hardcore troubadours: jeff tweedy and steve earle live

Jeff was the perfect match for the Aladdin Theater’s 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…”


by john richen


It was an interesting concept anyway: that being checking-out three “insurgent” country performers live within the span of one month. It looked good on paper. 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 force. But what’s done is done, and the 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 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 seing Wilco live, they’ve never failed to lift spirits 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 as to how this would translate to the isolated compress of a solo acoustic evening. It is an understatement to say he fared just fine.

Jeff was the perfect match for the Aladdin Theater’s 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 week’s-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 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 an ireggular 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 morph to a sarcastic snarl quickly. Fortunately, he saves his real barbs for the loutishly vocal “punishers” as fellow Smokeboxer Mike Morgan calls them. On this night, the only folks who got skewered 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.

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 ongoing monologue, like all marginal jokes repeated to the point of nausea, it was pathetic coming from the crowd after the second or third outburst.

The reaction is 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. Tweedy antagonized the fellow mercilessly, getting him so riled-up that the “REALLY LOUD GUY” steadily increased his decible rating the remainder of the evening. Perhaps this is just an entertainment for him — a way he amuses himself on the road.

In any event, the distractions merely served to keep an informal feel to an otherwise 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 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 fartin’ lard-bucket breathing recycled Whopper fumes in your face.

Earle is a musician 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 believes in the power of music, and his latest Grammy nominated gem, Transcendental Blues, has been described as Earle’s country version of the Beatle’s Revolver. Strangely enough, over the past ten years I’ve squandered countless opportunities to see the man live, but wasn’t about to this year. I may have been expecting too much. 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 conversations 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. 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 touched. His attitude on the death penalty can be wrapped up thusly: 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 plea in the man’s words. His rendition 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 you’d suspect it would be live. Still, there didn’t seem to be much life to the proceedings in spite of the quality musicianship and meticulous presentation of Earle and his worthy touring band, the Dukes. It was hard to put a finger on, but something was missing. He seemed a tired man. 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. The thought of joining them occurred, but something held me there. A good five minutes later when he returned to the much roomier Ballroom for his encore Earle was a changed man, leading his band mates into an ass-kickin’, strobe-light punctuated rendition of Nirvana’s grunge masterpeice “Breed.” What in the fuck? The remaining crowd was initially stunned by this development, but adapted quickly and with vocal fervor as Earle then 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 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 Earle was clearly enjoying himself and that kind of energy is infectious. That’s what I had come hoping to find. 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 and places to be, before Earle returned for his incendiary finale. Talk about missing the “A” train.


Originally published:
Issue Eight
April 2001

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