Those who have seen Steve Earle live know that his performances are more than mere concerts. Sure, you’ll get the concert part, and more than you expected there. Earle is one of those rare artists who sounds just as good—if not better—on the stage. Whether he’s backed by a full band or strapped with nothing more than a guitar and harmonica, he’s at ease and in command on the stage, switching instruments or tuning up while entertaining the audience with banter. And since Earle is first and foremost a folk singer, he can always strip away the layers of instrumentation and actually improve a song in the process.
A Steve Earle performance, though, is also about the aforementioned banter that he sprinkles in between the songs. A proud leftie, he comments on everything from unions to the shrinking middle class to the war in Iraq to his disdain for Bush and his administration. And this is where it gets interesting; though the new generation of Earle fans has always known him as a left-of-center folkie, his old fans still come to the shows, and some of them are more typical of the country crowd, which is to say conservative. When Earle goes on a spontaneous diatribe against Bush’s foreign policy, the looks in the crowd range from euphoric to angry, and Earle takes it all in with a wry grin. As Bush himself once so infamously proclaimed, mission accomplished.
Live in Montreux 2005 captures the legend at his best: alone, on a disserted stage, with nothing but a guitar, harmonica, and an arsenal of picks lined up on his microphone stand. Taken from footage from the 2005 Montreux Jazz Festival, this DVD captures Earle retracing his career in the space of fourteen songs, from the early success of Copperhead Road to his post-drug addiction comeback days to his recent albums, which are increasingly political and, of course, polemical.
The songs themselves give insight into Earle’s life and beliefs, but taken together with his musings, the two provide a thorough picture of a complicated artist. For instance, before launching into a stinging version of “CCKMP”, (“Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain”) Earle notes that his life hasn’t been as fun as the mythologizing might have you believe, and then, with a deadpan stare, he adds, “Welcome to my nightmare.” Comments like these make you realize that Earle doesn’t do this music thing for kicks; he’s a man tormented by past experience and current societal ills, and music is his way of coping.
It’s little surprise, then, that when his commentary turns to politics, the barbs get sharper. While tuning his guitar to play “What’s a Simple Man to Do”, Earle comments on the G8 Summit of 2005, expressing his frustration that no help will come to Africa because “it would require a trade agreement”, then adding “anybody that ever got involved in a trade agreement with George W. Bush got fucked”. If this sounds harsh, his ire becomes even more inflamed when his discusses Condoleeza Rice; after playing his tribute to the Secretary of State, “Condi, Condi”, Earle exclaims “I love that bitch… We probably could save a lot of lives if she just got her a boyfriend… or girlfriend… doesn’t matter.”
The banter, though, would be nothing without the outstanding performances, and Earle is in peak form here. Though he’s lived a hellish existence that has left his voice sounding as frayed as he looks, the rough edges only underscore the themes Earle explores: war, drug addiction, the death penalty, social protest, and other not-so-pleasant realities. What’s most noticeable from this concert, though, is what an amazing musician Earle is, effortlessly shifting from the mandolin picking of “Dixieland” to the rock stomping of “The Revolution Starts Now” to the reggae riffing of “Condi, Condi”. Few musicians cover such diverse genres in a career, but Earle frequently does on a single album—and he can play them all live without a band.
Earle’s performance aside, the DVD itself is a rather no-frills affair. Shot on video, the picture is clear, though not as crisp and bright as other formats; indeed, if you didn’t know the concert was shot in 2005, you might think it from an earlier period because of the picture quality. Adding to the soap-opera quality of the production values are the numerous lap dissolves, which are slow and rather dramatic. Indeed, the dissolves are so slow and the picture quality so dated, you could pause your DVD player and see what Earle would look like in one of those 1980s Glamour Shots where one image of a person is juxtaposed against another from a different angle (hey Steve, could you grab your collar and cock your head to the side?). And, for those fans of DVDs who like the format because of all the extras, there are none here. No interviews, no extra footage, no short documentaries… And yet, who cares? This is Steve Earle. You’ve got the man on stage for an hour performing some of his best work. You’d be an ingrate to demand more.
Therefore, for Steve Earle fans—old and new—Live at Montreux 2005 provides a nice overview of his career, offered by the legend himself. It’s fitting that Earle is alone here, unaided by the impeccable musicians he’s been backed by throughout his career. He has always been a troubadour in the classic sense, a man who writes songs to spread the news of the day and connect people in the process. The 14 tracks here show that Earle is as diligent an observer as he is a musician, and his songs—like those of Guthrie, Dylan, and Springsteen—often transcend chords and words to become something mythic. Oh sure, the DVD isn’t beautifully packaged or a treasure trove of extras, but it does capture a modern American legend preaching the gospel.