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Steve Earle: Solo, Acoustic and Revealing

February 10th, 2014

Steve Earle – the Space at Westbury – February 8, 2014

“I don’t believe in lost causes…. I can’t afford to.” That was one of many revealing quotes Steve Earle offered at the Space in Westbury on Saturday night during a marathon two-plus-hour set. The show was billed as solo and acoustic, and as promised this was Earle as honest and bare as you could ask for. Of all our great living singer-songwriters, there are perhaps none quite as autobiographical as Earle—the word I appears in his lyrics more than any other, which makes for some mighty fine folk music and even better storytelling. The set spanned his entire career, which, for him, means life spanning.

Opening with “Low Highway,” Earle tumbled out three or four songs in quick succession that dealt with the heartbreak portion of his life. But as the show wore on, he opened up on a range of subjects, some causes more lost than others: loves lost and found, family, highlights of a troubled past and a range of political interests. Where in the past, he might have ranted or raged against the man in between songs, on Saturday Earle couched each highlight in a touch of affable banter. Sometimes it was just a throwaway line, like “same girl, different harmonica” between two love songs. More chillingly, he introduced “Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain” simply by saying, “Welcome to my nightmare” before his 12-string guitar resonated hauntingly in the room.

But the best moments were when he got off on a story, riffing like a jazz musician circling a theme with improvisation. The intro to the seasonally appropriate “Valentine’s Day” wove multiple threads about Hallmark holidays, NYC’s 24-hour flower shopping and his post-prison no-driver’s-license days. As political as he got, the stories were always 100 percent personal. Earle prefaced “Jerusalem” with a coherent ramble from a phone call on 9/11, to his own reading on the history of Iraq to recording with Israeli and Palestinian musicians. His tribute to the recently passed Pete Seeger wasn’t a cover (Dawn Landes in the opening slot took care of that nicely with a sing-along version of “Turn Turn Turn”), but rather overlapping anecdotes and the realization that to make it to your nineties playing music, you have to offload some of the singing to the audience. And with such a rich personal history to draw from, shooting for a few more decades of Steve Earle is certainly no lost cause. —A. Stein