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Steve Earle - Live from Austin, TX Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 April 2007
format:    16-bit CD/DVD
performance:    8
sound:    9
release year:    2004
label:    New West
reviewed by:    K L Poore

ImageThere’s a history behind my love for Steve Earle, and with it, Live from Austin, TX. I wish I could honestly say that when he came onto the scene my music speedometer roared up to 90 mph and that I grabbed ahold of Guitar Town like it was the Holy Grail – but that’s not the case.

You see, it was 1986, and I was really fed up with music in general. So much so that I’d basically stopped listening. “Say you, Say me.” Say what? I couldn’t even understand what that fucking song was about. I was in a really deep funk. It was my friend Paul, who has one of the finest musical sensitivities I’ve ever observed, who said “Check this guy out, you’ll dig him.”

There’s no telling where he’d heard him, but in a true example of synchronicity it was at just about this time (in my mind it was the same day, but that’s probably myth-building) that this very Austin City Limits show popped up on my local PBS station. That, as they say, was that, for me. The Lionel Richies, Whitney Houstons and Mr. Misters of the world vanished from my brain and the funk was lifted.
Getting the opportunity to relive that show proves Paul’s music speedometer is incredibly sensitive to (corrupting Led Zeppelin) “what is, and what should be.” Live from Austin, TX is filled with great music (too country for rock, too rock for country), and puts on full display the ’86 promise of what Steve Earle was to become (even through the drug and legal issues of the next few years). Some say he’s never lived up to that promise, but I can clearly see that’s he gone far beyond it to become one of the most important voices in music today. You can hear, and see on the DVD, that promise in these recordings. They’re both worth owning and watching. Repeatedly.

At the time it was said that Earle was a country version of Bruce Springsteen, but until now I didn’t understand how closely this incarnation of the Dukes reflected the “Born in the USA” sound (although with a lot more twang). It’s the arrangements. From the opener through the cover of Springsteen’s “State Trooper” that divides this show into two distinct parts, those arrangements sound surprisingly E Street Band-ish. I say surprisingly because I’d never thought about it before. The entire band plays big themes in unison (“Sweet Little ’66”), the keyboards use what I like to call a “Palisades Park”-style of choppy root chords (“Goodbye’s All We Got Left”), and there are dynamics galore. After “State Trooper” (which in an odd turn is a band arrangement of a song from Springsteen’s sparse solo LP Nebraska), it seems as if the show morphs into something closer to demonstrating what Steve’s voice would later become, and the promise truly shines through.

That’s not to say the second half of the show is better than the first, because I’d be running down wonderful versions of “Hillbilly Highway,” “My Old Friend the Blues” (“lovers leave, and friends will let you down,” he sings, as if it happened that very day) and the Bob Wills-sounding “Think It Over,” three songs I love. It’s not better, it just seems as if the band is more confident and has slipped into their own shoes.

For me the lid blows off with “The Week of Living Dangerously.” I don’t know of any other song that makes me want to go out and do the wrong thing this much (excepting of course “Gun” by Soundgarden, which automatically shuts off that part of my brain that says “don’t!”). When Steve sings “I threw the car seat in the dumpster and headed out into the night,” I’m half way to being drunk and checking my wallet for cash. For me, the song should be titled “The Year of Living Vicariously.”

Back to the future, I’m surprised to find that by the time Steve makes it to “The Devil’s Right Hand” (one of my favorite songs) I’m as caught up and captivated by this show as I was the first time around. Even with influences and growing pains apparent, “Little Rock ‘n’ Roller” suffers under the weight of its own meaningfulness. Live in Austin, TX: Steve Earle makes it easy for me to understand why I’ve looked forward to every one of his releases since, and will continue to do so until he stops making music.

On the Rod Stewart GRCOOT Scale, Rod’s recent recording is a patch of dying grass and this one’s a wild dog, running free and easy, looking for a place to leave a nice present for Madonna’s live recording to step in.

Live in Austin, TX: Steve Earle is a time capsule glimpse of a musician who matters, who’s just beginning to find his way, and who’s announcing to the world that we should “eat our Nissans” and get ready for a long ride in our sweet ‘66s. It’s a ride that will send your speedometer to 100. I call shotgun.

Live in Austin, TX: Steve Earle is about as good a car CD as you can own, and everyone who was on P.C.H. from Beaches Long to Redondo yesterday knows it. Then again, they’ve been listening to Transcendental Blues for years so they already had some sort of notion of what Steve is capable of.

Extra Features
The separate DVD of the show, in 5.1 sound, is a revelation in itself. The DVD-Audio is stunning and it’s as if you’re sitting about six feet away from the front of the stage. That’s a pretty good place to be, since the audience at these Austin shows always seemed to be somewhere out in El Paso.

One thing that surprised me was the placement of some keyboard, vocals and guitars into the rear speakers. It was as if I had floated forward from the front row and was allowed to sit on the monitors. Cool, but disconcerting at times.

The picture on the DVD is very clean (I wonder how they were able to preserve it so well for more than 20 years) and the whole package is very impressive. I’m looking forward to others. (New West has the green light from Austin City Limits to release anything and everything – 24 and counting – from their long broadcast history, since 1976, as long as they negotiate permission from the artist.)

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