Review: Steve Earle brings songs, stories and soul to the Orpheum in Ybor City
In a vacuum, the narrative fits. A swarthy singer rolls into town, wife and baby in tow, slips into a part of town certain folks don’t visit, picks up a guitar, and sings alone above the din.
But this is the real world – and in the real world, the details do make a difference.
On Friday night, Steve Earle was that man, and Ybor City was the district. Ybor is a fine enough place, but this was an unusual fit, a shaggy, Grammy-winning Texan in a small indie-rock club like the Orpheum, on a neon-lined road like Seventh Avenue. It’s safe to assume most of the fans there for Earle would not otherwise be hanging out on La Septima on a Friday. And who knows how many other potential ticketholders stayed away because of the potential hassle of traveling to Ybor on a weekend?
Point is, the house wasn’t packed. But it didn’t matter. After months of touring with a band, Earle played this one stripped-down and mostly solo, delivering a grand, two-hour set full of stories, sing-alongs and a heaping helping of left-wing politickin’. For longtime fans of the original hard-core troubadour, it was an essential, one-of-a-kind evening.
Earle wasted little time getting to music with a meaning. His second song was the sea-shanty protest song Gulf of Mexico, about an oil driller watching as the “guts of hell” spilled into the water. "F--- BP,” Earle said when he finished. “And Haliburton. And Transocean. And Dick Cheney – he’s spending that money.” Talk about getting in good with the home crowd.
Earle is well known as a political activist – he was passing through Tampa en route to a fundraising cruise for The Nation; oh, what a delightful bunch that must be! – and throughout the evening he discussed many topics near and dear to the hearts of his fellow lefties, from taxation to immigration to gun control. (Only once did the mood of the evening turn politically tense: As Earle discussed the Occupy Wall Street movement, a fan in the back started shouting, “Give back your money! Give back your money!” He was impossible to ignore, but Earle did his best.)
But Earle didn’t have to rely on political proselytizing to keep the audience’s attention. He’s also a novelist, a playwright, a cast member of the greatest TV show of all time (The Wire) and one of the best story-song composers of his generation.
Earle’s rusty whine channeled Dylan, Springsteen and Guthrie in equal measures, and he meandered through his entire catalog during the night. Of course we got Copperhead Road and My Old Friend The Blues, but there were moments of surprise and spontaneity, too. Earle dedicated the prison-blues rocker I Feel Alright to Dan “Bee” Spears, Willie Nelson’s longtime bassist, who died unexpectedly on Thursday. And he played a new song, no more than a week old, whose catchy, rabble-rousing chorus (“Thinkin' 'bout burnin’ it down / Thinkin' 'bout burnin the Walmart down”) got the crowd cheering and singing along.
At times Earle drifted from the mic, smiling as the audience joined in on classics like Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty, Christmas in Washington and a powerful I Ain’t Ever Satisfied.
And though his songs were entertaining enough, packed as they are with tales of nights in Mexico and dark-haired, blue-eyed girls, he was happy to regale the crowd with even more tales from his very interesting life. If you ever get to see Earle in concert, pray that he tells the story of the 30-year evolution of gun control anthem The Devil’s Right Hand, and pray that it includes a sidebar about the time his 15-year-old son, future singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle, swiped a loaded gun from his papa’s bedroom.
Before his set, Earle stood in the Orpheum’s VIP booth above the stage, watching and clapping as his wife, alt-country singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, played an opening set. Moorer is the younger sister of Shelby Lynne, and even if you didn’t know that, you’d find the comparison inevitable. Alabama Song and her sexy, strutty, chug-a-lug cover of Patti Smith’s Dancing Barefoot were worth the price of admission. And she came onstage during Earle’s set for a couple off songs, too -- though Earle made it clear they wouldn't be joined by their young boy, John Henry. "We've taken him to some joints, but this ain't one of 'em," Earle said. "No offense."
The Orpheum could have made do with a few more tickets sold, but the promoters who brought Earle to Tampa for the special show ultimately didn’t mind that the house wasn't packed. They believed it was simply a unique thrill to have Earle there at all. And they were right. Nights like this don’t come along very often.
Watching Earle and Moorer sing and strum alone in the lights, as bottles clinked in the background and ladies shimmied in front of the stage, was like being jettisoned back to the ‘70s. At that point, it was easy to forget you were in Ybor City. At that point, the narrative fit.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*