March 12, 1998.
The essential appeal of Steve Earle, the man and the artist, has always been inexorably tied to his hard won outlaw image. By all accounts, heís everything youíve heard about him, and then some. His name gets tossed around in the same breath as past masters like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, and rightfully so. Like those who came before him, Earle earned his stripes by making it his responsibility to live dangerously enough for all of us. Being the poster boy for that movement has, of course, more than its share of dangerous turns, even for a man whoís made a career out of zigging when others were begging, pleading, and demanding that he zag. The turns that Earle missed took him on a much publicized trip to the bottoms: drug addiction, jail time, a slew of failed marriages (enough to rival the infamously fickle Liz Taylor), and a total disappearance from the music scene. After burning through all nine of his lives by the early 90s, Earle dug down into his reserves and managed, against heavy odds, to turn the ship around.
In 1996 he announced his resurrection to the world at large with the release of the triumphant I Feel Alright. Judging by the ensuing yearís flurry of productivity, this notoriously thorny and unpredictable artist still feels pretty damn good. At present, he is touring in support of his latest E-Squared/Warner Bros. release, El Corazon. Steve Earle and The Dukes brought their show to The Moore Theater in Seattle on Thursday, March 12.
Earle opened up the set in folky-troubadour style with "Christmas in Washington", a whispery ode to big-time politics and vanished icons, before punching his way through raw versions of two more Corazon tracks, "Here I Am" and "Taney Town". Neither Earle nor any of The Dukes (Buddy Miller on lead guitar, Brady Blade on drums and Kelly Looney on bass) so much as cracked a smile before the fourth song of the set. Who says everything has to mellow with age? Things seemed to be opening up a bit as the band kicked into "Hard Core Troubadour", but Earle quickly slowed it down again with somewhat heavy handed takes on "My Old Friend The Blues" and "If You Fall In Love".
Addressing the tempo of the showís commencement, Earle told the crowd, "I just had to get that outta my system. Iím trying to talk less and play more these days." True to his word, the band then launched into the rollicking subterranean homesick shuffle, "You Know The Rest", arguably the most inspired performance of new material of the night, replete with lyrical name checks of Moses, Columbus and legendary blues great Robert Johnson. This "history lesson," as Earle proclaimed it, inspired a handful of the affected faithful (most of whom looked young enough to have just been dropped off outside by a big yellow school bus) to gather in front of the stage for the ceremonial exchange of high-fives and the Pacific Northwest version of square dancing.
After the song, Earle asked them once, politely it should be noted, to sit down so that everyone could see. The dancing crowd, much to the chagrin of the slightly more "mature" (read:older) crowd in the good seats, shrugged its collective shoulders and stayed right where it was. Earle, in turn, shrugged his shoulders as if to say, "I tried, didnít I?" before moving through a touching rendition of Son Voltís "Windfall" and crowd favorites "Copperhead Road" "Telephone Road", "More Than I Can Do" and the title track from I Feel Alright.
Judging the average age of the crowd to be late 30s if not early 40s, square dancers not withstanding, it was a curious sight to witness a grizzled warrior like Steve Earle singing classic road songs to a highly suburban audience that probably sees most of its open country from behind the wheel of a mini-van these days. Still, the rock and roll spirit has always been 90% attitude, so why not?
Buddy Miller, touring in place of David Steele, was consistent in the lead guitar slot and offered an excellent vocal contrast to Earleís scratchy baritone, at times conjuring up sonic memories of The Byrds with his high harmonies. Looney, who has been with Earle since 1988ís Copper Head Road, often seemed tentative but generally held it together on bass, while Blade turned out to be the unsung hero of the night (unsurprising to anyone whoís seen him with Emmy Lou Harris or Daniel Lanois in recent years). Blade playing with Earleís band is a little like putting a Mustang engine in a Yugo, which is to say he may have more "horses" than this outfit really needs. Bad car analogies aside, Blade is efficient and restrained behind the kit when the songs demand it and completely unafraid to cut loose when they donít. His drumming lends balance to The Dukesí attack and injects substantial muscle into Earleís more straightforward rock tunes.
