Review: Steve Earle at Bruce Mason Centre

By Russell Baillie

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This was the third time Steve Earle had come to town. While he's a little bigger and much bushier, his band sure has got smaller. After the power-twang outfits of past incursions by the US country politically outspoken left-fielder, this time it was mainly just Earle and guitar.

He did have occasional DJ-turntable backing - no doubt someone has shouted a knowing "Judas" at him like they did when Bob Dylan went electric, but not in this reverent gathering which half-filled the Takapuna venue.

And he also had the supportive voice of wife Allison Moorer. So a kind of beatbox-to-bluegrass evening and one that pivoted very much not on Earle's lengthy past of a dozen or so albums, but his latest and less-than-greatest Washington Square Serenade.

That set, with its Greenwich Village reference in its title, is a paean to his life in New York City, hence the busy electronic rhythms underscoring songs like his obvious Big Apple odes City of Immigrants and Down Here Below, which - if you squinted your ears - sounded like Paul Simon after a really rough weekend. Some older material like Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain, one of Earle's many post rehab blues, also benefited from the stripped-back, sparked-up arrangements.

That said, it was a show that never really caught fire. Sure, every stamp of his boot heel through the early solo-acoustic part kicked things up a gear. And he was happy with the US election result, while gently chastising ours.

But it was a performance that did what it had to do, with a few pleasant diversions like Townes Van Zandt's Pancho and Lefty from a forthcoming covers album and a duet or two with Moorer. And it finished with an encore of Earle's moonshine anthem Copperhead Road.

That song ripped the roof off the Auckland Town Hall when he played it in his bad old days. But on this night, it - like many of the songs which preceded - felt a mite watered down.

Moorer opened for Earle with a short but effective set of hearty ballads, capping it off with a beautiful take on Sam Cooke's A Change Is Gonna Come which she had been playing pre-election in support of you-know-who. While between his songs Earle spoke eloquently of his views, the Cooke song wasn't only the night's best tune, it was the political high point too.

- NZ Herald

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