In setting the tone for their duo performance earlier tonight at the Lexington Opera House, Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle went right for the holy grail of harmony rich folk-pop by opening with “Wake Up Little Susie.” Of course, the veteran songsmiths – billed officially as Colvin & Earle for this tour as well as a recent Buddy Miller-produced album – revealed little of the playful exactness of the Everly Brothers, who popularized the tune nearly 60 years ago. Colvin and Earle have decades of hard touring and songs than run from the topically tormented to the emotionally stark to fortify their reputations. Instead, “Susie” was an effective and elemental blueprint of what was to come – namely, two artists singing the vast portion of the evening’s 20 song, 100 minute set in unison. There was ample harmony, to be sure – albeit one of a more grizzled variety. But the singing spoke remarkably well to the program’s simple makeup as well as to the pair’s catalog of restless and often harrowing songs.
Colvin was more dominant in the overall sound mix, which was a plus. Her vocals, largely unblemished by age, conveyed clarity, delicacy and, when called for – as in the duo sneer of “You’re Right (I’m Wrong),” one of the original tunes from the “Colvin & Earle” album, which was performed in its entirety – sobering authority. Earle remained the gruffer one, still is possession of a humid Texas drawl that managed to masque itself during some of the evening’s more engaging cover tunes (including a leisurely take on the ‘60s folk/pop gem “You Were On My Mind”) while unapologetically letting itself spill during the coarser harmony lines of the Rolling Stones classic “Ruby Tuesday.”
As much as the singing was spotlighted, it was still the songs – the originals, specifically – that quietly ignited the performance. Two of the newer “Colvin & Earle” tunes that closed the set underscored that. “Tell Moses” professed faith by leap frogging from Jerusalem to Selma, Ala. to Ferguson, Mo. with a sing-a-long chorus of hope (“water is wide, milk and honey on the other side”) for each locale. Just as emotive was “You’re Still Gone,” a story of death and loss co-penned by both artists and Julie Miller that let its sorrow speak with profound but unsentimental grace.
There were a few works pulled from the pair’s respective solo careers that were sung separately (Colvin’s murderous “Sunny Came Home” and Earle’s celebratory “The Galway Girl”). But their histories collided on the latter’s “Someday,” a tune Colvin cut for her “Cover Girl” album in 1994. Earle introduced the tune by recounting his early career success and subsequent descent to addiction (described only as time in “a very dark place”). His lone points of comfort during those days came “when I learned Emmylou Harris cut ‘Guitar Town’ and Shawn Colvin cut ‘Someday.’” With that, the two raised their somewhat battle weary voices for the evening’s most unified and commanding wake-up call.