Steve Earle: revolution rock of the highest order


October 18, 2004

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

As one of the "blue" states, Illinois missed the most high-profile shows on the recent Vote for Change tour. But we got something even better on Saturday night.

Veteran roots-rocker and longtime Chicago favorite Steve Earle came to the Vic Theatre with an agenda: to remind people that music has the power to change the world by motivating anyone who is willing to listen.

As he did on his recent album, Earle book-ended his set with two versions of his undeniable new anthem, "The Revolution Starts ... ," one mellow, the other more fiery. During the reprise, when the sold-out crowd enthusiastically provided the declaration that comes at the end of that ellipsis -- "NOW!" -- it underscored the fact that Earle's vision can't be dismissed as mere idealism or a quaintly outdated notion from the '60s.

"Last night I had a dream / That the world had turned around / And all our hopes had come to be / And the people gathered 'round," Earle sang. "They all brought what they could bring / And nobody went without / And I learned a song to sing / The revolution starts now!" he sang.

The singer-songwriter paid homage to the role models for this most outspoken phase of an unequivocal career when he performed "Christmas in Washington" -- leading the crowd in resounding choruses of "Come back, Woody Guthrie" -- and spurred his astounding backing band, the Dukes, through a potent cover of the Beatles' "Revolution," a song about the topic that also came in "hot" and "cool" versions.

But the strongest moments of the 2-1/2-hour performance all hailed from the new album, which, to my ears, is the best of Earle's distinguished career.

The performer has never struck deeper, more profoundly humanistic chords than he did when growling "Home to Houston," "The Gringo's Tale" and "Rich Man's War," a trio of tunes that bemoaned the use of young men and women as cannon fodder from three different perspectives. He's never been as spot-on as a satirist as he was crooning the calypso love song "Condi, Condi" to our National Security Adviser. And he's never sounded as angry or powerful as he was roaring through the punk-rocking "F the CC," railing at the censorious powers of the FCC, the FBI and the CIA.

Earle has always had an ear for choosing great musicians, but the current version of the Dukes is his strongest ever. Eric "Roscoe" Ambel was a guitar wizard, with a seemingly inexhaustible arsenal of six-string colors. Drummer Will Rigby ranged from the most sensitive Fairport Convention-style folk-rock textures to the most gonzo Keith Moon-inspired percussive explosions. And bassist Kelly Looney provided a nonstop melodic counterpoint as well as a hard-grooving bottom.

The other valuable addition to the evening was vocalist Allison Moorer.

Opening the show by fronting a two-guitar duo with Adam Landry, Moorer delivered a sleepy and predictable set of sub-Lilith Fair coffee-house balladry. But she came alive and sparked gloriously with Earle when joining him to provide the parts that were sung by Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams on the duets "Conspiracy Theory," "Comin' Around" and "You're Still Standing There."

Earle and the Dukes were called back for two well-deserved encores -- the first comprised of old favorites such as "Sweet Little '66" and "Guitar Town," and the second centered on another inspired and timely cover, the Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today," which ended one of the best nights of live music I've had the privilege to share in the new millennium.

Never one to don the rose-colored glasses, Earle knows that music alone can't change the world. But it can elevate the spirit, one listener at a time. And that is something much more valuable.