Whether singing the praises of being a "Regular Guy" and "Good Ol' Boy" or from the points of view of garage mechanics and Death Row inmates, Steve Earle asserts his Populism almost as regularly as Hank Williams Jr. asserts his lineage. That he managed to still seem like the down-to-earth, authentic item amid all this protesting-too-much Sunday at the Roxy was a triumph of feeling over imagination.
What pure country touches there were in the show came with material left over from his first two albums; Earle's two latest LPs, to which most of the 2 1/2-hour concert was devoted, have been firmly based in rock.
The cynical view would have it that Earle got tired of being called "a country Springsteen" and decided to become a \o7 Springsteen\f7 Springsteen. The rosier view is that this Southerner really is the rebel he had seem, having spurned Nashville and forgone a lucrative career in country in order to connect with the more fickle rock crowd.
Earle is every bit as credible a rocker as he was a country boy, if not more so, but most of his hard-core barn-burners aren't quite as distinguished as those older, beautiful ballads like "Fearless Heart" and "Someday," which still stood out as quiet highlights in a mostly feverish concert.
The slackest material came from his new album, "The Hard Way," including no fewer than two racing-in-the-streets songs and no fewer than two Death Row laments. That really leaves Earle risking being labelled a New Jerseyite or, more appropriate still, a Nebraskan, however heartfelt the stuff is.
Earle remains the most talented singer-songwriter to come out of the Nashville school in the last decade, and he and his overpopulated backing band, the six-piece Dukes, still put on a happily exhausting show. But when it comes down to doing things "My Way" or the highway, Earle seems content to be burning rubber on that mythical rock road without finding his own directions home.