It’s been 21 years since I first met and interviewed the hardcore troubador, Steve Earle. Twenty-one years since he granted a teenager, sitting outside a concert venue, a totally unplanned interview, where we chatted about justice, the death sentence, and life. Twenty-one years since I sat outside with his bassist-since-’88 Kelly Looney and we talked about the Bulgarian Women’s Music Choir.
Twenty-one years later, and Steve Earle, along with Looney and a full band including his wife Allison Moorer are here as partof the Vancouver International Jazz Festival (which clearly likes to experiment with its music, seein’ as Earle is, uh, everything but jazz. And mostly country.)
Now, it’s only been a year or so since Earle was last in town (as part of the 2010 Cultural Olympiad), solo with his guitar and lots of stories, but this time the gig is a bit different.
The band – five extra, exemplary musicians, all – are locked in. The audience, grey. It’s a big, posh venue, like last time, and Earle is running through every track from his new album I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. It sounds slick.
And I’m not sure I like slick from Steve…
…Which makes “Molly-O” – the black sheep on a fairly smooth beautiful country platter – by far the highlight. It’s a song, Earle explains, that exists “because I have a friend called Joe Henry, who is pretty much the best songwriter ever. And he wrote a song about a serial killer in the 1800s that made me so jealous I could spit. So I couldn’t rest until I wrote something at least that fucked up.” It’s classic Steve, and classic Steve spins a really good yarn.
But tonight? Not so much. Has to be said.
Certainly, he talks about war and economics, (“it’s amazing the pinko shit you can get away with on a bluegrass record”) before “Dixieland”, a track he did with Del McCoury, and lends support to union workers by way of introducing “The Mountain” (“If you’ve got a boss, you need a union. Simple.”). And he tells us about “a story that needs to be told” about New Orleans and the guitar his character “Harley” uses in the N’awlins-based TV show Treme, before he sings “This City.”
But things aren’t quite as relaxed as when he was last in town, riffing about his hero Townes Van Zandt. The songs sound a wee bit too clean. Earle may have found peace, sobriety – and the songs still tell wonderful tales – but the audience seems to wants the edgier stuff. “Tell us a story!” someone yells from the balcony, at the very second I was hoping for the same thing.
Still, there is muddy and murk and wonderfulness: ‘course there’s the CLASSIC “Copperhead Road” (yeeha!). And “Meet Me in the Alleyway” is a Tom Wait-sy mic’d harmonica sludge that’s stunning. “Taneytown” is a harrowing story told from the view of a young black man. “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied” is a universal truth. They’re all brilliant.
And there was the band’s stuff: the three songs Earle lets his missus Moorer sing, the songs that The Mastersons – violinist Eleanor Whitmore and Chris Masterson – sing, and the song that good ol’ Kelly Looney sings. It’s generous to let the Dukes & Duchesess in, and all delightful and polished and…slick.
But when he drops that? Rocks a bit harder? And tells more stories? Steve Earle is still up there in my estimation…
…meanwhile I am down here, alone in an over-lit hallway backstage while the band finish up their second set and second encore. Two hours and 40 minutes, and 21 years later and I’m about to meet the only country musician I ever gave a crap about.
Then I hear the voice – that drawl – as Steve Earle tiredly comes down the stairs, talking about his backstage rider. “I think there’s some food down there,” he says, “but it’s the same vegetables from mountain to mountain.” He laughs. Then he sees me, the Backstage Rider, and greets me with a nod and a “Hey” and disappears into his dressing room.
But I’m not going to lose the precious quiet moments before the band goes outside to meet the throng and sign merch. After a chat with Eleanor Whitmore, and giving Waylon from The Wire/ Harley from Treme a few minutes to unwind, I delicately pounce and tell him my story: how we’d last met in 1990 and he was charitable to a teenager, and granted her an interview just right off the street. How she’d wanted to be a music writer and now is, and how that day made a lasting impression on her. Earle smiled, said cooul repeatedly and remarked, “Oh yeah, I remember that, some scalper tried to scalp me a ticket to my own show!”. We laugh. Then I tell Looney about what we’d talked about that day. “Oh yeah, I remember that, the Bulgarian Women’s Music Choir! ‘Cuz I’d just seen that show!”.
I thank them both and take my leave. And oh yeah, it was nice to remember that. \m/
All photos by Brittney Kwasney/ Bright Photography.
With thanks to Coastal Jazz & Blues Society.
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