Steve Earle came to town as part of BeatFest 2002, a traveling tribute to “The Beat Generation” that was sponsored by a car manufacturer. In my eyes—which glanced at the corporate logo projected on the Knitting Factory wall—BeatFest was suspect. The lack of animation exhibited by Earle on stage only added to my skepticism. He stared into space for almost his entire set, barely shifting his body at all.
That said, Earle writes meaningful songs in many genres and sings with the rough, knowing voice of the best American troubadours. He displayed all of these assets during his nearly two hour solo acoustic performance. Plus, his humorous between-song anecdotes amused the audience.
In his twenty-odd years of recording, Earle has worn many hats, but his career can be divided roughly into two parts: on drugs and off. This may sound like just another episode of Behind the Music, but Earle’s story does not follow the usual script. He got clean by going cold turkey in jail, not by visiting a fancy rehab. After his release, he began protesting the death penalty, and he witnessed—live and in person—the execution of a death row inmate he befriended. He has been married not two, not four, but six times. Steve Earle has lived more than a little bit of real life, and he is not afraid to sing about it.
More physically fit than in years past, Earle—bearded and wearing glasses, like a country tough turned academic—took to the stage with his tattoos peeking out from under his red sleeveless vest. Armed with nothing but a six-string and a harp, he wisely grouped his songs by theme—rambling, violence, blues, cinema—giving his show an effective structure. He culled every song but one, “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied”, from his post-prison recordings and the catalogs of other songwriters.
Earle joked about being a teenager who hopped on a freight train and traveled so far from home he had to call his dad to pick him up, but he became a much more adept drifter as he grew up, one who thought marrying three women and having a heroin habit meant he wasn’t hitchhiking enough. This was the Earle who read from On The Road near the end of his set, the Earle who hitched to the home of William Burroughs in Lawrence, Kansas and knocked on the door (Burroughs told him to fuck off). A different, sober Earle sang “Steve’s Last Ramble”, in which he considered hanging up his travelin’ shoes.
Two fascinating songs about violence—one describing a criminal’s run-in with faith, the other concerned with a black man crossing the tracks—flowed into two tunes about parting ways with women. All this naturally led into a set of the blues, which started with two drug-related blues by Earle and ended with covers of songs by Texas blues masters Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb, whom Earle met in his early days as a folk singer.
On his latest record, Sidetracks, Earle included recordings that were either previously unreleased or those he thought had not received proper exposure, such as three excellent songs that had appeared on film soundtracks. “Ellis Unit One”, a haunting portrait of death row recorded for Dead Man Walking, “Me and the Eagle”, an ode to man’s relationship with nature recorded for The Horse Whisperer, and “Some Dreams”, a hopeful country rocker recorded for The Rookie, received the solo acoustic treatment at the Knitting Factory.
Earle ended the evening with a political song, though one unrelated to the current war. In “Christmas in Washington”, he spoke of a somewhat calmer time, when President Clinton was re-elected in 1996, though even then Earle wasn’t satisfied. Faulting the Democrats for drifting too far to the right, he yearned for the days of Woody Guthrie and Emma Goldman.
The audience, an enthusiastic crew of four hundred middle-aged hipsters, sent Earle into the night and back On the Road—this time, cross country on a bus to the Knitting Factory in Hollywood, for the second leg of BeatFest 2002.
Next time, for a change of pace, I hope to see Earle play with a full, electric band. Perhaps in that setting he would play some tunes from his recently-reissued 1986 classic, Guitar Town, or show off his skill for laying down nearly perfect country-rock (see his production work on the Lucinda Williams hit Car Wheels on a Gravel Road).