The most curious segment of the night came after Earle and Co. wrapped up three more songs from El Corazon: the jingly jangly "Poison Lovers" (unfortunately, sans the beautiful vocal work of Siobhan Kennedy); "The Other Side Of Town" which turned into a sort of country-hula shuffle in its live incarnation; and "Somewhere Out There" , which was a bit too mush-mouthed even by Steve Earle standards.
At this point, Earle took a moment to explain that lead guitarist Buddy Miller and his wife Julie, who had performed as the opening act on previous dates of the El Corazon tour, had been scratched on the West Coast leg in favor of the abundantly enjoyable, high octane V-Roys. Seems the V-Roys hadnít played for a West Coast audience before and Earle wanted to afford them that opportunity. Fine. Dandy. Liked the V-Roys. Good choice.
After telling the crowd why they saw the V-Roys, Earle left the stage saying, "Buddy and Julie are going to play a couple songs for you, and then Iíll be back." Oooooooo-kayyyyyy. Now, Buddy and Julie were just fine, donít get me wrong. They didnít try to take over the audience or wreck the no-nonsense flavor of the night by getting overly involved in explaining their songs or anything. Just the same, it was awkward. Roughly the musical equivalent of being asked to make the toast at your ex-wifeís wedding. I mean, youíre there, right? Someone ASKED you to get up and say a few words, after all. You didnít bully your way into the spotlight. But the sad reality is that the guests arenít particularly interested in what you have to say. Itís not that they have anything against you necessarily, itís just that youíre not who they came to see. You donít get a Nils Lofgren solo set when you go to see Bruce, do you? No. It was a nice gesture on Earleís part, but ill-advised and somewhat tepidly received.
What with the second intermission now complete, Earle wasted no time in rifling through a quick snapshot of some of the best writing from his admittedly stellar catalogue. "The Devilís Right Hand" stayed fairly true to the Copperhead version, which for my money, it should. (That oneís just too perfect to mess with.) "Nothiní But You" featured Earle and The Dukes at their honky-tonkiní best, while the achingly sad and vaguely autobiographical "Good-Bye" shares the award for the nightís most tender moment with "Ft. Worth Blues", which Earle dedicated to his departed mentor and fellow hell-raiser, Townes Van Zant.
"N.Y.C", a typically great Steve Earle "story" song, was perfectly rough around the edges and held together better than what youíll find on El Corazon, while "The Unrepentant", which should be officially declared Steve Earleís theme song, showed, yet again, why Earle has always been the perfect blend of heartfelt country twang and balls out rock and roll.
At various points in the show it almost seemed like Earle and the band were a bit worn out. Tempos lagged on occasion and there was a lyric missed here and there. Turns out anyone who worried did so unnecessarily. Earle was just doing his best Muhammed Ali imitation by hanging back on the ropes and pacing himself, saving something for the last couple rounds.
The encores, starting with the Beatleís "Babyís In Black" and finishing with the full on folk assault of "Johnny Come Lately", the latter of which showcased some electrifying tin whistle work by Dan Gillis, were well worth the wait. "Guitar Town" and "I Ainít Ever Satisfied" were rousing and defiant as well as the closest thing youíre gonna get to a sing-a-long with Steve Earle. While it may have been a little late in the evening, The Dukes finally fed off the increase in the crowdís energy, even going so far as to ham it up rock-star style at the front of the stage before finally shutting down the house. "Lay-dees and gentlemen, the winner and still champeen...."
Steve Earle and The Dukes werenít the sharpest theyíve ever been last night, but in all fairness, technical perfection isnít what this artist and his band have ever been about. The sense of immediacy about the music is still there, the songs are still as strong as ever, and most importantly, so is Steve Earle.
-- Mike Kerlin