Earle makes everyone feel alright
Paradise Club, Boston, March 19, 1996
BOSTON - The opening of Steve Earle's major label comeback disc, "I Feel Alright" finds the protagonist as an outlaw with the lines "lock me up and throw away the key/or just find a place to hide away/Hope that I'll just go away."
But the next line - "I feel alright - I feel alright tonight" - could just as well described Earle's gig Tuesday before a packed Paradise audience.
Yes, Earle has been through a lot in his life - numerous divorces and more recently a stint in a Tennessee slammer following drug charges.
None of the difficulties stopped the veteran from releasing the finest country album - or perhaps any disc for that matter - yet this year and still possessing the musical chops to back it up in concert.
Masked behind shades throughout the quite generous, almost two-hour show, Earle started, in fact, with the title cut. He relied heavily on songs from his brand new disc, songs among the finest of his career. Earle reached and cuffed the emotional core of songs, often seemingly about his own life.
Earle, for example, introduced "Now She's Gone" jokingly as a "true story, but the names have been left out to protect the guilty, namely me." Typical of the opening numbers, the acoustic-based song about yet another broken relationship with Earle blowing away on harp picked up steam as it went along.
And during a five-song solo unplugged segment, Earle scored with "Valentine's Day," wearing his heart on his sleeve about love for his wife. While some could have offered a mawkish reading, Earle crooned with authenticity amidst a pindrop-quiet room.
Earle mixed up the tempos and structure of the set going from the acoustic-tinged opening where he demonstrated his Dylan influence to the solo section to a more forceful, rocking edge as the show progressed. Earle switched between acoustic, mandolin and electric guitar as well. And he played songs - 27 - from throughout his career.
Earle's raspy voice grew stronger as the night grew longer, although the vocals were mixed too low a few times.
This version of his backing band, The Dukes, proved to be quite up to the task. Drummer Custer provided a steady beat, pushing the songs along. Lead guitarist David Steele added bite without ever being showy. The quartet (long-time bassist Kelley Looney and guitarist Mark Stuart ) may not have had many gigs under their belt, but The Dukes were a fully capable back-up to Earle.
The zenith came during "The Devil's Right Hand" where Earle and the four Dukes cooked with inspired singing and playing.
Earle seemed more and more at ease with his surroundings as the night wore on. He made numerous references to his past troubles, sometimes jokingly, but also pointedly saying he harbored no thoughts that the good life was in stripes behind bars. Maybe it's given him a new perspective. "I don't get high any more," he said in introducing a new, unrecorded song he wrote in a British hotel room. "So, I didn't have anything else to do. Other than that, I have no fucking idea that this song's about."
He turned more serious in introducing "Ellis Unit 1," a song about a death row prisoner guard he wrote for Tim Robbins' "Dead Man Walking" movie about a condemned inmate. Earle, a former Texas native, railed against the death penalty, saying he was ashamed that the state put prisoners to death. "I don't want to go to hell with them, and believe me, it's us pulling the trigger," he said.
For now, Earle's prison imagery need only remain in song. Hopefully, he has freed himself from his demons. As he said before the opening encore song, Bruce Springsteen's "State Trooper," "It's good to be back."
That's especially true since Steve Earle most certainly seems to play and "feel alright."