City: Austin, Texas Venue: La Zona Rosa Date: 2003-01-17
Barreling through like hillbilly rebels being chased by a fleet of flag-stamped SUVs, Steve Earle and company supplied rocking ruminations on peace, love and understanding without apology. Middle age either tames or makes more ornery -- and with war looking like a springtime gameplan for the Bush Administration, Earle is touring behind the most political album of his career and making his Middle East position pretty clear.
"Some of us are gonna get crossways in the next year," Earle predicted matter-of-factly, implying that actual war in Iraq will only divide the country further. "But it is never unpatriotic or un-American to question things in a democracy."
While the crowd ranged from cosmic cowboys to well-heeled slackers to college frat boys, periodic chants of "no more war" late in the show revealed a defiantly peace-loving audience. However, Earle, celebrating his birthday during the evening, was clearly intent on entertaining more than proselytizing. Backed by a four-piece band, Earle came out blazing with "Amerika V. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)", its "Jumpin' Jack Flash"-guitar riffs buoying lyrics about how complacency breeds laziness and even aloofness.
"We can just build a great wall around the country club," spat Earle, "to keep the riff-raff out until the slump is through." Guitarist Eric Ambel, ex-Del-Lords front man, helped provide plenty of ragged ammunition to punctuate Earle's gritty vocals. They played four in a row from Jerusalem, with bassist Kelley Looney and drummer Will Rigby anchoring the new songs as if they were old standards, and the Doug Sahm homage "What's A Simple Man To Do?" had second guitarist and son Justin Earle playing a frantic keyboard based on a classic Sir Doug pattern. Then they figuratively slowed down to consider Earle's distant past.
First came a pair of songwriters' gems from his 1986 debut, Guitar Town -- "My Old Friend the Blues" and "Someday" -- then the anthemic "Taneytown" from his masterpiece, 1997's El Corazon, all of which sufficed to warm the crowd up enough to break into a few choruses of "Happy Birthday". Earle could only smile, perhaps at the miracle of his career but more probably because he still breathes.
"The way you get to be 48 (years old) is you don't fuckin' die," said Earle, whose crack habit a decade ago nearly killed him. Sporting a black T-shirt with a skull, Earle seemed to appreciate his position as a twisted role model, and let his music do most of the talking. In that respect, he seemed subdued from previous tours where he would often rail against capital punishment and government incompetence.
Though he played the anti-death penalty ballad "Billy Austin", he sang a fair share of love songs too, from the movie theme "Some Dreams", to "Go Amanda", exchanging his guitar for a mandolin to transform the "Jerusalem" throwaway into a spunky go-getter. During the duet "I Remember You", he was joined by opening act Garrison Starr (filling in admirably for Emmylou Harris) who earned a hug from Earle for her performance.
It seemed odd to hear him reprise his early song "Good Ol' Boy (Getting' Tough)" -- even if its references to a depressed economy again reverberate -- but then he explained how last year's controversial song about American Taliban John Walker Lindh came from a similar place. Of course "John Walker's Blues" is about a real "American boy raised on MTV" who sits in prison for making ill-informed choices, while the character in "Good Ol' Boy" is concerned about the expense of his large pickup truck, but both songs raise valid points about functioning in a democratic society.
Despite the musical politics, the encores featured early favorites ("Guitar Town", "Copperhead Road") and even a Nirvana song that Earle was clearly playing for himself, a dissonant cover of "Breed". If some of the crowd appeared puzzled by the jarring chords and Earle shouting, "I don't care, I don't care, I don't care!" others recognized the tune and cheered wildly. "Thanks I needed (to play) that," he said afterwards.
Then, as if looking to get back on track, they launched into a twangy version of the Youngbloods' "Get Together", the 1967 peace anthem with the refrain "smile on your brother/everybody get together/try to love one another right now," and somehow transformed the hippie lament into something that held true. A woman jumped on stage to groove with the band while flashing a pair of peace signs, and Earle and the Dukes kept playing as if it nothing was amiss. And for about two and a half hours, nothing was.
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