"Jeff was the perfect match for the Aladdin Theaters friendly ambience and it's porn-theater ancestry. He played to a crowded house of faithful folk who seemed both familiar and comfortable with his body of work, and compelled to yell the word 'cock', at the slightest provocation..."
hardcore troubadours: jeff tweedy and steve earle live
It was an interesting concept anyway: that being checking-out three insurgent country performers live within the span of one month. It worked okay on paper, I swear. But now I'm not so certain it wouldn't have been better to space them out a bit, as contrasting the disparate performances was virtually impossible to avoid. Instead of taking them on their own merits, they tended to work together as a collective and destructive force on my subconscious. But whats done is done, and my convoluted synaptic connections have been laid bare for all to see. Know that I am stained, and take these recollections for what they're worth.
Ryan Adams' show at the Aladdin on Valentines Day started the unholy sequence, and was reviewed in Smokebox Seven (see The Valentine Killer). It may have been a harmonic convergence -- but that show was on the short list of the most intriguing musical experiences in my forty years on this planet. Wholeheartedly inspired, when I realized that Jeff Tweedy and Steve Earle were both scheduled to play in the following weeks, I immediately made plans to check both shows out.
Tweedy is a man whose music I came to know and respect in Uncle Tupelo, and whose engaging stage personality and songwriting talents I came to relish in his post Tupelo project, Wilco. On the three occasions I've seen Wilco live, they've never failed to lift my spirit with their genre-hopping musical constructions and rowdy good cheer. As a unit, they put on a tremendous show; performances bolstered by fertile material from three very strong solo records and the two Woody Guthrie projects (Mermaid Avenue, Mermaid Avenue II) that they co-conspired on with Billy Bragg. Tweedy is seemingly never without something to say or play, so I was curious to say the least as to how he would fare within the isolated compress of a solo acoustic evening. It is an understatement to say he fared very well.
Jeff was the perfect match for the Aladdin Theaters friendly ambience and it's porn-theater ancestry. He played to a crowded house of faithful folk who seemed both familiar and comfortable with his body of work, and compelled to yell the word "cock" at the slightest provocation. But, oddly enough, most folks didn't appear to recognize the guitarist (with a heavy weeks-worth of facial fuzz) as he first darted out from behind the red velveteen curtains. He pounded out a number on a suspicious snare-drum set up behind ever-affable show opener Scott McCaughey (of Young Fresh Fellow and The Minus 5 fame; and swathed in a striking pumpkin-colored gabardine) at the close of McCaughey's entertaining, though not entirely assembled performance.
But they cheered the same fellow heartily as he returned to the stage minutes later, standing partially ringed by the four guitars set in a semi-circle on the stage. Jeff didn't waste much time before moving into the Wilco workhorse "Sunken Treasure" from their critically acclaimed sophomore effort Being There. Whether because of his time spent howling over the din of brash rock and roll sluggers like Wilco's Jay Bennet, or because of a microphone-mixing problem, Tweedy's powerful voice quickly overwhelmed the small room, causing ruptured ear-drums and heart palpitations among the more sedentary members of the audience. This issue was resolved in a skipped heartbeat, and for the rest of the evening the sound and musicianship was excellent.
He moved through the show, blending Tupelo, Wilco and Guthrie staples. He also worked in a couple of new tunes from the upcoming Wilco album: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (scheduled for a July 2001 release.) Most memorable of the new material presented was a goofy and rollicking number called "Heavy Metal Drummer", where Tweedy sang of playing Kiss covers while egging the willing crowd into shouting out members of the legion of heavy-metal bands from the not so distant past. Poison, Quiet Riot, Ratt, Whitesnake, the names came raining from the rafters. The audience was more than happy to comply while he strummed contentedly away. Jeff's always appeared keen on the audience participation numbers, but his bubbly cheek can fade to a black sarcastic snarl quickly. Fortunately, he saves his real barbs for the loutishly vocal who truly deserve it. On this night, the only folks who suffered on the forks of Jeff's barbs were folks who shouted out the word "cock" inappropriately -- as a noun as opposed to a descriptive term. Uh, perhaps I need to clarify something here -- Jeff opened Pandora's box when, early in the performance, he described one of his numbers as being totally "cock." This, as could be expected, set off a chain reaction of excitable types yelling out such adroit comments as "I want more cock," "Gimme some cock," and well... I'm sure you can take it from there. While it was an amusing aside weaved into Jeff's capable dialogue, like all marginal jokes repeated to the point of nausea, it was pretty pathetic coming from the crowd after the second or third outburst.
The reaction is, I think, quite predictable. Yet Tweedy seems more than inclined to bait these sorts of traps. I vaguely recall his exchange with the "REALLY LOUD GUY" whom kept yelling for Uncle Tupelo tunes at a La Luna Wilco show a number of years back. Jeff antagonized the fellow mercilessly, getting him so riled-up that the "REALLY LOUD GUY" gradually increased his decible rating throughout the remainder of the evening. Perhaps this is an effective way to engage himself on the road? Lord knows the guy plays his ass off. For all the entertainment he serves up he deserves a diversion, don't you suppose? Perhaps the "cock" game and the heavy-metal sound-off are ways for him to stay connected and amused?
