NEW YORK -- Steve Earle's two-hour-plus marathon of guitar-driven
roots-rock at Central Park's Summerstage on Thursday night drove a throng
of faithful fans into a near frenzy.
But the Texas singer/songwriter projects no nonsense from the stage and
wants none from his fiercely devoted cult-following.
Despite being instructed by the heavyset Earle to not scream out
requests since he wouldn't play them, audience-members near the front of
the stage yelled anyway. They begged for favorite songs such as "Guitar
Town" and "I Ain't Ever Satisfied."
Earle eventually played both.
That just revved up the crowd even more. Then, near the end of the show,
Earle showed why he is also held in such high esteem by critics and
colleagues. He chose to play the beautifully vivid folk number
HREF="http://www.addict.com/music/Earle,_Steve/ Christmas_In_Washington.ram">"Christmas In Washington"
Christmas_In_Washington.ram">"Christmas In Washington"
(RealAudio excerpt), from his latest album, 1997's brilliant El
"So come back, Woody Guthrie, come back to us now, tear your eyes from
paradise and rise again somehow," Earle sang delicately, drastically
changing the pace after an exhaustive string of straight-ahead rock 'n'
Though the energy and enthusiasm of Earle's concerts with his band, the
Dukes, show his considerable talent as a garage-rocker, it's his
introspective folk that puts him on a level with -- and sometimes
surpasses -- one of his obvious influences, Bruce Springsteen.
Meat and potatoes cuts, such as "Copperhead Road" and the title track
from the album, I Feel Alright (1996), were in ample supply
Self-assured guitarist Earle, a silver watch-chain hanging
from his jeans, and his three bandmates -- guitarist David Steele,
bassist Kelly Looney and new drummer Craig Wright -- rocked full tilt
as the heat from the humid night made the sweat drip from their hair.
The band even pumped hard with a cover of Springsteen's spare song
In fact, the mid-portion of the show was a bit too monochromatic, as the
Dukes sped from one tough rocker to another, including the track
(RealAudio excerpt). Only a reggae tune and the country lilt of "Mystery
Train, Part II" provided a bit of relief from the unrelenting tempo.
The lengthy encore portion of the set was better-paced, mixing a
throbbing cover of the Troggs' "Wild Thing" with the hillbilly twang of
the Rolling Stones' "Dead Flowers." The Celtic-tinged "Johnny Come
Lately" (from 1988's Copperhead Road) even featured Earle's road
manager on flute.
During the last few years, Earle has bounced back strong from a bout
with drug abuse that included time in jail. So when he spoke, it was
more than the usual rock-star shtick.
He dedicated a rare slower tune, "Ft. Worth Blues," to his longtime
friend, the late folk-singer Townes Van Zandt. The rendition was
emotional, which is not surprising since Earle has been quoted as
saying, "I still have a hard time imagining the rest of my life without Townes."
"This joint's all right," Earle said of the park setting, "[but] it ain't
Tramps." He was referring to the midtown Manhattan club where he
frequently headlines. "It's a little smaller than the Garth deal," he
continued, citing country singer Garth Brooks' Central Park concert last
year that drew historic numbers. "I think him and the Million Man March
have the same publicist."
Earle kept on digging at Brooks: "Some girl came on [our] bus this
morning and said she's a friend of Garth's. Boy, did she ever drop the
There was no chance that 26-year-old Molly King of Tennessee would make
a mistake like that. She's an Earle aficionado.
"I saw a recent [Earle] show with Tom Waits at the Shrine [Auditorium in
L.A.] that was very formal," King said. "But outdoors is great and
[Earle's] music is a good mix with Iris DeMent. It works."
Arkansas-born folk singer DeMent, dressed in a green dress, opened
the evening with an hour-long set of heartfelt, countryish ballads sung in
her distinctive, plaintive croon. She was backed by her own acoustic-guitar
strumming and one other guitarist.
This lo-fi performance was in direct contrast with Earle's hard-rocking
assault, but at times it was just as affecting. Few singers can paint
pictures of small-town home life as effectively as DeMent does in
ballads such as "Our Town" and "These Hills."
Spotted in the crowd were Tennessee actor/film-music composer David
Keith of "An Officer and a Gentleman" fame, British comedienne Tracy
Ullman and Hootie & the Blowfish guitarist Mark Bryan.
Those folks were probably looking for down-home tunes. And Earle and
DeMent, despite their radically different styles, certainly delivered.
(SonicNet correspondent Fred Norris contributed to this report.)