Steve Earle / Allison Moorer / Laura Cantrell / Tim Easton – Southpaw (Brooklyn, NY)
According to what he told the SRO crowd at this all-acoustic CMJ songwriter’s showcase, Steve Earle had never played in Brooklyn before. But he seemed happy to be here. The youngish audience (a lot younger than him, anyway) cheered his entrance and enthusiastically mouthed the words to songs new and old.
They were on the polite side by the standards of the crowds I’ve seen Earle draw in Tennessee, which invariably include a contingent of drunk guys with mullets hollering “Copper’ead ROAD” from the back rows. But a hipster/yuppie club in the NPR-friendly enclave of Park Slope seems exactly the kind of place he’s been headed toward in recent years, what with his politicking, his anti-war songs, and his burgeoning status as a musician with Important Things to Say. (The day before this show, Earle sat on a CMJ panel about activism in music, along with Chuck D of Public Enemy.)
Having important things to say was sort of a recurring theme of the evening — maybe inevitably, given the midterm congressional elections that were, at that point, still six days off. But it wasn’t always a fortunate one. Take opener Tim Easton. His most recent album, Ammunition, has his most explicitly political work on it, including “Oh People”, “Before the Revolution” and “News Blackout”. You can’t accuse him of not putting his muscle where his mouth is: By his own account, he spent 2004 in Ohio registering voters for the presidential election. But “J.P.M.F.Y.F.” (which stands for “Jesus Protect Me From Your Followers”), one of the last numbers in his short set at Southpaw, lacks the love wrecked urgency of earlier Easton tunes such as “Troublesome Kind”. He seems more interested in saving the world these days than getting laid. Which is probably good for him, and maybe good for the world, but it hasn’t done wonders for his songs.
Laura Cantrell, a honey-voiced Nashville transplant who’s been in New York long enough to count as a homegirl, largely steered clear of politics, assembling a set of mostly originals from her three likable albums. It was her first real performance since having a baby several months earlier, and there were moments when it showed. She seemed to be feeling her way a little, and had the worst mix of the night; her voice didn’t ring like it can and should. Still, she has a brace of good songs to draw on — “Too Late Tonight”, “Early Years”, “Queen Of The Coast” — and chose her covers well: a loose, funny lope through John Hartford’s “Howard Hughes’ Blues”, a gentle but tear-stained rendition of Elvis Costello’s “Indoor Fireworks”.
The real showstopper of the evening came next, with an assertive set by Mrs. Steve Earle, a.k.a. Allison Moorer. Although her place on the bill might have signaled a deferential if not subservient place in the pecking order, nothing in her songs or voice gave ground to anyone. She is a fine songwriter, and a better-than-fine singer, with a rich southern-soul voice that is not always well served by studio arrangements. Given too sumptuous a setting, she can sound bombastic. But accompanied only by her own guitar, she easily cut through the chatter of the club, including the dimwitted hecklers who started shouting “Steve Earle!” halfway through. (Earle, for the record, could be seen peeking out from backstage.)
Moorer drew from her already impressive catalogue, ranging from her recent single “Fairweather” to the Oscar-nominated “A Soft Place To Fall”. She struck her own political notes, with the polemical “All Aboard” (“Sign up and get a flag/Wear it proudly, you can brag”) and a resonant cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”. But the most riveting moments came during “New Year’s Day”, the sad and scary song she wrote about growing up in the shadow of her parents’ violent relationship.
And then came Earle. He played some of his newer, explicitly ideological songs, including “John Walker’s Blues” and “Rich Man’s War”, and they were all right. I have a particular weakness for “F The CC,” which draws a straight line from Woodstock to “Blitzkrieg Bop”. But like Easton — and any singer-songwriter worth a damn — Earle has always been more persuasive on matters of the heart than matters of the head. None of the left-wing anthems resonated like the defensive, regretful, morally ambiguous ache of “Goodbye”.
If there was any surprise in his set, it was the reminder of how broad and deep his repertoire really is. Like any guy who’s been around for twenty years, he’s become easy to take for granted. But when you stack his highlights on top of each other — “Someday”, “The Devil’s Right Hand”, “Comin’ Around” (on which Moorer joined him) and, yes, “Copperhead Road” — you get a hell of a set list.
Earle and Moorer encored with a respectful cover of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone”. It was lyrical and lovely and 100 percent on the money. It was also exactly the song that you would expect singer-songwriters with important things to say to sing in a Brooklyn yuppie hipster bar the week before an election. At one point in the evening, someone in the crowd yelled, “Come back to Brooklyn, Steve!” That much you can probably count on.