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POP REVIEW : Earle Gives Heavy Twist to Hillbilly Music

November 14, 1987|GINA ARNOLD

Steve Earle loves to refer to himself and his music as "hillbilly." But his idea of hillbilly--as evinced by what he and his five-piece band, the Dukes, were playing at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano Thursday night--might make a country music purist cringe.

With his headband, earring, tattoo, and shoulder-length biker's hairdo, Earle looks like the kind of guy you wouldn't want to meet in a bar after closing--and often do. At the Coach House, he stood center stage in front of a veritable wall of guitars, whooping it up, sweating it out and grinning his beatific, look-ma-I-made-it grin.

His songs aren't as cheerful as he appears to be. They explore territory made familiar by Springsteen and Mellencamp--the plight of small-town, working-class Americans in an ever-more-alienating society. Earle indulged in a couple of long anti-Reagan Administration speeches and aimed a number of jibes at Republicans in general--and that was just one of the ways his act differs from mainstream country shows.

Such songs as "Angry Young Man," "I Ain't Never Satisfied" and "Good Old Boy (Gettin' Tough)," with their heavy, midtempo rock bottoms and infuriated lyrics, sound almost like heavy metal when compared to true hillbilly music, their country-style keyboard and lap steel guitar parts notwithstanding. The band's cover of the Rolling Stone's "Dead Flowers" could have been done by the Replacments or R.E.M. sooner than by Mickey Gilley.

The two-hour show dragged in parts, mostly because the difference in tempos between Earle's "fast" and "slow" songs is minuscule. Some of his ballads, such as "My Old Friends the Blues" and "Little Rock 'n' Roller," sound sappy but ring true.

A couple of times during the set, Earle kicked the band off stage and played an acoustic guitar, most notably on a couple of excellent new songs, "Johnny Come Lately" and "Copper Head Road."

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