When a musician has lived through real heartache and reconciled their missteps, or at the very least tried, it gives their words a resolve and a credibility that can immediately resonate with listeners hunting songs of substance.
Justin Osborne, the lead songwriter and singer of the band Susto, owns a voice with an undeniable capacity that convinces the listener to truly hear what he’s saying and how he’s saying he, to let it absolutely gut them and leave them with an exhausted heart. Susto’s songs amount to raw and painfully honest descriptions of love and hardship and that perspective is no doubt driven by Osborne’s own eventful personal journey. Susto explored that journey in their recent appearance at The Hamilton Live in DC.
Blending southern rock, truck-driving Americana, reggae, other Caribbean styles and a dose of goth, the end result has been a sound steeped in diversity, something Osborne has achieved by involving numerous friend musicians as contributors and which he’s pointed to in interviews as key to Susto’s widely appealing aura.
Stream Susto’s latest studio album, Time In The Sun, via Spotify:
Based in Charleston, South Carolina, Susto has carved out an admirable do-it-yourself path to its current place as one of the most respected indie acts headlining small clubs today. Osborne is only four albums deep but his vehicle has already become a household name among indie rock and alt country fans who cherish the modern-day classic, self-titled album released in 2014.
Osborne has carefully and artfully followed-up his premiere with three praiseworthy, fresh albums that explore new emotional and sonic ground and add color shades to a young, but bountiful catalogue. His latest release, Time in the Sun, dropped in October of 2021, and the past month has seen Susto out on the road to promote what might be the band’s most spiritual offering — one about light, mothers, god, death, rainbows and the like.
A meaningful and overdue visit to The Hamilton Live in DC the night of Feb. 26 would give serious local concert goers the chance to see one of the brightest and most original song-crafting outfits that might roll through for some time.
Osborne took the stage last Saturday night dressed as blue collar as his subject matter — a flannel shirt and a trucker hat, a custom-made Johnny Fritz leather guitar strap over his shoulder suspending a dark green Fender Jazzmaster. After a quick hello and introduction — “we’re called Susto” — Justin led a seemingly perfect presentation of rousing, provocative, heartrending songs that sampled each studio album.
It started off with a radiant, accelerating take on “Get Down,” and the bright hues of the newest studio album put out by New West Records lit up the room with a fetching, lighthearted groove that ushered in a big-band swell.
Watch the official music video for Susto’s 2021 single “Get Down” via the band’s YouTube channel:
“This is song about friendship,” Justin said before the second tune. “It’s called ‘Hard Drugs.’”
One of the most unsuspectingly touching songs he’s written, the track showcases the grievous realism of Osborne’s words and his rugged, intoxicating inflection that, when uttering these words at Hamilton Live, was eye-watering so very early in the evening:
“Well, I don’t know who’s asking but I’ll tell ’em the truth / I’ve had a real hard time losing you / And you can tell me that he loves you, but I know it’s a lie / ‘Cause I’ve seen how he treats you and honey, I don’t wanna fight / I’m just glad that I found you / I’m sorry that I couldn’t keep you around / Well, I don’t care who’s asking. You can tell ’em the truth / I’ve had a hard time living and I know you had a hard time too.”
Another exemplary piece of songwriting, “Gay In The South” was a powerful shift into one of the band’s bravest and most important pieces, one toiling in an emotionally volatile realm that few musicians are willing to explore. The humility in this track matches Osborne’s determination to face his own demons, and the instrumentals mounted to creatively portray the ongoing struggle depicted in the narrative:
“Lover of mine, I heard you caught it / It’s a real hard time, just being alive / Mother of mine, you think you caused it / It’s an uphill climb being gay in the south.”
Osborn was surrounded by some of his closest music-making buds, including Johnny Delaware, a remarkably skillful, limber electric guitarist and a charismatic entertainer with long dark hair, retro style and an enormous smile he’d widen before and after extravagant solos inside of various Susto compositions. The South Dakotan’s hair would hang down over one of two Gretsch guitars, including a beaming white G5422TG Electromatic, or he’d fling it in all directions as he’d crank on his strings.
Bass player Kevin Early, a Detroit native, laid a concentrated groove at the foot of each tune, and his presence on the left side of the stage balanced out Johnny D’s. Kevin, too, had a blast and seemed to fuel the playful on-stage synergy of this group — bent at the knees, tossing his head back and providing vocal support with sass.
Drummer Marshall Hudson, a sobering, peaceful figure from Atlanta, was seated in the back of the stage and displayed a sharp focus to help steer the music across so much different terrain, and he’d pull up an assortment of noisemakers and percussion devices in multitasking through the night.
And though he tried to be low-key, he was perhaps the glue holding it all together — keyboardist and synthesizer master Dylan Dawkins, who has his own popular project named Persona La Ave, thoughtfully configured a different atmosphere for every song, jumping to the piano for some of the night’s very best songs.
With the additional help of Cannon Rodgers, the band’s tour manager who played steel guitar on a pair of songs, the stage was packed with promising musicians relishing in the opportunity to perform music that each clearly cherishes at a personal level.
“So, DC, it’s been a while,” said Osborne, who spent time in Cuba that had a significant influence on his sound and songwriting. “It seems we have work to do. All we ask is you do your best. Everybody feeling good? It’s Saturday night. I just wanted to check in. We’re gonna keep going.”
The band dazzled in the lights as it went on to serve lasting takes on Susto favorite’s, including “Mystery Man” from & I’m Fine Today along with its charming backstory, and an agonizing, beautiful version of “Friends, Lovers, Ex-Lovers: Whatever,” an essential song from the self-titled release in which Justin’s voice carries so much passion that the words become timeless and stunning in their warm simplicity:
“Just call my name, I’ll be there. Yeah call my name, I’ll be there.”
An inventive, kaleidoscopic creation from the second Susto album, “Jah Werx” plays out as a glorious, divine anthem with Rastafarian adornments and Justin wailing his words as he does in some of the edgier tunes. But this one served to lift up and sooth the audience, much of it having moved to the floor to move their feet and their bodies.
Stream Susto’s modern day classic self-titled premiere from 2014 via Spotify:
“County Line,” another one of Susto’s immortal love songs loaded with longing and complex sentiment, showed the group at its most natural, the music coming from within them and indicating a belief in these vivid stories Osborne tells and that the instruments so cleverly support.
Closing out the set with a “Wasted Mind,” Susto rocked the stage and Osborne again used his volume as ascension and to give the song its arc, this one building up in what occurs like a coda and spirals into oblivion.
In rewarding ticketholders with a three-song encore, Osborne again used his matchless intonation to capture the room with “Smoking Outside,” a therapeutic, freeing track with his voice at its most reprieving. And the adoring fans in the room sang right along with him word for word at the top of their lungs.
If anyone happened to see this band for both its recent local appearances — Parklife did its homework by catching Susto at The 8×10 in Baltimore on Feb. 13, too — they’d have witnessed group growing more tight-knit as they’re most certainly being reminded of the value this music has to its listeners.
Be Gone From Me
Life Is Suffering
Black River Gospel
Gay In The South
If I Was
Ever Since I Lost My Mind
Friends, Lovers, Ex-Lovers, Whatever
Call Me Baby
Here are images of Susto performing at The Hamilton Live on Feb. 26, 2022. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.