Never afraid to voice his opinion to anyone willing to listen, Steve Earle has been especially vociferous in the past 12 months. Spouting liberal rhetoric like a mad prophet, Earle has led the charge amongst musicians in opposition to the Bush administration, and managed to channel that passion into his strongest album in over a decade, the powerful Jerusalem. Railing against Bush, the futile War on Terrorism, the non-U.N.-sanctioned attack on Iraq (which then was on the horizon), the state of America in 2002, globalization, the Middle East, and the U.S. prison system, the album was a hard-rocking, unflinching portrait of the world through Earle’s eyes, full of rage, compassion, dry humor, tenderness, and ultimately, optimism.
Maybe Earle felt that his message wasn’t getting across to enough people, because now we have Just an American Boy, a stellar live document of his winter 2002/2003 North American tour with his supporting band, the Dukes. Few live rock ‘n’ roll albums manage to convey the energy of the performance, but this album works especially well. Recorded on various stops on the tour (no specific locations are given), this 100-minute double CD embodies everything there is to love about a live album: it’s raw, sloppy at times, loud, boisterous, and passionate. And although Earle is the star of the show, this album also serves as a terrific showcase for his Dukes, one of the best backing bands in the business. Guitarist Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, bassist Kelley Looney, and drummer Will Rigby are Earle’s own version of Crazy Horse, deafening, loose, and ferocious, but unlike Neil Young’s cohorts, the Dukes manage to show more musical dexterity, able to jump from country to hard rock with incredible ease (two tracks on the album feature Earle’s separate bluegrass band).
You hear that raw energy on the opening track “Amerika 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)”, with its nasty, Stones-like opening riff, as Earle sneers his lyrics, his ad libbed lines near the end aimed like daggers at the heart of Republican America, as he howls sarcastically, “Hey, let’s go blow up Iraq, I mean Iran, I mean North Korea, I mean Syria… I mean Texas!” The poignant 9-11 song “Ashes to Ashes” and the wickedly satirical “Conspiracy Theory” continue the momentum, while the tender “I Remember You” features sweet-voiced singer Garrison Starr, who was Earle’s supporting act for much of the tour.
Earle’s political diatribes aren’t just a bunch of empty rants. Fact is, the man loves to spin a good yarn as much as anybody (in the past couple years, he’s published both a collection of short stories and a play), and over his long career, he’s proven to be a master of the first person narrative, carrying on the old folk ballad tradition. Earle puts himself in the shoes of his subjects brilliantly: the songs on this collection show his incredible versatility, as he sings from the points of view of Kentucky miners (“Harlan Man”, “The Mountain”), death row inmates (“Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song)”, “Billy Austin”), and the American Taliban (“John Walker’s Blues”). His portraits of the downtrodden are sublime, delivered with sensitivity to his subjects.
With its searing performances, Just an American Boy builds up steam as the album goes on, and comes to a spectacular climax on the second disc. Earle’s rendition of the elegiac “John Walker’s Blues” is even more ragged than the version heard on Jerusalem, as Rigby’s deliberate drumming and Ambel’s pained solo make the song even more mournful, as Earle rasps sadly in the chorus, “A shadu la ilaha illa Allah”. It’s also worth mentioning that despite Earle’s penchant for pontificating, he doesn’t introduce the song, and that somehow makes it all the more effective. The uplifting “Jerusalem” follows, as Earle states his belief that peace will eventually win out over war, while “The Unrepentant”, from 1996’s I Feel Alright, is transformed into a loud, boisterous garage rocker. The beautiful “Christmas in Washington” is extended to over ten minutes, as Earle goes on to dedicate the song to his heroes, such as Joan Baez, Abby Hoffman, and Illinois Governor George Ryan. The live set then comes to a spine-tingling close, as Earle says, “And the most important thing to remember is, no matter what anybody tells you, it is never, ever unpatriotic or un-American to question any fuckin’ thing in a democracy,” the guitars starting to drone louder, as the band then pounds into an spirited cover of Nick Lowe’s “What’s so Funny About Peace, Love & Understanding”. Earle and his band have never sounded stronger.
Much has been made of the fact that this album features several “monologues” by Earle, which would lead some to wonder if all the preaching might take away from the overall effect of a live album, but Earle is so forthright, witty, and funny as hell, that his between-song chatter never gets too overbearing. And besides, only five snippets are on the album, as Earle talks about such things as mass paranoia, unions, the death penalty, and being beaten up by “square-headed cowboys named Otto”. Conveniently, the five monologues are listed as separate tracks, so it’s easy to skip over them if you so desire.
Though it has no new original material (the one studio track is a surprisingly good song by Earle’s son Justin), Just an American Boy cements Earle’s status as one of the most vital, brave singer-songwriters of the past couple of decades, and also one of the most prolific, as this album is his seventh stalwart effort in the past eight years. As he introduces “Christmas in Washington”, Earle says, “You see, we need heroes right now.” Little does he realize that, since his 1995 comeback, the man has become one himself, conquering his addictions and becoming one of the great defiant voices in music today. May he never be silenced.