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Dad-in-waiting Steve Earle channels Townes Van Zandt in uptown Manhattan

Photo Credit: CLIFFVIEWPILOT.COM
Photo Credit: CLIFFVIEWPILOT.COM
Photo Credit: CLIFFVIEWPILOT.COM
Photo Credit: CLIFFVIEWPILOT.COM

A very pregnant Allison Moorer joined Steve Earle for a few songs during her husband’s two-hour acoustic show Friday night at the Society for Ethical Culture off Central Park West, a block from Lincoln Center.

The gig came during a brief respite back in their adoptive hometown, between legs of a tour promoting Earle’s new album of compositions by his hero, the late Townes Van Zandt, whose songs he’s now teaching to legions of new cultists.

PHOTO: CLIFFVIEWPILOT.COM

Arguably America’s greatest living songwriter laughed as he noted that “Townes” has become one of his best sellers, “which in a way is discouraging cause I didn’t write any of the songs on it.”

The first song he recorded for the collection in his and Moorer’s downtown apartment off Houston Street was probably the greatest of Van Zandt’s mini-masterpieces, the classic “Pancho and Lefty.”

Earle equated it to his first day in prison (he spent a few months behind bars on a drug conviction), when he walked up to “the biggest guy in the yard” and knocked him out so he could keep his radio, “among other things.”

The “short list” of tunes he was ready to lay down numbered 35, but he got it down to 15 by following the advice of a prolific guitar maker who once told him he was able to produce a certain number of instruments by “throwing out anything that doesn’t look like a guitar.

“I guess it worked” he told the crowd in the church-like amphitheater, which has pews instead of seats, a large semi-circular stage and terrific acoustics in its catherdral-like atrium.

“I’ve always wanted to play here,” the Virginia-born, San Antonio-raised, anti-Nashville renegade said, looking up at the balcony.


Earle told stories of how Van Zandt at first intimidated him when he was starting out. Townes was one of only six or so people in a club in Houston one night, so he sat down front with his feet on the stage, wearing moccassins, heckling Earle — who had actually booked himself there in hopes of meeting his hero.

They soon became fast friends. “My teacher,” Earle said, adding that he immediately bought his own pair of mocs. Their mini-cult following eventually included Guy Clark, Lucinda Williams and others.

Van Zandt, an alcoholic and manic-depressive whose excesses fans somehow never severed from his art, had gone to Nashville from Texas when Earle came home one day, arms tattooed by needle tracks, to find him waiting.

His “teacher” then sang “Marie,” a song he’d written as an intervention for Earle.

It was easy for Earle to remember when he wrote one of his own, “(Can’t Remember If We Said) Goodbye.” It was 15 years ago, he said, when he finally kicked cheap street drugs like Dilaudid and skanky heroin. He cradled the song as he always does, a special treasure amid a chestful of lyrical brilliance that Springsteen himself will tell you no modern songwriter — not even Dylan — has been able to match.

Was I off somewhere/ Or just too high? / Cause I can’t remember / If we said goodbye.”

At the same time, Earle displayed his unique self-deprecating virtuosity on a variety of stringed instruments, including the mandolin. Rarely do you find someone that brilliant who deliberately doesn’t dazzle you. Instead, he creates and fills spaces, at time plucking the strings on the fretboard with his left hand while conducting the melody with his right.

Conspicuous in its absence at The Concert Hall was “Christmas in Washington,” a show-stopping sing-along that implores the ghost of Woody Guthrie to return and stir a society numbed by television, prescription drugs and lying politians to rise up as one. Earle didn’t mention the number but, given the changes that have occurred in the White House since he last performed in small church off Washington Square Park, he said he’s feeling even more optimistic than usual these days.

Jerry DeMarco Publisher/Editor


He’s not entirely happy with the early drift of the new administration. However, he said, “at least we got a shot now.”

Earle said he’s disappointed by Obama’s choice to accept the Nobel Peace Prize while dispatching 35,000 more troops to the Mideast, refuting the President’s rationale for doing so and emphasizing that it’s either one or the other. He underscored the point with a passionate version of “Jerusalem” at the point in the show where he ordinarily does “Christmas….”

”  And I believe that one fine day / All the children of Abraham / Will lay down their swords together / In Jerusalem.”

Always looking to surprise, he dusted off “Guitar Town,” which Earle performs now and then with his backup band, the Dukes — including the brilliant Eric Amble. Then he closed with “Copperhead Road,” which has become his “Rosalita.” It was the only real disappointment of the night.


townes

Van Zandt was 52 when he died on New Year’s Day 1997 — 44 years to the day of Hank Williams’ death — of what, like Williams, was categorized as a heart attack. That night, Earle wrote “Fort Worth Blues,” which he played as warmly as ever tonight.

A month from his 55th birthday, Earle talked of what a big year 2010 promises to be. His and Moorer’s child is due in February; he said it appears his novel (“I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive”) finally will be published; he’s got the second leg of the Van Zandt tour beginning in a week or so. Then he’ll be back in the studio to record an original album in May. His son, Justin Townes Earle, is now 25 and producing some fine work of his own.

Earle brought out Moorer — his sixth wife and seventh marriage — for a few songs from “Washington Square Serenade,” the album inspired by their relocation to New York.

As a set-up for”City of Immigrants,” from that album, Earle spoke of his local deli owner, a Korean who runs his business in what once was an all-Italian neighborhood and speaks “better English than I do….And his two kids speak better English than the both of us.”

He said he feels blessed to know Kim, who he said is now learning his fourth language — Spanish.

A second act free of demons and blessed by good fortune hasn’t tempered our generation’s Guthrie. He’s still fiery, opinionated — and damned if he’ll resort to writing anything but real-life narratives about real-life people and real-life feelings, bit of a switch from the doom and desolation of his idol.

My idol, although only a few years older than me, said he was humbled that, despite the economy, people paid to see him perform and are buying his album. He thanked them with a bow that was as heartfelt and genuine as his writing.

“Be good to one another,” he told the crowd at the end of the night.

As political a message in these times as there ever was.

Sample : selections from “Townes” and other Steve Earle albums: lastFM/SteveEarle

Watch : an interview as Steve talks about Townes:
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