Fab Four 2000

Steve Earle - Justin Townes Earle

Riviera Theatre - Chicago

[February 23, 2001]

First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2001, Volume 8, #4

Written by John Metzger

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This year, Steve Earle was nominated for his seventh Grammy this time for his gem of an album Transcendental Blues and although he didn't win (again), this seems to be about the only thing keeping Earle from relative obscurity. It's unfortunate. Earle is a truly gifted songwriter, and his take on Americana roots-rock is more wildly eclectic than most. That's not in any way a bad thing from an artistic perspective, but in these days of mass-produced, mass-marketed mundane music, it's hard to get a fair shake from commercial radio even from those that claim to play a broader range of styles.

Yet, Earle has fared better than many of America's great songwriters, routinely selling out Chicago's sizeable Riviera Theatre rather than settling for smaller, more intimate venues such as Schuba's or Fitzgerald's. On February 23, it was to the Riviera that he and The Dukes returned for a concert that touched upon each phase of his career.

Granted, the set list bore a striking resemblance to Earle's appearance at the Lincoln Park Zoo last summer, but why mess with a good thing? The first 90 minutes of the concert was meticulously constructed so as to tell a bit of an autobiographical story. The truth is that Earle has been married six times to five people, so he certainly has something to say about life, love, and being on the road. On Another Town and Someday, he defined his nomadic lifestyle and his need to keep moving. In Hard-Core Troubadour, he left behind a trail of broken hearts, but he found that he was still lonely. And as his solitary life caught up with him in My Old Friend the Blues, he turned to his words and his songs for comfort. Eventually, he found love (I Can Wait), walked away from it (Steve's Last Ramble), and realized what he'd lost (I Don't Want to Lose You Yet), before finally coming to terms with the notion that it just wasn't meant to be (Goodbye). Fortunately, the story has a happy ending as signified by the marriage of the bluegrass Harlan Man and the Celtic jig Galway Girl.

Yet, Earle's set wasn't limited to traversing just a lyrical theme. He and his band, which featured Will Rigby on drums, Eric Ambel on guitar, and Kelly Looney on bass, seamlessly shape-shifted like musical chameleons from one style to another. A punishing cover of Nirvana's Breed was set up perfectly by the white light, white heat intensity of NYC and The Unrepentant. Earle's country-rock roots often reflected the stylistic approach of the Rolling Stones, and after mixing The Beatles with The Byrds on More Than I Can Do, Earle dove headfirst into the Revolver-era psychedelic fable The Boy Who Never Cried.

In truth, Earle didn't stray far from The Beatles or the Stones for most of the night. Looney's bass playing added a rippling, Paul McCartney-esque undercurrent to the songs; Rigby's metronomic rhythm kept pace with perfect precision la Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts; Ambel's guitar leads alternately captured the statesman-like soul of George Harrison and the steely slide of Mick Taylor; and on occasion, Ambel and Looney even went so far as to share a microphone to add their voices to Earle's in three-part harmony. As for Earle, he merged the attitude and posturing of John Lennon with the pop songcraft of Paul McCartney a part which he sincerely relished. I Can Wait felt like a lost track from the Rubber Soul sessions with its emotional honesty and frosted acoustic etchings, while This Highway's Mine plowed along on a Helter Skelter rampage. Even on the most un-Beatles-like songs, the Fab Four seethed somewhere just beneath the surface waiting to break free. It was only fitting, then, that Earle concluded the evening by delivering roadhouse renditions of The Beatles' She's a Woman and the Stones' Before They Make Me Run: Two songs from two groups whose music no doubt got him where he is today.

Fans of Hot Tuna, Townes Van Zandt, and Mississippi John Hurt would do well to explore the music of Steve's son Justin. His thirty-minute solo acoustic set, which opened the show, made a compelling statement in its simplistic, yet potent take on the earthy folk-blues genre. At times, the younger Earle sounded remarkably similar to his father, and no doubt has been rooting around in dear old dad's record collection. He's clearly just beginning his career, but this is certainly a good place to start. The talent is clearly in his genes, and it's only a matter of time until he too takes up residence on the troubadour circuit.

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Of Further Interest...

The Real Deal: John Wesley Harding and Kelly Hogan in Chicago (1998)

Punk Symphony: Alejandro Escovedo and Scott Miller in Chicago (2002)

Welcome to Our World: Waco Brothers in Chicago (1999)

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Transcendental Blues is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!

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Copyright 2001 The Music Box