in performance: steve earle and allison moorer

allison moorer and steve earle. photo by ted barron.

allison moorer and steve earle. photo by ted barron.

As his two-hour performance began to wind down, a few of the many artistic personas of Steve Earle came out to play together.

On the Pete Seeger-inspired Steve’s Hammer, we heard Earle the folkie and protest singer with a fist in-the-air attitude that suggested music can (and will) change a war-torn world. There was also Earle the unabashed entertainer, who strived to chisel a work song sing-a-long out of the tune. And, finally, there was Earle the obstinate crank. That was the one that wasn’t taking no for answer from audience members who wouldn’t play along.

“And no mouthing the words, either,” he scolded. “I grew up in the Methodist church. I know that trip.”

Sure, such moves transported Earle’s Texas-bred folkie heritage to the chillier pastures of Greenwich Village. But the performance also possessed a bold modernist element, especially in the tunes that augmented Earle’s solo acoustic setting with DJ Neil McDonald. For roughly half of the show, McDonald was essentially a beat master. There were a few nods to hip-hop, like sampled mutations of Earle’s voice that proved an eerie foil for the real thing on Satellite Radio. Mostly, though, McDonald’s contributions were unobtrusive and, quite often, down right earthy.

His beats stamped out a militaristic step along Earle’s minor key banjo during the singer’s newest drug-themed horrorfest, Oxycontin Blues. They tapped along like tablas behind the vocal reverb that surrounded Transcendental Blues. And on Tom Waits’ Down in the Hole, they provided a simple, finger-popping click track.

The wildest and most progressive mix of electric groove and acoustic soul, though, was on Red is the Color, a multi-generational, multi-cultural montage that blended Earle’s wiry leads on harmonica and mandolin with McDonald’s crude thumps to sound, for lack of a better description, like an Appalachian version of blues giant Howlin’ Wolf. Throw in two love songs – one was about wife and co-star Allison Moorer (Sparkle and Shine), the other was sung with her as a duet (Days Aren’t Long Enough) – and you had a program that brightly brought 11 of the 12 songs from Earle’s killer 2007 album Washington Square Serenade, to life.

The new material obviously elated Earle, who regularly laughed and grinned along to McDonald’s more ingenious beats. But veteran fans had plenty to relish, too. The performance’s first nine songs dug deep into Earle’s past. Among them, a still topically vital Ellis Unit One, a still unsentimental but heartbreaking Goodbye and a still politically charged Christmas in Washington, which began the performance.

Guitar Town, a sublime Jerusalem and a rewired Copperhead Road (performed on 6 string guitar instead of mandolin) closed the party down.

Moorer’s 35 minute opening set was a treat unto itself. Drawn mostly from her recent Buddy Miller- produced covers album Mockingbird, Moorer quietly interpreted the songs of Ma Rainey, Julie Miller, Patti Smith and, in a beautiful bit of country longing, Jessi Colter with a lovely I’m Looking for Blue Eyes.

But Moorer’s biggest treats bookended the set. Mockingbird‘s title tune, a Moorer original, was delivered with a regally forlorn Southern vocal slant while a closing cover of the Sam Cooke staple A Change is Gonna Come (a tune not featured on Mockingbird) was presented as an unforced prayer of hope and faith.

Moorer’s version of the latter did more that merely respect and invoke Cooke’s sense of gospel fire and faith. It summoned a vocal wail full of grace and soul-savvy intensity. In short, Moorer managed the near-imposssible. She gave a new artistic vitality to an ageless soul classic. For the few minutes that it rang royally around the walls of the Kentucky, the song became entirely and inarguably hers.

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