If you didn’t know any better, you might have thought it was a straight hip-hop show before it began. Three mics, two turntables and a mixer set up at the Paramount, ready for some crowd-starting, hand-waving DJ to kick things off. Instead, the near-capacity crowd got 53-year-old Steve Earle, who stalked to the center of the stage and launched into his set with a fury.
And for the first half of that set it was just Earle, the stand-up mic, and his ever-revolving cast of guitars. He blazed through some of his standards while the decks sat unmanned—“The Devil’s Right Hand” to “Someday.” After five quick songs, Earle stepped back, took a breath and announced “This one goes out to what’s-her-name, wherever the hell she is,” then began picking out “Now She’s Gone” before moving into “Goodbye,” singing, “Was I off somewhere, or just too high?”
Devil’s right-hand man: Steve Earle sent a packed Paramount Theater to hillbilly heaven.
Sure, nobody can do regret with such swagger, but then defiance has always been Earle’s thing, even if it is his outlaw persona giving the finger to his more reflective side. There’s a sweet tension between the two, the ache of loss and the fuck-it-all attitude. Earle embodied both between the two songs, switching harmonicas and saying, “Same girl, different harmonica.” If this is what Charlottesville came to see—the wounded, yet quick-witted cynic—then that’s what it got, at least in the beginning.
|Video for Steve Earle’s "City of Immigrants."|
But when Earle came to the songs from his latest album, Washington Square Serenade, things changed. While he vamped on Johnny Cash’s “Tennessee Stud,” Neil McDonald strode out from stage right wearing a white Triumph motorcycle t-shirt and took his place at the decks, licked his fingertips and dropped in a looped beat as Earle leaned into the opening riff of “Tennessee Blues,” the first cut from Serenade.
And for the next five songs, Earle was backed by McDonald’s decks, suddenly riding head-nodding beats that would have even brought a smile to the face of established hip-hop beatmaker DJ Premier. The rhythm-heavy riff from “Jericho Road” fit snugly into the space between the boom-baps.
Serenade is a product of Pro Tools, digital mixing software that Earle, one of analogue’s most fervent defenders in the past, had sat down to try his hand at. “I finally tested positive for Pro Tools,” he said wryly in an interview.
Earle had played one of his newest songs before McDonald’s entrance, the spike-driving “Oxycontin Blues,” on a silver resonator. But the combination of his finger-picking and the pounding beats backing him quickly became the spine of the show, Earle clearly energized by the new setup.
When Earle unpacked what he calls his Pro Tools “rig” in his new Village apartment, he set out to make a folk record arrived at by hip-hop rules. What he displayed in Charlottesville was the end product, a mandolin and a mixer, two seemingly disparate elements yoked together, a perfect form for all the contradictions Earle happily embraces.