In any event, the distractions merely served to keep an informal feel to an otherwise very lucid and tight affair. When he encouraged a woman, who was tentatively two-stepping in the aisle during his encore with a brotherly, "its okay to dance, sister," it brought a few more dancers to their feet. When the same dancers sang along to a transcendent rendition of "Passenger Side" with such fervor that Tweedy visibly blanched, instead of admonishing them, he quipped, "You ladies get an 'A' for enthusiasm," and gingerly moved the number along. By the time he wrapped up the set with a somber and reflective ballad titled "Ashes Of American Flags" from the forthcoming album, he had demonstrated to all assembled a masterful ability to move an audience from emotions flagrantly absurd, to passionate and sublime. While I can't say I wasn't skeptical to begin with, all things considered I can't say as I am surprised by his skilled showmanship either. It was a laughter-filled night with terrific music and a great feel.
Steve Earle's massively sold-out performance at the Crystal Ballroom six nights later was like landing on another planet entirely. This surprised me greatly. After the cozy feel at the sit-down-and-pay-attention Aladdin for the Tweedy and Adams performances, the armpit to armpit crush of Earle's chatterbox crowd was as enjoyable as being stuck on a rush-hour commuter bus with some b.o infused lard-bucket breathing recycled Whopper fumes in your face.
Earle is a musician I have long lionized, not only for the truth of his hard-living sensibility and uncompromising stances, but also for his artistic impact on artists like the aforementioned Uncle Tupelo and the entire insurgent country movement. His masterful collection of tunes on Train A Comin' is a must have for anyone who really cares about music, and his latest Grammy nominated gem, Transcendental Blues, has been described as Earle's country version of Revolver. Strangely enough, over the past ten years I've squandered countless opportunities to see the man live, and I wasn't about to this year. I may have been expecting too much -- and we all know how our heroes can be crushed under the weight of unrealistic expectations. But nothing that Earle could have done onstage that night would have made up for the fact that it's irritating as hell to go to a "concert", not be able to breathe or move for three hours, and have people yelling inanities at the top of their lungs over the music throughout the entire show.
This frustration was furthered by Earle's workman-like approach to the proceedings. I'm not gonna come out and tell you that he mailed this one in, but at times I started to wonder. Words like "autopilot" and "choreographed" worked in and out of my agitated frame of reference. Sure, there were the anticipated moments of brilliance. In introducing "Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)" his sobering account of witnessing the execution of Jonathan Nobles, a prisoner he had come to befriend through 11 years of correspondence, it was impossible not to be significantly touched. His attitude on the death penalty can be wrapped within this simple paradigm: If the government kills someone -- we kill someone too. He went father, saying that he objected to the damage killing does to our souls. It's unfortunate that the 500 people behind me couldn't pipe down long enough to hear the honest plea in the man's words. His moving interpretation of 1996's "I Feel Alright" was pure gold, as was another song from the same album "Hurtin' Me, Hurtin' You." "Transcendental Blues" and "Everyone's In Love With You" were obvious standouts from the new album, and "Copperhead Road" was as majestic as I had suspected it would be live. Still, there didn't seem to be much life to the proceedings in spite of the quality musicianship and scripted presentation of Earle and his worthy touring band, the Dukes. It was hard to put a finger on, but something seemed to be missing. He seemed a tired man at the conclusion of a long and difficult journey. Maybe he was. And maybe I should cut him some slack for that.
I had just about given up hope on pulling much more from this show than a tidy rehash of Earle's important hits, when the show ended -- the first time. Steve said his customary farewells and about 40% of the crowd promptly bolted for the stairway. I thought of joining them, but something held me there. Five minutes later when he returned to the suddenly roomier Ballroom for his encore he seemed a changed man, leading his band mates into an ass-kickin', strobe-light punctuated rendition of Nirvana's grunge anthem "Breed." What the fuck? The remaining crowd seemed initially stunned by this development, but quickly reacted with vocal fervor as Earle plowed into The Chambers Brothers classic "Time Has Come Today," belting out the clockwork "heys," with the crowd shouting along with him. He wrapped his wild encore of cover tunes up with unrepentant controlled substance aficionado Keith Richards' "Before They Make Me Run," a curious, touching, and thus perfect choice from a man stubbornly recovering from drug and alcohol addiction.
I'm not sure if there's a statement made by an musical icon like Steve Earle casting his performance in steel by ferociously attacking cover songs from the past -- but the man was clearly enjoying himself and that kind of energy is infectious. That's what I had come hoping to find. That was the fuel I needed to get me through until the train pulls in once more. I left that bouncing ballroom floor feeling like Steve Earle has got a lot of coal left in the engine room. These are sentiments I wouldn't have taken from the Crystal had I left with the rest of the folks who squashed themselves down the stairwell with busy tongues still a-wagging, before Earle returned for his incendiary finale. Talk about missing the "A" train.
John Richen is an on again, off again writer and graphic designer. He produces Smokebox with his abundant free time. Mail him at mr.grant .