Ann Arbor residents hid their daughters and locked their liquor cabinets when Steve Earle rolled into town last Sunday. Feet planted on each side of the microphone with determination, the performance was kicked off with a “One, two, one-two-fuck-you!” Alongside impeccably tight backing band the Dukes, the inexhaustible Earle gave a rousing performance lasting nearly two-and-a-half hours. “I don”t know if you”ve noticed, but the last few years I”ve been writing a lot more chick songs,” said the six-times divorced musician. “That”s a good thing, or otherwise my audience gets exponentially hairier.”
Like good wine (although a pre-sober Steve probably would have preferred the harder stuff), Earle”s performances become more refined with age, while maintaining their trademark edginess and bite. Earle and his band still play loudly, but with a heightened sensitivity and sense of craft.
Earle”s music is often described as “country-rock,” but to leave the description at that would be trite and overly simple. Earle is an avid student of all music which he deems sincere and draws from the great American musical traditions: Country, bluegrass, folk, and rock “n” roll, save for some Beatles and Stones thrown in for melody”s sake. His lyrics are full of stories about women (he sang two songs in a row dedicated to the same one), heartbreak and appreciating happiness, among a variety of topics.
Earle certainly isn”t exaggerating when he sings about having a rough time of it. Jailed for drug use and haunted by addiction, he has been increasingly driven and prolific since his release from prison in 1994. Besides touring and making records, Earle has started his own record label, teaches a course on the art of songwriting, and is a tireless death-penalty abolitionist. Earle”s voice, ravaged slightly by the aggregation of whisky and cigarettes, recounted tales that were sometimes swaggering, sometimes regretful, occasionally haunting and moody, and always honest. One of the evening”s many highlights included “Another Town,” a piece that conjured the image of sitting on a porch at night somewhere in the South, contemplating fate and life.
Earle stopped briefly to speak about his continuing campaign against the death penalty before performing “Jonathan”s Song,” a true story about a friend on death row whose execution he actually witnessed. Aware of the danger in preaching to a crowd that had gathered simply to hear his music, Earle explained the song”s background in a touching and straightforward manner.
“Transcendental Blues,” a single from Earle”s newest release with the same title, was truly beautiful and fragile underneath its steady rhythmic veneer. The matching chromatic guitar and vocal reprise was nothing short of heartbreaking. Interestingly, a Celtic influence was present in a few new songs. His sister (and opening artist), Stacey Earle, joined in on the chorus of “When I Fall.” With a charming, lilting twang, she also proved to be an accomplished songwriter in her own right.
There”s not much nonsense involved in a Steve Earle show. The man is all business, keeping stage banter to a minimum and his songs pleasingly short and succinct. Earle knows his audience and himself well, and recognizes that neither one has the patience for drawn-out jams or rambling solos. After all, there are lives to be lived and fun to be had.
Like anyone beginning to grow older, Earle has a bittersweet way of looking at his present life: “Maybe this is as good as it”s gonna get/And I”ll always be this way.”