Steve Earle Mixes Hard-Knock Tales, Heartfelt Rock

Singer/songwriter's expansive set combines blazing rockers, tender love songs and thoughtful social commentary.

WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif.Steve Earle appeared a little tense, or maybe just fatigued, as he took the stage Saturday at the House of Blues, but his growling rockers soon seemed to fire up his inner rebel.

As the set proceeded, he juxtaposed that spirit with some articulate social commentary and heartfelt love songs. In the intense, two-hour show, his reflections on the death penalty had the most potent emotional impact.

Introducing the starkly powerful "Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)," he explained, "I object to the damage done to my spirit [when the government puts people to death]. Because my government is me."

Ambling onstage in a short-sleeved blue shirt, khakis and dark-framed glasses (which he soon removed), Earle launched directly into a powerful, fuzz-toned rendition of the title track from his latest record, "Transcendental Blues" (RealAudio excerpt). The Beatles-esque "Everyone's in Love With You" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Another Town" followed in quick succession before Earle paused to greet the audience.

"Taneytown," from 1998's Corazon, received a big, anthemic treatment and earned a roar of approval from the tightly packed crowd. Earle's contemplative phrasing and the deepening crags of his voice emphasized the dark tale's emotional gravity.

Older chestnuts such as "Devil's Right Hand" and "Copperhead Road" seemed to rouse his rebellious spirit. The latter, which Earle introduced with a long electric-mandolin solo that had much of the crowd clapping in time, was one of the night's highlights. Other standouts included Transcendental Blues' "Galway Girl" (RealAudio excerpt) and the high-spirited "Steve's Last Ramble," which incorporated similar Celtic instrumental flavors.

Fans hoisted beer bottles in salute, shouted "Rock on, Steve!" and sang along with a tight, pounding version of "Fearless Heart." With Earle's encouragement, several other classics from his oeuvre also became loud sing-alongs: "Someday," "I Ain't Ever Satisfied" and, during the second encore, a rollicking "Guitar Town."

Mood Swings

Earle occasionally played off the energy of the clearly devoted, partying crowd — he opened "Hard-core Troubadour" by wisecracking, "This is for all you co-dependent indie girls out there." He introduced a snappy "Telephone Road" with irreverent adolescent recollections: "I was 14 the first time I ran away from home — not that my parents mistreated me or anything, I just thought it was a sport."

But his generally sparse exchanges with the audience heightened the impact of the statements made — concerning the death penalty.

"Over Yonder," about a prisoner's final reveries before execution, grew out of Earle's witnessing what he described as a "horrific act" — the execution of a prisoner he'd befriended. In explaining the song, the singer/songwriter clarified the political and personal issues that inform his artistry.

Witnessing the execution, he said, also gave him an empathy for those required to carry out the death sentence. "There is no 'they,' " he summed up. "There is nobody on the other side."

The Beatles-influenced pop ditty "More Than I Can Do" showed more craft than heart, seeming almost throwaway and out of place next to the heartfelt, confessional "Lonelier Than This" and the finally-committed-to-love "I Don't Wanna Lose You Yet."

Earle surveyed the second floor of the club while thoughtfully singing "My Old Friend the Blues," from his breakthrough 1986 disc Guitar Town, and delivered the haunting "Goodbye" as though he were reliving a vivid memory. Earle's voice isn't pretty, but its character imbues such intimate songs with a mature, weathered passion.

Solid Band, Happy Fans

In the first of two encore sets, a leather-clad Sheryl Crow's righteous rock-mama vocal on the old Chambers Brothers tune "Time Has Come Today" had a galvanizing effect. (Her duet with Earle on that song will be featured on the forthcoming "Steal This Movie" soundtrack.)

"I'm not a great Sheryl fan," said audience member Gregg Evans, who'd driven up from the San Diego area with his wife, "but she was fabulous. ... We see all [Earle's] shows we can afford to drive to — he's never disappointed us."

Other encores included a revved-up cover of Nirvana's "Breed," the Bottle Rockets' "I'll Be Coming Around" and the Beatles' "No Reply."

Earle's backing band, the Dukes, particularly former dBs drummer Will Rigby and creative bassist Kelly Looney, provided solid support throughout. Guitarist Eric "Roscoe" Ambel's taut solos fared best on the tougher rock songs, but he sometimes sounded stiff and uncomfortable deploying his Telecaster's string-bender for more country-flavored numbers. True, a Steve Earle concert is about songs, not flashy guitar play, and Ambel's fills never stepped on Earle's lines. But it was hard not to wish for the soulful presence of Buddy Miller, the multi-instrumentalist who's accompanied Earle on previous tours.

Opening act Marah, a raucous Philadelphia band whose energetic members rocked out sprawling across the stage, primed the crowd well. Their raw passion was a suitable complement to the more seasoned, but no less intense, headliner.

Steve Earle and the Dukes tour dates:

Aug. 8; Seattle, Wash.; Pier 62/63

Aug. 11; Vancouver, British Columbia; Commodore Ballroom

Aug. 13; Edmonton, Alberta; Edmonton Folk Festival

Aug. 16; Nashville, Tenn.; Uptown Mix

Aug. 26; Edinburgh, Scotland; Summer Nights in the Country

Sept. 2; Boblingen, Germany; Sporthalle

Sept. 3; Gelsenkirchen, Germany Amphitheater

Sept. 4; Hamburg, Germany; Grosse Freiheit

Sept. 5; Berlin, Germany; Hochschule Der Kunste

Sept. 15-16; London, England; Shepherd's Bush Empire

Sept. 24; Birmingham, England; Symphony Hall

Sept. 26; Cambridge, England; Corn Exchange

Sept. 27; Bristol, England; Colston Hall

Sept. 28; Sheffield, England; City Hall

Sept. 29; Manchester, England; Apollo Manchester

Oct. 8; Paris, France; Trabendo

Dec. 2; Stamford, Conn., Palace Theatre

Dec. 3; Ottawa, Ontario; National Arts Centre

Dec. 4; Toronto, Ontario; Massey Hall

Dec. 5; Burlington, Vt.; Flynn Theatre

Dec. 6; Providence, R.I.; Veterans Memorial Auditorium