduction but it wasn’t until I read about him that that was confirmed. As Steve said later, when you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.
Steve Earle and the Dukes then joined Savage. Steve said that when John Henry was talking, he also liked to play the drums. When his speech went away, so did the music. But before that, Levon Helm bought John Henry his first set of drums. John Henry is now saying a few words and he’s starting to drum again. Because Steve has to spend so much time on the road, he uses FaceTime to keep in touch with John Henry. John Henry is present for those chats, until he isn’t. In order to get John Henry’s attention, Steve will sing and then the Dukes and Savage performed one of John Henry’s favorite songs.
And now it was time for Justin Townes Earle. Justin came out and played solo – although with his brilliant guitar technique he plays melody and bass at the same time. “They Killed John Henry” was followed by “Memphis in the Rain.” As he had with the others, Steve was just a bit offstage watching the performers, but it was especially poignant when he was watching his son. After Justin’s performance, Steve said it was still like soccer when he watched him play.
Justin said when he thinks of his brother he thinks John Prine’s “Hello in There.” Then he played a song that had nothing to do with that – “White Gardenias” followed by “Burning Pictures” and “Today and a Lonely Night.”
Steve came out with his guitar and Justin said, “That’s Dad!” Steve said to Justin, “I’ll be Doc [Watson] and you be [Steve] Earle” and they played a blues song that I believe was “Ain’t No Tellin’” and then Steve’s song, “Hometown Blues.” Steve and Justin hugged for a long time and then Justin left the stage pumping his arms in the air with his guitar still in one hand.
Steve talked some more about autism and the possible causes. He discounted vaccines since he know kids who were not vaccinated and were autistic. He thinks it’s environmental and that Monsanto is guilty until proven otherwise.
Jackson Browne sounds as good today as he did when he was in his 20s and 30s. We heard “I’ll Do Anything” and “Just Say Yeah.” He spent a lot of time tuning between songs (he switched off between electric and acoustic guitars) and there was one annoying woman who got impatient and told him to carry on. Jackson interpretated that to mean to carry on with the tuning and to continue his story. The tune he was playing while he was tuning was “These Days” and we were all sure we were going to hear that song (one of my favorite songs period and I can’t believe he wrote it when he was only 16yo) but when he finally finished tuning we heard “The Long Way Around.” He then did Steve’s “Jerusalem,” which he considers a Christmas song.
Steve joined Jackson and they performed “Cocaine.” While Steve stuck with the unrepentant Dave Von Ronk version, Jackson sang the rehab version, which included lyrics about cocaine destroying creativity and deciding not to use it one more day when he found out he was turning a profit for the CIA.
Then it was time for Steve Earle and the Dukes. In addition to The Mastersons (Masterson on guitar and Whitmore on violin and piano), the Dukes are Will Rigby on drums (his last appearance with them) and Kelly Looney on upright and electric bass. The band played several blues songs from their last album and then other songs from Steve’s catalog. Steve switched from harmonica to guitar to mandolin and back to guitar. “Baby Baby Baby (Baby)” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Daddy Now” were the first two songs. Then Steve promoted Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and told us all to go before the money ran out and it was all over. Whitmore and Steve sang a duet – he includes a duet on every album and realized he needed to write one for the brilliant singer he had in his own band – “Baby’s Just as Mean.” “Love’s Gonna Blow My Way,” “My Old Friend the Blues” (a song that brings me to the verge of tears every time I hear it), “Guitar Town,” “Copperhead Road,” “The Galway Girl,” “Acquainted with the Wind,” “Better Off Alone,” “The Tennessee Kid,” “King of the Blues” (for BB King), and then a blistering version of “Hey Joe.”
I noticed a very tall man in a baseball cap walk through the aisle separating the lower and upper balconies. I swore it was Justin but how could it be? Then the man got up just before the encore and left. Then I saw him on stage. It was Justin. He was sitting in balcony enjoying the show.
Just before the encore, Steve said he’s an optimist. He’s 60 and John Henry is 5, so that makes him an optimist. Then he and the band performed “Remember Me.” Everyone came out to perform Steve’s “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied” and then Jackson, Steve, and Justin each took a turn on the verses of Jackson’s “Take It Easy.”
This was a concert of a lifetime and tt’s always great to support a good cause.