By Mike Finkelstein
Last Saturday night, veteran folk singer Steve Earle and his wife Allison Moorer played a stripped down show in a CAP UCLA concert at Royce Hall. They used a short rotation of his guitar, harmonica, and mandolin, with her guitar, accordion, and piano to give us all a reminder of how the essence of any concert is in the draw of the song. With minimal instrumentation it takes a strong song to hold an audience’s attention. Happily, Steve Earle brings over 40 years of songwriting experience to the table and he trotted out several gems for this show.
Earle was the burly guy onstage, with long hair, a long beard and dressed in faded denim, boots, a bandana wrapped around his strumming wrist…and his glasses. He initially suggested a biker image, but as the show progressed the writer in him asserted itself. From the beginning he exuded no nonsense and a very direct delivery, which is right in keeping with folk tradition of telling a straight story in a simple song. Since folk songs can often get very simple in musical terms, it’s a familiar folkie ploy to use capos up and down a guitar neck to get a different sounding inversion of a familiar chord. It tends to keep the sound fresh and Earle did move that capo around quite a bit.
The show started with Steve and Allison’s Grammy-nominated duet, “Days Aren’t Long Enough,” a shimmering reflection of finding one’s self right there in love with the one you’re singing with. Between songs, Earle’s words were stroked along by guitar strums, and he let us in on the wisdom behind some of his song’s subject matter. If there ever was a medium for someone to get on the platform and share their opinions, it is folk music. Earle’s banter was pointed, but delivered in such a calm composed way that we heard it conversationally. One nice segue involved a description of how his son found one of several loaded guns he kept at home and would not divulge where it was. After making the difficult parenting decision to send the boy to a work camp, it seems the kid ‘fessed up inside a day. (But that was the end of Earle’s keeping firearms at home). And then he went into the powerfully resigned gun control song, Johnny Cash’s aptly titled, “The Devil’s Right Hand.” The song is truly poignant and it captures, beautifully, the fascination, danger, and tragedy that are part and parcel of guns.
Earle braced us a bit before singing “Burn It Down.” In this case “it” is the local Walmart and the details of it all didn’t seem to bother anyone that I could see. It was actually refreshing to see a performer put his perhaps controversial point of view out there honestly in the open. He also dished on trade unions, reminding us of all the good that they had brought us, and on how we really would be in a much better place if we gave teachers the respect they deserve.
Not all the tunes were political but the sentimental ones could get heavy. While “Sparkle and Shine,” delivered with the capoed sound and a set of simple but sentimentally affectionate lyrics, Earle also threw in a cover of Woody Guthrie’s legendary and haunting “Deportee,” about the uncertain lives of migrant fruit pickers. And a Steve Earle set wouldn’t be complete without the inclusion of his own “Copperhead Road,” the tale of a Viet Nam vet who grows up around moonshine and takes to dealing drugs on his return. It’s a rugged, evocative song that puts you right in the middle of the narrative…and he sang it tough as nails, hammering and slicing through the chords with his thumb pick much like chopping his way through a jungle.
The Living Sisters, a local group of girls who sing like the proverbial sirens, opened the show. Backed by an upright bass and a muted cornet, the girls passed a parlor guitar between themselves and melted our hearts with their four part harmonies – tied ‘em up in “Double Knots,” actually.
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