A Special Evening with Colvin and Earle at Union Chapel, London
Apart from a memorable solo show dedicated to Townes van Zandt, I’ve always seen Steve Earle with the Dukes (and the occasional Duchess). This was the first duo for me and not having heard the new record, I approached Steve’s collaboration with Shawn Colvin with slight trepidation. In no way underestimating Colvin’s success and ability, it’s just that Steve Earle has been such a dominant force that it feels strange to imagine him in a partnership of equals. Well, he is now and tonight’s show at the Union Chapel was the incontrovertible proof.
The stage was compact in this imposing building where so much good work helping the homeless is done. Not quite sold out, the venue was definitely full enough as demonstrated by the warm welcome given to Colvin and Earle. Each picking up an acoustic guitar, they tore into “Wake up Little Susie”. After that came the first of several from their album (titled strangely enough “Colvin and Earle”), “Come What May”. Next was straight into “Ruby Tuesday” then the pace became more measured; Steve said a bit about how their collaboration came about. What resonated most was his simple explanation; they’ve played each other’s songs for years and after a few shows together they decided they should make a record. But essentially what they do is to play the songs they like. Now owning a copy of the album, inside there is a photo of the two of them sitting on a sofa laughing and playing. That picture of ease in each other’s company illustrated perfectly the sense I felt last night of having been invited to sit alongside them as they played pretty much whatever came into their heads.
Not in order but thematically the set could be split into four; covers, their own back catalogues and their joint compositions.
As well as the two already mentioned, covers included “Tobacco Road”, “You Were On My Mind” and from Emmylou Harris, “Raise the Dead”. They are singing the songs they like and it showed.
They could easily have created a lengthy set purely by swapping their own songs. But that’s not a true partnership. This wasn’t turn about; instead, regardless of whose song it was, both not only participated but added a new dimension to each song. Notables were Earle’s “Someday”, preceded by quite a detailed account of his struggle in securing his first publishing contract and record deal. “Guitar Town” was released thirty years ago! We also had a stripped down but still powerful “Galway Girl”. Colvin confessed to her compositions being dominated by the single theme of breaking up, the ultimate being “Burnin’ It Down”, described by Earle as an arsonist’s song. “Diamond in The Rough” was a particular example of Colvin’s strong voice, another reminder that they’ve done the solo gig for years.
Finally, and probably the most interesting aspect was their own material. “Tell Moses” which moves from Pharoahs in ancient Egypt to Selma, Alabama in 1965 and on to Ferguson, Missouri. “Happy and Free”, “You’re Still Gone” and the dark, even by Earle’s standards, “You’re Right (I’m Wrong)”.
I liked this show a lot and came away seeing both in a fresh light. I suspect there are some Steve Earle fans who may struggle with anything beyond the Dukes. I love the Dukes but we all need a new challenge from time to time and this looks like one for both Colvin and Earle. Blending Colvin’s meticulous approach with Earle’s speed is no easy mix. Tonight was probably not the finished article, by their own admission as an early show they were still getting into the live set last night but there is no doubt they make a potent combo that is definitely worth following. Steve said they would be back in October and I certainly intend to be there. Anyone interested in these legendary troubadours should be there too.
Postscript. I’m sure someone will review the album but having listened to it again this morning, two thoughts spring to mind. The first is the sheer quality of the record’s production and musicians (Jill and Buddy Miller, Richard Bennett) and second, that performing as an acoustic duet is not easy. That gives even greater weight to this partnership.