Steve Earle Preaches No-Nonsense Rock To Congregation

Concert by Texas singer/songwriter shifts from up-tempo, guitar-driven rockers to thoughtful folk.

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"

(RealAudio excerpt), from his latest album, 1997's brilliant El

Corazon.

"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'

roll tunes.

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

Thursday.

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

"State Trooper."

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

HREF="http://www.addict.com/music/Earle,_Steve/NYC.ram">"NYC"

(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

wrong name."

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.)