Lonesome Onry and Mean: Steve Earle at Verizon

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In the wake of all the in-depth analysis on

DC9 at Night

about the burning question of whether Bruce Springsteen’s Dallas or Houston show was “better,” I now find myself lost in the fallout of Friday’s show by the southern Springsteen, Steve Earle.

Everyone is a music critic. Immediately after the show, my compadre who sat third row center said he thought the show was mediocre, that Earle “was just going through the motions.” A woman not that familiar with Earle’s catalog or career seeing him for the first time “loved it.” One of my running buddies said he “liked it, but the dj was a pointless addition except on a few songs.”

Steve clanged a guitar note or two and his voice isn’t what it once was, but I thought he brought the goods. No, he didn’t play the hits that most of the aging, balding boomers in attendance came to hear (probably so they could argue interminably about whether this show was better than the one in Dallas). No “Hillbilly Highway,” no “Guitar Town,” and in typical obstinate fuck-you Earle fashion, instead of pandering to the repeated screams for his Houston song “Telephone Road,” he gave it the night off.

With acts that have been around as long as Earle and Springsteen, there’s always a contingent that goes away angry because the band didn’t play the oldies (see Chris Henderson’s recent review of the Ministry concert). Earle quelled those people by opening his set with a string of acoustic deep tracks that recalled all of the older albums without giving in to a rote repetition of “the hits” like a trained seal hamming it up for a morsel of mullet.

I liked the show, mostly because it was a set filled with surprises. One complaint I heard was there were “so many ballads.” Indeed for Earle it was mostly a kinder, softer, gentler show than the hell-raising, burn-the-place-down concerts of 20 years ago (if you missed Earle at Excess on the Richmond Strip during the Shut Up and Die Like An Aviator period, you missed a barnburner; small wonder since we later learn in his biography he and his wife had been arguing and pointing pistols at each other on the bus that very day!). For me, Earle’s honest, demo-quality acoustic versions of obscurities like “My Old Friend the Blues” and the tear-jerking lullaby “Go To Sleep Little RocknRoller” brought back memories and feelings of my own that an anthem like “Telephone Road” could never have.

But I suspect I was in the minority. The dumbass in front of me kept shouting “Telephone Road” between every song; at one point, after one of his braying calls someone nearby hollered “Westheimer.” He also hurled “Fuck Obama” during Earle’s only political ramble of the evening. That guy probably wishes he had his money back. Dumb and Dumber, two grayed dickheads who sat behind us, either fiddled with their cell phones or chattered like magpies during any song they didn’t recognize or care for. Down front, Gary reported similar heckling, attitudes, and demographics. Earle responded once to a “Telephone Road” bellow by saying, “I guess you’ve never been to one of my shows before because if you had you’d know I do whatever the fuck I want.”

Even in this minimalist setup, Earle demonstrated the musical restlessness that has pushed him toward experimentation throughout his career. In line with his latest album Washington Square, Earle played a significant portion of the set with a dj. Sure, it’s a different feel than a surly, driving band, but besides delivering spot-on versions of his new stuff Earle used the tools to find new depths in songs like the psychedelic Americana of “Transcendental Blues.”

Ever the contrarian, Earle kept moving the set list around unexpectedly. “Billy Austin” was so good you could smell the prison bars. He powered through “Tom Ames Prayer.” “Long, Lonesome Highway Blues” had the proper dose of Pogues smash-and-jaunt, and “Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left” was a tour-de-force delivery from a guy who’s maybe written more love and falling-out-of-love songs filled with noir realism and honest emotion than any songwriter we’ve got.

So, yeah, I liked the show. Despite his well-known penchant for political commentary and harangue and his genuine East Texas bull-necked obstinacy, Earle kept the talk to a minimum and took any heckling like the hardcore troubadour he is. People who see Earle at this stage of his career know they aren’t going to get any Tony Orland and Dawn Vegas floor show. Steve’s no trained seal. – William Michael Smith

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