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dismissed as mere idealism or a quaintly outdated notion from the '60s.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
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
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.