Steve Earle Cleans Up For Bluegrass Show

Plays intimate, three-hour concert with Del McCoury Band.

NEW YORK -- Steve Earle looked like a little boy in his Sunday best as he took

the stage at Town Hall Saturday night. He appeared considerably slimmed down in a

navy suit, and he sported a well groomed beard and hair-sprayed coif.

Perhaps this was a nod to the suit-wearing Del McCoury Band -- who are serving as

accompanists to the normally unkempt country-rocker on this tour -- and to the mannered

bluegrass musical tradition they espouse. Then again, Earle's brand of bluegrass, which

he is spotlighting on this tour, is anything but mannered.

That became evident as soon as Earle and the all-acoustic band gathered around a

single center-stage microphone -- without bandleader Del McCoury -- and tore into

"Texas Eagle"

(RealAudio excerpt), a song from The Mountain, which Earle and

the band recorded together and released a month ago.

Earle's slurred, clipped, guttural vocals were a far cry from the clear,

soaring tones of bluegrass pioneers Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Ralph

Stanley. His lyrics, ornery descriptions of justice, rebellion and hard-

working folks, nevertheless strayed from the

typical themes of bluegrass. He introduced The Mountain's "Outlaw's

Honeymoon" by saying, "Ladies, if a man approaches you with a proposition

like this one, run like hell, especially if it's me."

The audience at the sold-out show gave a rousing ovation after every

song. While the band was playing, folks were pretty quiet, unless they

were applauding solos by mandolinist Ronnie McCoury or banjo player Rob

McCoury -- Del's sons -- or fiddler Jason Carter. The three often

rotated positions before the mic on such songs as "Yours Forever Blue,"

one deft solo blending into the next. Though the Town Hall stage is

expansive, the musicians couldn't stray far from the mic, so they

created a folksy feel missing from Earle's louder, rocking live outings.

The only amplified instrument was Mike Bub's acoustic bass.

The crowd was mostly reserved, but one faux good ol' boy screamed,

"Sing it, Bubba!" while Earle was telling the audience how he created

the Irish Civil War soldier he sings about in "Dixieland."

"And you try to tell people you ain't got rednecks up here," Earle

responded.

After a few more numbers from The Mountain, Del McCoury finally

emerged to play guitar on "I Still Carry You Around," a song from Earle's

El Corazon (1997) on which the two collaborated for the first

time. Earle then left the stage, and the band held its own during a

45-minute set in which it spotlighted a more reserved bluegrass style.

McCoury and his band played the gospel "Get Down on Your Knees and Pray," a

feverish instrumental called "Red Eyes on a Mad Dog" and a bluegrass

version of the Lovin' Spoonful's "Nashville Cats," all from their album

The Family (1999).

Following an intermission, Earle returned alone with an acoustic guitar.

He ditched the suit jacket, rolled up his shirt sleeves and took a turn

as a country-folk singer/raconteur. Before a gritty version of "No. 29"

from Exit 0 (1987), Earle talked about the nights he spent on

acid with the song's football-playing protagonist, Bubba. "Bubba never

could grasp the concept that I couldn't see his hallucinations," Earle

said.

He told stories about bluesmen Mance Lipscomb and Lightning Hopkins,

playing a song by each, and "Hometown Blues," from 1995's Train A-

Comin' with a story about Schertz, Texas, where he grew up.

The band returned to back Earle on a version of the Beatles' "I'm

Looking Through You," another song Earle covered on his acoustic album

Train A-Comin'.

Earle talked at length about his opposition to the death penalty, even

though he describes killing a rival lover in The Mountain's

"Carrie Brown"

(RealAudio excerpt).

"I'm opposed to capital punishment in every instance except hillbilly

music," he said before tearing into the song, aided by Ronnie McCoury's

high harmony. Earle walked offstage after "Copperhead Road," but

returned for an encore moments later, finishing the three-hour set with

a Bill Monroe classic, "Travellin' This Lonesome Road," and two

songs from Earle's first album, Guitar Town (1986): "Hillbilly

Highway" and "My Old Friend the Blues."

Lynn Bloom of Philadelphia, who said she has seen a number of Earle

shows in the 1990s, said Saturday's show was one of the best. She was

particularly taken by Earle's improved appearance and his newfound

storytelling ability. During the early '90s, while Earle was battling

substance-abuse problems, he looked "really, really thin and

scraggly," Bloom said. "But he looked so happy and healthy tonight, and

he never used to talk like that."