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A thousand miles from a guitar town: Moorer and Earle (l-r).

photo:John Whipple

You Say You Want a Revolution
By Paul Rapp

Steve Earle and the Dukes, Allison Moorer
Berkshire Music Hall, Pittsfield, Mass., March 13

This was Club Helsinki’s first show at the Berkshire Music Hall. The hall, an old vaudeville theater smack in the middle of downtown Pittsfield, is a work in progress, but it’s a beautiful old joint. Huge stage, great sound, fantastic sight lines, and lovely visuals all around. And this SRO show (600-plus seats filled) was the latest high-water mark in Pittsfield’s long-awaited transformation from GE/shopping-mall victim to urban cultural mecca.

The show? His recent Grammy notwithstanding, I think Steve Earle’s getting a pass from the music world because of his strident politicism. There. I said it.

Earle and his band (who looked and played like they were all in desperate need of a vacation) took the stage to a recording of Gil-Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and launched into the title track of the latest album, “The Revolution Starts Now.” Almost two long hours later, the show closed with a pitch-perfect run through of the Beatles “Revolution” and a reprise of “The Revolution Starts Now.” In between, the show focused mainly on Earle’s last two albums, and that’s the problem. As Earle’s political focus has grown sharper, his songwriting has gotten, by and large, droll and lazy. Granted, a bad Earle song will usual trump almost anybody else’s best effort, but that’s just not good enough. A half-hour into the show, I realized Earle had yet to play a song I liked or cared to ever hear again (and I do like, to the point of worship, about 100 of Earle’s songs); the most entertaining parts of the show were when Earle talked. I’d have preferred two hours of Earle’s hysterical, deadly and profane monologues to his new droning political dirges.

Of course it wasn’t all bad. “Fuck the FCC” and “Condi Condi” were supercharged and hysterical. “Goodbye,” perhaps the best song ever written about loss and regret, was devastating. Even with the predominance of recent material, an Earle show remains a not-for-the-faint-of-heart thrill ride through old-time country, Byrds-y pop, and unrestrained garage punk. And just watching Eric Amble coax obscenely dirty sounds out of a progression of gourmet guitars (like that shimmering gold 12-string Danelectro) was alone worth the price of admission.

Earle’s audience has morphed dramatically in the past 15 years. Once a favorite of the biker-boogie crowd drawn to his Skynyrd-with-a-Ph.D. late-’80s rock, now his crowd is leaning heavily towards the NPR-leftie set, some of whom could be seen Sunday night covering their ears in dismay when Earle and Amble decided to let loose with some of that old ultra- feedback. Hee hee.

Opening act/new love interest Allison Moorer came out a couple of times for duets. She redeemed her fairly lifeless opening set with killer contributions to “You’re Still Standing There” and “Coming Around,” easily besting the original versions of the songs. And considering she was standing in for Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris, that’s saying something.

But these were diamonds in the rough, and there was a lot missing. Earle’s new stature as point man for the brave resistance is admirable, but in finding one voice he’d better remember his old one. Like Alice Cooper says, OK, you’re angry. Write it. Come back, Steve Earle. Come back to us now.


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