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.