Learning Steve Earle

Folk festival patrons, at least in my city, are pretty responsible about their beer, tougher than the weather, radically considerate and likely to be sporting some grey. (Or if not, more hair than generally goes well with a power suit.) So I’d have known, even without paying attention to the program, that Steve Earle was about to take the Ottawa stage. The flushed posse of X- and Y-types – generations, not chromosomes – filed in front of my carefully selected, four-hours-earned, low-slung chaired location. They’d been in hiding, I guess, in the beer tents until the no-names had gotten out of the way. They strode, boldly and without fear of offence, to stand in front of us and help good ol’ Steve with his performance.

I’m a great believer in lost or long-shot causes, but I wasn’t going to wait for them to sit down. So I stood shoulder to beery shoulder with my new best friends. I learned some things; a few of them actually knew his more recent stuff, including The Revolution Starts…Now (and hey, it won a Grammy, I learned that) and not just “Guitar Town” and “Hillbilly Highway” from his 1980s hit-single days. (Lord knows, a lot of water and whisky and such under the bridge since then. And a lot of music, too, especially in the last 10 years.) And there was the man, with two roadies but no band, and caring little enough for stage-craft and slickness that he wore glasses, no hat for his balding head and a bit of paunch under the untucked plaid. Sure, he sang “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied” early in the proceedings, and closed with “Copperhead Road”. But in between, he determinedly sang what he wanted to, leaving power chords and drumbeats behind (at least on this trip).

It was a soulful, uncluttered performance. He’s a real songwriter, better than I’d thought, and he dealt ‘em out without much fanfare. The bellowed requests from the bar-crowd slowed down after he drawled, “You know, this is kinda like my job. I think I remember the playlist…” Was he going through the motions? I don’t think so, but I’ve never seen him live before. Certainly there was some discontent about the low-key individuality of the show, but not from the majority folkies. They were there to listen, I guess, more than to dance, and they were generally more receptive to the angry politics of “Rich Man’s War”, for example, or to the rambling introduction to a song Earle dedicated to his mentor, Townes Van Zandt, “the best I ever saw”. Because he was noodling along on guitar while telling the Townes story, one of the younger rebels-without-a-clue roared, embarrassingly, “This f—in’ song sucks!” Earle managed to ignore him. Whether through serenity or fatigue, I don’t know, but while I would’ve enjoyed a band and some rocking, I found it a better roster of songs than the 20th Century Masters sale-rack collection had led me to believe. Nice. Simple, strong, lonely and angry.

So I know Earle’s work a little better now. I have a better anecdote than repeating this deliciously nasty comment he’s said to have muttered about one of the heirs to his Alt-Country legacy, Shania Twain: “she’s the best-paid lap dancer in America”. (He’ll bite the machine that feeds him.) He’s lived and suffered and fought (not always very wisely, though he’s beaten his drug demons). He stands for causes bigger than record sales. And what might have been most most impressive, in hindsight, is that he didn’t let the show be stolen by the Canucks that preceded him on stage.

Dawn Tyler Watson and Paul Deslauriers are a superb blend: gospel/blues and the rocking kind, black woman and white man, one engaging voice and two nimble guitar hands. And just ahead of them was another eclectic pair: the young cellist Anne Davison accompanying an ukulele virtuoso – and now I believe it, there IS such a thing! – James Hill. I was astonished, my head reeling from a friggin’ cello/ukulele duo! Incredible technique and passion burst from one tiny instrument (and one chubby one) and two musicians who looked like underfed grad students. (One is — a student, that is.) I couldn’t even figure out how Hill was making those intricate and searing sounds, but at least I had a great look. My new best friends (and their good buddy Steve) hadn’t moved into the neighbourhood yet.

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