When alt-country rocker Steve Earle played to a packed house at Toad’s Place Monday night, it was bound to be as much a political as a musical event. The show was only eight days before the presidential election, and New Haven is, after all, George W. Bush’s birthplace. Onstage, next to a drum kit adorned by a huge W with a slash through it, stood a homemade percussion device constructed from a tambourine and a metal trashcan emblazoned with the letters WMD.
Earle’s latest album, “The Revolution Starts Now,” couldn’t make his political views more explicit: the album boasts the rebellious rocker “F the CC,” and a reggae lovesong to Condoleezza Rice (“People say you’re cold, but I think you’re hot.”) But much of the audience seemed to be there not so much for of his politics but because — excluding the aforementioned “Condi, Condi” — he is an excellent songwriter.
Earle took the stage sucking on the dregs of a cigarette while a recording of Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” blared over the P.A. It seemed possible that he would either be so caught up in the politics of the moment, or so ravaged by his addiction-riddled past, that he would fail to even crack a smile. Without the beard he normally wears, the 49-year-old Earle looked like a balding and stubbled Billy Bob Thornton, but with a wider frame and more tragedy in his eyes.
His first few songs were hard-hitting in their message and sound. He brooded over the war in Iraq and the state of post-9/11 America in his trademark craggy voice with passion and precision. But he seemed a bit distanced from the audience, which consisted largely of balding-middle-aged-glasses-beard-and-mustache types.
For the first 20 or so minutes of the show, Earle seemed so depressed by the political situation he sung of that he failed to make any eye-contact with the crowd, instead alternating between gazing glumly at the floor and squinting up at the ceiling as if looking to the heavens for redemption.
But during “Amerika V 6.0 (The Best that We Can Do),” a cynical examination of American politics, he broke out of his shell. After singing, “Blow up Iraq, blow up Iran, blow up North Korea, / It’s the best that we can do,” he looked out at the audience, grinned, and added, “Blow up Texas.” The crowd cheered in approval.
Earle delivered political monologues several times throughout his set with varying success. In his introduction to the labor anthem “Harlan Man,” he declared, “Make no mistake, if you have a boss, you need a union.” But it sounded a bit too much like a stump speech, especially considering the history of labor relations in New Haven. Less intrusive were frequent entreaties to vote in the upcoming election, which were spread throughout Earle’s nearly 30-song set (which included two encores and lasted more than two hours).
Later, Earle watched as between songs a shouting match broke out between three men in the audience. Glaring, he approached the microphone and looked the instigator straight in the eye.
“You know, the thing about the people who start wars,” Earle began, turning to the audience once the man quieted down, “are never the ones who have to fight them.”
He then launched into a stirring acoustic version of “Rich Man’s War,” a notable track from the new album.
Connecting the political with the personal has always been Earle’s strong suit. Accordingly, moments like this were the strongest of the show.
His harmonica screamed bloody murder during “Ashes to Ashes,” a meditation on death written in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Later, it wailed plaintively in a heart-rending acoustic rendition of “Goodbye,” one of his most beautiful ballads. Performed in this context, the ordinarily straightforward love-song sounded almost as if it could have been the lament of a soldier who would never see his family again.
The concert’s climax came as Earle explained how watching Joan Baez sing “Joe Hill” in the film version of “Woodstock” inspired him.
“People ask me if music can change the world, and I think it can,” he explained, “by bringing people together.” He then entreated the crowd to sing along during a moving version of the folksy “Christmas in Washington.” At first, only one man (by the bar) was singing along, but by the end the whole crowd was singing the chorus, “Come back Woody Guthrie to us now.”
Earle grinned. “Now you’re singing like revolutionaries.”