Judge Daniel MacDonald stays away from Copperhead Road.
Music and politics go together like love and marriage, which themselves go together like a horse and carriage—which is to say, pretty well. Rocker-turned-bluegrass artist Steve Earle has forwarded his strong and varied views through song since early in his career, never one to keep politely silent. He's been called the Michael Moore of the music world, and indeed, one of his songs played over the trailer for Fahrenheit 9/11. But does his work here bash you over the head with rhetoric?
No one likes to be preached to, and some artists who choose to try to change minds with their art end up speaking to those who already agree; to do otherwise requires the artist to both entertain and inform, emphasis on entertain.
Steve Earle seems to take his cue from folk singer Woody Guthrie, whom he canonizes here in the song "Christmas in Washington." Guthrie wrote catchy, memorable tunes that also happened to be about something. And that's what Earle strives to do, usually with success. One of his most entertaining tunes in this set is "The Devil's Right Hand," which is very clearly an anti-gun treatise, but is also a foot-tapping, head-bobbing good time that sticks in your head. While he takes a few breaks from singing to rally against war and the Bush government in more explicit terms, which may turn off some viewers, Earle mostly sticks to the music. It's never subtle, and there's never any question where Earle stands on any issue he addresses, but fortunately he seems to realize that people have come to hear him sing, not to pontificate.
For his performance at the 2005 Montreux Jazz Festival, Earl chose to give an acoustic, solo set, just the man, a guitar (or mandolin) and a harmonica. To hear him paired down to this extent, on songs ranging from his rock-and-roll roots to his country/folk present incarnation, invites more comparisons to Guthrie and also to Bob Dylan. On his own, you can really appreciate Earle's command of the guitar, the whisky-soaked rasp of his voice, and the naked emotion of his words. It's not showy—there are no extended guitar solos or a capella renditions, and doesn't run around the stage encouraging the audience—but the man has a strong stage presence, knows what he wants to accomplish with his performance, and he gets it done.
The deeply personal nature of Earle's music works well in this format, as he explores his long struggle with drugs and alcohol, and his early-90s incarceration, along side discussions of the nature of war and the plight of the workingman. Even his seemingly breezy love song, "Condi Condi," is directed at US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Those who like some substance behind their music will find much to like here.
Highlights include "Jerusalem," a great anti-war tune from his recent The Revolution Starts Now album, "South Nashville Blues" and its companion piece "CCKMP" (Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain), the Bluegrass ode to Irish soldiers in the American Civil War "Dixieland," the aforementioned "Condi Condi" and the surprisingly effective acoustic version of rocker anthem "Copperhead Road." Here's a complete song listing:
This is a well put-together, straightforward concert release, part of the Live At Montreux series. Picture quality is sharp and clear, shot on video, with director Luca de Luigi (The Jeff Healey Band: Live At Montreux 1999) pulling off some beautiful dissolves and superimpositions that pair well with the music. Audio options include a superior DTS track that is crisp, rich, and full of nuance, as well as a more aggressive Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround option, and 2-channel 48/16 PCM. There are no extras.
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