Steve Earle doesn’t live full-time in Guitar Town any more.
At The Egg on Thursday, he added NYC (his new hometown) hip-hop to the six-string rural rock he reprised from his Nashville days since his 1986 star-making album “Guitar Town.” Wherever he was coming from, it was a tremendous show.
Sounding like early Dylan, he started by bemoaning what he’s missed living on the road, repeating this lament in an encore about absent fathers. In “The Devil’s Right Hand” early and “Billy Austin” later, he told tales of crime and punishment, decrying capital punishment in the latter and tilted his balding head forward to sing of a pre-execution head-shaving. Just as serious to him, and therefore immediately to the audience, was “Some Day” about the desperation to escape a small life, a more confining circumstance than a small town. Dedicating “Now She’s Gone” to “what’s her name, wherever she is” lightened things up only a little, and he aimed “I Can’t Remember If We Said Goodbye” to “the same girl,” reaching for a different harmonica.
“Oxycontin Blues” and a song on heroin that followed showed Earle’s deep familiarity with chemical oblivion; more subtly so did “South Nashville Blues.” Adding opening act, wife and harmony singer Allison Moorer and beat technician Neil McDonald provided texture and punch, though Earle had plenty of his own. New songs from his Grammy-winning “Washington Square Serenade” got both Moorer’s sweetness — the lovely “Day’s Aren’t Long Enough” and — and beefy urban grit — “City of Immigrants” and “Down Here Below,” a cityscape from a hawk’s perspective. Earle sounded as sweet himself singing “Sparkle and Shine” about Moorer as he did dueting in “Days” with her. In the vintage “Rich Man’s Wars” and “Steve’s Hammer” (for Pete Seeger),” he denounced war with modulated rage, insisting everyone sing “Hammer” like revolutionaries. Of course, everyone did.
McDonald’s beats integrated into Earle’s songs smoothly for the most part, making “Way Down in the Hole” actively spooky and giving the country-rocking “Copperhead Road” the heft it needed. It worked because Earle’s songs are so resilient, powerful solo troubadour fare when Earle lit them up alone and arching back into shape when pushed off-center by McDonald’s samples and turntables. Like springs, or copperhead snakes, they uncoiled from his concise statements into messages that linger long in the heart and mind.
“Steve will be out in a minute,” Alison Moorer promised in her opener, gazing into the wings and adding: “He’s over there looking at me.” Who wouldn’t? A gorgeous redhead, she showed how unfair the genetic lottery is: Both she and older sister Shelby Lynne won big in the beautiful voice department. Like Lynne, whose latest album pays tribute to Dusty Springfield, Moorer packed her recent “Mockingbird” album with covers. And, like Earle, she bounced back and forth between country and city without landing in the suburbs: She was real. Her voice lifted like wings in “Mockingbird,” flying around the melody. She sang “She” better than its writer Patti Smith, but less intensely — until the end — and “Clouds” better than Joni Mitchell or Judy Collins; and “A Change is Gonna Come” was all sweet promise.
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