Steve Earle Goes Back to Church, Stays for About 2 1/2 Hours


Moses preaches. Pic by Rob Trucks.

Steve Earle
Judson Memorial Church
Monday, September 22

I derive great comfort from Steve Earle’s well-worn onstage jokes about his myriad ex-wives. Let’s not pretend not to have this conversation.

Me: “So how many are there, anyway?”
The Photographer: “Well, that depends. Does Grover Cleveland count as two presidents, or one?”

Anyway, Steve’s onstage at this lovely Washington Square church, in full lovely mumbled roar and magnificent comb-over, cracking familiar jokes, but familiar the way old friends (or exes) are familiar:

“This is for what’s her name, wherever she is.”

[Plays forlorn love song.]

[Ends song, changes harmonica.]

“Okay, same girl, different harmonica.”

[Plays another forlorn love song.]

His crowd is rapt, hooting and clapping and interrupting his ambling spiels about dogs, Italy, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Townes Van Zandt, the death penalty. Oh yes. It is an election year, you will recall.

“I’m opposed to the death penalty, whatever the crime, no matter what.”


“That includes Osama bin Laden.”

[Less applause.]

“That includes Dick Cheney.”

[Relieved laffs.]

And then he plays forlorn anti-death-penalty ballad “Billy Austin,” and it’s fuckin’ devastating. Love this dude. He’s got like 500 songs with “Road” in the title, and they’re all splendid. A forgivable indulgence, and speaking of which, he rocks out for 2:20 at least, and only really tears into material off last year’s so-so Washington Square Serenade in the second hour. This involves special guests, both excellent (current wife/opening act Allison Moorer, harmonizing splendidly on “Down Here Below”) and, uh, quixotic.

The DJ. For more than an hour the turntables loomed behind Steve almost like a threat, but here comes the DJ, who looks less like a DJ and more like the guy who beats the crap out of people at Yankees games for wearing Red Sox gear. For the first several tunes the DJ merely drops the beat and plays with the knobs for five minutes or so; emboldened, he eventually tries backing vocals (goes well) and actual scratching (does not). I respect Steve’s attempts at innovation, but this does not rise to the artistic level of the R.E.M./KRS-One duet, if you know what I’m saying.

But “Galway Girl” is better, and the newer rabble-rousing, Pete Seeger-toasting “Steve’s Hammer” is too. “People say I’m preaching to the choir,” Steve announces. “But sometimes the choir needs preaching to.” His last two words to us are “thanks” and “Obama.”

Steve Earle plays the Judson Memorial Church tonight (September 23), Thursday (the 25th), and Friday (the 26th). Tickets are here.

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