Birmingham Town Hall is sold out tonight and there are even a scattering of people sitting behind the performers in the choir seats. It’s a diverse audience with a good spread of ages, genders and clothing styles — everything from a three piece suit to a Motorhead t-shirt!
The evening kicks off with Rhett Miller, the support act. Frankly, I’m not super-impressed. He seems terribly young to be matched with Earle — my guess is that he’s in his early twenties and not all that experienced. He’s a competent guitarist. His lyrics show promise but aren’t there yet — good lines followed by cliches. Strange body movements that don’t seem to go with the songs — a singer-songwriter trying to look like a rock star? And a circular hand-whirling guitar strum at intervals which looks like he’s practiced really really hard to get that effect.
The subjects of the songs are young as well — falling in love at a nightclub, having two girlfriends, unrequited love. It’s his first time in the UK and he doesn’t really fill the Town Hall stage completely.
I do get somewhat more enthusiastic as his set goes on — some of the later songs are definitely among his better ones. I like ‘Trouble with Girls Like You’ which is clever and has good lines. ‘Fireflies’, a duet in which he sings both the male and female parts, differentiating between them by facing different directions on stage remarkably works and is a good song. He makes reference to having recorded the song with Rachel Yamagata. By now he’s referred several times to bands he’s worked with and recordings and I’m beginning to suspect that he’s not as green as he seems.
As the set continues, the audience generally seem to warm to him. The applause is louder and longer. He said at the beginning that ‘I’m here to warm you up for Steve’ and he seems to be succeeding.
The final song, ‘Our Love’ ends the set relatively successfully. The interval comes and Rhett pops up in the entrance hall, eagerly meeting fans. Young, labrador puppy-like…
The shock came after the concert — I googled him and discovered that he is in fact 39 years old and has been on the circuit for years, that he’s front man of the alt-country band Old 97s, that he’s just released his fourth solo album. All I can say is that those facts don’t quite mesh with what I saw or the way he came over tonight.
The interval ends, the audience returns and Steve Earle walks on stage. The contrast with the first set is palpable — Earle definitely fills the stage and the entire atmosphere lifts. This man has presence. The crowd applauds enthusiastically — one man in the balcony shouts out ‘How are you Steve?’ getting the response ‘Good, the Yankees won the World Series’. Earle launches straight into the first song.
This is the Townes tour, linked to the recently released CD of the same name. The CD is comprised of songs written by Earle’s friend and mentor, the late singer-songwriter, Townes Van Zandt, but while the album features a number of guests including Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine/The Nightwatchman; Steve’s wife, the singer-songwriter Allison Moorer; Dennis Crouch; Tim O’Brien; Darrel Scott; and Steve’s son, Justin Townes Earle, tonight is a solo set, a chance to hear Earle do the songs on his own.
He sings the first several songs straight through — no between-song banter. They’re good, very good. Van Zandt was such a good songwriter; so many of the songs have become standards. The songs are tightly written, with vivid imagery and memorable lines. The contrast with the rather patchy lyrics of the support act is sadly even more evident.
After a couple of songs, Steve sings/speaks a moving tribute to Townes Van Zandt. ‘Wow!’, I think, an actual talking blues. It’s been many a year since I’ve heard one of those and this one is excellent. Both Steve and Townes came out of a music scene which included traditional blues musicians like Guy Clark and Lightning Hopkins and throughout the evening I’m reminded of that over and over. A number of the songs are accompanied by Steve’s blues harmonica playing — and he’s one of the best harp players I’ve heard.
We’re listening to a solid performer, singing the songs of an exceptional songwriter.
After the tribute and another couple of songs, Steve starts to talk about making the album. After a lot of choosing, he was still left with 28 shortlisted Townes songs. So, as he tells it, ‘I thought back on my life. On your first day in jail, the way to survive is to pick the biggest motherfucker in the yard and knock him down. That way you get to keep your radio … and other things …..’ So Steve applied the same logic to the song choosing — picked the biggest motherfucker on the list and started with that one. That was, of course, ‘Pancho and Lefty’, one of the best known of Townes’s songs and one that’s been covered by numerous singers and groups as diverse as Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Dick Gaughan, The Poozies and Counting Crows. It tells the story of two bandits, one killed by the Mexican federales, the other — possibly the betrayer of the first — dying of old age and poverty in a cheap Cleveland hotel. Earle gives a powerful performance of the song, stunningly different from many of the other versions I’ve heard.
The set is largely Townes songs but includes some of Steve’s own. There’s a good mixture of slow and fast, blues, rock and folk numbers. It’s a long set, almost two hours without a break. Earle gives the impression of a performer who believes in himself and his material. What you see is what you get. Take it or leave it, Earle is in your face, not trying to ingratiate himself with the audience, not courting popularity. As the set goes on he does talk more, about Townes, about himself, about politics. He’s obviously knowledgeable about the British political scene and makes some sharp comments, but most of his references are to US politics — the failure of the current US health system (‘Next time you’re bitching about the NHS, remember, it could be worse; you could be a Yank!), second language teaching in school, George W. Bush. He talks about the need to remember that the recent period of prosperity never reached everybody and that there are those — not in the Town Hall tonight — who are being most hurt by the current financial crisis. He tells stories of Townes’s awareness of the gap between rich and poor, despite his own rich upbringing, and recounts tales of Townes’s tendency to bring homeless people home with him — ‘which contributed to the breakup of his first marriage and made him homeless, so he continued but now he brought them home to other people’s houses’.
We get a lovely song about New York, ‘City of Immigrants’ — the first time I can remember hearing a song which actually celebrates the riches that immigrants bring to a city. Then suddenly we’ve got a traditional Irish folk song — ‘Galloway Girl’ — accompanied by a mandolin and some percussive foot-stamping and surprisingly led into by the playing of an Irish reel.
The set ends with lots of applause and Earle comes back out for the encore. This is a substantial encore — three full songs. He tries to get the audience to sing along on the first one, ‘In the Hole’. Birmingham audiences, in my experience, don’t sing. I’ve watched myriad performers from Joan Baez to Rachel Unthank to Kenny Rogers try to get them to do so — usually with little success. Steve manages to get some response — better than usual but still rather limp — but fortunately he doesn’t try too hard or worry too much about it.
The final song is a well-known one, ‘Copperhead Road’, The audience clap along and when the song — and the set — end, most people rise to their feet in a standing ovation.
Review – Betty Hagglund
Photos - Andy Whitehouse