Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Earle and More at the City Winery

Steve Earle with one of his many guitars.

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

Watching Steve Earle and Allison Moorer in concert Monday night at the City Winery brought to mind another musical couple: also-populist-singer Bruce Springsteen and also-redheaded-wife-and-musician-in-her-own-right Patti Scialfa (though Moorer is moorer, I mean more, of a strawberry blonde). And I thought: god, how we need these people. Earle is inspiring in his been-there knowingness, down-to-earth accessibility, political outspokenness (or maybe outsungness—listen to “John Walker’s Blues”), and I-still-have-hope-ness.

Moorer—looking chic in a ruched black skirt, very high boots, and black-frame glasses she said she wore because “they kinda go with the outfit, and god knows it’s all about the outfit”—appears to be, if not a deus ex machina for Earle, perhaps an earth-goddess ex musica. It’s hard not to think that she, younger by a generation, shone a light into what has been at times a rough life (Earle was a heroin addict and spent time in jail). Especially when Earle sings a song like “Every Part of Me” (“I love you with all my heart/All my soul/Every part of me) or “Waitin’ on the Sky” (“Singing a song about a red-headed girl…I am sitting on top of the world”), both off the recent release I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, nominated for a Grammy for best folk album.

Though her porcelain looks might make you think nothing bad has ever touched her (she’s like a cross between Nicole Kidman and Taylor Swift), Moorer too has known some very dark days; her father and mother died in a murder-suicide when she and her older sister, singer Shelby Lynne, were teenagers. Monday night Moorer sang, among other originals, “A Soft Spot to Fall,” which made a splash a while back as part of the Horse Whisperer soundtrack, as well as a dramatic new song involving a thunderstorm and a hurricane—“Songs that I seem to be writing now have to do with tense situations,” she explained, adding that in this case she wanted to call someone “a bitch-face” but wrote the song instead.

Her voice is both lovely and strong, with a tone similar to Lynne’sthey recently toured together for the first time. Hearing Moorers harmonies with Earle, it occurred to me that he could have been tempted to marry her just to have at the ready that oxymoronically bluesy-ethereal sound as a counterpoint to his country-gritty one.

Both with and without Moorer, Earle gives good show—and had the sweat-soaked shirt to show for it. With the help of several guitars, a mandolin, a bouzouki (“It’s called a bouzouki —unless you’re going through an airport; then it’s not a bouzouki, especially if you’re me”), and a harmonica, he did 21 tunes, including the audience requests “Copperhead Road” and “Galway Girl.” For the latter Moorer joined him on accordion (“She only learned to play this instrument before we went on tour last spring—it freaks me out”).

The concert also featured Mike Doughty, formerly of Soul Coughing, doing tunes such as the exhilaratingly bitter “Na-Na-Nothing” (“It has that certain Mötley Crüe je ne sais quoi,” Doughty joked) and reading from his new memoir, The Book of Drugs—as Earle pointed out, he too has a book out, a novel that shares the title of his new CD, both alluding to the Hank Williams song. Throughout their residency at City Winery, Mondays through February 6, Earle and Moorer are featuring guests such as Doughty and the Mastersons, who’ve toured with them as members of the Dukes and Duchesses.

Yes, we can! Sing, that is. And listen to others do so with every part of themselves—an act that somehow carries with it hope and inspiration. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

It’s About Them

John Mellencamp at Sun Studios in Memphis.

It’s About You
Directed by Kurt Markus and Ian Markus
Starring John Mellencamp

Having married a musician and written a biography of John Lennon, I take an interest in music documentaries of all kinds, even those about musicians whose work I don’t feel a great passion for. Such is the case with John Mellencamp. Though I’ve enjoyed some of his earlier songs, like “Pink Houses” and “Jack and Diane,” for the most part I find his later material lacks excitement.

Even though the documentary It’s About You, directed by photographer Kurt Markus and his son, Ian, focuses more on Mellencamp’s later material, it’s at times a compellingly unique film—not only because it was shot in Super 8 and recorded with a vintage microphone and a mono reel-to-reel tape recorder, but because Kurt Markus plays an unusually large role in it.

As he follows Mellencamp and his band on a 2009 tour through the decaying landscape of the American south, and as they record the album No Better Than This, Markus provides wry voiceovers as he searches for his own identity through Mellencamp, whom he’s known for decades. He doesn’t interview Mellencamp, or accept an invitation to join him on the tour bus. It’s not reality-TV, Markus notes, and he doesn’t want to intrude. Nor does he manage to film or interview Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson when they show up. Instead, he tells us what we missed in a voiceover. It’s this sort of thing that gives the film its homemade charm. Ultimately, like Mellencamp's music, It's About You is sometimes evocative and sometimes a little boring.

My favorite bit was Harvard professor Cornel West backstage, grooving to “Pink Houses.”