Live: Steve Earle Rocks At Virtual New York Hoedown

Turns left of Nashville with eclectic performance featuring hard rockers and moody ballads.

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=",_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

["Feel Alright,"

HREF=",_Steve/Hard-Core_Troubadour.ram">"Hard-Core Troubadour" (RealAudio excerpt)] and Exit 0 ("I Ain't

Ever Satisfied").

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.