NEW YORK -- A pudgy, sideburned Steve Earle, looking like a
hard-core country Meatloaf, stood strapped to
his guitar at center stage.
His prosaic appearance belies a man with deep, twisted musical roots that
span cultures and eras like no one else in modern country music. Earle's
two-and-one-half-hour, two-encore set at a sold-out Tramps in New York City
last Thursday -- played to a generally yuppified, thirtysomething crowd --
showed just why he attracts fans outside the country world while alienating
the rigid Nashville, Tenn., establishment.
Earle began the show sedately with the folksy
HREF="http://www.addict.com/music/Earle,_Steve/Christmas_In_Washington.ram">"Christmas In Washington"
HREF="http://www.addict.com/music/Earle,_Steve/Christmas_In_Washington.ram">"Christmas In Washington"(RealAudio excerpt) from his latest album, the critically acclaimed El Corazon, but he and the Dukes quickly built up to a rocking,
Replacements-like pitch on "Here I Am," also from the new album.
It was a pattern repeated throughout the show, as Earle constantly changed
instruments (acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin) and moods, shifting
from hoedowns to hard-luck stories and back again. His versatile band,
including long-time bassist Kenny Looney and Emmylou Harris sidemen Buddy
Miller (guitar) and Brady Blade (drums), matched Earle's sharp mood swings
all night, performing a repertoire of songs spanning Earle's career, from
Guitar Town ("Guitar Town," "My Old Friend The Blues") to
Copperhead Road ("The Devil's Right Hand") to I Feel Alright
HREF="http://www.addict.com/music/Earle,_Steve/Hard-Core_Troubadour.ram">"Hard-Core Troubadour"(RealAudio excerpt)] and Exit 0 ("I Ain't
The crowd responded enthusiastically to every song, but seemed somewhat
subdued and far too urbane. Nearly everyone was satisfied with clapping and
singing along, save one Manhattan anomaly -- a bucking, stomping woman in
country line-dancing garb, wearing giant cowboy boots with silver glitter,
dancing by herself, getting yee-hah crazy. No doubt Earle's shows are far
more frenzied affairs, and a lot more fun, in Alabama or Tennessee.
By most standards, Earle's set was unusually long, close to a
Bruce Springsteen-style marathon. But Earle's live work-ethic was old hat
to Debbie Dady and Lisa Cimini, two longtime fans who traveled several
hundred miles from Rhode Island to see him. "Oh, he always gives you your
money's worth," Cimini said.
Earle's eclectic mix of covers revealed a few sources of his
left-of-Nashville style -- never purely country, but always countrified. He
finished a run-through of alterna-country rockers Son Volt's "Windfall" by
describing songwriter Jay Farrar as "a bad little motherfucker." He
wouldn't dare have said the same thing about Mick Jagger or Keith Richards
after giving a distinctly Southern, mandolin-soaked feel to the Rolling
Stones' "Sweet Virginia." He also pulled off a convincing reggae cover, the
Slickers' "Johnny Too Bad."
The Earle jukebox didn't stop without a version of "Valentine's Day," of
course, and his finest and most moving moment came about midway into the
show, with a spare, stark version of the anti death-penalty song "Billy
Austin" from the Dead Man Walking soundtrack.
Manhattan denizen Richard Zabel, a longtime fan but first-time Earle
concert-goer, was more pleasantly surprised at Earle's stamina and his
musical depth. "He just played a really long set, put a lot of heart into
it, and he played so many different styles," Zabel said.
Those different styles are the reason Earle appeals to both calm,
cosmopolitan Manhattan crowds and, perhaps more significantly, the woman in
the silver cowboy boots. [Wed., Feb. 11, 1998, 9 a.m.