Moorer & Earle: Mismatched

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Folk-rock lovebirds Allison Moorer and Steve Earle beautied and beasted up the sold-out Birchmere on Sunday, the first of two nights together at the club.

The fair wife, Moorer, could have used more support during her all-solo opening set. Sure, she warbled fine tunes written by other folks (among them Julie Miller's "Orphan Train" and Patti Smith's "Dancing Barefoot") in a very fine voice, and showed she can summon up twang and sass whenever she wants. But, for whatever reason, she didn't do much summoning. Backed by just her own lightly strummed guitar and favoring too many torpid tempos, Moorer's performance bordered on indifference.

Conversely, the closing set from hirsute hubby Earle could have used less backing. Earle moved to New York from Nashville a few years ago and wants everybody to know about how much it changed him. But he's not content to just sing songs that say "Hey, I've moved to N.Y.C.!," which was the message of his first tune of the night, "Tennessee Blues." No, he also has added urban cliches to his live act, so he spent much of his set accompanied by a DJ and singing (on "Satellite Radio," "Down Here Below" and "Oxycontin Blues," among others) over various sampled beats, scratches and vocal loops. It takes a huge amount of courage or craziness or both for a 53-year-old white guy raised in south central Texas to suddenly make a play for hip-hop credibility, but that's what Earle is trying to pull off. Alas, the results often fell somewhere between karaoke and Weird Al Yankovic.

Yet when the DJ wasn't around, Earle delivered solo versions of several old gems ("Someday," "Devil's Right Hand" and "Galway Girl") and at least one new instant classic (his love song to Moorer, "Sparkle and Shine"). So no matter where he lays his hat, Earle is still better than most, and maybe even all, of the rest at folky songwriting.

-- Dave McKenna

© 2008 The Washington Post Company