Earle falls short at Berklee with Van Zandt tunes

A review of Steve Earle at the Berklee Performance Center on May 29, 2009

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One of the first things I knew about Townes Van Zandt was what Steve Earle said about him. The quote has probably become a paraphrase in my mind, but as I recall, he called Townes Van Zandt "the best damn songwriter there is, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that." Over time, I learned more about Van Zandt’s songs, and Earle’s got a point. But the thing that strikes me about it only now is that, years later, the image of Steve Earle standing on Bob Dylan’s coffee table (and, of course, Dylan falling back before this righteous angel come to correct his arrogant self-regard) still comes to mind when I think of Van Zandt, as much as the image of rain falling on a conga drum or a lonely cowboy dying slowly in a hotel in Cleveland. This tells you something about Steve Earle: the man knows how to make an image that sticks.
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For many listeners, Earle is still tied to his 1988 hit, "Copperhead Road", which certainly has its share of persistent images. Surprisingly for a pop-country hit, the song holds up for much more than its catchy melody and hard-rock hooks. Covering the lives and untimely deaths of three generations of an Appalachian family in about four minutes, with guitar breaks, the song could be a capsule summary of a Faulkner novel, had that worthy writer been around for the return of the Vietnam veterans to an America unready to receive them. Certainly the song calls to mind Faulkner’s dictum: the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.

Fast forward a few years, and Earle’s career has come to a screeching halt largely due to his practice of a peculiarly Western form of acupuncture. Fortunately, Earle ultimately returned to music and has enjoyed a rather successful career since, developing a reputation as a strong songwriter and an outspoken political activist. For his most recent album, Earle turned to the music of his friend and mentor, Townes Van Zandt, recording a selection of fifteen of that writer’s songs, and so when he took the stage at the Berklee Performance Center on Friday night, it was with a mix of his own and Van Zandt’s material. From the start, it was clear that this mix was working nicely. While Earle and Van Zandt have little in common as songwriters, their songs play well together. The format of the concert was fairly loose – one or two of Steve’s songs, one or two from Townes, and so on, with stories about the songs and about Van Zandt and about anything else that came to mind in between.

As the night went along, Earle occasionally ventured into politics, speaking concisely and sensibly on his concerns. While I expect I’d have some points of argument with him, I think we’d agree on the broadest points, and I certainly appreciated the clarity with which he expressed a well-considered view. Those views were not stridently represented in his songs, thankfully. Some songs, like "City Of Immigrants" come close to strident, but (as in the case of "Copperhead Road") they are redeemed by a telling image that returns the song to the land of the human from the allegorical Empyrean. For the most part, though, Earle is a very human writer, and his songs tend to tell human stories, as do those of Van Zandt.

So we had a fine songwriter with an ability to connect with his audience, singing his own songs and those of one of the best writers ever, in a nice room with a friendly crowd. So much to like, and I tried to enjoy it. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I did, entirely. While there were moments where the songs came through nicely, Earle’s delivery was very uneven. His enunciation ranged from sloppy to atrocious, with whole lines disappearing into a sort of consonant-free mush, and his dynamic range came mostly in shades of loud. For a song like "Valentine’s Day" or "Hometown Blues", the lack of subtlety was deadly, and a night of music allat top volume is not easy to listen to.

The poor enunciation, it must be said, was not a concern for the die-hard fans who made up the bulk of the audience. They were far more taken by the sheer energy of his delivery and the political sentiments which, as it happened, aligned nicely with their own. For the fan, this lack of subtlety was a sign of commitment, to the song and to the cause, and was a thing to be celebrated. Unfortunately, for those who are not yet fans, it was a barrier between them and the songs. This is especially unfortunate, because Earle was up on that stage with material from two very fine songwriters, and by taking his die-hard fan base for granted, he didn’t serve himself or his mentor well.&

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