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Concert Review by Nick Morgan

December 29, 2009

The Barbican, London, November 4th 2009

It takes a big man to fill a large stage and sing the songs of one of the most admired American songwriters of his generation.  But Steve Earle is no shirker.  In fact he’s just the person to take on the songs of Townes Van Zandt, given their close relationship and uncompromising personalities.  Van Zandt, a manic depressive with a strong self-destructive streak, was a mentor to the younger Earle , whose life was also lived on the edge. As Earle said, during what was a very personal and characteristically confessional performance, ‘it’s not a good sign when Townes van Zandt turns up to give you a temperance lecture”. 

Steve Earle
But his reminiscences were sharp and to the point, like his performance of Zandt classics such as ‘Pancho and Lefty’, ‘Where I lead me’, ‘Colorado girl’, and ‘Mr Mudd and Mr Gold’.  The latter, recalled Earle, was a song he’d sung on his first encounter with Zandt, when his hero turned up at a club and heckled him from the front row, until his version of Zandt’s own song silenced him.
Earle wasn’t exactly alone on the big Barbican stage; his two hugely resonant Martin guitars helped him fill the auditorium, and served as a reminder to the lasting reputation that Martin have for their instruments.  His playing was powerful but simple: – thumb pick and fingers, simple, unsophisticated but insistent picking patterns, somewhat resonant of that dark mountain music conjured up by Ralph Stanley.  “Townes used to say, there’s just two types of music, the blues, and zippedy-do-dah”, and needless to say there wasn’t much of the latter, and plenty of the former, in the course of two hours and over twenty songs.  Earle didn’t confine himself to Zandt’s work, including his own songs like ‘Tineytown’, ‘My old friend the blues’, ‘Goodbye’ (“this song was written fifteen years ago. The first song I wrote sober”), ‘Galway girl’ (“..and I want you to know I never drank cider”), and a final finale of the inevitable ‘Copperhead Road’ Steve Earle
The standing ovation that Earle received was a just reward for his efforts.  A spellbinding performance of great intensity.  And some great anecdotes that summed up both Van Zandt, and also Earle himself.  Here’s one, told when he broke the G string on one of his guitars (“too much thumb”).  “Someone told me when I was younger, ‘when you’re about forty, you won’t break so many guitar strings’,  I said, ‘Fuck you’”. - Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)
Listen: Steve Earle plays Townes Van Zandt on MySpace

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