Steve Earle And Sarah Jarosz At City Winery, Tuesday, January 16th, 2018
The first fifteen minutes of Steve Earle’s set at City Winery yesterday, Tuesday, January 16th, 2018, was about as great as anything you’ve ever seen. Like Billy Joel’s Christmas performance last year in reverse, Earle has been performing winter shows at City Winery on Varick Street since an acoustic audience choice in February of 2011 and has returned every year till by 2013 it began the contours of an annual residency and in 2015, with Willie Nile, it was institutionalized. Now, this can go either way. By 2017, Joel’s Madison Square Garden residency had become slack with ease, last night Steve’s complete ease with audience and environment had become a short hand to emotional richness, all bloat cut to the bone and what you got was the purist essence of Earle’s genius. If you compare Earle’s setlist in 2018 with his setlist in 2012, 2012 was an overblown 30 song set plus intermission, too much waste, too much unnecessary. It plagued the Earle and the Dukes at Town Hall show in 2011, a disaster of epic proportions with Earle missing the point: cut to the edge and keep to the base and, with a catalog as large as the 63 year old Earle owns, you’ll get where you’re going.
The first fifteen minutes last night was Earle redux, you sat with your mouth agape. Just Earle, his guitar, a harp, and a hacking cough from a cold, and songs that flowed with effortless skill and power. At first I thought he was rushing them, a little Ramones-y, but it was much more a matter of getting to the point, making his point, and moving on. A seamless immersion in Earle country folk god. Opening with “F The FCC,” gone was the fuzzed out guitar from 2004 but it gained so much from time and place and performance. You sit there waiting for “piss and moan about the immigrants, don’t say nothing about the President,” aimed at Dubya supporters but the sine qua non of the 35% of the nation that supports Trump right or wrong. “F The FCC” targets talk radio, which doesn’t listen to him no more, only now Talk Radio is the language of the White House. “I admit I’m getting a little nervous, boy” is the sign post straight ahead. “The Devil’s Right Hand,” an anti-armed militia song that dates back to his first golden age (he has two) is taken fast and rangy. And the first of three songs in succession off Earle’s masterpiece, an album that makes just about every young country singer, with the possible exception of Eric Church, appear to be frauds and fakes, 1986’s Guitar Town. “My Old Friend The Blues” is a downcast melancholia like “In My Room,” and was followed by small-town lament “Someday,” a country “Born to Run” that couldn’t find the exit and then the exit itself “Guitar Town” -a song so central to my own 20 something identity that I once called a short story “$37 And A Jap Guitar”. I was thoroughly enjoying the set up to that moment but I… it is such a flipped out road song masterpiece, it exuded absolute cool, guitar slinger heaven. When you listen to Earle speak, he is so Easternized his voice doesn’t have the twang it did, but it all comes roaring back with this song. Finally, a song that Earle informed us he wrote when he was twenty years old and claimed to be very proud of. For good reason. Released on another masterpiece, Train A Comin’, ten years after he finished the composition, it is difficult to imagine how “Tom Ames Prayer” could be any better (though Robert Earl Keen’s take gives Steve a run for his money). One of the great Western stories, a cowboy outlaw mythologizing. Earle used to be great with the Dukes in the 80s, greater in the 90s when he was performing at Tramps also with a full band, but best solo. Nothing encumbers him, nothing gets between him and the songs and us. This is bravado liver than you’ll ever be entertainment -it is better than “Springsteen On Broadway,” truer and closer to his audience.
And then it kinda stopped. Don’t get me wrong, the entire solo acoustic set was terrific, and I’ll get back to it, but the greatest show on earth ended with the inferior “God Is God” and the balloon popped. It might not have been just the song, Earle spoke for the first time and it was like coming out of an hypnotic state.
The opening act was county folk singer, 26-year-old kid about town Sarah Jarosz, who also performs with the excellent trio I’m With Her (they’ll be at the Town Hall on March 15th). Solo her voice is one of those pristine and beautiful things and her guitar picking just about immaculate, a banjo pulsed take on Yusuf Islam’s (aka Cat Stevens) “The Wind” was as advertised and more, and better still was an ode to the Upper West Side that doubled as a tribute to the late First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Mostly culled from her 2016 release Undercurrent, both “Jacqueline” and a sublime “Take Me Back” were present and perfect. Jarosz ended the set with Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” before singing back up for Earle on “The Mountain”.
As for the rest of Steve Earle… Look, we’re on Varick Street in an expensive room filled to overflowing with middle class white liberals. I was at the Garth Brooks gig in Jersey last year, trust me pop pickers, this crowd ain’t that at all. We’ve all read Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” and if Earle thinks we need him to update us on manifest destiny he hasn’t lived in NYC as long as he thinks he has. This is my problem with Earle’s earnest liberalism, it is too on the nose, too obvious. In 1997, “Christmas In Washington” was the first cut is the deepest, and even if it wasn’t “Telephone Road” was nearby. Twenty years later the guy can be an awful drag and so can the songs. From the album where we got “F The FCC”, 2004’s The Revolution Starts Now to 2017’s So You Wannabe An Outlaw, he lacks the consistency of even a country guy like Brad Paisley -a man Earle writes rings around. He’s a drag and an unnecessary drag as well. The rest of the set was more than good enough, especially the songs for girls, “Sparkle And Shine,” it stood up to any standard (any time you get to hear “Goodbye” is a good time), except its own standard.
How much did I love it? I went home and bought a ticket for his February 19th show, and what’s more, forked over $110 for the meet and greet. I’m not scared (mostly because he has no idea who I am). It was a terrific performance that was on the cusp of spectacular and missed it.