Tuesday, October 9, 2007


I’m not sure whom the above quote could belong to, other than Steve Earle. I caught his show at New York City’s Town Hall the day after he released his great new album, Washington Square Serenade.

It would be tempting to say that the show was, or could have been, his “Dylan at Newport” moment, because he had a DJ on stage with him. “Earle Goes Electronic!” Washington Square Serenade is very beat- and loop-heavy, but in a semi-subtle way.

When some artists make this kind of move, it’s almost like a marketing thing: you can almost hear the record label folks saying, “It’ll expose (him/her/them) to a whole new audience!”

In Steve Earle’s case, he recently moved from Nashville to New York City. His longtime band, The Dukes, did not move with him. Steve worked on his new album with John King of The Dust Brothers (the guys who worked on The Beastie BoysPaul’s Boutique and Beck’s Odelay), who knows a thing or two about using beats and samples. So, the album was more a result of his life situation than “How do I appeal to the rave crowd?”

There seem to be two other big influences on the album: his new wife, singer/songwriter Allison Moorer. So, this album is less political than the last two (that said, the first single is “City Of Immigrants,” and in the liner notes he mentions “P.S. Fuck Lou Dobbs!”). He’s also profoundly influenced by the history of Washington Square and the village, and folk music in general. I think he may have a future folk classic (how many of those are being written these days?) with “Steve’s Hammer (For Pete).” I’m guessing “Pete” is Pete Seeger.

Anyway, the show was incredible. It was mainly Steve, solo and acoustic, with Allison joining him occasionally (she also opened th show, and he joined her on stage as well), and a DJ also joined him a few times.

But really, all the DJ did was activate drum loops (he only did cutting and scratching on “Satellite Radio,” and even there he didn’t do much). So, it wasn’t really so radical. I think most of Steve Earle’s fans are open minded enough to be OK with it: I don’t think anyone got too bent out of shape about the loops. But really, he didn’t need a DJ – he could have trigged any of that stuff with a footpedal. Mostly the DJ would just start the beat, and then end it at the end of the song.

Anyway, the thing about Steve Earle is that he has such a commanding presence on stage, even with just a guitar, he’s incredible. His songs are really powerful, and as a songwriter I put him in Springsteen’s league: he really is such a great narrator. To me, it’s just one of the injustices of contemporary music that he isn’t headlining arenas.

So, did anyone yell “Judas!” as one fan famously did to Bob Dylan at one of The Bard’s first rock shows (hear it yourself on The Bootleg Series Vol. 4)? No, but surely some folks in the audience wished Steve was playing with the Dukes, or just wasn’t using a DJ.

It wasn’t his “Dylan at Newport” moment. I think it might be his “Human Touch” moment. As Bruce Springsteen did when he recorded the Human Touch and Lucky Town albums, Steve has just moved his home base; like Springsteen during that period, Steve is happily in a relationship, is still disenchanted with the state of things, and is also trying something new artistically (which many fans no doubt hope will pass in a year or two). By the way, when Bruce reunited with the E Street Band in 1999, it was really exciting – because they hadn’t played together in some time.

I saw Bruce Springsteen’s tour for the Human Touch and Lucky Town albums three times and loved each show. I actually thought the shows were better than the one E Street show I’d seen on the Tunnel Of Love tour. I knew The E Street Band were a better band than the guys he was using, but at the same time, it was fun to see Bruce doing something different, and he was clearly enjoying it, which made it more enjoyable than Tunnel Of Love, which to me seemed like a forced show . I actually love a lot of the songs from Bruce's early '90s era.

So, here’s hoping for the eventual Dukes reunion. But for now, I’m enjoying where Steve is at today.

* Oh yeah, the “commie hillbilly” thing. Someone at the show kept yelling out for “Hardcore Troubadour” – which is not just the title of a great Steve song, but also the name of his new SIRIUS Radio show on the excellent channel Outlaw Country (produced, like Underground Garage, by Little Steven). Anyway, at some point, this lady yells out, “Steve, if you don’t play ‘Hardcore Troubadour,’ I won’t get laid tonight!” To which he replied, “Hey, I’m just a commie hillbilly, I’m not that powerful.” But he did play the song in the encore anyway.

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