Published on September 21st, 2012 | by Jared Booth0
James Justin & Co. Breeze Through a Strong Set at the Pour House
James Justin & Co. @ the Pour House, Sept. 20
With constant three-part harmony, James Justin & Co. — guitarist and frontman James Justin Burke, upright bassist Tom Propst, and banjo player Bailey Horsley — effortlessly strummed, plucked, and smiled their way through a surprisingly uplifting set at the Pour House during the CD release party for their new album, Places. They delivered soft, simple bluegrass nudged along by a jubilant mood.
Burke set the tone early with the new song “I Don’t Know Anymore.” He looked positively blissful, happy to be shaking around on his home stage. But it was more than that. He seemed to radiate happiness. The songs on the new album are inspired by the road, but another constant theme is positivity; every song just feels like a happy song, and as the band played the songs live, each member seemed to gain strength from each one. And their smiles got wider and wider.
I have never been a fan of easy, breezy, feel-good tunes because I usually sense a sort of un-reality in them; a dreamworld landscape created out of thin air that has no basis in reality and therefore is meaningless at its core. Not surprisingly, I usually gravitate to heavy, somber numbers focusing on tragedy and loss, because that’s where the most emotional, human storytelling is. The difference here is that the songs on Places are ultra-based in reality, as if they were each born from a moment or a landscape or a feeling somewhere on the road in this big country of ours. They are the opposite of meaningless. They are the direct result of an experience felt and, thankfully, shared. The three-part harmonies didn’t hurt either.
After playing the disc’s opener, “Forever and a Day,” Burke told the audience, “I love this album that we made. Every time I hear it, it makes me think of last year and all the sacrifices we made to do what we love, which is performing for people like y’all.” As his bandmates eased into the opening chords of “Our Little Island,” Burke yelled, “This is a song about Folly Beach, our little island!”
The guys didn’t stick to the album too much, however, mixing up with a few great covers and older originals, starting with Horsley leading them through Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” which his plucky banjo helped lead in a folksy direction. Horsley, who was wearing goofy knee-high rain boots — no word on whether they were diamond-soled — showed that he more than had the vocal chops to lead the other guys.
Burke’s trio welcomed extra mandolin and trumpet for “Johnny Roslyn’s Blues” (from their album Dark Country) and swooped right into “Wolf Creek Pass,” the best song from Places and one that could take the band far. Live, as on the recording, it is the song that immediately grabs you and makes you pause what you’re doing. And once again, the omnipresent joy the band took in performing its foot-stomping chorus added a beautiful, human element to the song.
Another highlight of the show came when they covered Neil Young’s “Helpless,” the winding melodies of which were perfect for the band’s three-part harmonies. With his soft, almost-floating voice, Burke adjusted the lyrics slightly, singing it about Charleston instead of Young’s frigid Ontario hometown, ramping up the energy level for the line “All my changes were there.” The moment showed the special place Charleston will always be for Burke, who relocated to Richmond this past year.
For an encore, the guys pulled a fun gag that seems to be growing in popularity: the old unplugging-and-playing-in-the-middle-of-the-crowd trick, singing the very appropriate, “A Little Help From My Friends.” As friends and fans crowded in on them, they bounced around in time, gleeful and lighter than air.
Photos by Taylor Black.
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