Note from the Steve Earle/Allison Moorer Town Hall show last night:
I'm sitting in the audience left loge, in front of a pretty British brunette and across the aisle from a sultry blonde. Allison Moorer comes on, wearing a black dress that ends just above her knees and fishnet stockings. I have no idea what her first song is; I’m so captivated by her voice that I forget to write down the odd lyric so I can title-check later. After confessing that this is her first time at Town Hall, she sings three more songs (Fair Weather, A Soft Place to Fall and New Year’s Day) and then switches guitars.
MOORER: So I’ve got a new album coming out. It’s a cover album. Songs by female singer-songwriters. All girls. We don’t have enough of ‘em in the music business, despite what you hear.
Then she sings Clouds, and you can hear a pin drop.
MOORER: I think I just officially busted my Town Hall cherry. And, yes, I am wearing fishnets.
(Don’t have to tell me, Allie.)
She sings Getting Somewhere, then introduces her new husband: “When we started touring together, I didn't think I’d marry him. That’s life, I guess.” Earle comes out and hovers next to her over the mike as she introduces the next song.
MOORER: We’ve been singing this song for a while and we’re gonna keep singing it till this stupid war is over.
And they go right into Where Have All The Flowers Gone, and I’m in concert heaven. How often do you hear this and Clouds within ten minutes of each other? How often do you hear this and Clouds, period? It’s like going back in time and listening to WBCN.
And then Moorer cements the FM radio station analogy by singing Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come. (Personal echo: my friend Sarah in Virginia name-checked this song in an e-mail to me not more than ten days ago, and I e-mailed her back an mp3 of the Sam Cooke original. So of course I text her as discreetly as possible while Moorer is singing.)
During intermission, the sultry blonde goes down to an empty seat in the first row of the orchestra, where her hair shines like a good deed in a naughty world. After intermission, Earle comes on. He looks, well, relaxed and (gulp) happy. It's kind of unnerving. His last CD was the musical equivalent of one of those books in the Old Testament where the guy with the long beard shouts on a street corner and nobody listens; his current album is "a bunch of love songs to New York City and Allison Moorer, not necessarily in that order." (And by the end of the night, he'll have done 10 of them, out of a possible total of 12.)
He starts off with a talking intro to Baby Let Me Follow You Down.
EARLE: I used to be a folk singer. Now I am a recovering folk singer. I liked being a folk singer because folk singers have no regard for authority. Then I discovered that there were folk singer authorities. Rules and regulations. One of the rules is, you always start a song by saying where you got it. So I could start this song by saying I got it off a Bob Dylan album. On Bob Dylan's album, he says he got it off a guy named Eric von Schmidt.
After Baby Let Me Follow You Down, he sings NYC, and then some guy in the audience left balcony yells out "Troubadour!" Someone else yells out "Revolution Starts Now!" Earle ignores them both, says, "This one goes out to whatsername, wherever the hell she is now," and sings Now She’s Gone.
EARLE: Same girl, different approach.
And he sings Goodbye. Watching him sing these two songs back to back is like watching a guy knock on the door of a house he used to live in and ask the current owners if he can take a look inside before he drives off to his current home. It's not just a farewell, it's an F you. Then he gets political --
EARLE: I've decided to keep singing this song till it comes true.
-- and sings Jerusalem. The audience responds with cries of "I love you man!" "Earle for President!" and (yes) "Troubadour!"
EARLE: I"m not a hero, I'm just a Commie hillbilly.
He sings Billy Austin, switches guitars, and reflects that he writes "songs about juvenile delinquents in the 19th and 20th century; haven’t gotten around to the 21st yet," before he does Tom Ames’ Prayer . Then he talks about Townes.
EARLE: Had a friend who was also my teacher. Townes. [Applause.] I truly believe he was the greatest songwriter who ever walked this earth. [Applause.] He led a migratory life, summers in Colorado, winters in Tennessee and Texas. Not because he had to, just because he wanted to. And when he finally settled down, I know that’s when he started to die. He’s also the reason I don’t ski. [Laughter] We were up in the Colorado Rockies, and he wanted to take me skiing but I didn't know how, so instead of teaching me, he gave me a fair amount of LSD. “You don’t need to practice, man," he said, "you need to experience the mountain.” I experienced a tree.
He sings Van Zandt's Rex’s Blues, and without a pause swings into Fort Worth Blues, the song he wrote for TVZ and sang at that Austin City Limits tribute, the show where Nanci Griffith cried her eyes out as he played it. (You can watch the video here.)
A guy named Neil MacDonald starts up a drum machine. Earle sings Tennessee Blues, the first song on the new CD, then a guy comes out with a banjo. "This is not a sophisticated banjo," Earle explains. "This is the kind of banjo that scares sheep." He sings Oxycontin Blues from the new album, then switches to guitar for Jericho Road.
GUY IN AUDIENCE LEFT BALCONY: Troo-oo-oobador!
GUY IN AUDIENCE LEFT BALCONY: How long do I have to wait?
EARLE: Keep your knickers on, man, we’re here for a while. [Beat] I’ve got 13 albums, there’s gonna come a point where I’m not gonna be able to sing a song off each of them.
He sings Sparkle and Shine off the new CD, (so obviously written for his new wife), introduces Allison again, and they duet on Days Aren’t Long Enough. Moorer sticks around for City of Immigrants and Down Here Below, and when she walks off, Earle shakes his head and confesses: "I am seriously over-married in every possible way."
Three more songs from the new CD (Steve’s Hammer, with a singalong chorus; Satellite Radio, and Way Down In The Hole), and he's off.
British girl and I are up on our feet clapping, and I feel bad for the Troubadour guy until Earle comes back and for his first encore introduces (yup) Hardcore Troubadour by declaring: "Being completely and totally pro-sex, I have to sing this song." Then he does My Old Friend The Blues, which sounds like yet another farewell, this time to an older version of himself, after which people start shouting for songs; I figure what the hell, and yell for Johnny Come Lately.
EARLE: I hoped I wouldn’t still be singing this song . . . [a sigh] I get asked a lot, “Aren’t you afraid that your old songs are going to be dated?” [Beat] God, I hope so.
He sings Rich Man's War. There's a line in the bridge that echoes back to the opening set: "When will they ever learn," Earle sings, and it's impossible not to believe he's deliberately quoting Pete Seeger, not after that wonderful duet earlier in the evening. Then he does Copperhead Road and goes off again, to come back on for a second encore and lead everyone in a singalong of Christmas Time In Washington. "Come back, Woody Guthrie," we sing. "Come back to us now."
I go out onto 43rd Street whistling the chorus, and the first thing I see is a fleet of town cars waiting the take Skadden Arps lawyers home from their long day of over-billing clients in the Condé Nast building. This corporate-looking guy walking beside me proves that appearances are deceiving by saying with disgust: "Skadden Arps. Now that's irony. You know what they're famous for? Busting the union contracts in the Delphi reorganization. Best union contracts ever set up. Skadden tore 'em apart." I nod my head like I know what he's talking about, making a mental note to look up Delphi in the morning. (I did; it's here.)
And I think to myself, the world is full of irony. Believe it or not, I just saw a happy Steve Earle. Old Sad Steve Earle would say, it don't get more ironic than that.