Living literary character (and rocker) Steve Earle plays a noisy show in New York for -- who else? -- a bunch of literary types.
Steve Earle is a literate rocker in a big, brash kind of way. His songs are full of bluster and passion, and occasionally blustering passion. To note just one example, in “Christmas in Washington,” from the record “El Corazsn” (1997), the narrator of the song calls Woody Guthrie to rise from the dead and save American politics from moral rot. But Earle has a way of conquering preachiness with pure crunching verve, a fierce swagger borrowed from the unironic 1970s and the earnest alt-country 1990s.
Earle is also a literary figure: He has been through dope addictions, jail stints, radical politics and six marriages (but only five wives). His is the kind of redemption tale that self-righteous “I read the New Yorker but haven’t read a novel since college” types grasp with dedicated fervor. Earle’s real, man.
So it was no surprise when writers seemed to outnumber any other single occupation at Wednesday’s show on the western fringes of downtown Manhattan. Poets, novelists, essayists, journalists and editors: All manner of scribblers were in attendance, hoping for a taste of Earle’s transcendent grace. Unfortunately, it was nowhere to be found. The Roxy, a cavernous club that doubles as a roller-skating rink and feels more like a Texas honky-tonk than a New York club, has some of the worst acoustics in the city. Vocals get lost and sound flat, reverb overwhelms and any attempts at subtlety are lost. On Wednesday, to the right of the stage, the bass was so loud people were clutching their chests in pain; to the left, the sound was so muddied that many folks stopped even trying to listen and just shot the shit at the bar.
Which isn’t to say Earle didn’t give it a shot. His four-piece band, the Dukes, supplies Earle with the kind of two-fisted, straight-ahead, power chording that Crazy Horse supported Neil Young with to such great effect 25 years ago. And Earle played for more than two hours, switching guitars after virtually every song. Most of his latest release, the typically splendid “Transcendental Blues,” got a turn, from the show-opening title track to the more gentle “The Boy Who Never Cried.” Toward the end of the show, Earle played the most arresting song on the album, “Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song),” an anti-death penalty song Earle wrote about an executed convicted murderer he had become friends with. “Give my radio to Johnson,” Earle sang, “Thibodeaux can have my fan/Send my Bible home to Mama/Call her every now and then.” Or at least I assume that’s what Earle sang, because that’s what he sings on the album; at the Roxy, the words were totally indecipherable, the music drowned out by cocktail chatter.
After “Over Yonder,” Earle segued into the ferocious “All of My Life,” run through with feedback and anger. The contrast caused some of the audience to look up in surprise at Earle, with his head down and glasses askew. It’s too bad the rest of the show couldn’t have captured this same intensity.
Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin. More Seth Mnookin.
More Related Stories
- Teenage girl claims she was beaten up for looking like Taylor Swift
- Mike Judge talks gun rights with Alex Jones
- New York chef serves up eight-course meal around "Arrested Development" jokes
- HLN: Jodi Arias "pleading for her life" got us a ratings win!
- Michael Ian Black on Maron feud: He "considered me a poseur"
- Chekhov's story mirrors Russia's own
- Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina denied parole
- Joe Francis apologizes for calling jury "retarded"
- Mary Karr: David Foster Wallace and I kept each other alive
- Morgan Freeman sleeps during televised interview
- J.J. Abrams reveals deleted shower scene with Benedict Cumberbatch
- Is the anti-gay backlash on?
- Paul McCartney backs Pussy Riot
- Cannes: Ryan Gosling's new movie draws the boo-birds
- Radio host tweets rape joke, blames journalists for reporting on it
- Juror responds to Joe Francis' insults with thoughtful email
- New track from the Lonely Island features Solange Knowles, semicolons
- Amazon introduces fan fiction publishing platform
- Naomi Watts, "Argo," "Wonderstone" among bizarre Teen Choice Awards nominees
- Imprisoned Pussy Riot member declares hunger strike
- The camp-free "Behind the Candelabra"
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11