Last night was the first time I saw Steve Earle live. I haven't been paying too much attention to Steve's work, a mistake I need to correct. An artist like Steve will probably be placed in the sub genre Alternative Country, a term I always felt didn't do justice to the artists involved. Most artists that are swept in that category do country more justice than most of the drivel coming out of Nashville these days. Steve Earle is no exception. Like the great Country singers Steve manages to convey a broad impression of life, much broader than tends to happen in other genres. The greats in the genre always manged to go for the personal to the political or spiritual, or rather make the personal political and spiritual. Steve Earle seems to be one of those artists. His songs reflect personal trials and triumphs of both himself and others captured in often beautiful cinematic writing. Steve will as easily sing about a telephone conversation with his song, a kiss from his beautiful wife Allison Moorer or his regrets from past relationships, as he will sing about the tragic mistakes of the Bush administration and the experiences of others in these current hard economical and social times.
After a short opening set by Steve's wife Allison, Earle was to give a solo acoustic show. We were going to get Steve Earle naked, just him and his guitars and assorted other sting instrument. All the excess was cut away from most of the performance. Artists like Steve don't need a band anyway. As far as I could judge from this performance, a band is just unnecessary lubricant for his songs. On more than one occasion Steve managed to transport you out of the Paradiso into the lives of the people he sang about. If Steve was traveling the Rocky Mountains, so were you, when he sang about a young man going off to war, you could feel his uncertainty. Steve's songs manage to evoke sympathy for people you might ordinarily not give much thought to. When he sings about a man being send to the electric chair you get a strong sense of his point of view and the implications of the death penalty. "Could you take a long walk with me knowing that Hell was waiting there. Would you throw that switch sir with a strong and steady hand" are powerful lines, which in one broad stroke gives you an insight in the moral dilemmas surrounding the death penalty.
How hard a solo performance is was demonstrated by Allison when she opened up. Though Moorer has an amazingly powerful voice, she didn't capture me with her songs. It wasn't until she did a powerful rendition of Sam Cooke's "Change Is Gonna Come" that you got a sense of how strong she could be as an artist if she'd managed to get more out of her guitar and material. The songs she picked no where near had the same strong imagery as "Change" or her husbands songs and tended to blend into each other. With "Change" something wonderful happened, this blond bombshell took it from its civil rights roots to a more personal prayer. As is often with white performers doing this song it meant that Sam's most confrontational lyric was cut from the song. Singing "I go to the movie and I go downtown, somebody keep telling me don't hang around" wouldn't have made sense for Allison, though it did for Sam who reached out to the segregated South at the time.
Unlike his wife, Steve does have the capability to add extra colors and textures to his songs with a simple acoustic guitar. Although the banjo, mandolin and Dobro guitar were at times a welcome variation, I'm sure Steve could have carried the show without them. The same goes for the DJ Steve is experimenting with these days, live and on his new album "Washington Square Serenade". On some of his songs Earle was backed by firm but sober Hip Hop beats. Although it worked remarkably with some songs to a lot of other it felt like excess. On the Pete Seeger tribute "Pete's Hammer" the DJ gave the song the extra bite to send the anti war song home. But mostly the heavy beats tended to drown out Steve voice a bit or send his instrumentation to deep into the mix. The power "City Of Immigrants" fell apart because of a thunderous base beating your eardrums just a little too much. Though that might have been to the credit of the sound man, I couldn't help but wonder if Steve needed a DJ at all. Bold and successful at times as the experiment at times may have been, Earle is perfectly capably of carrying his material on his own. His guitar play is staccato and dare I say funky enough to keep you on your toes.
The show reached it peak with the encores where Steve got into much more story telling than he had done through out the show. Especially his story about his sons and the telephone conversations he'd have with them was very moving, the kind of thing that'll make a grown man cry. With the encores Steve was stretching out the evening to a marathon two and a half hours, yet leaving you wanting more.
"Sparkle and Shine"
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