An Evening With Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle (Union Chapel, London)
In the interests of full disclosure I admit right here at the start that there is no way this is going to be an unbiased review. I’m not some kind of “journalist.” I love Steve Earle. Actually I sort of love Shawn Colvin too, but up until yesterday evening it was a more detached sort of love, the kind that meant I only had one of her albums (2012’s All Fall Down) and really I only bought that because a) she was in Treme and b) she reminds me of my mum and my aunties on the cover. Something to do with her exceedingly Irish face, the cigarette in her hand and her weary, be-off-with-your-nonsense stare. Compare this with Steve Earle, every one of whose sixteen studio albums I own. However, I’ve always liked All Fall Down and meant to get more of her stuff. So this gig was a nice prospect.
It was billed as ‘A Special Evening’ at the Union Chapel in Islington. It’s a beautiful venue. Still a church, and also a centre for the homeless, and yet (as a poster in the toilet announced) voted London’s favourite music venue in 2014. We were sitting fairly close to the front and in the middle section, able to spend plenty of time admiring the rose window and the stained glass depictions of ‘St Gabriel’ and ‘St Michael’ (always confused by angels being called saints, but maybe that’s just me).
The crowd was a little different to that at the concerts I usually go to – or, no, I’m kidding myself: it was actually more like an exaggerated version – old is the word I’m flirting with here. It was a load off my mind when the doors opened and they could all get in out of the rain. There were three women in the pew behind us who were really getting into the Joni Mitchell tape that was playing before the start. To the extent of singing along (not to say swaying) with ‘Big Yellow Taxi’. My companion became agitated, pointing out to me in a whisper that even people who like Joni Mitchell think ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ is an embarrassing piece of whimsy (he may not have used those words). Admittedly, there was a longhaired but clean lad right beside us of a comparable age to ourselves, who at the end of the gig sat cheering whilst doing a devil sign with one hand, and with the other clutching the Capri-Sun from which he was drinking. This seemed to sum something up.
And then on came Shawn and Steve looking brilliant, reminding me that after all it’s OK to be older especially if you have the chutzpah to do it while wearing white platform boots like something out of Austin Powers and an A-line black dress. (That was Shawn.) At one point she quipped that she was struggling to read the song lyrics laid out at her feet because she was too vain to wear her glasses onstage, at which point Steve said he was OK to wear his because ‘it doesn’t make any fucking difference.’ Which is true. But no reflection on his demeanour. It’s not his fault that all the hipsters are wearing beards like that (which possibly they’re not anymore; the mark of the young last night, all two of them, was dungarees. A great surprise to this Provincial Lady).
They opened up with ‘Wake Up, Little Susie’; a clarion call for the elderly audience and good fun. Steve said that doing covers was like fantasy for a performer. A bit later they did ‘Ruby Tuesday’ – my companion was repulsed, mostly because he hates the song anyway but additionally because they sang it slow and with gravitas. Personally I think the point was that the words are actually a great deal more serious than most of us remember when singing it at weddings, but he remained unconvinced – anyway, afterwards Steve said, ‘That’s what I mean about fantasy, I mean when I do that song I get to be Mick and Keith, what the fuck.’ Straightening up from tuning her guitar, Shawn said, ‘What does that make me?’ They did a Beatles one later (‘Baby’s In Black’). I think they knew the crowd better than I did.
The instruments were all a bit recalcitrant, there was a lot of tuning going on. It reminded me of that bit in the Nirvana: Unplugged album where (if you’re fourteen and a bit obsessive and turn your stereo up at the right time) you can hear someone saying in the background, ‘Tell a joke, Kurt,’ which is when Kurt says, ‘What are they tuning, a harp?’ Last night there was a good deal of badinage, and one bit where Steve told a bit of his (magnificent, tragic, epic, tawdry) life story while playing the opening chords for ‘Someday’ the whole time. But I must say he did much less talking than he has on the previous two occasions I’ve seen him perform: the first time alone (he played a two-hour set: the man has a ludicrously brilliant back catalogue. I’ve never actually heard him play any of my four or five favourite of his songs, and I don’t even care), when he found time to exhort us on the importance of keeping hold of the NHS and of paying firefighters properly; and the second which was a big old rock gig featuring his backing band, The Dukes. But last night he wasn’t in charge, he was one of two performers of equal weight and I must say everything was very equally divided (including the applause) and it seemed an incredibly nice and supportive relationship.
Steve finished off that brief enough monologue, pre-‘Someday’, by saying that at the darkest time of his life (his last, lost years of heroin addiction and his subsequent prison sentence), there were two points of light – the rumours he’d heard: that Emmylou Harris had recorded ‘Guitar Town’, and that Shawn Colvin had recorded ‘Someday.’
It is a cracking song.
The setlist was pleasing; all the songs off their new collaborative album (Colvin & Earle; it really is that simple) got played, along with a small handful of their respective hits – the ones they were never not going to do – ‘Galway Girl’ and ‘Copperhead Road’ for Steve and ‘Diamond In The Rough’ and ‘Sunny Came Home’ for Shawn. She claimed she only writes break-up songs, and said she was honoured that Steve called ‘Sunny’ the ‘ultimate break-up song’. ‘That’s because it’s a fucking murder ballad,’ corroborated Steve.
Some of the new songs they wrote together are great, especially ‘Come What May’ (rough around the edges but with an irresistible chorus) and especially especially ‘You’re Right (I’m Wrong),’ which is the song of an old lover – a lover almost too tired to be bitter. They had the audience singing along to ‘Tell Moses’ – ‘water is wide, milk and honey on the other side’ – and feeling pretty radical, since it finishes with a verse about happenings in Ferguson, Missouri. And then there was ‘You’re Still Gone,’ co-written with Julie Miller. It’s an exquisitely sad and gentle testament to loss which, last night, Steve dedicated to the late Guy Clark – one of his great mentors.
And then they were gone, leaving us happy/sad like always, a cheering, whistling crowd if also an inherently, Britishly polite and somewhat aged one. I became aware during the course of this evening that Steve Earle (61 years old on his last birthday) and Shawn Colvin (Wikipedia tells me 60) are old enough now not to give a fuck about being cool. Because they know they are.
If that isn’t something to aspire to.
Wake Up Little Susie
Come What May
You Were On My Mind
Raise The Dead
That Don’t Worry Me Now
The Way That We Do
You’re Right (I’m Wrong)
Burnin’ It Down
Sunny Came Home
Happy and Free
You’re Still Gone
Baby’s In Black
Diamond In The Rough