BBC Radio 1 Live In Concert
Liner notes written by Alan Gardner
Steve Earle came to prominence in 1986, when he was hailed as one of the leading lights of the 'New Country' movement. The yoking together of such disparate talents as Dwight Yoakam, Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith was partly an artificial marketing ploy, but it also reflected a genuine transformation of the US country scene. The bland Nashville sound of the 70s and early 80s came under attack from a wave of new artists, who brought to the music a variety of traditions and influences: Nanci Griffith had clear folk leanings, Dwight Yoakam drew on the honky-tonk sound of Buck Owens and Lefty Frizzell. Steve Earle's trademark was a heavy, guitar-led rock style, coupled with an outstanding songwriting talent. "The music had lost it's dark undertone", he told an interviewer, and on songs such as Down The Road he evokes black nights of the soul in a manner reminiscent of Hank Williams. He is also a poet of the common man, whose stories of working class America have led to frequent comparisons with Bruce Springsteen. The characters in his songs work at factories and filling stations, dreaming of escape from the kind of small town when there's little to do except 'drive down to the lake and then ... turn back around' (Someday).
Earle soon broke free of the 'New Country' tag and as his albums moved progressively closer to mainstream rock his audience broadened. By the time of this 'In Concert' recording in November 1988, he had already completed several successful UK tours. London's Town & Country Club was a favourite venue, as the singer's easy rapport with a noisily enthusiastic audience shows. Commercially, he was on the crest of a wave: Copperhead Road, his third most successful album to date, had been released the previous month.
The show kicked off with the title track from Copperhead Road, the classic Earle tale of bootleggers, Vietnam veterans and 'white trash'. The rest of the concert featured several songs from the album, but also drew heavily on the artist's earlier work. From his second album, Exit 0, came San Antonio Girl, based upon the town in Texas where Earle grew up. With it's chugging organ, the song recalls the Tex-Mex sound of another San Antonio native, Doug Sahm. Numbers from the stunning debut album Guitar Town included the haunting ballad My Old Friend The Blues (which Earle considers his finest song), Someday, Down The Road, and the uncharacteristically sentimental Little Rock N Roller. Devil's Right Hand, introduced the audience as a 'folk song about a 19th century juvenile delinquent', represented a career breakthrough for Earle, who was a struggling Nashville songwriter when Waylon Jennings recorded the song in the mid-'80s. Earle himself recorded an early version of the number before re-cutting it for the Copperhead Road album. The bluesy My Baby Worships Me is another early composition; Earle prefaces his live performance of the song with the opening lines of Van Morrison's Gloria. The other Copperhead Road numbers were Snake Oil, Even When I'm Blue, and Johhny Come Lately, a song about an American GI in wartime London, hellbent on 'drinking Camden Town dry'. The studio version of this featured an unlikely, but artistically highly successful collaboration with The Pogues.
Of the concert's remaining two songs, When Will We Be Married? — a traditional lyric which Earle says he first heard sung by the Waterboys — is of particular interest because it does not appear on any of Steve Earle's other albums. Dead Flowers is a Rolling Stones number (from their Sticky Fingers album), and a later live version appears on Earle's 1991 release Shut Up And Die Like An Aviator. Earle's voice, with it's affecting Texas twang, proves ideally suited to the song, one of Jagger-Richards' occasional forays into country territory. Like the concert as a whole, the track attests to Steve Earle's defiant transcendence of musical boundaries.
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