Steve Earle – Boulder Theater (Boulder, CO)
We expect to hear Steve Earle boundlessly posturing on the night of a presidential speech — and as he takes the stage a half-hour late, there’s no doubt he’s been standing in front of a television backstage watching George W. Bush’s discourse in its entirety, presumably loading up on fresh ranting material.
Surprisingly, he unleashes few diatribes, relatively speaking. Sure, his first spoken words are political (“I’ve been watching the State of the Union Address and learned the world is a safer place since we attacked Iraq,” Earle says with an eye roll), and he makes note of the folks he’s performed for during this week-long solo and acoustic trek from Santa Fe, New Mexico, through five Colorado mountain towns before ending in Boulder (“I’ve played for more Republicans than I’m used to”). But for the most part, the between-song monologues are more jovial than inflammatory, and Earle lets the music make his statements.
In this intimate solo acoustic setting, Earle demonstrates what has elevated him to the songwriting stature he’s earned: Every song stands on its own when stripped of additional instrumentation. Tonight, Earle leaves behind the bluegrass bent of “Dixieland”, the electric sludge of “Taneytown” and the bombast of “Copperhead Road”. Those songs were significant before any ornamentation was added, and as such, their intellectual merit stands out.
Earle always has posited that each subsequent release isn’t his next rock album or his next country record; it’s simply the next Steve Earle album. The songs played here on the same six-string acoustic are from all stages of his career, from “Tom Ames’ Prayer”, written in 1975, to 2002’s “Ashes To Ashes”. Taken as a whole, they underscore his point.
The most endearing moment comes as Earle introduces Townes Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues” to the sold-out theater with a tale of visiting Colorado with his mentor. “I had a friend and teacher named Townes who loved these mountains more than anything in the world,” he says nostalgically, and smiles deviously at the memory. “First time I went to Crested Butte was in January 1972, and I got arrested just because I knew Townes.”
The set peaks with two tracks from Jerusalem, “John Walker’s Blues” and the title track. Earle tears down the original Tex-Mex foundation of “What’s A Simple Man To Do?”, reconstructing it into a swampy groove. Older favorites “My Old Friend The Blues”, “Someday” and “The Devil’s Right Hand” remain strong, and he offers them enthusiastically.
He encores with “Christmas In Washington”, confirming for newcomers that Earle deserves to be included on the short list of great protest singers such as Dylan and Guthrie. “We sure could use Woody right now,” he says, setting up the song. Instead, we have Steve Earle. And he continues to be his generation’s most earnest carrier of Guthrie’s flame.