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Steve Earle keeps the Beat

The Knitting Factory, West Hollywood, Cal., April 30, 2002

By Dan MacIntosh

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - Beatfest 2002 celebrates the lasting impact of The Beat Generation by gathering together writers, musicians and even a few artists who somehow straddle each of these camps. Singer and songwriter Steve Earle, who recently released "Doghouse Roses," his first collection of short stories, read a brief poem about the joys of driving before closing the evening with a satisfying sampling of his highly personalized story songs.

He joked at the outset about being a recovering folksinger, but he is, in truth, an incurable. As he alternated between two different acoustic guitars and rotated an endless supply of harmonicas, Earle looked and sounded like the prototypical folk troubadour. After a rambling intro - one that included anecdotes about how he learned the rules (but not how to keep them) for singing folk music, and how he'd once tried his hand at hopping trains in his small Texas hometown - Earle began the singing portion of his set with Eric Von Schmidt's "Baby Let Me Follow You Down," which he learned from a Bob Dylan, which Dylan in turn had learned from a Von Schmidt recording. Folk music is, after all, the passing down of musical traditions.

Earle always puts his own unique brand on any song he chooses to cover, but his self-penned songs always give the truest approximate picture of this complicated man. His topics range from the youthful restlessness of "Someday" to the aged regrets of "Goodbye."

It's not hard to draw the line of influence that connects Earle back to Townes Van Zandt and then to Bob Dylan before him. But after singing his own "My Old Friend The Blues," a song that struggles with the clinging nature of bad feelings, Earle went into an entertaining dialogue about a few of his Texas blues music heroes before capping off this educational segment with a bawdy and spirited performance of the Lightnin' Hopkins favorite, "Limousine Blues." Depression may be a nagging constant, but blues music is obviously a welcome companion to Earle.

Beat Generation artists were a restless and cynical bunch; a minority that kicked at the darkness of the Fifties until it bled daylight. They were also individualists who avoided the status quo at all costs. Such adjectives also apply to Steve Earle's character, which is why he was right at home on a night that also featured an emotional reading by The Ramones' Dee Dee Ramone and a spirited poetry presentation from Wanda Coleman.

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