Justin Townes Earle, Union Chapel, London

  • @matildbattersby

They say you can't achieve fame and fortune if you don't understand what it is to struggle. Singing of his chequered history of drugs and jail, Justin Townes Earle's unique rockabilly-meets-gospel brand of Americana certainly kept things real for this London concert.

Looking like a lanky Sunday-school kid with a careful side-parting, Earle defied his clean-cut image with up-tempo but increasingly dark tracks. Son of singer Steve Earle and namesake of Townes Van Zandt, you can hear their legacy of hard partying in his words.

"I have two recurring issues: one being incarceration, the other being chemical dependency," he told us. I'd dare to add women, booze, religious salvation (mainly the lack of) and his native Tennessee to that list. Opening with "Move Over Mama", from his new album, Harlem River Blues, he might be a 1950s dance-hall crooner who can really boogie woogie. But a closer listen reveals real grit.

The excellent "Slippin' and Slidin'" was prefaced with a little back history: "I like vodka a lot. I like to drink it in the morning and then do a little cocaine for dessert. So you see how this might throw up obstacles in my way. Like jail." From "Wanderin'" to the superb "One More Night in Brooklyn", Earle's lyrics map out a life of self-destruction, arrogance and disdain for convention.

The morose "Midnight at the Movies" and "Learning to Cry" paint a picture of a softer Earle. "Harlem River Blues", accompanied by a ukulele and a washboard, was wonderfully resonant – the chirpiest song about suicide I've ever heard.

He held us captivated, singing and strumming a series of ever-worsening lyrical confessions. After Earle boasted of the many ladies he's loved and left, someone in the row behind said huffily, "Unashamed arsehole." Maybe. It is certainly a myth he chooses to propagate. But his talent is undeniable.