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Earle takes awhile to get untracked

Coach House, San Juan Capistrano, Cal., March 17, 1998

By Dan MacIntosh

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, CA - A mere five songs into Steve Earle's set, on the tender "My Old Friend The Blues," he told some folks towards the front "I hope I'm not bothering y'all."

Later, he would reprimand these same chatters for talking too loudly once again during his performance.

"If you talk through this," scolded Earle as he began "Ft. Worth Blues," his tribute to his friend, the late Townes Van Zant, "I'm gonna get really pissed."

Still, in all fairness to these gabbing fans, Earle really hadn't given the audience much to pay attention to up to that point.

The band seemed to be dragging, and Earle's vocals were lethargic and uninvolved. Even a concert favorite like "Copperhead Road" lacked the spark that usually makes this song burn.

Oddly, it wasn't the collection of amplified rockers at the tag end of the night that finally woke up Earle's initiative.

Instead, it was a few acoustic numbers featuring Earle on mandolin and Buddy Miller on acoustic guitar, beginning with "Train a Comin,'" that eventually put him back on track.

Augmented by Kelly Looney, the only remaining original Duke on bass, and a drummer borrowed from Emmylou Harris' band, Earle seemed to be in better focus by the time he got to "You Know The Rest," from the new one, "El Corazon." He rarely let down that intensity until he concluded things with "I Ain't Never Satisfied" as his final encore.

In between his early false starts and the show's satisfying climax, Earle played most of the new album, and sprinkled in a sampling from each of his previous recordings. He also covered Jimmy Cliff's "Johnny Too Bad" and Son Volt's "May the Wind Take Your Troubles Away."

The evening's clear highlight was Earle's powerful rendition of "Billy Austin," which had even the chatty Cathys in the crowd silenced. When Earle's heart is in it, he definitely deserves an audience's undivided attention. By that point, he'd finally earned it.

The V-Roys opened, retaining a musical flavor similar to Earle's. But the Tennesse band obviously lacks the lyrical bite that makes Earle's melodic songs come to life. Nonetheless, "It's A Lie That I Believe" is a great song by anybody's measurement.

Within Earle's own set, he found time to share the stage with Miller, and his wife Julie. A rocking version of "All My Tears" (better known for Emmylou Harris' version) highlighted a brief taste that left one hungry for more. This interruption was no mere smoke break for Earle: The Millers' contributions to the show were equal to the high standards set by Earle himself and were a warmly welcomed detour.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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