By Earle Hitchner
STEVE EARLE AND THE DUKES. At the Roxy, 515 W. 18th St., NYC. July 19.
"Anyone here know who Sharon Shannon is?" Singer-songwriter Steve Earle, who could pass for novelist Stephen King with his black spectacles and bearish build, asked this question of the 1,000 or so patrons packed like asparagus spears on the floor of his sold-out show, the last in a three-week U.S. tour. There were a few claps of recognition, then Earle blurted, "Well, she’s the best !&%$#@ button accordion player in Ireland today!"
Switching from electric guitar to mandolin, this gifted, gruff-voiced avatar of twang rock launched raucously into "The Galway Girl" with his three-piece band and guest tin whistle player Dan Gillis. It’s a song Earle recorded in Ireland with Sharon Shannon for his latest album, "Transcendental Blues" (E-Squared/Artemis), which peaked at No. 5 on the country-music chart. (Shannon will include the song on her own album with the Woodchoppers this fall, Earle said.)
Playing both guitar and harmonica, the 45-year-old Virginia-born singer also had the Roxy audience charged up by "Steve’s Last Ramble," another original song with a decided Irish flavor and theme (the paling pleasure of wanderlust). He even added a tasty mandolin solo bearing Irish roots.
These traces of Irish influence in Earle’s music should come as no surprise. On his last album, "The Mountain," cut with Del McCoury’s brilliant bluegrass band, he played mandolin on "Connemara Breakdown" and "Paddy on the Beat." Earle wrote the two instrumentals in an Irish frame of mind, something he freshens during periodic visits to Galway, where he writes fiction and many of his songs. And farther back in his career, on the 1988 album "Copperhead Road," Earle recorded "Johnny Come
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Lately" in London with the then-popular wastrels of Irish punk-trad, the Pogues.
Bounced by more than one major commercial label (Epic, MCA, Warner Brothers) and fed up with the mainstream monte, Earle formed his own E-Squared Records label in 1995. Based on the music he’s made since, he’s a far happier, freer artist who blends many of the best attributes of John Prine, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt, and Guy Clark, in whose band he once played bass.
There’s little that Steve Earle can’t do: hard rock, grunge, metal, acid, country, bluegrass, Irish, folk, blues, and especially No Depression or alternative country. It’s an exacting, exciting blend of sounds through which he delivers some of the most trenchant and heartfelt lyrics written today.
"Wherever I Go," a rock song cleverly channeling the spirit of both Elvis Costello and Tom Petty, and the rockabilly-fueled "Copperhead Road" had people dancing. "N.Y.C.," an intentionally feedback-fringed nod to the hometown crowd, earned knowing smiles all around. And his rousing cover of the Chambers Brothers’ 1968 hit, "Time Has Come Today," elicited fist-pumping choral shouts from the audience.
Steve Earle’s penchant for straight-to-the-cortex rock, however, doesn’t overshadow his more ruminative, arguably more penetrating compositions. The ache behind "Lonelier Than This," for example, was almost palpable in a soul-baring vocal.
But nothing Earle sang this night matched the quiet, unadorned, burning intensity he brought to "Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song)." The "Jonathan" in the title refers to Jonathan W. Nobles, given a lethal injection by the State of Texas on Oct. 7, 1998, for brutally murdering two young Austin women in 1986. Earle got to know Nobles during the time he was on death row and, at the condemned man’s request, was present at his execution.
Before starting the song, Earle admitted his opposition to the death penalty. That, in turn, provoked a couple of angry crowd comments about Republican Presidential hopeful George W. Bush. "We’re all responsible," Earle firmly countered, "because we’re all part of a government that allows it."
The audience fell silent. Then Earle sang the song from the perspective of Nobles’s own leave-taking: "The world’ll turn around without me / The sun’ll come up in the east / Shinin’ down on all of them that hate me / I hope my goin’ brings ’em peace." In that moment, the stubborn scrim between art and real life had been removed.
For two and a half hours, with barely a break between songs, Steve Earle, a renegade country rocker who loves Ireland, scalded and solaced us all.