Steve Earle told of a failed intervention by his doomed friend and teacher Townes Van Zandt, not exactly reminiscing, at The Egg on Saturday. Earle recounted how Van Zandt had warned him always to use clean needles, then Van Zandt sang “Marie.”
When Earle sang “Marie” himself on Saturday, the words about a dying mother and son — “If he’s a boy, I hope he don’t end up like me” — took on a special poignancy. Earle’s son Justin Townes Earle opened the show and sang Van Zandt’s “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold” with him, and has ended up just like his father.
That’s not a bad thing. Both are powerful and highly individual artists who turn trouble into music.
Earle said in making his tribute album “Townes” of Van Zandt’s songs (source of many songs in Saturday’s show) that he adopted a first-day-in-the-joint approach: “Find the biggest guy in the yard and knock him out, then you get to keep your radio.” Then he launched into “Pancho and Lefty” — Van Zandt’s best-known song — and knocked it out.
Earle was even better on Van Zandt’s wistful “Colorado Girl” and “Brand New Companion,” introducing the latter by quoting Van Zandt that there are only two kinds of music, blues and zip-a-dee-doodah, before proclaiming, “This ain’t zip-a-dee-doodah.”
Earle has actually been paying tribute to Van Zandt since joining, at 17, what he admitted with eager candor was a cult. Gruffer of voice than Van Zandt, maybe a bit less adroit with melody, but equally in love with words, Earle brings tremendous authority to Van Zandt’s tunes. And he writes often in his mentor’s graceful, grave style. His own “Fort Worth Blues” mourned Van Zandt poignantly and directly on Saturday, and many songs echoed what’s best about Van Zandt’s writing, including the anti-racist “Taneytown” and the anti-death-penalty “Ellis Unit One.”
Late in the show, Earle brought out son Justin for Van Zandt’s “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold,” and Justin seemed stronger in this complex lyric. Then Earle’s wife Allison Moorer Earle came onstage for “Days Are Never Long Enough” and “City of Immigrants.” These visitations didn’t feel artificial or intrusive because they felt just as real as Van Zandt’s songs in Earle’s fervent voice. Besides, Earle later hit Van Zandt’s notes and feel perfectly in “To Live Is to Fly” and capped the show with his own rousing “Copperhead Road.”
Lanky and hyper in tablecloth-check shirt, rigid pompadour and short white jacket, Justin seemed equal parts Hank Williams and PeeWee Herman: He sounded like Hank, in a rousing opener powered by turbulent counterpoint guitar, a strong tenor and tunes testifying to a troubled but transcended past. He mourned John Henry, asserted “If you ain’t glad I’m leaving, you ought ta be,” channeled Woody Guthrie, told dark family secrets, admitted to being several kinds of a fool but claimed redemption in “Mama’s Eyes” and excused himself, in advance, for bad behavior to come in “Someday I’ll Be Forgiven for This.” Early in a long train ride to leave someone, he sang he was “Halfway to Jackson” — and not hurting yet — though pain filled every note.
A tremendous guitarist and a persuasive, ache-voiced singer, he put the crowd in his pocket and kept everybody there, applauding his hot licks, clapping along without ever being asked, and in general marveling at amazing new talent, adept at honky-tonk heartbreak, aim-between-the-ditches desperation and deep, deep candor clad in cozy conventions he claimed as his own. The kid was hot: his father’s son.