Friday, May 22, 2009

Music Review: Bob Dylan and Steve Earle

Bob Dylan, "Together Through Life"
Columbia Records

Steve Earl, "Townes"
New West Records

by Eric Green

Two music giants released record albums around May Day this month. While their ages are quite disparate by about 20 years or so; they are beginning to share the same audiences. True, Dylan's audiences are far broader; but a portion of his appeal is similar to Earle's. And, of course while Earle is a giant, Dylan's giant size is far larger.

Steve Earle has on more than one occasion voice his admiration for Dylan's writing and poetic works. Now, they are sharing living conditions: Steve Earle moved from Nashville, Tennessee to the Village in NYC a few years ago; and, is building as extension on his newly acquired Woodstock, NY home, with his wife, singer/songwriter, Allison Moorer. The Village and Woodstock that is total Dylan folkloric.

But, in "Townes" Earle wanted to make it clear, that his true mentor and leader in his music world was and remains Townes Van Zandt the historic and legendary song writer and performer.

For Earle's 13th studio CD, he chose just 15 of Van Zandts' songs that Earle felt were both important and not overly played and recorded. Of course, sticking to his unpredictability, Earle starts off his CD with one of Van Zandt's better-known songs, "Pacho and Lefty." While, very popular, most people are not aware that he wrote it. The truth is that not enough people know Townes Van Zandt and his body of work. Willy Nelson made the song very popular. Earle chose not to include one of Van Zandt's greatest working class songs: "Tecumseh Valley." Too bad. I guess that fell under the heading of being recorded by many others.

In the course of his promotional tour and the concommittant interviews, Earle has added to the CD many biographical points to Van Zandt's life. He makes it clear that he is not just telling his mentor's good side. He starts off all interviews by being up front about his afflictions lead by drug and alcohol abuse. It is clear that Earle wanted Van Zandt to be around far longer than he lasted, lasted in the sense of being able to produce quality music.

Earle's CD songs include many blues songs of Van Zandt. He said that Van Zandt was a blues singer and that he spent a lot of time with Lightening Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb. Most people who know Van Zandt would agree, but you won't find him in the Blues section of music store categories.

The release of the CD was preceded by a major promotion spread in the NY Times Entertainment Section. Steve Earle has broken through.

In his interview with WFUV, a highly regarded New York City music radio station, he sang a few of the CD's songs, but then, in keeping with Earle's political activism, changed the tone of the interview. He said that he was extremely happy that Obama won the election. He said he voted for him and has never regretted at all. He said that he has patience with the Administration's position on Iraq and Afghanistan. But, he did say that he has tell him where he stands. He won't be happy until every soldier was back home in the U.S. He then sang his great anti-war song, "Rich Man's War."

Earle described the start of his music career being part of a Van Zandt's Texas "cult" of friends. They included Guy Clark and Lucinda Williams.

It is sort of ironic that Earle finally decided to produce an album of Van Zandt's songs as he moved into his 54th birthday, Van Zandt died at the age of 53, in 1998. Van Zandt battled severe depression all of his life.


"Together Through Life" is Bob Dylan's 33rd studio album. And, in keeping with his unpredictability, this one defies easy description. Suffice to say, it is an album of human relations with a lot of rhythmic music. The song, "I Fell a Change Comin On" has been interpreted as a boost the recent national election. But, given Dylan's refusal to describe his music, who knows?

For example, a casual listener might simply say that Dylan was looking for a low key, romantic kind of CD. But, then you come across "My Wife's Home Town." This was written, as the CD says by Bob Dylan and Robert Hunter with the lyrics by Dylan and the legend Willie Dixon. He then gives, "Special thanks to the estate of Willie Dixon and the Blues Heaven Foundation." There is more to this CD then meets the eye.

Dylan fans will like this album.

Steve Earle's album might become a legend itself. It has already made Billboard's top 20. Dylan's CDs always sell well.

A concert tour between Earle and Dylan would be real nice.