- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 20, 2005

Democracy is abloom in a region, the Middle East, thought incurably resistant to it. The Lebanese are poised to toss the Syrians from their country. Imperial revanchism was beaten back in the Ukraine.

And Steve Earle, with help from a capacity crowd, sings at the 9:30 Club Saturday night:

Come back, Woody Guthrie

Come back to us now

Tear your eyes from paradise

And rise again somehow

What could Woody Guthrie (or Emma Goldman or Joe Hill or any of the other labor and civil rights movement heroes of Mr. Earle’s croaky elegy “Christmas in Washington”) do for the world that the world isn’t apparently doing for itself?

This isn’t seeing current events through dark-colored glasses. It’s seeing them through cobwebs. Like that of interest groups, too much good news threatens the existence of a left-liberal populist. So bad news, wherever it can be found, must be trumpeted.

Mr. Earle, the outlaw Nashville roots rocker, managed to cobble together a crisis narrative Saturday about a “de facto draft” of National Guardsman and military reservists, as well as the scourge of “right to work” laws. (“I stand before you as a fool who believes that music can change the world,” he said.) The folks at the Amnesty International booth smiled ironically at the suggestion that human rights are on the march — and then offered literature on torture.

There was a two-hour-plus rock concert, too. That was terrific. Mr. Earle and the Dukes (lead guitarist Roscoe Ambel, bassist Kelly Looney and drummer Will Rigby) played a generous set of scruffy country-rock tunes and pile-driving punkabilly. Desperately needing a woman’s touch — the boys dress like it’s time for Saturday-morning leaf-raking — Mr. Earle’s stage was graced twice by opening act Allison Moorer (Shelby Lynne’s little sis). Frequent Earle collaborator Emmylou Harris made a surprise appearance, lending her high-lonesome soprano to the heartfelt duet “Comin’ Around.”

Focusing on tracks from recent releases such as “Jerusalem” and “The Revolution Stars … Now,” both heavy on politics and pacifism, Mr. Earle and the Dukes blazed through such fist-pounders as a profanity-laced diatribe against the Federal Communications Commission, censorship and AM-radio conservatives, and “Amerika V. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do).”

Mr. Earle added some neotraditional bluegrass zing to the evening with “Copperhead Road” and “Harlan Man,” a song originally recorded with the Del McCoury Band.

The Nashville transplant (“I come from an awful place called Texas,” Mr. Earle explained) turned playful on “Condi, Condi,” his tongue-in-cheek reggae tribute to Condoleezza Rice. “I think she digs me,” he joked, after expressing his deep disappointment that the secretary of state was away in Asia.

Perhaps ironically, Mr. Earle chose a cover of the Beatles’ “Revolution” to bookend his own “The Revolution Starts Now.” While John Lennon later dove hip-deep into politics, his “Revolution” is nothing if not ambivalent, a trait that Mr. Earle proudly eschews.

Mr. Earle fancies himself a lonely voice in the wilderness. Meanwhile real revolutions — Orange, Cedar or otherwise — take place all around him. Per the late Mr. Lennon, “Doncha know it’s gonna be all right?”

If that happens, then Mr. Earle is out of business.

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