Here’s to All the Poetry and Pickin’ Down the Line: Steve Earle at The Moore
When I was in the sixth grade, I received a mixtape as a Christmas present from my older sister. The cassette single-handedly ended my romance with the innocent. The lineup included AC/DC, Hendrix, Kiss, Zeppelin, CCR, Clapton, John Prine and Steve Earle. Earle’s Guitar Town had just rolled onto the country scene like a ’67 Chevy, low and sleek and black. In the first line of the title track, Earle asks, “Hey pretty baby are you ready for me?”
Well, hell yeah.
It’s hard to believe I had never seen him in concert before last Friday at The Moore in Seattle. I’ve followed him through his highs and lows, admired him, not only for going into rehab, but also for coming back — sober and fighting for social causes. Earle turned 55 on January 17 and, though he professes he’s lucky to even be here, he shows no signs of slowing: cutting albums, touring relentlessly and rallying against the death penalty and the wars in the Middle East.
I got to The Moore with enough time to make friends with some bikers from Arkansas in the basement before the show. They were sharing a table with a Tennessee native and everyone was having bourbons and beer backs. Another patron stood by the trashcan spitting tobacco. Save for a couple of yahoos, the crowd wasn’t too rowdy, and neither was the lineup. Earle’s on tour for his recent record release Townes — a tribute to his late friend, the “real country” legend Townes Van Zandt.
According to Van Zandt, there were only two kinds of music — the blues, or zippitydoodah. We were treated to an evening of the former. Earle said in preface to his cover of “Lungs:” “Van Zandt played a lot of dark and scary songs in minor keys. We need these songs. There’s nothing I hate worse than someone trying to cheer me up.”
Newcomer Hayes Carll (and his imaginary band from Austin, Texas) opened with a set of thoughtful story-songs about folks in trouble. With his distinctive voice and deadpan humor it was easy to imagine him using the tour to apprentice with the headliner.
Earle, bespectacled and dressed respectably in jeans and a plaid buttondown, looked decidedly better than Bad Blake (the Jeff Bridges character in Crazy Heart who was, perhaps, inspired by the original Hardcore Troubadour).
After the second song, a tear-inducing rendition of “Colorado Girl” (It’s been a long time, mama / since I heard you call my name), Earle launched into a guitar-accompanied introduction to his relationship with Van Zandt. The two met in Houston when Earle was just seventeen. Van Zandt attended one of his shows, sitting in the front row with his feet on the stage. (Earle says he remembered that because Van Zandt was wearing moccasins and he went out and bought some the very next day.) Van Zandt heckled Earle after every song, requesting “Wabash Cannonball.” Earle finally had to confess he didn’t know it and Van Zandt hollered, “And you call yourself a folksinger?” Earle ended up playing one of his hero’s more challenging songs, “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold,” and a friendship began.
Earle called Van Zandt a migratory beast who roamed between Tennessee, Texas and Colorado. There was a time when Van Zandt would go out to Colorado and ride his horse, Amigo, from Aspen to Crested Butte — which Earle thought was about the coolest thing he’d ever heard. Later, times got tough and Van Zandt had to sell Amigo, a decision that Earle claims broke his heart: “I believe Townes started to die a little that day.”
A couple of years ago, Earle’s tour bus was caught in a snowstorm between those same two towns when apparitions of Van Zandt and Amigo appeared. He swore he saw their figures five times that night. “That’s when I decided I’d make me a record and I knew for sure this song would be on it.” Earle strummed his guitar and started to sing, Ride the blue wind high and free / she’ll lead you down through misery / leave you low come time to go / alone and low as low can be. If “Rex’s Blues” doesn’t make you cry, you’d better soften up.
I only cried one other time during the concert, this time to an Earle original, written for Van Zandt just after his too-soon death in 1997. “Fort Worth Blues” aches with loss and remembrance of the traveling spirit that these two shared. Here’s hoping Earle keeps sharing their music for a long time.
Originally written for City Arts Online in Seattle, Washington.