Upon exiting Steve Earle’s sold out solo performance last night at the Opera House, an audience member made a point of letting me know that the show was “too political.” Another, outside on Short St., was ecstatic about the evening, waxing on about how the concert was the best of Earle’s many outings in Lexington over the past two decades. While it was hardly their intention, both underscored a fascinating duality that has long existed within Earle’s music. Admittedly, the contrasts run more to the emotive and, at times, spiritual extremes of the Texan-turned-New Yorker’s songs than to political ends. But they were in glorious abundance nonetheless during the two hour performance.
An opening set of Townes Van Zandt tunes set the attitude in motion. The late, legendary Texas songsmith proved to be a massive presence during the concert. Earle played a total of nine Van Zandt songs, eight of which came from his recent Townes tribute album (the lone exception was Rex’s Blues, which Earle has long performed as a medley with his own Ft. Worth Blues). But the show opening Where I Lead Me and Colorado Girl also emphasized the extraordinary contrasts within the music and the performance itself. The chilly world cast of the former (“the street’s just fine if you’re good and blind, but it ain’t where you belong”) was enforced by Earle’s magnetically weatherbeaten vocals. The latter song’s honestly country mindset was open, almost romantic in comparison. Earle responded in kind with vocals full of folky solace and hope.
And so it went, two by two, for much of the evening. The almost Dylan-esque narrative of Van Zandt’s Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold prefaced the dire, destitute Marie, a song Van Zandt introduced to Earle at the height of the latter’s early ‘90s drug addictions. At the end of the set, Earle slammed two extraordinary Van Zandt opposites together, using the ghostly Lungs as a lead in for the striking reawakening of To Live is to Fly.
Earle approximated such pairings with his own music as well. Wife and opening act Allison Moorer joined in as two songs from 2007’s Washington Square Serenade album were placed side by side (the global village reverie City of Immigrants and the more overtly romantic Days Aren’t Long Enough) while wildly differing tales of rural strife played out when the violent airs of Taneytown gave way to the pin-drop-quiet of Goodbye. Similar rural boundaries were drawn during an encore that placed the faithful Harlan Man next to the renegade Copperhead Road
But the most homespun duality surfaced late in the performance when Earle matched an immoveable song of rural tradition and survival (the title tune to 1999’s The Mountain) with his most profound prayer of peace (the title tune to 2002’s Jerusalem)
Political/entertaining; dark/light; romantic/worldly – those were just a few of the epic contrasts on display during this sublime performance. How appropriate it was, then, that it took to the music of two master songsmiths last night to stitch such myriad themes and emotions together.
Moorer’s sadly brief opening set was a delight as well. It mixed inspired covers (Patti Smith’s Dancing Barefoot), homeland inspired originals (Alabama Song, Getting Somewhere) and few fine unrecorded previews from a forthcoming album. But it was Moorer’s vocals – clean, unforced and regally Southern – that gave her luscious Americana portraits such rich, electric vitality.