[Photo by JONATHAN VALANIA]
DEAD MAN TALKING: Steve Earle, Johnny Brendas, last night.
BY JONATHAN VALANIA FOR THE INQUIRER Steve Earle would be the first to admit he’s no saint, but by my tally he’s been going to bat for the angels ever since he tamed his demons – a nasty drug habit that ended in a prison sentence – nearly 20 years ago. Earle is just old-fashioned enough to think that folk songs can make a difference and protest singers should put their money (and their downtime) where their mouth is. Case in point, Earle performed Sunday night at Johnny Brenda’s as part of a fund-raiser for Witness to Innocence, an anti-death-penalty advocacy group made up of a dozen of the 100 former death-row inmates who have been exonerated by DNA testing since 1973.
After moving testimonials from Witness To Innocence’s Ray Krone and Ronald Kitchen — two men who spent a combined 30 years behind bars for crimes they did not commit, and if not for the grace of DNA evidence would likely be dead men walking by this point — Earle took the stage with a stirring rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” which he dedicated to Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan cover girl Suze Rotolo who passed away over the weekend at age 67.
These days — with his Rasputin beard, long, thinning hair and chemistry professor spectacles — Earle resembles a Talmudic scholar or an Old Testament prophet, which gives his words and music an almost Biblical gravitas, a perception he was only too happy to undermine with his self-effacing stage patter. “I thought I had never been to Fish Town before but it turns out I was, but that was back in the 80s when I was a lot of places and didn’t know it,” he joked at one point, referencing the long lost weekend of his opiated past.
For the next 90 minutes, Earle finger-picked an acoustic guitar and wheezed on a harmonica while mixing crime-and-punishment-themed selections from his back catalog (the death row lament “Ellis Unit One”; the gun-crazed “Devil’s Right Hand”; and “Taneytown” where a man is lynched for a crime he did not commit) with folksy witticisms and appeals to the audience’s better angels. He switched to mandolin for “Galway Girl,” strapped on a bouzouki for “City Of Immigrants,” and prefaced “The Mountain” with words of support for the protesters in Wisconsin. “My feeling is, if you have a boss, you probably need a union,” he said.)
He unveiled two new songs (“Waitin’ On The Sky” and “The City”) from his new, T-Bone Burnett-produced album I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive (due out April 26th), which is also the title of his debut novel set for publication in late May. “It’s really weird, full of heroin and ghosts and Roe Vs. Wade — it’s sort of a Harry Potter book for adults,” he quipped. MORE