Steve Earle showed up at the 9:30 club in a feistier-than-average mood, which these days is pretty feisty. Rock's most outspoken critic of President Bush and the war on terror, Earle has become a pundit for peace and Monday he'd just come from a taping of CNN's "Crossfire." He thought it had gone pretty well.
"Tucker Carlson never laid a [expletive] glove on me," he said.
Earle the musician and Earle the left-wing conscience of roots-rock have coexisted in relative harmony for most of this burly troubadour's 16-year career. But that Carlson quip -- as well as a sarcastic suggestion to immediately bomb Iraq and "see what happens" that sneaked into the opening song, "Amerika V. 6.0" -- raised the possibility that Earle would let his urge to rant trump his urge to rock.
It did, but only during the final 15 minutes of this two-hour show, when he rambled through a stern if heartfelt sermon about the handbasket this country is going to Hell in. There was finger-wagging about materialism -- water beds, oddly enough, came in for particular abuse -- the state of our nation's health care system and the news bulletin that invading Iraq will "make us a nation of racists."
Bookended by his dukes-up opening and his dogmatic finish was a taut, smoldering show in which Earle left the rest of his talking to a couple of dozen songs -- which are a lot easier to take than speeches, even if some are every bit as exasperating as their author. Much of the set was drawn from his latest, "Jerusalem," an album with some of his most overtly political songs to date, among them "John Walker's Blues," which purports to tell the first-person story of that American who left California to join the Taliban.
The song veers into absurdity when Earle slathers his Texas accent on a chorus sung in an Arabic dialect. (Even the greats need editors.) But "Walker" gets points for guts, since it sympathizes with its protagonist, here portrayed as a kid who discovered Allah when he found MTV, soda pop and the rest of American consumer culture a little meaningless.
If it sounds radical, Earle seemed eager on Monday to prove through his selection of songs that "Walker" is just an internationally scaled example of themes that have consumed him for years. All night, he reintroduced a host of blue-collar antiheroes who only want to high-tail it from whatever empty dump they're stuck in.
Among them: "Good Ol' Boy (Gettin' Tough)," from his 1986 debut, "Guitar Town," about a redneck who feels he was born at the wrong time. "Just my luck," he howls, "I was born in the land of plenty, now there ain't enough." And the hard-rocking "N.Y.C.," from 1997's "El Corazon," about a hick who is hitchhiking to Manhattan solely because he heard the girls there are good-looking.
Earle gave his tender side some stage time with ballads like "Poison Lovers," but he kept his whimsical, fool-for-love numbers to a minimum. Bluegrass touches were added with a mandolin, which Earle strummed solo for a tension-building minute that introduced "Copperhead Road." Everyone else in this four-piece band, which was occasionally augmented with a couple of backup singers, stuck to mid-tempo rock and grungy overtones. The night had a grizzled intensity and, with a show-ending version of the Youngbloods' 1967 classic "Get Together," some grace notes of hope.