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Live: Steve Earle at the Troubadour

The alt-country singer-songwriter pays tribute to his youthful hero-turned-mentor in a set heavy on Townes Van Zandt's keenly observed tales of life's wanderers and truth seekers.

October 12, 2009|Randy Lewis

There's a bit of Br'er Rabbit and the briar patch aspect to Steve Earle's current album, "Townes," his tribute to fellow Texas singer and songwriter Townes Van Zandt.

Fans who turn out to see him, like those at the Troubadour on Saturday for the second of his three nights at the West Hollywood club, shout any number of requests for Earle's own songs, but he keeps returning to the songs by his youthful hero, who later turned into his mentor. After all, he has to do his duty and promote the album, right?

Clearly, there was not an ounce of obligation in that task, which occupied nearly half of his two-hour solo set. Earle, like so many other modern-day troubadours, worships at the altar of Van Zandt's keenly observed tales of life's wanderers and truth seekers.

Earle is so reverential on the album that the songs sometimes flounder under the weight of good intentions, but live, Earle was able to better inject the empathetic spirit that Van Zandt built into songs that often chart the wrong turns that hapless humans so often take in life.

For a while, Van Zandt also served as a role model in self-destructiveness that contributed to what Earle described as "a rough spot" of drug addiction that led to jail time nearly two decades ago. But since kicking his habit about 15 years ago, he's been able to reconnect with his muse and return to his place as one of alt-country's finest songwriters.

On Saturday, he also showed off a voice that was considerably stronger and notably less shredded than the one he used several years ago when he came through town for a show at the Greek Theatre.

With his slicked-back collar-length hair, spectacles and a shaggy beard approaching Smith Bros. dimension, Earle at 54 looks like a college poli-sci professor on sabbatical. He periodically sounded like one too, touching on the ramifications of President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize, the debate over efforts to reduce U.S. dependence on oil through the use of what's been touted as "clean-coal technology" and English-only legislation in public schools.

That's an inextricable part of his music, which typically focuses on the human impact of politics. In some songs, he weaves them seamlessly, as with "City of Immigrants" from his 2007 "Washington Square Serenade" album that grew out of his move several years ago from Nashville to New York City.

Livin' in a city that never sleeps

My heart keepin' time to a thousand beats

Singin' in languages I don't speak

Livin' in a city of immigrants ...

It was a celebration of the melting pot that came to a climax at the end of his show, when he brought opening act Tom Morello out for a full-fledged hootenanny treatment of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," including the more pointed verses that are usually omitted in school assembly singalongs.

His choice of the Rage Against the Machine/the Nightwatchman singer-songwriter-guitarist completed the evening's rabble-rouser quotient. Morello also used the Troubadour stage as a melodic and rhythmic pulpit.

Neil Young recently said that, contrary to the mantra that began in the '60s, he no longer thinks pop music or musicians can change the world. Earle and Morello seem happy to have missed that memo.


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