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visitors since May 12, 2002
April 9, 2002
Steve Earle: The Art of Song

I've spent a lot of time since getting back listening to Steve Earle. Steve's a guy with a lot of blues. But the thing is: he's at his best when he's got them. He's astoundingly articulate and expressive when he's singing something that ends up with the word "blues" in the chorus. And there's a lot of those: Transcendental Blues, My Old Friend The Blues, Continental Trailways Blues, Hometown Blues, Ft. Worth Blues and, in the singular form, Even When I'm Blue. Steve has had a rich and varied life: he's travelled the world, and seems to have had the blues everywhere he's been.

The other day someone on JJJ talked about seeing Tim Rogers supporting Steve Earle. The guy was bemused by the fact that Tim Rogers sang songs about musical renegades in Australia, which the Australian audience didn't seem hugely interested in. But then Steve Earle came on and sang songs about renegades in Texas, and the audience went berserk. The JJJ guy was perplexed by this, and said that "you'd think an Australian audience would want to hear songs about them."

Well, I think Australian audiences do want to hear songs about them, but Steve Earle did a far better job of that than Tim Rogers did, and he did so without ever mentioning Australia. Tim's going in the right direction, I think, but on the evidence of the show I saw last week, he's still got a long way to go. What I liked about him was what he said between songs: he came across as intelligent and articulate and interesting. Those qualities were in his songs, but only occasionally, and the rest was a lot of padding and waffle and repetition.

Meaningless repetition, in particular, sinks a song, and after Tim had played half a dozen songs, I started counting the meaningless repeats. I was doing that because he'd failed to emotionally involve me. If there were stories in his songs, or points of view, or characters I could care about, I couldn't find them. In their absence, I lost interest. The only thing to do then was count the meaningless repeats, which is the last refuge of the bored audience member.

Steve Earle's stuff is emotionally involving. That's why the audience responded to him so much more. None of his songs were explicitly about Australia, but every Australian in the room could relate to them. One of his songs starts with this:

My name is Billy Austin
I'm 29 years old
I was born in Oklahoma
I'm a quarter Cherokee, or so I'm told

So. From a listener's perspective, something magical has happened. Within a few lines, Steve Earle has disappeared. In his place is a character: Billy Austin.

As the song progresses, Billy tells us his life story. It starts from poor, uncertain beginnings, and ends on Death Row. We hear him calmly describe how and why he killed a shop attendant, and what the court appointed lawyer did when the judge sentences him to die, and why his case didn't even make the papers. ("I only killed one man.") And towards the end of the song, as Billy sits on Death Row, waiting to be executed, he says this to the judge:

There's twenty seven men here
Mostly black, or brown, and poor
Most of them are guilty
But who are you to say for sure?

And last Tuesday night at the Metro Theatre, these lines got a spontaneous round of applause. That's emotional involvement right there.

Willy Russell once said that if you write well enough about a place, people in other places will be able to respond to what you're doing. And it's the same with emotions, and emotional states. Billy Austin's life story has nothing in common with mine, but Steve Earle tells it so well that I can relate to it, and imagine myself in Billy's place, and feel what he's going through.

As far as magical happenings go, that's one of the best around.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 12:03 AM in the Musical category | Comments (0)
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