As dramatic spectacles go, it would be hard to top the opening moments of Steve Earle’s Toronto stop on the El Corazon tour. At 9 p.m. EST, U.S. President Bill Clinton was before Congress, delivering a State Of The Union address and fighting for his political life. At that same moment, Earle was onstage at the Phoenix, opening his show with his own State Of The Union: “Christmas In Washington”. It was a wrenching juxtaposition; scandal-addled government paired against Earle’s poignant appeal for the return of long-gone leaders and worthy heroes such as Woody Guthrie, Emma Goldman, Joe Hill and Martin Luther King.
The power of that performance threatened to overwhelm whatever else Earle mustered during his two-and-a-half hour show. Thankfully, the singer was in good voice and feisty spirit. Canada has always been a disproportionate stronghold for Earle, who played his first Toronto gig at this same venue at the height of Guitar Town hype in the mid-’80s. And he appeared to be energized by a partisan crowd of about a thousand shouting along to evergreen numbers such as “Someday” and “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied”.
The singer received mighty support from a bloody-knuckled backing trio — long-serving bassist Kelly Looney, and Emmylou Harris sidemen Brady Blade and Buddy Miller on drums and guitar, respectively — and the stripped-down approach served Earle surprisingly well. Miller’s heavily-treated guitar and electric mandolin expertly filled in for the nifty horn and Hammond embellishments on “Telephone Road”, then splashed gorgeous 12-string grace notes around “More Than I Can Do” and “Somewhere Out There”.
Earle’s song selection spanned his career and displayed his own eclectic taste. After nicking the Beatles’ “All My Loving” melody for a nail-bomb rendering of “Here I Am”, he replied with bluegrass-flavored versions of the Fab Four’s own “Baby’s In Black”, the Stones’ “Sweet Virginia”, Son Volt’s “Windfall”, and a ragged-but-right treatment of Jimmy Cliff’s “Johnny Too Bad”.
With shows this long, the inevitable problem is pacing. Earle and company did justice both to lower-watt numbers such as “You Know The Rest”, “Poison Lovers”, “The Other Side Of Town” and an exquisite “Fort Worth Blues”, while muscling in revved-up favorites “Copperhead Road”, “NYC”, “The Devil’s Right Hand” and “If You Fall”. Occasionally, the transition between reflective moments and hellacious guitar noise was unsettling, and there seemed to be a rift between Earle’s tough and tender instincts. By set’s end, after performing close to 30 songs, his voice was nearly shot; less may very well have proven to be more.
Still, by his climactic, breathless dash through “Guitar Town”, deficits were forgotten and forgiven. For a moment, you could almost believe he was the wild-eyed hell-raiser embodied in the song’s lyrics, relishing whatever hazards life lobbed his way, instead of the hard-core troubadour who has battled back from drugs, prison and career collapse to achieve this moment.
Earle told the crowd that guitarist Miller was “one of my favorite singers in the world,” and during a too-brief opening set, the audience was blessed with ample evidence to support that praise.
Buddy was joined by his wife Julie, and the couple began with a curious choice — an acoustic treatment of Bob Dylan’s 1971 obscurity “Wallflower” (later covered by Doug Sahm). Indifferent crowd chatter threatened to drown out their delicate harmonies, so they wisely plugged in and brought out Earle’s rhythm section for an invigorating run at “Kiss On The Lips” from Julie’s recent release, Blue Pony.
By “Dancing Girl”, the Millers seemed to have converted the throng, which eagerly greeted thumping versions of “I Don’t Mean Maybe” and “Hole In My Head” (both from Buddy’s 1995 debut Your Love And Other Lies) and swayed to a heart-piercing treatment of Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is”. There was no hotly anticipated duet with Earle on “Poison Love”, but the headliner did reunite the couple during his set for a haunting take on “All My Tears”, a song of Julie’s that Emmylou Harris recorded on her Wrecking Ball album. It was clear by the end of the night that Buddy and Julie Miller had made some new friends here.