Earle sings up a storm

by Alison Bonaguro
Special to the Tribune

(Published March 10, 2008


When Steve Earle sings about a hard-core troubadour, he could very well be referring to himself. And his stamina. For nearly 2 1/2 hours Friday night, Earle whined, strummed and swore his way through a 28-song set for a capacity crowd at the Vic. Not all of that time was spent on music, though. A hearty portion was devoted to road stories, and even more to the issues at the heart of the presidential race.

Earle claimed in one song, "Steve's Hammer," that there will come a day when he won't need to protest all the government's wrongs. "When the war is over/And the union's strong/Won't sing no more angry songs/One of these nights I'm gonna sing a different tune." But it seems he's not ready to lay that hammer down yet. His stance on immigration was loud and clear on "City of Immigrants," while he plucked his mandolin and wife Allison Moorer backed him vocally and emotionally. His anti-gun anthem "The Devil's Right Hand" was just one of many tunes with a pistol and/or devil theme.

When the banjo came out for "Oxycontin Blues," Earle warned the mellow crowd that bluegrass fans need not get excited. "I only know how to play the kind of banjo that scares sheep," he said. "Oxycontin" and a handful of other hits were backed by some recorded music managed by an onstage DJ. The music itself didn't suffer, but the juxtaposition of Earle's one-man band and all that machinery seemed amiss.

The second half of the night brought out the finest elements of any Earle gig. His resonator guitar. His "Days Are Never Long Enough" duet with his wife. His recollections of calling home to his son while touring (on "Little Rock 'n' Roller"). And his tribute to Pete Seeger, when he insisted the crowd sing along. "It is necessary that you sing [expletive] loud," Earle demanded.

Moorer, in almost flawless voice, did her own half-hour set tackling inspired cover songs before Earle came on. She doesn't have the storytelling streak her husband does, admitting that she'd always rather sing than talk.

- - -

"The Good Life,"

Justin Townes Earle

(Bloodshot Records)

Like father, like son?

Steve Earle's son, Justin Townes Earle, has his own record due out later this month. "The Good Life" tells some good stories, without being preachy or plodding. Despite some really old-timey folk beats and uber-traditional instrumentation, such as a harmonica solo and a few rolling pianos, this effort has solid commercial potential. Maybe not for mainstream country radio, but it is certainly poised for critical acclaim in the roots music scene.

A couple of tracks are too bluesy to fit into the fringe-country box he's put himself in. But then there are standouts such as "Who Am I To Say," an almost a cappella tune with music so quiet you hear the earthy vocals so crucial to his signature sound.

The young Earle plays Schubas on April 1.

---------- ctc-tempo@tribune.com

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