Some old dear flailing her arms around resolves to stand uncomfortably close to me before attempting to dance a jig on my feet. In the meantime a drunken, middle-aged couple in the middle of the hall decide on a screaming match – which impressively comes close to drowning out the three pipers giving it laldy on the Danny Kyle Open Stage…
Welcome to Celtic Connections!
My anticipation to see Steve Earle tonight has brought me into town far too early. It has also brought me to the conclusion that Celtic Connections is merely an excuse for old people to go a bit crazy for three weeks of the year. When I take my place in the Royal Concert Hall’s Main Auditorium my deductions – however hastily formed – are instantly given some weight as herd upon herd of bald patches held aloft by marvellous beer bellies and milk bottle specs stumble and hiccup towards their seats.
It is thus a particularly refreshing sight when the lovely Alison Moorer takes to the stage. Her magnificently polished guitar reflects in the spotlight, bouncing light off of afore mentioned bald heads, and sets up a sort of surrealist juxtaposition between beauty and ugliness that is only furthered when she starts to sing with her amazing voice.
Her set is varied as she combines classics such as A Soft Place to Fall with newer songs, and even treats us to tracks from her covers album due out next month – the highlight of which was her wonderful version of Patti Smith’s Dancing Barefoot. Accompanied only by her acoustic guitar, this set is a showcase of a powerful voice and soulful songs and a great warm up for the main act.
With a hairline to match many of his fans, Steve Earle looks more like a roadie than the musical superstar he is and as such takes the crowd by surprise when he wanders on and bursts straight into Steve’s Last Ramble.
Solo for the majority of the gig, he accompanies himself mainly on his impressive collection of six-strings, occasionally taking the opportunity to get out his banjo, mandolin, steel bodied resonator, mandola, mouth-organ etc.
With a mammoth thirty song set (well twenty-seven by my count – I’m rounding up) he treats us to a ‘best of’ which includes classics such as Galway Girl, My Old Friend the Blues and Rich Man’s War (“I’m gonna keep singin’ this til the fuckin war is over”). These classic songs are interspersed with various rambling stories, jokes (“ladies and gentlemen, notice that at no time do my fingers leave my hand!”), and general banter with the crowd (“I can’t understand a fuckin word you’re saying!”)
The second half of the gig sees things get a bit different and the new album, Washington Square Serenade, gets an airing. Tennessee Blues starts off with an acoustic, finger-picking instrumental before DJ Neil MacDonald joins in with heavy electronic hip-hop-ish beats. It is a stark departure from his trademark style but it works well. The lyrics of this new song refer to Earle’s decampment from Nashville to New York and signal this new direction in his music. He sings “Goodbye guitar town / Fare thee well I’m bound to roam / This ain’t never been my home”.
The DJ stays for the rest of the set adding various beats, samples and scratches to Earle’s singing. This hip-hop influence of the new record is taken one step further on new track Down Here Below, a banjo and programmed beats country-rap.
While the style of these new songs might be a departure for Earle, the content is as potent and politically charged as ever, something that won’t be changing any time soon – “One of these nights I`m gonna sing a different tune / All night long beneath the silvery moon / When the war is over / And the union`s strong / Won`t sing no more angry songs”.
The foyer at the end of the concert plays host to various discussions/arguments/loud-drunken-opinions by concertgoers as regards the DJ. Dylan at Newport claims are levelled and no one can quite agree on what they have just seen.
Personally the new direction seems quite exciting and fresh. The main joy to be had from Steve Earle’s music comes from his ability to be politically minded but relay his opinions with charm and a great deal of tact, and in a medium to which people can relate. The pop sensibility of the new stuff does just that.