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A Bad, Bad Man
Steve Earle's ethical journey.
Steve Earle peppered his banter at the Pabst Theater last night with more than a few F-bombs, and rightfully so as he's earned the mantle of the outlaw by now, the one who's lifting his head out of the gutter to mark his moment in history. For Earle, recent moments worth noting again and again have been Hurricane Katrina (partly due to his turn on the David Simon show Treme) and the Great Recession, a nadir no singer-songwriter since Woody Guthrie has seen the likes of, he said unabashedly. (Not the first or the last piece of authenticity pie Earle carved for himself during the show.)

Like a good columnist or political organizer, he spent part of the evening reminding his audience of the importance of what was happening or had happened and how easy it is to overlook human suffering. He described a soup kitchen line near his home in New York that had grown long enough for him to finally notice it, and when he broached the inconvenient topic of autism's mushrooming -- his son was diagnosed with the condition -- he ticked off other outbreaks he said it will come to dwarf: influenza around the turn of the 20th Century, the AIDS pandemic. Alarmism? Maybe not.

More than half a century has passed since the last heyday for protest songs, but Earle doesn't seem to have gotten the memo. Like Dylan, whom he name-checked as a forebear, he says things in songs that he couldn't as persuasively by just standing at the mic and breathing normally. "Thinking about burning the Wal-Mart down" went one chorus that was tender, frightened, hurting and angry, feelings Earle is skilled at feeding into the circuits of his own static-charged configuration of the country confessional.

Lurching forward with an electric guitar, he sometimes looks like he's chewing on nails. And he also bears a mild resemblance to Allen Ginsberg these days, maybe a look he's slipping into now that he has a novel and short story collection tucked behind his road-worn belt. Well, at least that's how he wants you to see what's holding up his pants. Steve-Earle-as-media-commodity -- a weird idea if you think about it for too long -- was most intelligible on Monday when Earle pulled out a guitar from Treme painted to read: "This Machine Floats," a turn on Guthrie's guitar slogan, "This Machine Kills Fascists."

After that, a lot of old songs, plenty of electric guitars, rock-solid backing from The Mastersons and the rest of the Dukes band, three encores, a song dedicated to the Fonz (which we can excuse him for but just this one time), a duet with the powerful Eleanor Whitmore -- fiddler and singer from The Mastersons -- a noise solo to end the third encore and a last fist-pump to conclude about two and a half hours of play.

Early on, he'd promised some sweat with an aside about trying to sell a song to Toby Keith so he "wouldn't have to work so f--king hard," and there most definitely was some excessive moisture on view. Not buckets, but enough. With songs like Earle's, you have to show up for your shift.

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