Last Night: Steve Earle and Allison Moorer at Cactus Music

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Steve Earle, Allison Moorer Cactus Music April 24, 2008

Better Than: "A Night at the Opry, Sponsored by C-SPAN"

Download: It was an IN-STORE, for God's sakes. No downloading allowed.

For all his prickly politics, Steve Earle deserves credit for knowing exactly what his audience wants to hear. The grizzled, balding "hardcore troubador" had barely said hello Wednesday evening at Cactus Music - in fact, I don't think he did - before launching into a rambling reminisce about mentor Townes Van Zandt, whom he met in Houston shortly after moving here from the San Antonio suburb of Schertz. "They wouldn't let me play Anderson Fair, so I hung around the Old Quarter," he said, prompting a round of appreciative applause. Earle knows which local club names to drop, too.

Calling Townes a "migratory beast," Earle talked about he and Van Zandt bumming around Colorado many moons ago, when part of Van Zandt's skiing lesson included a hit of acid. "Like I said, I don't ski," Earle chuckled. Recalling a more recent trip to the Rockies, "I swear I saw Townes's ghost and his horse Amigo coming across the mountain," he mused, before picking his way through one of the many Van Zandt songs in his repertoire, "Ft. Worth Blues" - which just happens to contain the lyric "Houston really ain't that bad a town." See what I mean?

But this is Steve Earle we're talking about, and his next song was "Rich Man's War" (news flash: he's against it), which he introduced by saying, "In case I didn't get to this song tomorrow night, I had to play it here." He brought up Allison Moorer, his partner in marriage and on the road, before remarking that last year's Washington Square Serenade is "considered to be a less political record of mine, but I don't know... Copperhead Road is a pretty political record [too], and Pete Seeger said lullabies are political songs for babies."

Introducing Serenade's "City of Immigrants," Earle called out the 2008 presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle for casting Mexico as a convenient scapegoat for voters' anti-immigrant feelings when "our jobs are being sent to places a lot further away than Mexico." With Earle hammering away at an oversized mandolin, the song - Earle's ode to his recently adopted home of New York, though it applies just as well to Houston - and its "all of us are immigrants" refrain could have been written by Pete Seeger himself.

Earle then yielded the stage to Moorer, whose sultry Alabama twang - richer and fuller than her older sister, Shelby Lynne - shone on the poignant title song from last year's Mockingbird. There's always one joker in every crowd who seems to think the artists are there strictly to oblige their personal requests, and after Wednesday's example shared his feelings about what Moorer should sing next with the room, she answered with "I'll do another one off my new album. You know why? Because it's my show." She chose Jessi Colter's heartsick "I'm Looking for Blue Eyes," which was as tender as her rejoinder to her overly presumptive fan - who later apologized to a gracious Moorer in the autograph line - was firm. Earle and Moorer closed out their half-hour set with Serenade's "Days Aren't Long Enough," a starry-eyed duet that showed even one of music's biggest rabble-rousers is more than willing to allow politics to take a back seat to matters of the heart.

Personal Bias: I've never been a huge fan of in-stores, but I will say this: Wednesday's capacity crowd was much better-behaved than they would have been in a club or theater setting, when in all likelihood would have been chattering like magpies.

Random Detail: Earle is an accomplished visual artist, and Cactus offered one of his lithographs free with the purchase of any of his CDs. After his set, he was autographing those lithographs for quite a while.

By the Way: Earle and Moorer perform tonight at Verizon Wireless Theater. - Chris Gray

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