Justin Townes Earle & Caitlin Rose at Mercy Lounge, 11/27/10

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After a controversial incident like the recent one in Indianapolis, wherein Justin Townes Earle allegedly smacked a few folks around, got arrested and spent a subsequent stint in rehab, well, it’s a little tough not to use it as a preface when reporting on what’s essentially JTE’s triumphant return since the whole thing went down. Earle rocked two crowded houses at the Mercy Lounge over the weekend, and while we happened to take in Saturday's set, buzz around the room indicated both were equally big to-dos.

We walked in just in time to catch Caitlin Rose, whose import-only debut and recent overseas tours have been making a Nashville ruckus in all kinds of Europe. Her band was stripped down to simply a guitar-totin’ Caitlin accompanied by lead and steel guitar. The result was a much more sweetly soothing C-Ro than previous local performances — probably a good call considering the more mainstream-leaning niche crowd for which she was playing that night. We couldn’t help but notice more than a couple folks irrepressibly swooning through ballads like “Sinful Wishing Well” and “Learning to Ride.”

While The Spin wasted no time bringing up recent controversies with which to preface this piece, Earle himself spent the first half of his set merely alluding to the spirit of misbehavior with a subtle notion of the past tense. Backed by an all-star, percussionless lineup — including but not limited to one Jason Isbell of 400 Unit and Drive-By Truckers fame — Earle demonstrated once again that he is one hell of a showman. His rich baritone croon carried his old-fashioned heathen hymns with a timeless authenticity, and between songs, the banter flew off his tongue like he was some slick carpetbagger peddling snake oil from the back of a truck. Heckles and jeers from the crowd were met head on with short, sweet and sassy retorts — not a word was wasted, and at no moment did the show cease to be entertaining.

Earle eventually did address his recent troubles, though with neither an apology nor an explanation. He instead dedicated the title track from his record Midnight at the Movies to “prostitutes, drug dealers, junkies and Jack Kerouac.” He carried on with a few more white-trash anthems of underdog triumph and working-class drudgery before closing with an always welcome rendition of The Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait.”

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