As a college-educated, Kanye-loving, card-carrying hipster, last night, I was having a classic whatwhitepeoplelike dilemma: Did I really have to Tivo The Wire finale so I could see Steve Earle? How would I be able to concentrate at a quiet, respectful acoustic show at the Pantages knowing I was going to be two hours behind on the finale of The Greatest Television Series Ever? What if somebody spoiled the ending for me on twitter or something?
I bit the DVR bullet and ended up going--and I’m glad I did. Because I saw Earle play the best acoustic, radical leftist, folk-rock show I’ve ever seen. For two solid hours at a capacity Pantages Theatre, Earle put on an incredible performance, equal parts storyteller and virtuoso guitar/banjo/lute player. He played part of the concert alongside his new(est) wife, the beautiful and talented Allison Moorer. There were several incredible moments coming on the strength of his twenty-two-year-career, but many came on the strength of his newest record, the Grammy-winning, roots rock/hip-hop mash-up masterpiece Washington Square Serenade. Yes, I loved the new stuff.
It might have been one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
But last night’s Steve Earle highlight was still a three-minute scene on a television show.
In season 5, Earle played Walon, a recovering addict who leads a Narcotics Anonymous meeting at a Baltimore church and acts as a twelve-step sponsor to The Wire’s hardest case, the fresh on-the-wagon junkie, Bubbles. Last night, the two men met on a park bench to talk about how much credit a man should get for doing the right thing. Walon handed over a crumpled piece of paper. Bubs read, “You can hold back from the suffering of the world. You have free permission to do so, and it is in accordance with your nature. But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided.” Bubbles looked up, “Franzie Kafka, who’s he?”
“Some writer,” Earle says.
“Read his books?”
In its three minutes this scene summed up the greatness of the show: the ability of its characters to put across highfalutin’ socially progressive ideals and then to puncture those ideals with the gallows humor of the real world. In this sense, even though Steve Earle is a Methodist from Texas and Wire creator David Simon is a Jew from Baltimore, as artists, they’re simpatico. They’re both storytellers obsessed with the large scope of history and the microscope of character, specifically how history’s losers simultaneously get screwed over and screw it up for themselves.
Back to what I’m actually getting paid to do: during the first half of Earle’s show, he sang songs off his early albums, songs about a junkie heading downtown with a pistol and a hunnert dollar bill, a horse thief getting ready to walk out into a shoot-out, and a convict sitting on death row for killing a gas station clerk. He sang these older songs solo, accompanying himself. But then he brought out a DJ for the new songs and it was hard to ignore: Steve Earle’s gone sort of hip-hop.
There were clues on his last album, Jerusalem, but his new record Washington Square Serenade has made this move explicit. And it’s hard not to think that The Wire must have had some part in this direction. Yes, his roots-hop version of Tom Waits’ “Down in the Hole,” complete with drum loops and scratching effects, was The Wire’s theme song this year (and he closed last night’s set with it), but Earle’s clearly in love with more than the drum loops, but with the message and aura of hip hop. Washington Square is an urban album--definitely fifty-year-old folkie urban, but urban.
The Wire is a study of the Darwinian nature of an American city--of how the political and civil systems of Baltimore corrupt even the best intentioned, and how a city evolves while staying the same. And one of my favorite songs on Washington Square, “Life Down Here,” a song that Earle sang with his wife last night, also addresses the nature of a city. But instead of Simon’s perspective, the perspective of an ex-newspaperman, Earle addresses it from the perspective of a country boy who’s moved to The Village. Check out the talking blues introduction:
Pale male the famous redtail hawk performs wingstands high above midtown Manhattan
Circles around for one last pass over the park
Got his eye on a fat squirrel down there and a couple of pigeons
They got no place to run they got no place to hide
But pale male he's cool, see 'cause his breakfast ain't goin' nowhere
So he does a loop t loop for the tourists and the six o' clock news
Got him a penthouse view from the tip-top of the food chain, boys
He looks up and down on fifth ave and says "God I love this town."
I was thinking of that hawk when I got home after the concert to watch another predator, Marlo Stanfield. The way Marlo blew out of a real estate party on the harbor front to return to the corner. The way he disarmed a hopper and took a bullet on the forearm, and his black eyes, as he wipes the blood off his $5000 suit….
Greatest. Show. Evah.