in performance: steve earle

steve earle

steve earle

By way of explaining the depths of his affinity for the music of Townes Van Zandt last night at Memorial Hall in Cincinnati, Steve Earle had to also describe the kinship of their demons – specifically, their respective drug addictions. In doing so, Earle outlined a point in the early ‘90s when he was a near-destitute junkie. Curiously, Van Zandt was called in to help. “You know you’re in trouble when Townes visits you for a temperance lecture.”

With that, Earle launched into Marie, a harrowing song of love and death Van Zandt recorded for one the final albums released before his death on New Year’s Day 1977. Last night, Marie was one of the eight Van Zandt songs Earle performed from his new Townes album (an additional Van Zandt tune not featured on the recording, Rex’s Blues, was paired with the Earle original Fort Worth Blues). Some were near classics (Poncho and Lefty), some more obscure and whimsical (Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold) and some were surprisingly uplifting (To Live is to Fly, Colorado Girl) for someone usually branded as a black sheep among Texas songwriters.

Earle told the crowd one of his goals in making Townes was to illuminate the lighter side of Van Zandt’s writing. Of course, he used that bit of chat as an intro to one of his idol’s most ghastly songs, Lungs. “If this song doesn’t scare the (expletive) out of you,” Earle then admitted, “then you’re probably over medicated.”

The nearly two hour solo acoustic concert delivered in Memorial Hall’s un-air conditioned swelter sported a few early Earle favorites, too – including a still stark and devastating Goodbye along with more recently topical fare such as The Mountain, Rich Man’s War and City of Immigrants. The signature hits Guitar Town and Copperhead Road were served dutifully as encores.

But Earle clearly outlined the performance as a celebration – vindication, even – of Van Zandt’s music. In the evening’s finest tribute, Earle stirred a guitar-and-harmonica fire under the bluesy Brand New Composition – a tune of hopeful redemption despite a lyric about the singer’s new love having “arms just like two rattlesnakes.”

The devil is never far at bay in Van Zandt’s music. Leave it to Earle to make that gap seem both cheerfully and squeamishly thin.

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